22/8 the journey begins
Our final day in the UK wasn’t quite the dreamy ‘prepared and contemplative’ day we had hoped. We had so many things left to organise that we realised we almost certainly wouldn’t fit everything in, so we opted for a ‘farewell to Leicester’ lunch at Delilah’s which also gave us a chance to get a present for Brady as a thank you for all of the hours she has poured into our adventure. We got home expecting a very important delivery-Matt’s prescription sunglasses which are going to be essential in Austrailia. There was no sign of them and our stomachs sank- so we had no choice but to race to Tamworth to try and collect them from the depot before we set off for London. The tension was almost tangible as we sped through the gates. Much to our relief, we were able to fetch them and hit the road minus the emotional goodbye to our house that we had imagined thanks to the usual disappointments UPS deliveries bring.
Glasses in tow, we stopped for our last meal in the UK: obviously fish and chips from Harry Ramsden’s was the appropriate choice. We washed it down with a pot of Yorkshire tea- it tasted all the better knowing it could be the last brew for 8 months!
We popped in to see Brady as she lives near to the airport and were glad to thank her in person for her work- what a legend!
The morning came and we said our goodbyes- we managed to hold it together but the same couldn’t be said for the weepy parents! The moment of truth when our bags hit the scales was a bit nerve wracking- it’s impossible to know if you’re travelling with an appropriate weight bag when you’re all strapped in to it for the big adventure. My bag weighed 12.9kg and Matt’s was 14.4kg- he put that down to his clothes being longer- measuring in at 6ft 2, a full foot taller than me, I guess he may have had a point.
Due to the fact that we had been so busy we still had lots of phone calls to make and we finally got the last few bills arranged literally in the last minute before the flight took off- we do like to live life on the edge, I suppose.
It was a huge blessing to have three seats for the two of us as we could stretch out comfortably for the 8.5 hour flight to Mumbai. The plane really smelled potently of curry but we got used to it after about five minutes. We had some of the best plane food ever- firstly we had a delicious curry meal, then for supper we had a curry wrap with choc ice- a blast from the past when we used to have these after Sunday dinner when I was a kid!
Mumbai airport was gargantuan- it felt like our adventure had really started just in trying to navigate the massive hallways full of designer brands, from Gucci to Louis Vuitton, it was all there. I found it sad that this was the representation of India to the world when we regularly hear of the abject poverty in the areas we have connections to. It didn’t seem like reality for the people outside of the airport, and the fact that it’s the reality of the travellers passing through made the gap between rich and poor even more poignant.
Despite double curry on the plane, Matt was still hungry but I was determined to avoid eating and drinking in India as I was not up for ‘deli belly’ on a five hour flight. Matt however is much more daring and had what I am calling his ‘danger tea’- some kind of curry wrap which looked amazing admittedly, but was not worth the upset tummy paranoia that I knew would ensue should I have partaken. If we weren’t curried out already, the 5 hour flight to Hong Kong included a tasty curry pasty!
We both felt a little worse for wear after 16 hours of travelling and the knowledge that we had to navigate our own way across the border into mainland China felt like impending doom. The rest of our tour group was meeting in the morning for a walk up Victoria Peak but our plane didn’t land in time so we had arranged a later meeting point over the border. It was surprisingly easier than we expected and we were labelled with cute little stickers which said the name of the location we needed (Shenzhen North) in both English and Chinese. We took one big car (which they believed was a limousine) to the border where we had to queue for a very long time. When we got to the window the Chinese officials checked us against our visas then we had to go to queue at another check point for more of the same. I would say it was efficient, but that wouldn’t be wholly true. If I could say it was thorough that also would be a comfort, but I’m afraid that wouldn’t be true either.
The humidity was extraordinary – in about ten seconds your skin was wet to touch and your clothes soaked through. We’ve experienced that kind of heat before but it does take a few days to get used to it. We finally met the group at Shenzhen north after much difficulty finding the meeting point. We were rather twitchy as if we missed the group we would have had no idea where to go next to find them! Everyone was really friendly straight away which made us feel much better about joining late. We took the bullet train to Guilin (after being photographed by teenagers who were fascinated by our white skin and strange western features) and then took a very bumpy coach to Yangshuo with our tour guide, Mulan. As a Disney fanatic her name brought great comfort as Mulan is, quite simply, one of the most bad ass Disney princesses ever.
Yangshuo is a very popular spot for tourists both from the West and from China. It’s bright lights resemble Piccadilly Circus but obviously the writing is in those delicate Chinese characters. There is a massive strip of shops and restaurants with seemingly more and more streets that look the same nestled around it. It’s like a rabbit warren of neon, street sellers every five minutes specialising in everything from balls of gloop that splat on the floor then magically reform independently, to delicate Chinese fans. A fan was a must as the beautiful one I had received as a gift had been damaged on the plane. I splashed out 10 yen (£1.10) on a pretty one that seemed it would last a few months of backpacking. We Went for a group meal at Lucy’s places here we had some tasty Chinese food. We paid 35 yen each and shared 11 dishes which were laid out on a table for us- it was all yummy and a great chance to start to get to know our group. We clicked straight away with two ladies called Connie and Jen who are travelling on their way to a new life in Sydney so we shared a room with them. I did find the bunk bed situation exciting for about five minutes, then I sat on the mattress, excited for comfort after hours traveling- it was basically a wooden box with a bit of cotton wool for padding- it was okay, but reminded me how much we take our luxurious mattress for granted!
After so many hours travelling we all decided not to set an alarm and let ourselves re charge. We didn’t wake up at all until 12.30 but felt much better for it- we went with Connie and Jen for noodles to get ourselves ready for the afternoon activities. We got back to hostel and found that we had been booked in for a private room, so our room upgrade had been sorted and we got a free activity to make up for sharing a room for a night- we hadn’t minded at all as Connie and Jen had become friends by then so we felt like we were really on a winner! Our free activity could be one of three different things, so we went for a blind massage, where someone without sight massages you as their sense of touch is much greater in having lost a sense. That is certainly something to look forward to when we go to our next destination.
We went to fetch bikes from local shop which I was a little nervous about having not been able to ride since my stroke in 2007- we chose a tandem to take the pressure off a bit! The tandem was really fun but required a lot of communication about when to peddle more and when to slow down! The scenery was absolutely amazing all the way- Yangshuo has these cute little hills absolutely everywhere which are really close together- they make for a really epic landscape. The hills are all smothered in green trees that look really tiny from a distance. We stopped a few times as it was very, very hot and humid- one of the hottest days forecast in China this year.
Our destination was the the famous Yulong River where we went on bamboo raft- basically you sit in a little deck chair made of bamboo and a Chinese man basically punts along. You have to lift your legs when you go down little slopes though as the raft gets engulfed in water- it was amazingly peaceful. I’ve been doing a 1 second a day diary so decided this would be a great chance to take a little footage. I tried to get my phone out of the bag but unfortunately was rather too enthusiastic and (in true Briggsy style) somehow flicked out our room key out of the bag and into the river- RIP room key. Following our bamboo ride and the unfortunate ending for our room key, we cycled back to Yangshuo, had a quick shower and went for another group meal at quite a back street resturaunt.
Being the dare devil that I am I ate a snail and it was surprisingly palatable! After this we got taken to a local ‘doctor’ whose credentials were somewhat questionable- a couple of people had hot cupping done and cape out looking like a Dalmatian that had overdosed on strawberries so I opted for a ‘relaxation massage’ which in fact was far from relaxing. The tiniest Chinese woman in the world was surely the strong mess human in existence- I squealed in pain all the way through and Matthew thought I was being a drama queen- that was until he saw the bruises; an experience to say the least.
Today was the day for optional cave soloing, something I knew I would be rubbish at (I can’t even take my phone out of the bag without catastrophe) but wanted to try new things so signed up after a bit of gentle encouragement and because I knew how much Matt wanted to do it- it was a rather early start so had fruit with Connie and Jen for breakfast.
We went to the river after collecting climbing equipment and swam across to the rocky area- there was quite bit of a current so it took some effort to get across, especially as we had to wear life jackets! I obviously bossed the climbing thing and got straight up the rock and did a Tom Daley-esque, gold medal winning dive… okay maybe that’s a long way away from the truth, instead I spent most of my time bobbing about on the water and encouraging everyone else. I managed one out of four of the climbs and Matt did two- I also invented one of my own climbs in the way of a small rock protruding from the water that I elegantly traversed and bombed in from all of one metre up- one of my finest moments. The instructor called me ‘championey’ and I’m not convinced he wasn’t being highly sarcastic in honesty.
It was a really fun morning but exhausting too. We had a quick lunch with Jen and Connie at a very traditional place and then went to the half moon viewing point- it was 816 steps of sweaty, leg cramping torture but we made it and it was absolutely worth it! The views were honestly indescribable! We watched some men lead rope climbing (Google it) up on the half moon which most certainly made my palms sweat. Walking down the steps was significantly tougher than we had anticipated- our legs were all like jelly so traversing the uneven little steps was like an episode of The Cube.
After we had made it down (uninjured I might add) we went to the Gold Water Caves, an expanse of really amazing stalagmites and stalactites followed by mud caves and a hot spring. The only annoying thing was being in our swimwear in the caves- the other Chinese tourists already stare at our little white faces so if there’s more white flesh on show it’s really like being the tourist attraction- I think the stalagmites may have been jealous. We were literally surrounded at times by fascinated Chinese people wanting to take photos or touch our skin. They were all lovely and friendly and just completely shocked by the way we look, but I did feel like a monkey in a zoo!
The mud cave was really fun, the water was cold but refreshing and the mud made us really boyant so it was basically impossible to put your feet down. If you did manage to get your feet down it was so thick and sludgy it was like wading through honey. It’s supposed to be great for the skin so I rubbed it in- much cheaper than exfoliator! Whilst we were in the mud even more photos from Chinese people were requested! Then we had a cold shower before a hot spring.
One particularly forward Chinese man asked us to kiss him on the cheek for a photo which his wife and child thought was the funniest thing that had ever happened- glad we made their day simply by existing! Our tour guide explained that many Chinese people who visit Yangshao will never have seen white people before apart from in pictures, so it is a massive shock to them. Chris was a bit less willing to be a spectacle after about the hundredth photo so took his chance to be a diva and waved his hand in their cameras and told the tourists ‘no photos please’. Obviously I took the opportunity to be in even more selfies as he batted them away. I do love a good selfie.
We went to a cute restaurant called Cloud 9 for dinner and poor Georgia who has a gluten intolerance was served dry fried beef…poor girl! We went to the closest thing to a nightclub called Mojos for Jenny’s birthday and organised a nice cake for her which we shared. We had a bit of a boogie and then had airbrush tattoos on the way home with Nic and Georgia. I went for some little birds which set me back a whopping £1, but Nic and Georgia went left field with an attractive barcode and battery respectively. Obviously we had more photos taken by Chinese tourists and made a friend who wanted to visit us in England…we were maybe a little less enthusiastic than he was but it was fun none the less. He kept telling Matthew how beautiful I was, so I wasn’t complaining, even if it was just because I have white skin!
Connie and Jen had been quite ill so couldn’t join us for the night out which was a shame. We heard from them in the morning so knew they were okay but weren’t well enough to come for lunch with us so we went on a date for £1.50 noodles.
We had opted for an afternoon in a local village so we started by a visit to the place of the scene of the 20 yuan note. It was really scenic and beautiful- apparently normally the reflection in the water is perfect but there was a little wind so we didn’t have such an idyllic view. Nonetheless it was really stunning.
We had a stroll through a little traditional village and went to an old Chinese theatre. We then took a walk up to the house of Sally’s (she actually manages the hostel we stayed at) mum- the scenery was exceptional and when we got there we were greeted by super cute puppies.
The house was really basic but apparently quite common for people in China. There was lots of bare concrete, which made up the walls, floor and stairs. It was actually really big, but just lacked decor. On the walls there were certificates from the academic achievements of all of her children and a massive picture of Chairman Mao. We drank some strange, cold, murky tea out of politeness and ate monkey peanuts and smiled at her a lot after I had spent my two lines of Mandarin on her. We then went to the house of Sally’s brothers which was a little more westernised and ate Chinese food that they had prepared for us. We have found it strange that Chinese people never eat with us, whether they are our hosts or our tour guides- I’m yet to figure out why.
Today is the 26 hour sleeper train to Chengdu. Little to report on this as I’ve primarily just been blog writing and resting after such a jam packed few days. The train has three beds stacked up vertically and we are both on the very top, the cheapest seats in the house. It’s quite comfortable when you get up there but a challenge of dexterity and balance to traverse the ladder and land on the correct bed whilst the train is wobbling from side to side!