Thursday, March 24, 2011

2011 China Trip: Part 1

Assalamualaikum w.b.t (Peace be upon you)

It's March again and it's spring break now here in Japan. As usual, this time I'm gonna take you to my journey exploring the world's highest populated country, China. Speaking of China, what came across on your mind? Is it the colorful Chinese opera? Or is it the indescribable taste of it's unique food? Whichever it is, I'm gonna tell you what I experienced in my trip to China this time.

March 3, 2011 (Day 1)
Let the journey begin!

My journey began from Hokkaido Japan, taking a morning flight to Tokyo. I was supposed to board the AirDo plane, when the person in charge at the check-in counter told me, the flight was canceled due to structure problems. I were then given a seat in All Nippon Airways (ANA)'s flight, which was my first time boarding the Boeing 747-400. Yeah, I was so excited at that time. I frequently use Skymark Airline, a domestic low cost airline whenever I fly to and from Tokyo. Arrived at Haneda airport Terminal 1. There's a free shuttle bus every 5 minutes connecting Terminal 1, Terminal 2 and the International terminal. That was my first time I've been to the newly opened International terminal. The interesting point of this terminal is, there's an observation dock open to public. The open air concept are sure to invite airplane's enthusiast or any avid photographer here.

Lonely Planet: China, our reference

Then I safely boarded the Air China airline and off to China. Frankly speaking, I'm quite afraid to backpack in China. Why, it's the language barrier. Although I took a mandarin classes once last year, basic greetings or basic self introduction wouldn't be enough. The moment I stepped in the flight, that's my first step into China. The flight was OK. NO problems until I safely landed in Beijing International Airport. My journey was supposed to continue until Hong Kong. During the transfer, please be advised that the flight to Hong Kong should transfer under the International Transit section. It was a mistake when I misunderstood that Hong Kong was under the domestic transfer. To make things worst, my China Visa at that time is single entry type Visa, which means I passed through the Immigration counter and had my visa ticked. When I realized somethings wrong, it's too late. I had to go around again and explained to the Chinese officer at the immigration gate. With insufficient basic Chinese, somehow I managed to explain to them my situation and fortunately, they understood. They let me pass and canceled the 'ticked' visa. Then I had to run to catch my next flight to Hong Kong. I had just 5 minutes before the flight take off. Yeah, 5 minutes. I was the last person to board the flight actually. Alhamdulillah, the flight had to delay their schedule and safely took off almost 45 minutes later! If I knew there is a delay.......

The flight to Hong Kong took almost 4 hours. Landed in Hong Kong on 0000 hrs and the weather started to feel like it's in Malaysia. As you enter the arrival hall, there is  a train ticket counter (Airport Express), a Tourist Information Center where you can get a free map. Go here and take those maps. As you walk out of the arrival hall, you'll noticed a two big plasma TV on your right. It's for those who're waiting for your arrival. They show the passengers from Arrival hall A or B, so if the person you're waiting for exit from the arrival hall B, just head there first. It's so easy.

For Muslim passengers, there is a praying room on the 7th floor (Departure Hall). The room is not exclusively for the Muslim. On the front side of the room, there are rows of chairs, maybe for Christians religious activities but on the rear side of the room, there's a carpeted area with signs 'PLEASE TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES' clearly written on it. There's also a fixed compass on the floor nearby with marked arrows to Mecca. So, there's no problem for Muslims to carry on our duties here in Hong Kong.

For this trip, I planned to go with my other two Malaysian friends from India, supposedly arrived in Hong Kong at 0615 hrs.

Day 2 (March 4, 2011)
First step into mainland China

The three of us began our journey from Hong Kong International Airport to Guangzhou by express bus. The ticket can be easily purchased inside the airport. Just follow the sign 'Transport to Mainland China' and there is a counter from which you can purchase the tickets. The ticket for one way trip cost us 180RMB per person. Be advised, make sure your passport stays with you (not in the luggage) to ensure smooth flow during the immigration check at Shenzhen. Everyone should received a sticker or tag, to make sure you board the same bus after the inspection. Don't panic as you get out of the inspection hall as the bus operator or their conductors will guide you to your bus. Just be alert. Next you will have to CHANGE BUS and don't forget your belonging on board as you'll not board the same bus again (we left our Lonely Planet Guidebook on the bus). This time, just like the last time, bus conductors will guide you to your bus, so it's very important to keep your bus ticket or the sticker given.

Arrived in Guangzhou after a three hours ride. Guangzhou at first looks like any normal city. Skyscrapers, shopping malls, a busy traffic. We got off at China Hotel. If you're not sure of your destination or where to get off the bus, just ask the bus driver (No English spoken) or if you're lucky, just ask any travelers from other countries. From there we had to find our first destination, a bank. We only had some Japanese Yen, US dollars and Hong Kong Dollars with us. We asked several shops and locals for direction to bank but, seems like no one ever heard the word 'BANK'. Luckily the kanji word for bank is the same with Japanese so we tried our luck and directly they showed the way. duhh...

While searching for a place to eat, we met two Palestinian brothers. They gladly showed us the way to the famous mosque in Guangzhou, the Saad Abu Waqas's mosque. On Friday, there's a bazaar selling local and other countries Halal food, just outside the mosque compound. Foods like kebabs, breads, sweets or other local delicacies are being sold. For travelers with tight budget, this place is a must to visit. You can buy not only for your lunch, but also for your dinner or supper. It saves a lot. There are of course beggars around the bazaar. Just ignore them and walk away.

Friday Bazaar near the Saad Abu Waqas's Mosque

Had our first Friday congregation in China that day. It's an indescribable feeling to see other Muslim brothers from other countries and China itself gathering in one place. The mosque's compound is a really breathtaking place for a stroll, far from busy streets outside. Visiting the Saad Abi Waqas's mausoleum after the Friday Congregation is okay, but can get too crowded sometimes, especially after the congregation. The mausoleum is open anytime so try to visit anytime after the prayer.

Muslims after the Friday Congregation

Headed for our hostel near the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Center. We found many Malaysian staying there. The hotel is quite OK as it is accessible to metro (nearest station is Sun Yat Sen station). The room for double was 180RMB per night. We traveled by taxi in Guangzhou. It saves a lot if you use the metro, but getting a ticket would be very difficult if you cannot speak Chinese. Though guides in English are available in the metro station, still you might face some problems asking directions or anything to the station staffs. Buy an unlimited use of metro card for about 80RMB and use the metro unlimited for 3 days.

We went out at around 2100hrs (overslept) and went out to look for our dinner. One of the Malaysian there suggested an Arabian restaurant in the city. Headed there by taxi. The food was superb. The taste and especially the quantity of the food served (it's Arab restaurant so.......). We were so hungry we didn't even care of the food's price. Yep, it's quite pricey for a set of food actually. But, who cares?

Hungry faces on the very first day of the trip

Day 3 (March 5, 2011)
Insde Guangzhou

The next day, we started our journey to Baiyun Shan, a mountain sightseeing area. The Baiyun Shan (White Cloud Mountain) (??? bái-yún-shan),(Tour Bus No. 1, 3) is a great place to relax and enjoy a day among lush, rolling hills. Located in northeast of downtown Guangzhou, the Baiyun Mountain covers a total area of 20.98 square kilometers and is a national AAAA grade scenic area and the only national scenic area in Guangzhou. As a well-known mountain in south Guangdong province. It also offers great views over the city. The road to the top in most of the daytime is restricted to park trams and pedestrians. To get to the top lookout point, you can use the main roads or trails. There are many places to rest and refreshments are available along the way. It is a great place to see people enjoying nature and playing games, such as badminton, football and even bungee jumping. There are many bus routes to and from different parts of the city, as well as taxis usually available near the park gate. Open 24 hours. Park entrance is ¥5. Cable car round trip is ¥40, tram from ¥20.

Baiyun Mountain scenery

We went on to one of the park inside called hw3iufhiwehufgiu. If you have plenty of time, go explore the trails down the mountain. The view would be best in spring or autumn, I guest. From there you could see some waterfalls, though there are very little water flowing when we're there. The trail's name is quite exaggerated, but interesting. After a tiring hike, take a rest at a Chinese pavilion nearby the archway. Inside the same facility also, there's a bird show. The show concept is more to entertain the children I think. Leave it if you're not into it.

Next destination, the Guangzhou Zoo. Well, here in China, you can't say you've been to China without taking a look at China's Giant Panda. There's another species which is called Lesser Panda (Red Panda). I don't know if they are from the same species or not. Another attraction which we found worth to see is the Liger, an animal resulted from the crossbred between Lion and Tiger. The rest are just like other typical zoo.

First time to see a Giant Panda with bare eyes

Night life in Guangzhou

Fake brand, a synonym with China (supposed to be Giordano and Dunhill)

Day 4 (March 6, 2011)
Last day from the hectic Guangzhou

Today's the last day we're in Guangzhou. The first destination, the Mausoleum of Nanyue King Complex. This complex is one of the must-go places in Guangzhou. The admission fee 12 Yuan. Don't forget to mention your status as a student if you are. Just show the ISIC card, and you pay only half the entrance fee. Inside the museum, you can rent an audio guide with 8 languages currently available. Head upstairs and start your journey in those galleries. Just follow the visit route. The main attraction would be the mausoleum itself. Inside the tomb feels like inside a dungeon. Except that, there are concubines, cooks and the dead king's guards buried altogether inside the tomb. You can get a perspective how the ancient king's tomb were protected. The tomb itself was double layered with huge rocks. Next, walk outside and into the next building. Here are the information of the dead king, his kingdom, and his belongings found inside his coffin along with his bones and other artifacts. You'll use most of the audio guide here and at the original mausoleum site. On returning home, don't forget to take a quick look at the souvenirs shop just next to the counter where you can rent the audio guide.

Nanyue King Mausoleum complex

Famous bread(??) / bagel(??) in Guangzhou. Easy to find anywhere at the street. Sold 5 yuan for two. Bought it for my lunch and dinner.

Had our lunch at a Lebanese restaurant just across the street in front of the Nanyue King Mausoleum Complex. We then head to the mosque for our Zuhur prayer and for the last visit to the Saad Abi Waqas's mausoleum. This time lesser people came. We came across some Malaysian at the mosque. Travelers tips: Outside the mosque you may find beggars near the mosque's gate, but inside, they might not seem like beggar. If you're Muslim, they might approach you and offer to take your pictures in front of the mosque. They'll preach something about hadeeth and talk about Islamic stuffs. My intuition strongly suggests, they want something from us (in return of favor of taking our pictures). Finally they said, they will offer you a way to a Halal restaurant nearby the mosque, and hope you'll cover their meal along. They are quite persistent I think but, just resist them kindly and walk away.

Saad Abi Waqas's mausoleum

Our next stop, Guilin. Going to Guilin from Guangzhou is possible by long distance bus or train. The fares are almost the same. We went to Guilin by train. The situation in the Guangzhou station is so anarchic. It's very noisy, quite dirty and most importantly, they don't write the destination in alphabets. Ask the police at the police counter for your destination. Just use any sign languages and they'll point it for you, not guide it. The most unorganized train station I ever see. Just imagine, you're in a long line behind the counter to buy tickets and you're standing for at least half an hour. Then finally came your turn but unfortunately, the person who manned the counter just pull the curtain and close the counter for a rest. All the people in that line will have to go to another new line. Not to mention the attitudes of locals who will not hesitate to get into the line without queuing... For your information, the Guangzhou railway station sells tickets to all destinations in China. I'm not really sure whether it covers the whole country or the destinations available only from Guangzhou. Make sure you arrive at the station at least around 45 minutes before your departure, as there will be a security check and you'll join hundreds of locals in your queue. If you're not sure where your waiting room is, ask the train station staff as it might be quite confusing to find it. Be extra alert on your belongings as you dive into the crowd. And..... extra patience in facing the noisy and mostly undisciplined crowd.   

Felt soooo mentally and physically fatigue. That's it from Guangzhou. See the crowd? It's off season I'm telling you.

Our train to Guilin (K36) departed at 1750hrs. It's a soft sleeper cabin so we had our rest all along the journey in peace. If you're taking the hard seat, you might not be able to sleep as the people tend to talk loudly plus the train staff selling foods and stuffs.

Comments about Guangzhou: The people speak mostly Cantonese. Not really friendly against foreigners, maybe it's because we don't know how to speak in their language. Accommodation and eating costs are quite high. Best visit in off-season. Beware of wall and big supporting pillars. Don't simply lean on the wall or sit on the floor. Some locals spit there. Even it's inside the train station. Peed there? Never saw it yet.....

Day 5 (March 7, 2011)
Inside Guilin, the city of karst.

Arrived at Guilin train station in the morning. It was cold and we had our morning prayer outside the train station. Arriving there, the surrounding, the air is really different from the Guangzhou city. The traffic is OK. Not much honk heard compared to Guangzhou.

We then headed to our hostel, with very little information on how to get there. We had to ask several passerby for the location. Finally we found the hostel after around an hour wandering the streets. Our choice is the Wada Hostel. Very helpful and friendly staffs. They speak excellent English. Highly recommended for budget stay in Guilin. Refer the for more information. After settle down in our room, we headed out, starting to explore Guilin. What is it so special here in Guilin, that makes everyone stare at you with jealousy if you mention to them you had been to Guilin.

Had to arrive early in the morning, plus without a proper breakfast, we began the trip by hunting our breakfast cum lunch. We got some information, there's a vegetarian restaurant in Guilin. By referring to our tourist map, we went there by taxi and it took us to a Buddhist temple. It's vegetarian so it's safe for Muslims for consumption. We went inside. At first, it looks like a lavish restaurant and we expect to pay high price for our meal. We thought wrong. The price is just like any other restaurant. Choosing foods in Chinese restaurant, especially without any English translation would end up you scratching your head. Lucky me, knowing Japanese helps me to read kanji (Chinese characters). Still, we really had no idea what was written in the menu. Last solution: lucky draw. We just picked random dishes and rice, and just waited to be served. During waiting time, we learned how to use chopsticks and manners using it. It's a good thing my two friends are a fast learner.

Happy faces while enjoying the meal. Look at the volume of the fried rice...

Our meal. It's an eggplant, but the made it looks like a chicken.  

With full belly, we headed to our first destination, the Reed Flute Cave. The Reed Flute Cave (Chinese:Lúdí Yán) is a landmark and tourist attraction in Guilin. It is a natural limestone cave with multicolored lighting and has been one of Guilin’s most interesting attractions for over 1200 years. It is over 180 million years old. The cave got its name from the type of reed growing outside, which can be made into melodious flutes. Reed Flute Cave is filled with a large number of stalactites, stalagmites and rock formations in weird and wonderful shapes. Inside, there are more than 70 inscriptions written in ink, which can be dated back as far as 792 AD in the Tang Dynasty. These aged inscriptions tell us that it has been an attraction in Guilin since ancient times. It was rediscovered in the 1940s by a group of refugees and has since received many VIPs.

One of the natural stalagmites in the cave. The cave was lit up with colourful artificial lights.

Next, we headed to another Guilin's famous landmark, the Solitary Beauty Peak. Rising dramatically above the center of Guilin, Solitary Beauty Peak (Duxiu Feng 独秀峰) offers spectacular views of the city and surrounding countryside. As with so many peaks and rocky upthrusts in and around Guilin, centuries of visits have led to the creation of a carved stairway leading to the summit. The pathway starts at Wang Cheng, the Ming Dynasty palace located in the center of town, now home to the campus of Guangxi Normal University and also the site of nightly performances by local ethnic minorities. Only the city walls and some of the foundation of the original buildings are left, the buildings themselves are all recent. There are three types of entrance fees. We took the 70 yuan types which includes the climb to the peak. The view from the peak was superb. It's a wonderful thing to think a mountain suddenly appeared in the middle of the city.

Elephant Trunk Hill. This park(象山公园) on the banks of the Li River contains a hill with a large natural arch cut into it. This resembles the trunk of an Elephant dipping into the river. This scene is frequently used as a symbol of the city and so has developed some fame. There is a funny and cheaper alternative to get into the park, you can go all the way to the river on the street just at the right side of the west gate, you will find some people asking if you want a boat that they drop you in the park for half-price (¥20) of the official ticket. It's pretty much impossible to get a good view of the natural arch without going on a boat tour as trees have been planted to prevent people from "freeloading" the view. ¥40.

Elephant Trunk Hill from our boat cruise. The name was derived from it's natural shape which resembles an elephant drinking water from the Li River. On top of the hill, there's a temple 
(not seen here). Less information on how to get to the top.

Night market in Guilin
On our short stay, we reserved a night to shop for souvenirs. Our choice, a street market set up along Zhongshan Lu (Zhongshan Road) at night selling typical tourist trinkets. Simple advice: bargain hard for your ideal price as most of the stuffs are mass produced stuffs.

Zhongshan Lu night market

Tonight's dinner, dumpling soup noodle.
The price per bowl: 4 yuan. Taste: Indescribable. Again, we randomly selected the menu. Luckily there are pictures of the food hung on the wall. Unable to make the order, we called the cashier and pointed to the food's picture.

Located next to this restaurant is a a mosque. Another discovery for mosques in China. yay !! We visited the mosque for Zohor prayer the next day.

The Mosque in Guilin.

Day 6 (March 8, 2011)
A one day excursion to Yangshuo.

Yangshuo, a synonym city with Guilin is about one and a half hours by bus from Guilin. This used to be a popular backpackers town, but now is full of Chinese tourists. It is situated in a beautiful karst landscape. The full day boat trip along the Li River will finish in this town. Getting there by taxi or bus and is also an option. Yangshuo is popular for its incredible karst scenery, beautiful mountains, rivers, caves, and temples as well as its laid back cafes and bars. However, as a result, there is no shortage of mainland Chinese tourists, ex-pats, and other foreigners. Yangshuo isn't your typical Chinese town and does not have the big-city feel as in most other Chinese cities. That means it is relatively air and noise pollution free, (provided you get away from major roadways), very clean (by Chinese standards) and doesn't usually suffer from endless massive traffic chaos. It is much more like a vacation town, with wonderful restaurants and shops and again quite developed by mainland Chinese standards. Yangshuo has a reputation as a foreigners' village in Southern China and is a major stop on the trail of many independent travelers. It's also a nice place to stop and explore the local countryside by bike or even give a try a world class rock-climbing sites.

A tour arranged by our hostel costs 120 yuan per person for a one way trip to Yangshuo by raft boat. Yep, it's a raft. Of course with motor. We were taken to somewhere (sorry can't recall the place) about an hour from our hostel by van. Arriving there and found ourselves at a very remote places, but with an outstanding scenery of karst mountains right in front of our eyes. The air was so fresh. Speechless.

We then boarded the raft boat and the journey began. It's winter-spring season but not too cold outside. Upon cruising the river, we came across many unique shapes of mountains, caves, plus the crystal clear water. Just get ready your camera and your memory card. You'll gonna snap lots of pictures along the tour. It's very picturesque, you'll never get boring in a short time. Everything was so tranquil. We enjoyed watching birds flying around the mountains, as the mists slowly covers the peak of the mountains. At that time, we felt as if we were in the ancient Chinese themed film. Ever watched one? Best example to imagine, try watch the movie: Red Cliff 1&2. You'll get it. Still, you gotta watch it with bare eyes. It's sooo different from what we saw in TV.

The jetty, starting point. 

Our raft boat

It's not a doctored image.

Almost 3 hours later, we arrived at a jetty to be transferred to a 'bus' which will take us to a bus station, to catch a bus to Yangshuo. It's not really a bus. It's an open air roofed truck where we sat at the back. The road was bumpy but it was a fun experience. Arrived at the bus station, the tour guide guided us to the bus. The ride to Yangshuo took almost an hour. Along the route, you can see the face of raw rural China, how local lead their daily life. 

Arrived in Yangshuo around 1:00p.m. We really had no idea what to do and what to see in Yangshuo. According to most of guidebooks, Yangshuo is best explored by bicycle. We then rented a bicycle for each of us from nearby tourist center. By bike, we set to explore Yangshuo only with maps. The signboards to most of the tourist spots are clearly marked. We cycled for about half an hour to reach the first destination, the Butterfly Hill. It's easily recognizable from road for it's huge concrete butterfly on a karst mountain. If you come from Yangshuo town, the park should be on your right. Inside, there's a cave with stalagmites, just like the one in Reed Flute Cave. Trails leading to an observation area should takes around 20 minutes to reach. Took some pictures there and headed down the hill. Along the way to the exit there's an open air performance area which feature traditional dance etc. We got no time to waste as we only had a day in Yangshuo, so we headed straight to next destination, the Moon Hill. It's another half an hour ride from the Butterfly Hill. Riding there doesn't took a lot energy as most of the road are flat.

Arrived at the Moon Hill but it's already late in the evening. We had our Asar prayer. We decided not to enter the park and just enjoy it from below. Still it's a magnificent sight to see such hill with natural hole in a shape of moon. I bet it's bet enjoyed during sunset.

The Moon Hill from afar

We then decided to head back to town before dark. At the road a lot of makeshift stalls selling strawberries are available. It's very attempting to us as we were really tired at that time......and thirsty! Just before we arrived back in the town, we stopped by at a market and bought some fruits. Seriously, we were very hungry at that time. Arrived at the town and returned the bike. We then headed to a Muslim restaurant just across the street and facing the bus terminal entrance. It's recognizable by the blue signboard with Halal word (in Arabic) and image of a mosque. Again, we looked at images of the food hung on the restaurant's wall and randomly picked one. Despite of the language barrier, we were able to get our belly filled for that night.

Take five enjoying sunset from a bridge in Yangshuo.

With filled belly, we did some shopping for souvenirs at a night market, near the bus terminal. Most of items sold there are cheap. Key-chains, wood carvings, T-shirts, mirrors and other mini-souvenirs are available. Just keep in mind one thing, if you can get it elsewhere other than Yangshuo, it's better to buy there. Yangshuo is a rural town so it's normal for the price to skyrocket at certain shops.

It's time to get back to Guilin. Our bus departed from Yangshuo at 8:00 p.m. Note that, last bus to depart from Yangshuo to Guilin is at 8:30 p.m. A tiring journey, yet an irreplaceable one. Tomorrow, last day in Guilin and one place left to cover, the Seven Star Park.

For more information, refer here for Yangshuo town.