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Fast Plane to China: STN-DUS/FRA-ICN-KWL-LJG/DLU-KMG-BKK-LHR on AB, OZ, CZ, MU and TG

Fast Plane to China: STN-DUS/FRA-ICN-KWL-LJG/DLU-KMG-BKK-LHR on AB, OZ, CZ, MU and TG

Old Feb 7, 10, 11:48 am
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Fast Plane to China: STN-DUS/FRA-ICN-KWL-LJG/DLU-KMG-BKK-LHR on AB, OZ, CZ, MU and TG

This is one of these trips I've been planning for ages. Having finally found the courage to leave the job I've wanted to be shot of for ages, I was in the mood to celebrate and make use of the free time before contracts start... With travel! But there was no getting round a 3-month notice period, so the dates got pushed further and further out. China was my choice as it's somewhere that I've long wanted to see more of (I hadn't been anywhere outside the big cities), and that MrsStut (who sadly couldn't travel with me) wouldn't feel bad about not visiting. It being January had a factor in my choice of destination, too: as far south within the country as possible (well, without going to Hainan, which I didn't fancy). So, Yunnan it was to be! And seeing as I was, thanks to a good, generous BD redemption, going to be travelling via ICN and KWL (Seoul and Guilin), it seemed rude not to stop in both of those places too.

The diversion via Germany? Well, that's part redemption availability, part tax avoidance. The Air Berlin flight, plus the Rail & Fly add-on, came to significantly less than the tax difference between London and Frankfurt. Plus, I've always wanted to visit Cologne cathedral (so gothic!) which is slap bang between Duesseldorf and Frankfurt. Plus, a journey on the ICE is always enjoyable.
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Old Feb 7, 10, 11:49 am
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Stansted

Another eye-wateringly early Stansted start, so a night at the Radisson Blu was in order. After a night out in Cambridge (just up the road from us) with MrsStut, and an emotional farewell at the station, I'm off on the surprisingly on-time CrossCountry train down to the airport. It's nice at this time of night, mostly because you can nab a table on these recently refurbished trains, that one can only assume have been refurbished by oompah-loompahs, given the pitiful seat pitch on the 'airline' seats. Really, I'm tall but not that tall, and I can't physically fit in - god help the people who get stuck in these seats all the way to Brum.

Anyway, it pootles down to Stansted cheerily enough, and I drag my rucksack (oh yes, this is definitely a rucksack trip) through the deserted station, half inexplicably hoarded off, the ticket offices' roofs covered in litter thrown from the overhead walkway. The hotel isn't quite in the terminal, but a short walk away, under a covered walkway.

It's very Radisson Blu (well, Radisson SAS as I know it) - big atrium, rooms very clean and correct, if a little dull. Ah, maybe now I travel predominantly for pleasure rather than for business, different things (such as character) become more important. I'm slightly disappointed to get an atrium-facing room - I do enjoy an airfield view - but these seem to be reserved for the business class rooms, which is fair enough. However, what these hotels do all seem to have is a 'thing'. A bit gesture of individualism for each hotel. This one has a wine tower.

The wine tower is odd. It's hard to tell exactly what it is at first. It's a blue tower, most of the height of the atrium, filled with wine racks. OK, that's a 'thing'. But no, it doesn't stop there: there appears to be a woman in there, on ropes, being lifted up and down while making odd, floaty gestures. I'm not sure how long she stays there. And I'm not sure if she actually carries wine down, lost a bet, or is a staff member on rota. It's quite an odd site, an attempt at Las Vegas that comes over a bit Blackpool.

Anyway, a Costa hot chocolate from the terminal later, and a good night's sleep follows. Check-out is from an automated machine, which is handy. And we're off!

Last edited by stut; Feb 7, 10 at 11:59 am
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Old Feb 7, 10, 11:50 am
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Air Berlin AB8893 London Stansted (STN) - Duesseldorf (DUS) A320, Single Class

Air Berlin have a lot to live up to. Every report I've read of them is close to glowing, and the price was certainly right. We shall see! My experience of Stansted has primarily been on Ryanair (mostly on their old 732s - I have an involuntary shudder just typing that), and not entirely positive. The challenge begins.

Check-in is a breeze. I OLCI'd the night before, and proudly held in my hand a BP for seat 1A. Yes, yes, it's a one-class not-quite-LCC, but there's still something rather nice about that seat. But, despite all the AB flights leaving within a short space of each other, there's no queue at any of the fast bag drop counters, and the whole transaction takes a few seconds, the latter undoubtedly helping the former.

As for Stansted? Ah, Stansted. The railway station yesterday was a clue. An airport, designed to a high architectural standard, with compromise piled on compromise (with a pinch of incompetence) in the name of cost saving. Unsurprising, perhaps, given the distance from London and the airlines that decided to settle here, giving the airport an actual reason to exist, but it still gives a slight air of disappointment. It looks like a Chek Lap Kok, it feels like a Roissy.

Well, a Roissy with more shops. On the positive side, security is significantly better than it used to be, with almost every scanner open at this early morning peak, and so takes less than 5 minutes, despite the whole liquid & shoe kerfuffle. The liquids barkers ("yellow-jacketed mouth breathers", as they've been described elsewhere) are nowhere in sight, and either the security staff have improved their act, or it's still too early for them to get a good grump on. Either way, I'm stunned to be deposited airside as quickly as I am.

And this is where the Stansted frustration continues. The concept of the airport was that you didn't have to walk long distances - everything was there, in front of you, and you could divert if needed. This, naturally, didn't fit BAA's hard sell ethos, so instead you're herded through duty free and a whole load of shops, with sparse seating, and no gates announced until almost boarding time. I browse Currys for a new CF card for my camera, but the price is a sorry joke - 45 for a 4GB 80x card. Thanks, but no.

The 'Go To Gate' is announced en masse, meaning a rush to the transit, which shortly resembles the Northern Line at the same time of day. Thankfully, it's a lot faster, and you're at the gate in no time, albeit to the announcement of a 15-minute delay. We appear to have an airbridge - a novelty at Stansted, for me at least.

Boarding seems very quick, and the reason for this is soon clear - the flight is very lightly loaded. Seat 1A... Well, it quickly becomes clear why it was so easily gettable. This plane, an A320, seems to be used for AB's longer flights too, and so has IFE. Good stuff? Yes. And no. The audio boxes take up a fair amount of space on the fixed armrests of the front row (and presumably emergency exits), making it rather uncomfortable when you're 6'1", and your legs don't really fit. But I have the row to myself, so can angle myself well enough.

Food and drink? Well, I expected nothing, and so was pleasantly surprised to get a decent cup of coffee, some apple juice, a small bretzel-type roll and a muffin. You'd be hard pressed to get that on the full-service brigade these days.

We soon catch up our 15 minute delay on this short flight, and are in DUS before we know it. It's a remote stand, but given the light loads, this isn't really a hassle, as the bus takes you straight to immigration, anyway. It's a smart little airport, DUS, and stereotypically efficient at that - the bags are on the belt impressively quickly, and I'm out before I know it. And we're early. So, rather than getting the direct S-Bahn to Duesseldorf HBf, I try to catch the ICE direct to Cologne from the mainline airport station, a short transit ride away.

The transit ride turns out to be a Schwebebahn - a hanging railway. The carriages hang down from the trackway above, giving an interesting ride. Great fun! Sadly, I just miss the ICE, so end up on the S-Bahn anyway, which isn't a major hassle.

Last edited by stut; Feb 7, 10 at 12:23 pm
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Old Feb 7, 10, 11:50 am
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Duesseldorf to Frankfurt

So, Duesseldorf Hbf. After missing an earlier ICE (or IC, I forget which) to Cologne, I manage to miss yet another one at the Hauptbahnhof. Luckily, pulling up on the adjacent platform is a delayed EC headed to Chur, which is half-empty anyway, and made up of Swiss carriages. I get on, and the slightly odd back-bottom movement that you can do to get these Swiss RE seats to recline (yes, there is a definite knack to it!) comes flooding back to me, and so I have plenty room to stretch out and relax.

I have a Rail+Fly ticket - a great scheme where participating airlines will sell you, for €25, a ticket valid from pretty much any German airport, to anywhere in Germany. You can break your ticket as much as you like, as long as you travel on DB, and in the one direction, and can use pretty much any DB train, with the exception of the peak-hour ICE Sprinter services.

So, Cologne it is, where I leave my rucksack in a really disconcerting automated left-luggage system, that involves a hatch opening, you stuffing your luggage in, and it being spirited away to the bowels of the station. Fingers crossed and I head out for a wander round, a visit to a bakers, and, perhaps ill-advisedly, a climb to the top of the cathedral spire. A great way to help you sleep on a night flight - I fully recommend it!

And so back on to the ICE towards Frankfurt Airport, the luggage retrieval system having proven itself thankfully effective. Now, I'd never been on an ICE 3 before, and so am completely surprised by the fact that you can sit at the very front of the train (at least, heading in this direction - IIRC, 1st class is at the other end) where the back to the driver's cab is all glass, giving you a driver's eye view of the journey. Superb! I enjoy train travel at the best of time, and these trains are incredibly comfortable - smooth, fast, big, well-spaced seats... Really quite outstanding. And you can see out the front!

Frankfurt Flughafen Fernbahnhof (the mainline station) is a bright, airy affair, although quite some walk from the terminal. And this is where it begins... A sign informs me that Asiana departs from terminal 1, zone C. Fine, I follow the signs. There's a lot of up and down escalators, but fortunately, they seem to have those luggage trolleys that will go on escalators.

But this is where it begins. There's some construction work going on. Signs start contradicting themselves. I should have followed 1A - it was going straight over a bridge. 1C? Hmm, no. It goes down. And up. And down. And some escalators take trolleys, others don't. And then you go outside, and have to fight your way through bus stops and building works hoarding. And then... Well, you reach the terminal, but there's no indication which airline is where. It takes ages to find the OZ counter, and when I do, the queues snake round...

Some photos of Cologne here.

Last edited by stut; Feb 7, 10 at 12:37 pm
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Old Feb 7, 10, 11:51 am
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Asiana OZ542 Frankfurt (FRA) - Seoul Incheon (ICN) B777, Business

But there's no queue at the business counter! Phew. I'm in my pre-reserved seat no problem, but there's a 2h delay. Oh. And I only have a short stopover in Seoul. There are profuse apologies, and I double-check it's a definitive delay, unlikely to shorten. Indeed it is, due to the late inbound aircraft, so I decide to go for the worst.

Sorry, typo. I decide to go for the wurst. I love a good bratwurst, and have fond memories of snacking on them at stations, travelling across Germany when living in Alsace years ago. So I head into Frankfurt for a wander and a bratwurst at the Hauptbahnhof, perched by a tall table, watching the good people of Frankfurt head for their trains home, through the multidirectional rush in this almost bafflingly large station. I can people-watch for hours.

But I don't, I've a plane to catch, so I hop on a surprisingly decrepit old S-Bahn back to the surprisingly decrepit local station at the airport.

And it's a C-gate. Bof. If you're not familiar with Frankfurt C-gates, then count yourself lucky at not knowing the armpit of this airport. And this isn't even one of the main C-gates, it's the armpit of the armpit. C pier is a long walk from... Well, anywhere really. It's actually physically quite close to the terminal 2 Skytrain
station, but that would be far too easy - you have to walk there from 1B. It's about 15 minutes.

Just to compound annoyance on annoyance, the C gate I'm going from doesn't have an adjacent lounge, so I have to go to a difference security zone, which means I'll need to clear security twice, and won't have the benefit of direct lounge-gate access. And so it turns out that I'm behind a planeload of Guangzhou-bound passengers, the priority lanes closed, and they're doing outbound passport checks just to get into the gate area. 15 minutes later, I'm at the front, being told "oh, you want to go to the lounge, just go through". And then taken aside for secondary swab screening on all my electronics.

It barely seems worth it, but at least the (Lufthansa Business) lounge is quiet - as there's barely anybody who can be bothered making it this far at this time of night, presumably. The lounge is clean, has huge windows out on to the tarmac, and looks pretty good. Drinks and snacks aren't bad - some Apfelschorle and sandwiches are plenty for me at the moment. But it's lacking in atmosphere, and that's not just the quietness. It reminds me of a car showroom, only without the cars, and with slightly better coffee.

Anyway, I get bored - the wireless internet is expensive, and it's so quiet I end up going outside and phoning home, before heading to the gate... Which is chaotic. The rest of C is eerily quiet by now, but this gate is buzzing, just not in a particularly good way. It's got that 80s pre-fabricated look about it, and I don't know what Asiana have done to deserve ending up here. The gate area (you're 'boarded' into a closed-off area) cannot seat a busy 777, so it's standing room only (or at least, it is, thanks to those lovely people taking up three seats at once, horizontally). However, this is fleeting, and we board. Special assistance first (a family with a 10-year-old get told to go away and not to be so daft) then F and J. At last, I'm on!

And what a world of difference. Immediately, the crew are around me, I am welcomed, the delay is apologised for, I have a drink, my bags are stowed, and I'm informed that, if I'd like a row to myself, I am welcome to move to 5D, which I do. The cabin has a rather pleasant atmosphere - this is a two-class plane, and so J is right at the very front - it's the ubiquitous Wedgiebeds, but nicely done out, in light, soft colours, with huge monitors. The downside is, thanks to the width of the 777, there's a middle seat in the centre block - unnecessary on this particular flight, but I wouldn't fancy being in there. More drinks are provided, more apologies, some comfortable slippers (I'm wearing them right now!) and now I can sit back and relax...

The safety video is a fairly standard video/animation mix, but it is followed by a couple of animations about "beautiful manners". Kids running wild and loud talking/music are not tolerated on Asiana, it seems.

So we're off. Just on levelling out, I change and return to a menu and a purser, who greets me personally and, once again, apologises for the delay. By this point, I almost feel like replying that no, I don't expect them to control the weather, but that would be ungracious, so I smile, nod, and choose the Korean meal, although I'm not entirely sure what it actually consists of.

It's a bibimbap, which comes with handy instructions on how to eat it (really, I'd no idea). I'd known precious little about Korean food save for kimchi, which I knew of only by reputation. But I was impressed! It was an incredibly flavourful dish, something I've always found difficult to achieve in-flight. It seemed designed to
satisfy every sense of taste: it was bitter, sweet, salty, sour, savoury, spicy... And all from a very simple little dish. If this was what I had in store during my stopover, I was in for a treat.

Then, well, maybe it was the cabin, maybe it was the well-stoppered wedgiebed, maybe it was the climb up the 509 steps up Cologne cathedral, but I slept extremely well, having to deliberately wake myself up so as no to get too jetlagged. A couple of hours of IFE followed. The system itself works well, but there wasn't a huge amount on there that I really wanted to watch. Not terrible, just unremarkable. The crew were constantly attentive, offering drinks and snacks throughout the flight.

So, before I knew it, we were landing at Incheon, and the crew were lined up waving us off. I felt like I'd had a relaxing night, and that it was now afternoon - perfect! (as that's exactly what it was...) A thoroughly enjoyable flight.

Arrival at Incheon was entirely painless. It's a sparkling airport - relatively new, but it's not lost any of its sheen. Passport control is rapid, bags are there in a couple of minutes, and I'm out, Won in pocket, less than half an hour from landing. I sit down with a coffee to get my bearings, and immediately have a couple of people asking where I'm going, how I'm getting there, and so on. My natural reaction is to be defensive, but I quickly discover this to be unnecessary - they're asking out of friendliness and helpfulness, and nothing else.

I'd booked a small hotel near Namsan, from AsiaRooms, which wasn't especially close to any of the limo bus routes, and so end up deciding to take the A'Rex train service from the airport into town. It currently only runs as far as Gimpo airport, but there's a new, fast metro connection from there, so I gave it a go. It's a bit of an odd interim set-up, as there's only one express service per hour, which costs more, and takes only a few minutes less than the 'commuter' service, which runs every 12 minutes. So, I went for the latter, but due to a communication breakdown, ended up having to re-buy a metro ticket at Gimpo (I wanted a stored money card, but these were strangely hard to come by). Anyway, it's a decent enough service, but they're definitely commuter trains - new, but with bench seating and no luggage storage. It goes at a reasonable (but not huge) speed, but really does drive home just how far Incheon airport is from central Seoul - this is a big city, and it's a big way out of the big city.

From Gimpo, new ticket in hand, I notice that the new metro line 9 has an express service, running every 20 minutes. I wait for this, and it's worthwhile, nearly halving the journey time. It follows the river, and most stations are interchanges with other lines, making this a good way into town. Some of the interchanges, however, do involve quite lengthy walks or escalator rides. It takes a little over 90 minutes from Incheon to reach my station in central Seoul, which isn't terrible, given the distance. Not the most relaxing way to travel, perhaps - it'll be vastly improved when it's finally extended to Seoul station.

Last edited by stut; Feb 8, 10 at 1:43 pm
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Old Feb 7, 10, 11:51 am
  #6  
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Seoul

I'd picked up a guidebook on the way to Seoul. Nothing unusual there. But I noticed a boxed text entitled "Just Fax Me the Map", warning prospective Korea visitors about the difficulty of finding locations in the country from the address alone. This turns out to be true, and makes me rather glad I downloaded the map, attached to the confirmation email, to my mobile phone. It's rather effective, giving useful details such as the metro station exit to take, and so I'm there, just a few breathless moments later.

Breathless? Yes. In awe of the South Korean megalopolis built up so effectively from the ruins of war? Maybe in part. But mostly because I'd failed to take in the name of the hotel I'd chosen - the Hill House Hotel - while carrying a large rucksack with far too much stuff inside. Yes, it's up a hill. Still, with my Cologne cathedral training under my belt, it wasn't too bad, just not ideal after an overnight long-haul.

I'm on a budget for this trip. Not an incredibly restrictive one, but I'm between jobs, travelling solo, and generally wanting to save money. In addition, my hotel points have all run out. I'm not the frequent traveller I used to be, personal circumstances making me want to stay far closer to home. So it's a modest, impressively cheap 3* independent one, in what turns out to be a fairly interesting area, sandwiched between Namsan and the Namdaemun market, north of the river Han. Many say to stay south of the river, but, to be honest, I can see glossy new buildings and shopping centres pretty much anywhere - the north seemed just that bit more interesting.

But the hotel, reviewed favourably on AsiaRooms, is rather good. The welcome and check-in is quite charming, and the room itself (I splashed out on the more expensive room - think it came to 30 instead of 25) very comfortable indeed. It has a Japanese-style array of slippers on arrival, and I notice that the heating is underfloor ('ondol' - the traditional Korean style). The bathroom is marbly and pristine, and the bath, although not quite designed for my stature, offers a good soak before heading out. No wireless internet in the rooms, but there is a PC (this seems to be quite a common theme in Korean hotels, from what I've seen on the booking sites), so I shiftily half-inch the network cable out the back of that, which works a treat with my netbook. (Skype and webcam to keep in touch with MrsStut!) The bed is good and firm, just how I like it.

Well, it's 3 hours later than I planned, and now dark. It's cold out there, though, bitterly cold - I later find out it was -6C. Luckily, I have a rather good last-minute-purchase of a Uniqlo fleece, which keeps me just about warm enough to wander round. I have absolutely no idea what to eat, where to eat, and so head to the nearby Seoul station, where I reckon there's easy food to be found. And I'm not wrong. There's a massive food court, serving just about every type of Korean and several Chinese asnd Japanese foods. I have little idea what I'm ordering (you order at a central counter - I ended up looking at what was nice, correlating the hangol and ordering) and ended up with... Some noodles in broth. Hooray! Everybody likes noodles in broth. And this is no dissapointment. I have no idea what it was, really, but it was tasty - with the same multiple tastes as before (helped by the pickle side dishes). And I have no idea why I ended up buying a pine drink to wash it down, although it did leave me feeling fresh as a mountain breeze. I quite like the chopsticks here, too, the flattened edge makes noodles that little bit easier to grasp...

So, a wander round. Can't go to bed too awake, or I won't sleep and the jetlag will be prolonged, so I brave the plummeting thermometer, head for the canal area, and go for a walk. First impressions of Seoul and its people are, well, as I suppose you would expect from his location, having many similarities with both Japan and China, mixing the charm and quirkiness of the former with the gregariousness and energy of the latter. A good combination, I reckon. The sights were quite a range: strange under-bridge art installations, ancient shrines, neon-overload shopping streets, neon-clad horses and carriages (hmm), spangly big buildings, mysterious little back-alleys, markets that never quite close with steaming hot food round every corner... And some big, very drunk groups, which surprised me. Giggling, falling-down drunk (not violent or unpleasant). Not shocking - I grew up on Tyneside - but not what I expected in this part of the world. The place had a very happy atmosphere, overall, and very sociable. As I mentioned, I was approached by helpful people at the airport - wandering through central Seoul, I had all sorts of people coming up to me, saying hello and chatting, just for the sake of it. Mostly young, but some old boys who would just say 'hello' and wander off, too. However, the cold was becoming biting (I could see the water freezing in the canal as I watched it), and there were only so many random coffee chains I could sample in one evening (the oddly named Angel-in-us was a favourite) so I headed back. The climbing and endless wandering paid off - I got a full night's sleep out of it.

(When I say a full night's sleep, I mean that I'm up at 6. This is normal for me). Breakfast at the hotel is slightly odd, consisting of toast, jam, fried egg and a dressed salad, all on one plate. A bit of rearrangement, and it works.

For the morning, Namsan, the mountain park in the middle of the city. I'd love to say I continued my climbing theme by grabbing a rucksack, stout stick, Kendal mint cake and ascending it, but that would be an out-and-out like. What I did manage to do, however, was to take a wrong turning on the path from my hotel up to the cable-car and somehow (it's still a mystery) ended up on the gantry leading to the tollbooths for one of the Namsan tunnels. But I got there, and headed up for some rather spectacular views, giving me a good idea of both the context and scale of this place. There's a tower at the top, too - the N Seoul tower - but I didn't really see how much better the view would be from that bit higher, so I didn't bother. I went to walk back down, got slightly lost, found a bus, and hopped on. It turned out to be going to the 'Traditional Hanok Village', so I went with it. The village, quite interesting in its own right, despite being a reconstruction, was mostly under reconstruction, so I didn't stay long. I headed instead to Insadong, which I'd heard good things about.

And they were right, it's an interesting little area to wander around for a wee while - lots of craft-type shops, cafes and alleys to wander down, watching fruit and veg carts dart from place to place, getting ready for lunchtime deliveries. But what I need is a memory card. I note that my guidebook describes the 'biggest electronics market in the world', so what better place to find it - 9 huge floors of every electrical good that could take your fancy. And it does well, too - a big brand, 150x 8GB card for under 25. Another food court, another lunch, another random off-the-menu order, and again, it turns out to be a delicious broth - this time with beef, and served on rice. The ubiquitous kimchi is there, and the food is every bit as impressive as it has been elsewhere.

Enjoying the market atmosphere, I decided to head down to the fish market, a short metro ride away. It's quite hard to find - just about every sign as you leave the metro station is transliterated, but not the one to the market. Are we somehow discouraged from going here? Anyway, it's there, and I instantly regret eating beforehand, as the restaurants upstairs are serving some wonderful looking, any-fresher-and-you'd-be-out-at-sea food. The market, though, is fascinating - I've always loved fish markets, from North Shields to Tsukiji, so am in my element here.

My next exploit is to go for a walk along the river, as I haven't really seen much of it. This is a big mistake - the tall buildings flanking the river make for quite a wind tunnel, and -5C winds are really not pleasant. So I don't last long. I'd hoped to hire a bike and potter around, but the bike hire places are sensible battened down for the winter.

And so it's time to head back to the airport, for the onwards flight to Guilin. I can't miss this one - there's only 3 a week. I do the same route as before, only in reverse, but am not quite so lucky with the timing of the express metro connection to Gimpo, so it takes marginally longer. It's not a hassle, though, and it's before rush hour, so the trains are pleasantly quiet. The journey is hassle-free - things always are that bit more so when you actually know where you're going, have a pre-pay smartcard ticket, a book to hand, and all that.

Some photos of Seoul here,

Last edited by stut; Feb 8, 10 at 2:24 pm
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Old Feb 7, 10, 11:52 am
  #7  
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Asiana OZ325 Seoul Incheon (ICN) -Guilin (KWL) A321, Business

Incheon is as glossy as before. Arriving by train, we're treated to the bridge route to the terminal, taking you via the utterly bizarre Star Garden, built on a platform in the vast station atrium, lush and artily lit. An array of diverging travelators takes me to the OZ premium area, where I'm checked in, through security and emigration controls in under 10 minutes - it's a very smooth arrangement. The standard premium shopping mall is there, but I'm not the kind of person for whom shopping is anything more than a chore, so I head for the lounge, perched on a mezzanine with some pretty good views.

This is the OZ business lounge, and is pleasant, although with quite a mish-mash of atmospheres. The self-service food and drinks aren't bad, although type of food served at different times seems to vary with little logic. The decor is pleasant and inoffensive, but with some odd touches, like a bench table facing a wall of books. Laptop users are crowded round the few available power sockets, but I can't get the wi-fi to work on my laptop, despite it working on my phone, and for everybody else, so retreat to the business centre, where I get access through one of a series of donated (and sponsored) netbooks in cubicles, in varying degrees of health, with every application under the sun installed on by whoever feels like it. Hmm, won't be checking my bank statement in here, I think.

Boarding is called, and the gate is close by, just at the end of the main concourse. It's a busy A321 for this 4h30 flight, but they still muster up a separate desk for premium passengers, which makes boarding an absolute breeze. I have 3F. Again, I'm instantly greeted by name, and settled in with a choice of drinks, the cabin crew informing me that the seat next to me is empty, so feel free to store all my stuff there if I need it during the flight. The seats are comfortable - big, 2+2 seating, and decent pitch. Full amenities are supplied here - toiletries, slippers, pillows and blankets. It's a fair distance, and good to see an airline handling a mid-haul flight well, when I'm used to it being something of an afterthought in short-haul dominated Europe.

The plane doesn't take long to fill, and we get a series of synchronised bows from the cabin crew, followed by the same safety video we had for long haul, as well as the same "beautiful manners, beautiful travel" video. We're off unhurriedly, the A321 never being in that much of a rush to get off the ground, and service begins. It's a pleasant but generally unremarkable Chinese duck dish, something along the lines of an expensive ready meal. Drinks a-flowing, though - I get through the green tea, while a couple of increasingly red-faced but thankfully taciturn, besuited gentlemen opposite get through heroic quantities of whisky.

Arrival at Guilin is... Wet. Apparently they like neon in China - who knew - and so we are greeted by the giant neon characters for Guilin, reflected in the puddles formed by this hard rain. Rain, for an outdoor holiday? That's not what I ordered. Getting into China is painless but laborious, and makes me really rather glad I was first off the plane. The first three desks are quarantine - one for forms, one for temperature cameras, and one for medical questioning. And then there's immigration. And then baggage claim. And then customs, including full luggage x-ray. I might add that only one person was manning each of these desks. I got the impression Guilin really doesn't handle many international flights. Anyway, I'm alright Jack, out and some ATM'd Yuan in pocket as I find the taxi driver who's going to take me to Yangshuo. It's an evening arrival, after 11pm, with the return flight a nasty red-eye.

All in all, a good, polished flight, although the food was uninspiring. The service, however, was top-notch: attentive from the second you're on board, but without being overbearing. The seat was good for a mid-haul, although I'd prefer one of the fully flat ones for anything longer that this route.

Last edited by stut; Feb 8, 10 at 1:41 pm
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Old Feb 7, 10, 11:52 am
  #8  
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Yangshuo

So, I'm not going to Guilin. Despite the stunning karst scenery, it's been described to me as a 'Chinese Blackpool'. I don't know if they sell 'kiss me quick' hats there, but Yangshuo, although a good hour away, and a little overdeveloped in its own, more backpackery way, sounded more my cup of (green) tea. There's quite a few places on Xi Jie, but I ended up plumping for a private room at a Dutch-run hostel in a converted farmhouse some miles away, mostly because I wanted to cycle round here, and reckoned if anybody will help me to do that, it would be some Dutch ex-pats (I wasn't wrong). It was called the Giggling Tree.

They'd booked me a taxi to take me there from the airport, which is now mostly on expressways. In the dark, in the wet, there's little to see, except for the cunning through-the-fence route the driver managed to avoid a tollbooth on. The road from the airport's not quite finished, but the journey's pretty easy either way.

Being a farmhouse, and the weather being rather inclement, it's absolutely freezing, so I'm rather glad to discover that they've put two big, fat duvets on my bed. I'm really hoping this rain will die down...

...but it doesn't. I hole up in the common area, around a huge wood fire, with several of the others staying there (a friendly bunch) for breakfast and tea, until I decide that enough is enough, I'm going to make a break for it while the rain's a little lighter. So I grab a bike and head down the dirt track towards Yangshuo (a good 20-minute ride), avoiding the rather deep puddles on the way.

And I'm so glad I did. The scenery is breathtaking, from the moment you look up while in the hotel. The karst landscape is other-worldly, particularly when the peaks are shrouded in low cloud, as they are today (see, the rain isn't all bad!). The 20-minute ride into town takes more like an hour, as I stop and start, or dart off down interesting-looking side tracks (sidetracked, you could say). Yangshuo itself is a small town, and definitely backpacker central, with plenty touts to take you to hostels or boat trips. It's a good place to stop for lunch, though, and I find a Sichuan restaurant serving up some only-just-this-side-of-painfully spicy beef. Great stuff. Lots of wandering and coffee follows, but a boat trip is not happening. The Li River is high - too high - and it quickly becomes apparent that the only people operating in these conditions are the last ones you want to trust to operate in these conditions. They're all very keen to take you to the landscape depicted on the back of the 20 Yuan note, but I'm not biting.

The rain hardens again, but I notice all the people on bikes (and there's an awful lot of people on bikes) are very well covered. By the car park (you have to leave bikes in municipal car parks here - just a tiny lock secures them, and you leave them on the kick stand) there's some hardwarey looking shops, where I manage to mime myself one of these superb PVC capes, which I put on, and which keeps me absolutely bone dry. It's great - not only covering your head and body, but it also fits over the handlebars, basket and, if you wish, panniers, with clips to keep it from flapping around. Excellent stuff! I decide to head off towards the Dragon River, recommended as a quieter but even more scenic alternative to the Li, for a circuit round back to the Giggling Tree.

Cycling in China is... Interesting. I'm used to cycling in a number of places - out in the country, commuting in London and Amsterdam, and I'm pretty relaxed - I never get dressed up for it, wouldn't dream of getting one of those daft polystyrene hats that endanger more than protect, don't care how fast I go, and revel in finding the most vintage bikes I can - and this has partly put me in good stead, but there's a leap of faith I just can't take. If you want to pull out, you pull out. If you want to turn, you turn, even on the rather popular roundabouts. You don't bother looking back. I just can't do this! But it works. All the main roads have effective 'slow vehicle' lanes anyway, which the bikes share with carts and tractors when they can. And if you pull out, the traffic will fit round you - if it can't, then it'll beep. There's a flow to it that you have to get into to get anywhere at the big junctions - and it takes some nerve (if you've ever done the Velib thing in Paris, imagine constantly circling the Place de la Bastille) but all seems to work - I saw fewer near misses here than I would do on a standard London commute.

Anyway the road takes me off, past some hilariously gaudily decorated 'butterfly caves' (there are no live butterflies - they all died due to how the caves were touristifies - but there are many, many panels of dead ones pinned to boards) and reach the Dragon River. The farm track I was expecting to follow has been concreted over, in a very 'New China' fashion, and there are some 'river retreat' resorts under construction at the beginning of the track. A few minutes later, though, and I'm in proper countryside - nothing but some smallholdings (mostly small fruit growers), a gentle river, this track, me, my bike, and endless karst scenery. The odd farmer on a bike, or bike-with-trailer passes. It's wonderfully serene, and every time I look up, the view alone gives me a big grin.

But time here is short. Time everywhere is short on this trip. As night falls, I retreat to the sociability and warm wood fire of the Giggling Tree (they've a decent chef, too), and as day breaks, I only have a couple of hours for a walk a little further upstream before heading back to Guilin airport.

Some photos of Yangshuo here.

Last edited by stut; Feb 8, 10 at 2:24 pm
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Old Feb 7, 10, 11:53 am
  #9  
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China Southern CZ3247 Guilin (KWL) - Kunming (KMG) B738, Economy

It's big, it's new, it's New China, it's home to endless tour groups: it's Guilin airport. The departures hall is vast, making it surprisingly hard to see the four check-in desks (2Y, 1C, 1 latecomer) that serve all the airlines in the airport. The queues aren't long, but the latecomer desk is shut, and I'm there just as a flight's about to leave, so I get a load of people asking (well, I assume that's what they were doing) to go in front to catch this flight. It seems the done thing (and was certainly the done thing last time I flew within China), so I cheerfully waved them on.

I should explain: my last China 'domestic' (it wasn't domestic, it was HKG, so it was a semi-domestic-international) was quite hellish. So I'd decided that the only way to cope with this flight was to let an air of calm wash over me. Deep breath. Calm blue ocean. Place in the fridge and chill.

But this isn't bad. It's only a couple of minutes to get served, and security isn't bad, either. I note that they keep you outside security until the previous person is clear, but once you're in, it's pretty efficient. There are plenty signs telling you to present liquids separately, but nobody seemed to, and nobody minded.

Airside is pleasant - airy, all glass and marble, seats aplenty, and adorned with slightly-too-upmarket shops. The ones that really stick out are the tobacco shops, done out like showrooms, celling cigarettes in very expensive looking packaging. And then your standard upmarket souvenir shops - buy a panda, a belt and some silk clothing. Oh, and a Toblerone - you can't fly without buying a Toblerone, surely. But something's missing. Ah, well, there's a supermarket, but it's mostly snacky stuff and more souvenirs. It's lunchtime, and I'm getting a bit peckish (the Yangshuo air will do that to do). Somewhere to eat, maybe? Oh yes, there's one over there, hidden, with no menus out, and conspicuously dressed hostesses on the door. Ah, and another one over there. And another. I ask for a menu and get one, but the cheapest dish is a staggering Y80 (well, not staggering by home standards, but pretty staggering over here).

I don't like the look of them, and don't like the prices, so I look around to see what everybody else is doing. This is a new airport - was it still built under the assumption that it's only a wealthy elite who fly in China? Because that no longer seems to be the case. What everybody else is doing, it turns out, is buying cup noodles from the supermarket, and using an overly complex water boiler to fill them up. So I join in. It's not bad, although it gives me severe student flashbacks.

The boarding area fills up, so I grab a seat near the door. I'd anticipated a bit of a scrum when boarding was announced, or at least a proto-queue forming when it was obvious it was near, but there was none of this. Instead, a leisurely stroll followed, leaving me about 3rd to board, and the flight boarded incredibly efficiently - the BPs were barcode scanned in seconds, and people seemed to manage to take their seats with minimum fuss. I seem to have ended up with the only middle seat free in economy - perhaps the check-in agent took pity on my size.

The aircraft, presumably quite new, is in good nick. It's very standard issue Chinese domestic (blue seat covers, white antimacassars with adverts) but clean, and, glory be, decent legroom. We're given food and drink, the former in a small cardboard box. The food is... Interesting. The fried soya snack thing is pleasant. The bread-roll-cum-croissant is strange. And the cake with the consistency of foam (and a slight tamarind flavour) is downright odd. The green tea flows, though, and I'm glad I went for the cup noodles before.

Approaching Kunming is rather impressive. I'm not sure what I'd expected from the landscape in Yunnan, but the actual view surpassed whatever I had. The hills and lakes (hydroelectric dams aplenty) aren't Alpine or Himalayan dramatic, but have a drama of their own - a green-brown expanse, hazy through mist and afternoon sun, dotted with shining-bright water... And then the turbulence starts. It's rough up here, and there are a few on board much less used to it than me. Outside, the hills give way to flatter land as we approach Kunming proper, and the scale of development and industry around this city reveals itself. The building work is non-stop. The final approach is impressive in a different way - Kunming very much surrounds its airport. There are apartment blocks a few yards from the runway; it's an odd sight.

It's another bus stand, but more of an 'administrative' one, the actual door being really not far away. A good thing, too, as they weren't overly generous with the number of buses meeting us. Luggage is out quickly enough, and I remembered, from last time, to have my luggage check tag handy, as you can't leave the claim area without it. I'm quickly besieged by women selling lighters (they're pretty hot on confiscating them at security) and offers of taxis, but I'm not headed to Kunming just yet, I'm headed upstairs.

Last edited by stut; Feb 9, 10 at 1:40 pm
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Old Feb 7, 10, 11:53 am
  #10  
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China Eastern MU5806 Kunming (KMG) - Lijiang (LJG) B733, Economy

Connecting flights in China seem to operate rather differently to how I'm used to - on a much more point-to-point basis. There was no one airline operating KWL-KMG and KMG-LJG that I could actually connect on, and the various booking sites were quite sketchy about details of how to connect. Most suggested I leave 3 hours - which I really didn't want to do, but all the flights (and there are many) were wide open, so I just left it until I arrived. So, upstairs I went to the China Eastern counter (ah yes, not my favourite airline, but the Lucky Air flights had all gone) and managed to get a great price on a much better flight than I would have online (Y320 in the end).

Kunming Airport is in three parts: an old terminal for the established domestics, a new terminal for the new, private domestics, and an international/HKG/MEM/TPE terminal, carved out of the old terminal. So I'm in the old one, and I can't say it's particularly wonderful. Not particularly bad, just not particularly wonderful. Most of the shops (and many of the eating places) are landside, although I hadn't really appreciated this until I'd gone airside, typically. Check-in is empty. Security is in the same style as Guilin, and really doesn't take long at all.

Airside... Meh. Inoffensive, shabby and bland. The array of shops and restaurants is similar to Guilin, save for one coffee stall that still manages to match the exhorbitant food prices. There are first and business class lounges, but I have zero access, so can only peer in to see what I'm missing (it's really not much - the sheer orangeness of the business lounge makes me feel like I'm in some Chinese version of Life on Mars). The sun is strong here, the windows big, and the aircon ineffective. The plastic seats are also clearly not used to my kind of, er, heft, and so the backs prove to be more flexible than I'd hope. Oh well, not long to wait, and boarding begins, very similarly to how it did in Guilin, albeit with a disconcerting amount of give at the very end of the airbridge.

China Eastern, ah yes, it's all coming back to me! Sadly, not in a good way. The blue seats and white antimacassars are very much in evidence, but there the similarity with China Southern ends. This is a shabby old 733, and the seat pitch is almost exactly the same as the distance between my knee and my backside. Thankfully, the person in front doesn't feel the need to recline, but the person next to me (I am in a window seat) does join me in a, umm, thoroughly enjoyable game of elbow tennis, seemingly unaware that it simply won't go any further across without the kind of contortion people pay good money to see. Oh well. The flight is thankfully short. In-flight snacks are served: iced green tea and some odd biscuit type snack that inadvisedly tries to mix sweet and savoury in the same mouthful. A kind of Bedfordshire Clanger cheese straw. Still, I'm sure it's the thought that counts.

If the take-off from Kunming was as rough as the previous landing, the descent into Lijiang is peaceful, the twilight only managing to give me a glimpse of what's in store for me here (and a tantalising glimpse it is too). Lijiang airport has been recently built, and is being heavily expanded, to help accommodate the 3 million domestic tourists that come here every year (the new through train to Kunming - started this year - helps too). Despite this, it has a bizarre arrivals arrangement, whereby you walk along the airbridge, down the steps, outside on to the tarmac, and then round with the buses to the arrivals hall, which consists of a heavily duct-taped carrousel and the usual luggage receipt checking. There's a CAAC bus meets every flight, so it seems a no-brainer to save a few Yuan and take this into town - well, yes and no. The seat pitch manages to be less than on the flight I've just taken, but sadly, my fellow passengers don't pay me to witness the contortions I go to to sit there.

The bus goes to the heart of Lijiang's ghastly new town, a kind of Vegas-Strip-meets-Croydon. Giant, neon-lit hotels accommodate the millions of tourists, with casinos, hostess bars and less salubrious establishments meeting the desires of a small subsection of them. A taxi rank greets us at the bus station, but it seems all the taxis are pre-booked (and driven by venerable Naxi women who let me know this in know uncertain terms). It's easy enough to hail one on the street, though. My badly-scrawled Chinese directions to my guesthouse (the Sleepy Inn) prove legible, but of little use, as the area it's in, Shuhe, seems a matter of confusion. The driver phones the hotel and we head off, into the dark, down cobbled streets.

Where we meet a roadblock. This is apparently expected, as two teenage girls jump into the taxi and give directions round the town. I'm then turfed out as they valiantly attempt to carry my rucksack (it really works better over my shoulder) and I'm led down alley, after alley, lit only by the red lanters of the restaurants and bars, music coming from every few windows, water running down the middle of every street, people sitting, smoking, playing mah jongg, tending horses, us darting over stepping stones and tiny bridges, deeper into the town... And we're there. The Sleepy Inn. These are the owner's daughters, and I'm welcomed in, shown my quite beautiful room, ordered to recuperate over a cup of tea and to come down and check in in my own time.

Last edited by stut; Feb 9, 10 at 1:40 pm
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Old Feb 7, 10, 11:54 am
  #11  
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Lijiang

There's no getting away from it: Lijiang is touristy. Very touristy. The hard-sell touristic touch isn't too tricky to escape, though, but the overdevelopment creeps everywhere. The area that most people know as Lijiang Old Town is properly known as 'Dayan', or 'Ink Stone', as this is what the mass of blue-grey roofs looks like to the interpretative Yunnanese eye. It's not the only old town, though, as I am discovering: I'm staying in Shuhe, another one, a few miles north, and Baisha is just a few miles further north still. Lijiang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although UNESCO recently threatened to take the status away, such was the overdevelopment of the area. This has since been scaled back, thankfully, although there's still some horrendous examples of it.

So, it's the evening, and I'm in my guesthouse - an old, wooden building, the room covered in natural cotton drapes, all set around a traditional Naxi-style courtyard. It's late, and my main priority is food, so I head out to a restaurant recommended by the (incredibly helpful) owner, who has by now suggested just about every place I can visit after a brief chat about what it is I enjoy doing. The restaurant is great - right by one of the main ponds (Lijiang is all based around water - the Naxi based their towns on a series of channels from the streams in the area, with a complex and highly effective use of each stream to avoid pollution and contamination) - but my knowledge of any Chinese language is scant at best, and certainly doesn't include any characters above and beyond the names of the places I'm visiting. So begins one of many nights of persuading restaurateurs to bring me something they'd recommend, and me seeing what that ends up being (a strategy that proves highly successful!) I end up with a fiery, bubbling red broth in an earthenware pot, with thick, slippery not-quite-udon noodles and some raw minced pork and spring onions, which cook as the broth cools. Not quite across-the-bridge noodles, but an interesting variant on the same theme. It goes down a treat, and I impress myself with the only moderate shirt-spattering that ensues (I really must get better at this...)

The next day, I wake up to a brisk, blue-skied morning. It's January, and we're at altitude, so the days are spring-like and warm (and the sun fierce), but the nights bitterly cold. I start off by exploring Shuhe, which is really split into three: the preserved old town, a working farming village, and a mind-bogglingly awful reconstruction, centred around "Dancing Square", where daily 'ethnic dances' take place for the cameras. I start off exploring the farming village, shortly after sunrise, mainly trying to find the Tibetan monastery, up on a hill. The village has had modern facilities installed, but I feel like I have travelled back in time. I can't bring myself to take photos here, it seems too intrusive, not that that stops everyone. The air is thick with woodsmoke (it's still rather cold) as women (it's mostly women working here) busy about, carrying water and milk on yokes, gathering wood and straw in farmyards, chatting and tending to the horses. Each elaborate gate you pass gives a tantalising glimpse at a Naxi courtyard and farmhouse, all to a traditional design, perfected over centuries. Small dogs yap at the entrance as you pass, down sheltered streets, high earth walls on both sides.

The Tibetan monastery lies at the highest point - you can tell you're on the right path by the prayer flags. It's closed, but the views - one to the inside and one panoramic view over Shuhe, are well worth the climb. Next, further down the path and round to Shuhe proper, a mix of shops, restaurants, stalls, water and patches of farmed land. Round one corner you may find a state-of-the-art digital camera shop; round the next, a woman out washing her hair in the stream running down the middle of the street, taking advantage of the last of the sunrise as it pokes over the buildings. There are scenes of pure magic everywhere in this city, enough to match every cheesy reconstruction, if you look hard enough. There's Yunnan pu'er tea and Yunnan coffee aplenty too, both well worth seeking out.

Time to do some cycling. The guesthouse lends me a little basketed single-speed, which will do the job nicely, and I head out into the countryside. The morning mist starts to clear, and reveals the hills, mountains that now remind you just how close you are to Tibet and the Himalaya. Although Lijiang and the surrounding area are mostly flat (just as well, given the single-speed), it's surrounded by some massive, snow-capped, craggy peaks. There is a lot of manual work going on in the surrounding fields, but the road is quiet, populated mainly by bicycles and carts. These can be quite disconcerting, though - cargo bikes and scooters tend to have electric motors round here, and are dead quiet. It's a little odd to find some old boy with a full load of oranges go scuttling past seemingly effortlessly, until you realise just why.

Baisha is worth the cycle ride, even if guidebooks do it down a little. The main street is lined with wooden houses and small shophouses and cafes, with street food and drink vendors grilling and boiling merrily away come lunchtime. It's low season, but even so, I see one other tourist here in my whole time in the village. People are out en famille, wandering down the main road and chatting, and pick one of the roadside cafes for some lunchtime dumplings (which turn out to be served with a quite delicious black bean and soy dip). What I hadn't noticed is that the owners seem to also be martial arts instructors, so get something of a surprise when I spot the nunchuks casually draped over the seat next to me.

My next stop is Lijiang East station, to try and get some tickets to Dali. Everybody wanted me to get the bus, not the train, but I really don't like long-distance bus travel and really do like train travel, so I decided to go ahead and do this anyway. It was quite a trek out to this brand new station from Baisha, back through the new town, looking no prettier in the daylight. There's some big western chains moving in here too, building some resorts on the road from Shuhe to the new town. This is my first experience of urban cycling in China, and it turns out to be great fun. There's much weaving and dodging, but the flow of it is quite wonderful, nothing like the bad-tempered stop/start we have at home. I worry about finding the station, but this is needless: it's down a very New China 6-lane highway, a road that seems to be serving me, an occasional no 13 bus, and a couple of women sweeping the road endlessly. The station ticket office is quite chaotic, but I get my ticket thanks to some more hastily scrawled characters, but there is only hard class left (and they can't book me the onward tickets from Dali to Kunming). No matter, it's a bargain and if my long, Russian, platskartnyy trip is anything to go by, this could be rather fun.

And so from here back to Dayan, the old town at the centre of it all, the attraction that draws in the millions. I park my bike by the entrance and get to wandering amid the tour groups being led from shop to shop. Like in Shuhe, it doesn't take long to be able to lose the groups and get glimpses of the magic of this city, whether it's children playing on a bridge, street sellers resting and gossipping, parades of delivery women effortlessly climbing the hilly back streets with fully laden wicker baskets on their backs... It's easy to see why this place draws the crowds in. I get lost in alleys, lose my bearings, but always seem to end up back at one of the main squares. As sun falls, I walk the path up to the Dragon Pools before heading back to the familiar territory of Shuhe for another pick-at-random dinner, which turns out, this time, to be a stir fry that demonstrates this area's proximity to Thailand, with the flavours a powerful mix between southern Chinese and Thai spice.

But it's all over too soon. My taxi arrives to take me to the station, and I offer profuse thanks to the wonderful guesthouse owner who helped me so effectively make the most of my short time in this beguiling place.

Some photos of Lijiang here.

Last edited by stut; Feb 9, 10 at 4:48 pm
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Old Feb 7, 10, 11:54 am
  #12  
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Lijiang to Dali

After putting my luggage through the X-ray machine, it's several steps up to the platform where the old, non-AC green train is waiting for us. I watch some people get shouted at and shooed off for taking pictures, so I refrain from doing so, but only reluctantly: this is quite some sight. Every carriage is manned by a peak-capped railway official, standing in perfect order, next to a wisp of steam from the coal-fired boilers in each carriage, giving the impression you're about to board some 1950s steam train, rather than an electric in 2010. I board, and it's predictably chaotic, but manage to get through to my seat. This is a sleeper train in day use, meaning that there's 8 to a berth rather than 6. Luckily, I'm sharing with a couple of families, so the kids take up very little space.

Some old boy sits down opposite and starts shouting at me in Mandarin. I'm a little alarmed, and worry about what I've done wrong. Shortly after, I see the two families next to me laughing and gesturing to me not to worry (I always forget that with tonal languages, the intonation is often purely pronunciation, where in English it would convey a particular mood...) In fact, he wants me to help him open the window so he can have a cigarette. Which I do, only for a policeman to tell him off and make him go to the vestibule to smoke. More laughter follows.

My seatmates are friendly and sociable - as much as you can be with no common language. It always impresses me just how well you can communicate without language, but it's still frustrating it can't be more. The journey is a mere 3 hours, but the hard seats make me glad it's not that much longer. The three-tier bunks do seem a little claustrophobic too, but you've more space than on a French-style couchette, so that could just be the result of having 8 crammed into the space for 6. The place is clean, and people are constantly cleaning it - the mops seem to be in use half the journey. The scenery is quite wonderful, but suffers from the Swiss Problem - it's mountainous, meaning you've an awful lot of tunnels to go through. And the scenery in a tunnel isn't great. But the glimpses of Lake Er Hai through the gaps in the tunnel soon turn into proper views of the fishing villages clinging to the sloped shoreline, and the train is soon pulling into Dali station (which is in fact in Xiaguan).

Xiaguan is... Wet. Very wet. Once again, I've "brought the Scottish weather with me", it seems. The train disgorges a healthy number of passengers, including a large number of soldiers (this may explain why the guards had been so touchy about photography) who dissipate quickly into cars and taxis. I attempt to buy tickets from Dali to Kunming, but it appears that all soft sleepers are sold out, and that hard class is touch and go. Seems that, since the trains were extended to Lijiang, it's getting increasingly difficult to get a soft sleeper on this route, thanks to tour groups block-booking them from Kunming. So, as the taxis are now all gone, I opt for the local bus into Dali proper. Turns out my memorising the characters of the places I was to visit was useful after all, as this seems to be the one bus route in Xiaguan that has no transliterations. I pay my 1 yuan and head off on this quiet bus that, a few stops in, gets very busy, making my rucksack rather awkward, but I follow the lead of the farmers with baskets, and place it by the exit steps, which seems to turn out alright.

On arrival into Dali, it's pretty obvious you're there, from the city walls and giant gate welcoming you to the old town. What's not obvious, in the pouring rain and with condensation covering the windows, is which stop you're at. Murphy's law comes solidly into place, and I decide to get off the bus at the wrong stop (despite the helpful map from the guesthouse owner), depositing me a good 15-minute walk away. In this rain, there are no taxis, and the streets where I'm going are pedestrian anyway. The result? A good soaking. For once, I'm glad that I obsessively pack everything in plastic bags inside the rucksack...

No photos of the train journey for reasons mentioned above, but a surreptitious cameraphone video from inside the carriage here.

Last edited by stut; Feb 9, 10 at 4:49 pm
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Old Feb 7, 10, 11:55 am
  #13  
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Dali

My guesthouse is the Laughing Lotus Inn, on Hong Long Jing, in a quiet part of the old town, right by the city walls. It takes a few attempts to find it at first, so tiny is the exquisite little wooden building it's housed in. But I knock and am welcomed in by some friends of the owner, who is currently abroad, who offer me a choice of rooms: one right on the street, and the other one, which they show me to... First impressions aren't promising. I'm led up a path by the side of the building, and through a gateway into a courtyard surrounding some concrete flats, with a barking dog and some stacked chairs. Oh, what have I got myself into. We go up some rickety stairs at the side of the flats... And suddenly, it all changes. We're upstairs at the Inn, in a little wood-pannelled hallway, and I'm shown into my single room. It's tiny and unorthodox: little larger than the single bed inside it, and with the entrance hallway forming a wet room with a shower over the toilet. But I don't care about this. Every surface in the room is made up of beatifully carved wood pannelling. Light streams in through the star-patterned shutters, and the huge mosquito net diffuses it further. The bathroom is perfectly clean, and the room smells of wood and incense. The bedding is deep and luxurious, and the room warm and, most importantly right now, dry. The building is like some kind of fairytale lane, making you happy just to be inside. Yup, it's poky, particularly with a load of my stuff drying there, but for Y50 a night...

Hong Long Jing is a pedestrian street, with a rushing stream and waterfall running down the middle of it. Although there's people and bars in the area, the predominant noise you can hear from the room is the relaxing water flow from the stream. Occasionally, you can hear the giant drum at the nearby Wu Miao temple. Dali itself has long been something of a backpacker mecca, every cafe offering veggie burgers and banana pancakes (I've never understood this - why pancakes? Why banana?) I settle in by wandering around, drinking yet more Yunnan tea and coffee from the variety of welcoming cafes around the place, and enjoying the relative dryness. I wind down and eat at a bar with a view over the city, the spicy beef living up to its name, each slice completely crusted with chilli flakes.

I'm up early the next day, and enjoy a fruit & porridge breakfast before heading for the Cangshan Ropeway, a chairlift that will get me up the mountain overlooking the city. Sadly, it's not as easy to find as I'd anticipated, and after a bit of a climb (a climb that reminded me I was at altitude, leaving me rather more breathless than I'd have expected) I realise I've gone in completely the wrong direction, ending up at some rather odd film set on the edge of town. Not to worry, some men and some (immaculate, I must say) horses were waiting there, ready to take people up the mountain. Well, why not? He takes one look at the comfortably-over-6' Scotsman in front of him and suggests taking two horses. I don't disagree. It's a long time since I've been on a horse, but this is pretty good, really. This guy really knows what he's going, so I'm not in any discomfort, and he makes sure the horse doesn't tire, either. It's a fair old climb, and takes a good 30-45 minutes to get up there, making me very glad for the equine assistance.

Once up there, I'm at the Jade Belt Walk, the Jade Belt being the perfect ring of clouds that descends on this level of the mountain every afternoon. It's a perfectly level path along the mountain, cut out of and clinging to some pretty sheer edges at times. We're above the snow line here, but the sun is still strong, making the temperature deceptive. Although there's some barriers at the worst points, ice on the path is pretty treacherous in places. The views, however, are nothing short of spectacular. A fair way along the path, I notice some signs pointing upwards - there is a hostel and cafe up here, a short climb from the main path, which I decide to visit... I really do feel the altitude at this point, and am glad for the Bai-style potato cake and ginger tea that await me at the top. Back down via a temple and the ropeway, which gives some more rather good views, this time of the lake, and makes for a pleasant ride once you get over the fear of being on the thing (this takes about 5 minutes).

Once again, the urge to hire a bike and potter around outside town takes me, and so I do just that, heading down towards the lake shore via San Ta (ho, ho, ho - it's a triple pagoda) and some huge tea fields, full of pickers. I'm besieged by touts for boat rides once I reach the lake, and do end up negotiating a reasonable price for a short rowing trip out on the lake. I'd love to spend more time here and visit the villages I caught a glimpse of from the train ride into Xiaguan, but I simply don't have the time, which is a shame - there are plenty of ferries that leave from here. Instead, I settle for the views of the sun setting over Cangshan, the mountain I was up earlier, reflected in the lake and surrounding ponds, used by local farmers to wash their produce before taking it to market.

Quite a busy day, so I decide to go for a Chinese massage before dinner (or, as they call it in China, a 'massage'). Keen to avoid any kind of 'happy finish' place, I take a recommendation for a massage centre run by deaf-mute people, and turn up, opting for the neck, back and leg massage (as I often have problems with these). It's not what you'd call a gentle process, but the technique seems to be along the lines of loosening the muscle around joints and the spine, and then, rather forcible, pushing these into perfect alignment. The sensation is quite bizarre, but the feeling afterwards, and effect, rather wonderful. There's a Tibetan restaurant next door, so I try a yak goulash (rather nice - gentle spice, and the meat is quite muttony, a flavour I enjoy) and head off for a good night's sleep.

Some photos of Dali here.

Last edited by stut; Feb 9, 10 at 4:50 pm
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Old Feb 7, 10, 11:56 am
  #14  
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China Southern CZ3482 Dali (DLU) - Kunming (KMG) A319, Economy

I didn't fancy the bus. I could have booked earlier, had I known the train wasn't possible, and got myself a front seat, but really, my legs are long, and this isn't a country that treats long legs kindly, particularly not on 6-hour stints. So I managed to get myself a discount flight instead - a bit of an extravagance, relatively speaking, but it was pretty cheap in the scheme of things. The airport is brand new, and apparently quite a 'technical' one, due to the combination of surrounding mountains and altitude. I turn up in a taxi who made the journey in what I sincerely hope was record time, meaning that I'm there and the airport's almost shut. You can go in, but there's no check-in or security just yet, these open 90 minutes before the flight. This is another China Southern flight, which will continue to Guangzhou. There's a Lucky Air flight to Xishuangbanna leaving at the same time, but that's pretty much it for this little airport.

Check in and security take seconds. The airport is very new, very shiny, and quite obviously built with future expansion in mind. There aren't really any shops to speak off, but rather an expanse of glass counters running the length of the departures hall, with people hovering over you as you peruse. There is also the ubiquitous overpriced, overegged restaurant and, thankfully, the cup noodle stall and hot water dispenser, of which I, and most of the others, avail ourselves. I'm quite early, and so rather grateful for the freely accessible wireless internet while I'm waiting. A few airports seem to have wireless, but only for China Telecom customers, and others have wireless, but only if you can input your national/immigrant ID number, so your online activities can be logged. Here, though, no such nonsense.

The plane, an A319, is a fresh as the previous CZ flight, and as spacious. Service is odd - it's a short flight (and, as I later learn, rather prone to turbulence), and so we're given food and drink before take-off. Iced green tea - very nice. An entire packet of crackers - unusual. Tasty enough. For the first few. The seating arrangements on this leg are rather odd, with peopel bunched up, and middle seats occupied when windows and aisles are free, but I assume this is due to the passengers due to join in Kunming for the Guangzhou leg. The fact that everybody has to disembark at Kunming may make this something of a moot point, but I'll go with it. The only annoyance on this flight (well, apart from, once again, quite a turbulent approach to Kunming) was some, shall we say 'little emperor' insisting on playing his DS at full volume, his parents oblivious to the various looks of daggers from around the cabin. Oh well.

Arrival at Kunming is slightly odd, as the continuing passengers to Guangzhou are walked off to a special transit building, which the rest of us are taken to a bus. Problem was, they only announced this to the last few passengers leaving the plane; cue general confusion, shouting and rearrangement. After all that, bags were waiting for us, and I made it through a surprising number of touts to the fast-moving taxi queue and finally, finally, triumph with my Badly Scrawled Chinese, as the driver speeds off and delivers me to the strangely-named Enjoying International Hotel, near the station. The airport really is quite close in to the city. It's high-rise and frenetic - quite a difference from the last week or so...

Last edited by stut; Feb 9, 10 at 2:03 pm
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Old Feb 7, 10, 11:56 am
  #15  
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Kunming

There's tall buildings here! And the now less-spotted, once-ubiquitous white-tiled eyesore - the kind that was ever so easy to clean, if only anyone wanted to clean it. This is Kunming, the bustling city, and my arrival feels really rather abrupt.

I'm pretty sure I ended up booking the Enjoying Hotel purely for the name. There seemed little else to go by. I could have gone for a room in a hostel or guesthouse, but by this point, I didn't have the energy to trawl through hostelworld.com. Nothing had struck me there previously. So, asiarooms did it best to find me big discounts, but failed to find me one of the flashy new town centre hotels. So I am here, enjoying the Enjoying, near the south station.

The lobby is faded marble and glass, overrun by tour groups, and decked out for the fast-approaching new year. The staff are friendly if perfunctory. The room has seen better days, but will do the job: it could have fewer bumps and stains, but there's heat, there's a shower (a shower! with hot water!), a view, t'internet (well, after I call asking how, and they rush up a man with a cable for me) and a great big bed. Oh, and a plasma TV showing 80 channels I can't understand, and 2 I don't really want to. It's OK. Good for the money, but very glad I didn't pay more.

Once again, I need food. I also need a post office, as I finally managed to track down some postcards. They've been pretty elusive so far on my journey within China, and oddly, when I do find them, they seem to only be for the last place I visited. (Writing this, I've been back over a week, and still no sign of them...) So I head to the station, where there is indeed food and a post office. And oh my life, if there's not an awful lot of people too.

I hadn't appreciated just how much goes on in preparation for the new year. And a big part of this is travel, to make sure you're all together. As a result, there are two gigantic marquees set up, covering, between them, the entire not-insignificant surface area of the station square. Their purpose? To sell train tickets. And more importantly, to house the dispiritingly long queus of people desperate to buy them. The normal ticket office simply cannot cope. Actually, getting across to the station square is half the battle: traffic in Kunming is heavy, but fluid, and shows little regard for niceties such as pedestrian crossings and traffic lights. Another leap of faith I've still not manage to get is the traffic-will-flow-round-you-if-you-just-cross-at-a-predictable-pace one. I'm sure it works, but I'm far comfier just waiting for someone to shadow across the busier roads.

So, some food. There's a chain place which is half burgers and filthy chicken (it's a chicken in a box, it's a chicken in a cardboard box) and half Chinese. I opt for the Chinese side, on the sole basis that it has pictures I can point at. Don't ask me what region this food is from, I've no idea, but I seem to end up ordering YANS (yet another noodle soup), which is tasty enough, and seems to be served with a peanut salad (not recommended for chopstick amateurs like me) and a creme caramel type affair.

Marginally energised, I decide to walk into the heart of town, which means a long stroll along the nineteen-to-the-dozen Beijing Lu, a non-stop stream of cars, buses, motorbikes and people, crossed by concrete bridges, flanked by cheap hotels and now eclipsed shops, the kind that can't yet quite admit to no longer being the top of the pile. It gives an introduction to the city, but it's not a fascinating place.

Until you come to Dong Feng Square. This is where the music starts. I wasn't quite sure what was drawing the crowds at first, but as you approached, you could start to make out the singing - here, unamplified and unassisted, but belting out nonetheless. It continued further along the street, although amplifiers and backing music become more common. Dong Feng square seemed to draw an older crowd and more traditional music, but the best singers here fair drew in the masses. Younger singers up the road couldn't muster these crowds, but their caps filled up with banknotes more quickly. It seems that music follows you everywhere in this city.

This brings you to the shopping district. It's... Well, it's a shopping district, in the over-the-top New China style: giant malls, inaccessible to most, but towering over you with big brands and expensive wares (mostly clothing) gaudily presenting themselves through hundreds of miles of neon tubing. It's glass, it's marble, it's very highly polished. There are plenty old gates and the odd old building to give you the sense of juxtaposition, but otherwise, there's little of the past. I need to buy some things, but get quickly exhausted looking: as mentioned before, I'm not the kind of person whose therapy will ever be 'retail'.

But it gets more interesting. Turn the corner, and you have an impromptu massage centre, where white-coated masseurs ply their trade with steely fingers and comfy chairs. Another, and you've a street full of Uighur grills. Another, and you've found a little pocket of something-older-than-1980, full of teahouses, which is where I stop. I want some tea - I'm a big tea drinker - and I quickly get drawn in by the well-practised host to drink and buy: it's part hospitality, part sales, but all enjoyable.

We sit down at a beast of a table, carved out of a huge tree trunk, each levelled layer serving a purpose. Tea is made, thrown, re-made, filtered, pre-warmed glasses presented, slurped, repeated, changed, repeated... I'm lost in the high of the caffeine, the whirlwind of flavours, from the subtle to the deeply smoky, green and black teas from leaves, wheels, 'gunpowder', flowers... It's wonderful, the whole family joins in, and we talk tea as much as we drink it. I plump for pu'er in the end: one 'wheel' of green, and a tube of loose black. (Writing this, I got through yet another pot of this today - the removal certainly hasn't dulled the flavour or the buzz...) He is a little disappointed I don't take more. Frankly, I've no way to carry it if I wanted to...

I head for Cuihu Park, but it's not really the best time of day to see it. It's a nice place, with a nice, relaxing, early evening atmosphere, but the darkness really only allows you views of reflected neon. It's evening meal time again, and somehow Kunming seems more daunting than my previous destinations for finding somewhere on spec for a bite to eat. In the end, I find a big banqueting-style place, all lazy susans and plastic tablecloths, but with some smaller tables at the side. It's brash, it's noisy, and it serves nothing but across-the-bridge noodles, the Kunming speciality that I've been wanting to sample. The menu has a selection of several options, all the same noodle dish, but in different sizes. Sadly, they haven't thought to scale the pictures, so they all look exactly the same (fans of Lost In Translation may recognise this phenomenon). So I go for the smallest (Y10 and still double what I'd normally eat) and go for it.

It comes as a bowl of broth with an oil layer on top to keep it extra-hot - this much I was expecting. With it is a bowl of noodles, and dozens (well, it seems like it) of plates of raw ingredients, thin or thinly sliced, from raw meat to petals. I obviously look bemused, as half the waiting staff quickly rush over and show me what to do (or rather, do it for me) and so I end up with a very strange bowl of noodles. Nice, though.

The Enjoying hotel starts to feel less enjoyable as, having failed to make the aircon-come-heating system work, I get rather cold during the night. Come the morning, the shower I've been looking forward to is good, but the shower unit's been badly built, meaning that I unwittingly manage to flood the entire bathroom, and narrowly miss carrying it out to the hallway. Oh well. At least I'm warm. Breakfast is an odd affair, one of those buffets that can't quiet decide whether to be east or west. So it's dry noodles with bread roll 'croissants' and oddly spiced toast. The fruit disappeared with the coach parties. The coffee is unspeakable.

I've a morning still to go, and, as I'm disappointed not to have found the old town, I decide to go on a hunt for it. It must be there somewhere. I manage to decipher the buses, and head into town for the princely sum of 1 yuan. And the old town is there... Sort of. The bird and plant market is there, but the main street of the old town is boarded up and hoarded off. The other side of it is there, and taken up by a (very enjoyable, very nice looking) new year market, selling all sorts of food, gifts and decorations for the event, with random, gaudy tiger statues and floral arrangements breaking them up. The other side of this is the Zhengyi Fashion Mall, and on closer inspection of the hoardings, it appears that this organisation has taken over the last, wooden, ramshackle street of the old town, and it's due to 'preservation'. The preservation that's taken place so far seems to consist of knocking down and rebuilding something that looks a little bit like what was there before, so I'm not sure what it will end up like. I don't have high hopes for it.

At the back of this development is another pocket of old town: the signwriters' street, where you can buy all sorts of sign-related or calligraphic products. Ironically the shops' signs are particularly uninspired. More bits and pieces of old building appear, and it seems the main bird and flower market has been rehoused in a combination of a few old-ish shophouses, and a big, concrete market hall. It's uninspiring, but I'm glad to have seen at least a hint of what Kunming used to look like.

So it's off again... Back to the hotel and back to the airport, once again taking next to no time in one of the plentiful, cheap and honest Kunming taxis.

Last edited by stut; Feb 12, 10 at 4:17 pm
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