[ Content | Sidebar ]

Xingping

April 23rd, 2017

XingPing (兴坪) is the place I should have stayed instead of YangShuo. It’s only 45 minutes away by bus, but it feels like a totally different place. Much quieter and less commercialised.

The town is right on the most scenic section of the Li river. In fact, the scene on the back of the 20元 note is a 15 minute walk out of town. There were, however, quite a few competing “official” viewing platforms, so I don’t really know if this is the right one.

A Final Samsung Q320 Update

April 23rd, 2017

You almost certainly don’t remember but back in 2009 I published a series of articles detailing by travails getting Linux to run smoothly on my then-new Samsung Q320 laptop. Well you’ll be pleased to know that eight years on I’ve finally solved all my remaining issues:

  • The fan randomly spinning up and down
  • The “always-powered” USB port not working
  • General sluggishness

The first two can be fixed by downloading the 06LH BIOS update from July 2010. Maddeningly this can only be installed from Windows. To fix the third problem I swapped the original magnetic disk for a modern SSD (really easy), and at the same time temporarily installed Windows 10 and applied the BIOS update. Then I dd-ed my old disk over the SSD using a USB-SATA adapter.

I’m really happy with the result. Running Debian Stretch everything Just Works and with the SSD it’s pretty speedy. At the moment I’m using it whenever I go home to visit my parents.

Yangshuo

April 14th, 2017

So Yangshuo is a town in the countryside just south of Guilin which was probably really nice 20 years ago but which has been commercialised so much it’s easily the tackiest place I’ve been in China. Think hordes or persistent touts that target white tourists, loads of Western junk food, “Irish” pubs, etc. etc. Not my kind of place. If I’d known before I went I would have stayed in one of the smaller villages nearby. Although the lady who ran the small hotel I stayed at was really friendly, so not all bad.

Pizza Hut, KFC, McDonalds, what more could you want?

There are some natural attractions south of Yangshuo that are worth a visit, but as you might expect they are way over developed. It didn’t really help that the day I went was very grey and gloomy.

Old banyan tree

The first one is this 1000 year old tree called, descriptively, “Big Banyan Tree”. Bit spooky and Harry Potter-ish.

Half moon hill

This one is called Half Moon Hill. Climbing up is good fun. At the top were some enthusiastic old ladies selling water trying to justify their ridiculous prices because they had to carry it all the way up. Hmm.

Guilin

April 2nd, 2017

Where to next on my off-season travellings?! Well I went south and west to Guangxi, and its capital Guilin. It’s mainly famous for the strange rock formations dotted around the city, but there’s actually much better examples in countryside to the south around Yangshuo. The one below is supposed to resemble an elephants trunk, although that was bit lost on me.

Elephant trunk hill

Guilin is definitely high up on the list of China’s top tourist attractions. It’s not totally clear to me why though, it seems a bit over-developed and the sights are just so-so yet eye wateringly expensive. There’s a Chinese phase 一般般 which seems appropriate. Anyway this means there’s an awful lot of English speaking touts, especially around the bus and train station, which came as a bit of a shock to me after a week in Guizhou which had none of that. They are annoyingly persistent.

World’s tallest copper pagoda

My favourite attraction was actually this, the world’s largest copper pagoda. And, I’m fairly sure, the world’s only copper pagoda. It really is all made of copper. Impressive. You can go outside and walk around every level, which is rather good fun. And the only way to access it is via an underwater tunnel from beneath another pagoda (the one I’m standing in). Oh and it’s the only pagoda in the world with an elevator to the top. Um…

Guilin scenery

But the best scenery in Guilin is not in the city itself, it’s what you can see in the distance from the top of the city’s scenic spots. The mountains in Guangxi really are very exotic. But more of that later, including a fun hiking adventure.

Zhenyuan

March 30th, 2017

Last stop on my little Guizhou adventure is 镇远 Zhenyuan near the border with Hunan. It sometimes gets called “Zhenyuan Ancient Town” but the taxi driver from the train station assured me it really isn’t that ancient. But it’s still a lovely picturesque place, and just the right amount of touristy. That’s Chinese tourists mind you, during my whole stay in Guizhou I didn’t see any other westerners, or even speak any English which was pretty good for my Chinese practising. February is very off-peak though.

There’s no high speed train here: you have to either take the old low-speed train on the Shanghai-Kunming route or a long-distance bus. Either way you’ll have an interesting cultural experience, and I like the feeling of remoteness.

Old part of Zhenyuan

The older part of town is across the river from the part with the train and bus station, and the waterfront above is quite photogenic.

On the day I arrived there was quite a dramatic change in the weather and the temperature plummeted to around five degrees. Who’d have thought it would be this cold so far south?! Turns out temperature is function of altitude and season as well as latitude…

Miao Great Wall

First thing I did was climb up the big mountain behind the town. On top is this Miao “Great” Wall. Not sure what’s “great” about it, it mostly resembles a regular city wall. Anyway it’s fun to walk along and the mountain scenery is very pretty. After a while the wall falls away into ruins and path quickly disappears. It might be possible to venture further into the mountains but it looked pretty wild.

Panorama of Zhenyuan town

On the other side of the river is a tourist attraction called 青龙洞. I thought 青 meant a greeny-blue colour but it’s translated here as “Black Dragon Cave”. I also thought it might be a cave, but it’s not, it’s a temple built into the side of the mountain. It’s really good fun spending an hour or so exploring the little grottoes and pavilions. And as you get higher you get some excellent views over the town.

Qinglong Dong temple

My favourite place in Zhenyuan is actually just out of town, called 龙池 or “Dragon Pool”. The titular pool is at the end of 4km-ish walk through a river valley. You can get there by taking local bus number 7 from the western end of the old street. Just ride it all the way to the “scenic area” final stop.

Path to the Dragon Pool

The trail itself is quite good with some impressive cliffs and waterfalls. I didn’t see any wildlife though. All the while you’re following the river upstream until it suddenly stops at this perfectly still pool which water flows out from but not in to?!! 😮

Dragon Pool – it really is this colour!

No idea how deep it is but it’s incredibly clear and you can see dead branches and other things standing vertically up waaaaay down. I guess the water must come from inside the earth somewhere. Weird.

Anyway I really liked Zhenyuan. I would go back, but probably in summer or later in spring. Because there were no boats operating I missed out on seeing the impressive sounding “Wuyang Three Gorges” down the river. Although that might be named along similar lines to the “Miao Great Wall”. 😛

Langde Miao Village

March 24th, 2017

Here’s another Miao village, called 郎德 “LangDe”, but it’s a lot smaller and quieter than XiJiang which I visited the previous day. Really it’s more of a hamlet.

According to the Lonely Planet guidebook you can only reach here by taking the 凯里 Kaili to 雷山 Leishan bus and hopping off on the main road at the “lower” village and then walking 2km up the valley to the “upper” village. This isn’t true as there’s a local hourly minibus that goes direct to the village from the same bus station in Kaili and takes a very picturesque, if mildly terrifying, back country route through the mountains. The return schedule isn’t clear and is possibly just “when the driver feels like it”, but I certainly managed to get one back around 16:30.

凯里 Kaili was the town where I was staying these few days, by the way. There’s not a lot in the town itself, but the transport links are good, there’s some interesting night markets, and a free “minorities museum” for rainy afternoons.

You can hike up the mountain behind the village via an incredibly steep and slippery path. The scenery looked almost alpine, apart from all those 梯田 terraced fields.

Some of the houses have been turned into museums, including one full of weapons used by a 19th century revolutionary warlord, one Yang DaLu according to the information panel, who apparently wasn’t famous enough to make it onto the English language Wikipedia.

There didn’t seem to be any restaurants, or at least none that were open in the winter, but luckily I made friends with this slightly batty old lady who made me some kind of hotpot lunch for 50元. Unfortunately she also forced me to drink a whole cup of her homemade 米酒, which is a sort of lethal rice wine, from a large tank in her living room – despite my protests of “我快醉了!”. I refused to buy a bottle. Anyway I managed to escape and decided to walk off my slight tipsiness by exploring down the river valley towards the lower village.

This is halfway down the landscaped path between the two villages. The lower village is on the main road and a bit more modern but the bridge over the river is very elegant.

Xijiang Miao Village

March 22nd, 2017

So one of the tourist highlights of Guizhou is visiting the collection of traditional ethnic minority villages in the province. There’s rather a lot so I picked one area 黔东南 “Qiandongnan” as a base and spent a few days travelling around and exploring by bus. 西江寨 “XiJiang village” is today’s stop, and probably one of the more famous of these villages, inhabited by the 苗 “Miao” nationality. 寨 “zhài” can be our word of the day and it means “stockaded village”, you see it in all the place names in this area.

The main street of the village along this river feels a bit touristy and a little too shiny. But it’s all very picturesque. If you head higher up the mountain it starts to become a bit more authentic, and people don’t seem to mind you wandering around peering at their houses. I tried chatting to some of them but their accent was pretty impenetrable, and my Mandarin isn’t great to start with.

In the afternoon I went for a walk in the countryside nearby. All around are these rice terraces. Lonely Planet suggested you could get to another village by walking up over the top of the mountain and into the next valley but the guidebook directions were almost uselessly vague and the upper levels of the terraces were difficult to navigate so I gave up. I did notice however that all the rice paddies seemed a bit… dead. I thought gloomily that maybe all the villages had given up traditional farming to live off the tourism money, but a Chinese friend said it was probably because it’s winter and not the rice growing season so they were off doing other work. This seemed to be supported by the massive amount of construction work going on, I guess they have to spend that hefty village entry fee on something.

Guiyang

March 16th, 2017

Done with work now it’s time to go adventuring! Actually this happened a few weeks ago, I’ve just been very lacklustre updating this blog. I’ve done a lot of exploring around the Suzhou area so I thought I’d like to try somewhere a bit different so this time I took a flight to Guizhou province in the south.

Guiyang 贵阳 is the capital of Guizhou. The 贵 “gui” bit means “expensive” which is presumably a joke because everything here is really cheap. It’s the first place I’ve been in China where prices regularly have the decimal point in them.

The city doesn’t have a whole lot of tourist attractions but the main one is this called Jiaxu Pavillion in the centre of town. It’s free to get in to which is nice, and there’s a temple on the opposite bank which is pleasant to wander around.

The area around the river is quite modern, the Chinese government investing a lot of money in developing the south west at the moment. But the rest of the city feels a bit more “traditional”.

On the second day I wasn’t really sure what to do. I thought about going to an ancient village that the guidebook mentioned but lack of time and poor planning on my part meant I had to give up on that. So instead I went to a “mountain park” 黔灵公园 more or less at random, which was actually a really good choice!

The park is just on the edge of the city and very busy on a Sunday morning. There’s a whole bunch of attractions including a temple and a zoo with some rather sad looking bears and tigers. But the best thing is the hordes of wild monkeys who are everywhere and not at all afraid of humans.

In fact they seem to be a kind of pest as there was a guy with a sling – presumably in an official capacity – flinging stones at them to keep them off the paths.

Lingering Garden

February 14th, 2017

Woo, came back to Suzhou again! For the sixth time. But luckily I’ve still got a few tourists attractions left to visit. So this afternoon, very jet-lagged, I went for a wander around 留园 “Lingering Garden”. Which I saw proclaimed by a random billboard as one of the “top four gardens in China”. Woo!

The centerpiece is the lake with rocks and pavilions which looks a lot like the other gardens I’ve been to, but this is definitely one of the better examples. And it was very peaceful to wander around in the spring sunshine. Also lots of artists there painting the traditional scenes.

Last spring when I was here the cherry blossom trees were beautiful. This time it seems I’m a few weeks too early. 🙁

Alcatraz

February 10th, 2017

On my last day in San Francisco my flight was in the evening so a colleague and I took the opportunity to visit the second most famous tourist attraction, Alcatraz.

Lots of websites say you need to pre-book up to three months in advance, but evidently this doesn’t apply in January as we just turned up at the dock and bought tickets for the first ferry of the day. The trip across the bay was very scenic, with great views of the city and the island and the bridge in the distance.

We didn’t have an awful lot of time on the island so couldn’t do the guided tour, but the audio tour was pretty good. And we got to see all the cells and facilities and escape shafts and so on some half-decent narration.

Quite a few people told us, we “absolutely must see the sea lions!”, which are in an the harbour area where the ferry docks. What a waste of time. It was some captive sea lions lazing on a wooden pontoon in an enclosed pool. Maybe I was missing something.