|The plan||We plan to travel overland around China for 28 days starting and ending in Hong Kong|
September 1... Kowloon, Hong Kong - Hello from Hong Kong, a city on steroids - on the go all the time and well and truly larger than life! There is constant visual, auditory and 'odour-tory' overload. With its noise, humidity, smog, flashing lights and wafts of Chinese food, Hong Kong engulfed us from the moment we stepped onto its streets. Arriving at the airport, we were introduced to Hong Kong efficiency with a train ride to the baggage collection area (how big must the airport be?!). We cleared immigration within a minute and found the right bus into town with ease. Coming into the city, the sight of lush green hills was surprising as was the sheer number of high-rise buildings that soon appeared next to them. Passing the port we saw trillions (no exaggeration here) of shipping containers - so that's where everything 'Made in Hong Kong' comes from! We found a hotel inside a big apartment block called the Cosmic Guesthouse - with a name like that we couldn't go wrong... Actually its really quite down to earth, and our fully tiled cubicle is just fine. We've wandered the streets and have been fascinated looking at some of the shops. Apart from glitzy shopping malls and stores full of electronic gizmos, there are plenty of more traditional things around. The pharmacies are decked out with tablets on one side, unidentifiable plant and animal items on the other. Most are dried and smell of fish; we even saw dead seahorses for sale. If only we could read Chinese, we'd know what everything was - then again, maybe we wouldn't want to know... In the supermarket, apart from the usual items we saw black-skinned chickens, snack-size whole dried crabs, durian fruits, dragon fruits and chicken's feet. We stuck to the things we could recognise for dinner. Tomorrow we're off to mainland China after getting our visa quickly and easily at the hotel (must be the cosmic forces). Love Graham and Nicole.
September 4... Yangshuo, Guangxi province - We left Hong Kong by bus, arriving in Guangzhou (also called Canton), a city of 7 million or so in Guangdong province, just across the border. Actually, it almost seemed we never really left Hong Kong - the buildings and high-rises certainly were almost continuous for the whole trip! The weather also hasn't changed. It's hot and humid - we've never been so sweaty before. We've made an excellent contribution to the Chinese soft drink market trying to keep hydrated. We spent a couple of days in Guangzhou, which was fascinating, and a little challenging. There are less signs in English, and even the hotel staff struggle with the most basic phrases. China is shaping up to be one interesting advennture. Wandering around Guangzhou in the crowds, we felt like we were in another world. We spotted only three white people in two days. Locals looked at us with what seemed to be genuine surprise at seeing two white tourists in their back alleys and markets. Exploring the markets was as good as going to an aquarium or a zoo. Some of the unusual items for sale included live scorpions, squirming grubs, snakes, a myriad of mushrooms up to a metre in diameter, dozens of completely unidentifiable plant product things, star fish and turtles... We've had plenty of nice Chinese food, although we certainly haven't been as adventurous as we could be. Next to most restaurants is a room of aquariums full of potential dinners, to be picked out by a customer and sold by weight. Imagine buying these by the gram: stone fish (aren't these deadly poisonous?), moray eels, green sea turtles (aren't these protected?) or tropical fish like the picasso fish. We passed on the seafood, as well as half of the other items like snakes, chicken kidneys, pigs intestines, frogs legs and limpets... We visited the Six Banyan Tree Buddhist Temple in the city, which was a haven of peace and quiet, built about 1,500 years ago. Here there were numerous shrines to Buddha and a local deity, the goddess of mercy. Many worshippers were praying, placing incense and making offerings of fruit, oil and money at the feet of the statues. In the centre of the temple complex was a 55 metre high pagoda with 17 storeys that we could climb. It gave us a great view of the surrounding high rises, as well as run down apartment blocks with roof-top gardens. We also walked past a Taoist temple, a mosque and a Catholic church. The mosque in Guangzhou was the first in China, established in the 7th century AD by the first Muslim missionaries. The Catholic church was on an island on the city's main river called Shamian Dao. The island was conceded to the French and British after the Opium Wars, and so has a distinctly different atmosphere with European architecture and nice gardens... With some persistence at finding firstly the ticket office and secondly the bus station, we caught an overnight bus to Yangshuo, in Guangxi province. This is a small town by Chinese standards, with only 300,000 people. There are only a few main streets, with one or two storey buildings; the town is surrounded by beautiful limestone peaks covered in dense greenery. There's a scenic river running through the town, with passenger boats cruising by, kids swimming and the occasional old man in a canoe. We've enjoyed walking around the town, and tomorrow we plan to to explore the surrounding countryside before continuing north. Love Graham and Nicole.
September 8... Chengdu, Sichuan province - The natural beauty around Yangshuo was stunning, definitely among the best we've seen on our travels with its huge tree-covered limestone pinnacles rising one after the other. We spent our last day in Yangshuo hiking among this seemingly neverending forest of green peaks. Successfully getting lost, because of a very poor map and and even poorer directions, we found ourselves wandering through small villages, rice paddies and vegetable gardens, where workers in straw hats called out "nihao" to us. (That's Mandarin for "hello" - its about the only word we've mastered...) Fortunately, despite the language barrier, some friendly locals pointed us in the right direction, on a fantastic scenic path through mountains and pine trees. Eventually we found the river we'd been looking for (Yulong He), and walked back along the river's edge to the sounds of "Bamboo! Bamboo!" being shouted by villagers wanting us to take a bamboo boat instead. (As usual we took the free option - feet)... In the evening the town was alive with lights, lanterns, music and even dragon dancing as we ate at one of the many cafes. The one we chose happened to claim that Jimmy Carter had sampled their famous lasagne; whether or not that was true, our "drunk duck" was very good. (Better than Duck Surprise! - that's duck without orange or cherries...) The next day we embarked on what was supposed to be a 27 hour bus trip to Chengdu. It turned out to be the longest 32 hours we've had in a while, with traffic jams, perilous overtaking on blind corners, landslides and flooding on the road and no less than seven of the worst Hong Kong movies ever made. We know they were bad because half had English subtitles and half didn't, and the subtitles didn't make a squat of difference. Most featured kung fu fighting, stupid ghosts and screechy giggling girls and were set in modern day Hong Kong - combined with blaring volume, and over-the-top sound effects, they made for a sleepless night. At least the other people on the bus seemed to enjoy the movies - there was constant chuckling at all the "humorous" scenes. To add to our enjoyment, we had the company of Tuberculosis Woman, who kept hocking up phlegm and spitting it into a bucket in the aisle every few minutes, and several people (including the driver) blatantly ignoring the large no smoking symbol. Then there were the toilet stops every four hours, when we had to face the most disgusting "toilets" we've come across - too gross to put on the website. Still, we shouldn't complain - we seem to have passed through some disastrous weather unscathed; there was almost constant lightning flashes overnight, and in the morning we saw flooded valleys and a few houses submerged to the rooftop... Love Graham and Nicole.
September 10... Chengdu, Sichuan province - Chengdu is a city of about 10 million people, with almost all of them on bicycles. The roads are crowded with bikes, mopeds, pedicabs and goggo-mobiles and the air is thick with smog (despite the fact there aren't that many cars - presumably the smog is from factories). From Chengdu, we caught a bus south to Leshan, a city famous for its Grand Buddha carved into a cliff on a river during the 8th century AD. Making our way to see him proved quite a challenge - an hour's worth in fact. Firstly, we didn't know where the bus had dropped us off, so we hopped in a pedicab (a tricycle with a seat for 2 passengers) to the city centre. Our hard-working driver pedalled for over 7 kilometres and only expected 4 yuan (about 75 cents!) - we gave him 10 yuan. We could now see the Grand Buddha's toe across the river, but how to get there? We couldn't find the ferry that our guidebook described and asking people just sent us around in circles. Finally we just hired a taxi taking us the long way around over a bridge and we made it just before closing time. At 71 metres high, this is the tallest Buddha in the world, and we thought he was really impressive - so did the thousands of Chinese tour groups jostling for the best photo opportunities. Viewing the buddha up close, it looked like there had been a party, with streamers, confetti and prayer tickets thrown all over the statue... From Leshan, we travelled to Emeishan, a sacred Buddhist mountain with gorgeous scenery and heaps of butterfies. We spent a day hiking along paths and endless steps that linked monasteries, temples and waterfalls. With the hot weather and having walked at least 20 km, we were exhausted afterwards but it was definitely worth the effort... Today, we visited the Giant Panda Breeding Research Station in Chengdu, where we had a chance to see China's famous 'animal ambassador' up close. The giant pandas were extremely cute (especially the panda cubs) as were the red pandas that were also there. There are apparently less than 1,000 giant pandas left in the wild. There was also a small museum at the park, with memorable English translations - "Australian Prime Minister Mr Hock visited in 1987"; "US President Nikson visited in 1972"; "Butterflies are addicted to water"; "Although giant pandas is carnivors they eat plants only." Tonight we're off to Xian, this time by train... Love Graham and Nicole. P.S. - We've heard from home about the storms and floods in Sichuan - we passed through them and saw some flood damage on our way to Chengdu but had no idea they were such a disaster (CNN reported that hundreds of people died and millions were made homeless). Chengdu itself has been fine... P.P.S. - We can't look at our website in China because the government has blocked out all geocities sites (along with the BBC News Service and other potential "anti-government" sites) but luckily they haven't blocked access to the geocities editing site.
September 12... Xian, Shaanxi province - Hmmm, the ups and downs of travel. We'll start with an 'up'... We caught a soft sleeper train from Chengdu to Xian which was infinitely better than taking a bus. Having a soft bunk bed to sleep on was a luxury and the lack of movies made all the difference for a good night's sleep. On arriving in Xian some official looking lady in a uniform showed us a brochure for a hotel that seemed like a much better deal than any of the lonely planet options, and for once, following a hotel tout actually led us to a good value room. It did turn out to be in the middle of the red light district of Xian however and we've already received multiple phone calls in our room from prostitutes looking for business. It took us a while to figure out what these phone calls were for, but it all clicked when they consistently hung up when Nicole answered, and a young female voice chatted in Chinese if Graham answered. We bumped into an American guy who speaks Mandarin staying at the hotel who said he just unplugs the phone now after being rudely awoken at 3 a.m. one morning by an unwanted call! As we walked down the streets in the evening we passed dozens of women waiting for customers outside rooms glowing from purple or red lighting, reminding us of the red light district of Amsterdam. Needless to say, we too unplugged our phone overnight... This morning we caught a bus to the nearby archeological site of the Army of Terracotta Warriors. In 1974 some peasants digging a well here stumbled across some life-sized clay soliders that were 2,200 years old. There has turned out to be 8,000 clay figures (they're still counting) making up an army of fighters, officials and their horses all poised for battle complete with bronze spears and crossbows. Each figure has unique facial features, hair styles and clothing (all once apparently colourfully painted). The thousands of statues were striking for their sheer numbers, but the detail put into each one was just as incredible... We caught the number 306 bus back to Xian, and went looking for a pair of sandals after Graham's fell apart (his cheap, crummy Egyptian sandals had been dying a slow death and finally kicked the bucket today). After walking out of the crowded department store Nicole noticed the camera bag hanging around her shoulder was unzipped, and our hearts sank when we saw that our digital camera had been stolen. Almost unbelievably the thief had neglected to take the adjacent video camera. So we lost a camera, memory card and our photos from Chengdu (including all those cute panda shots) and Xian. What a pity! It's at times like these though that you're glad you've taken out travel insurance. Of course, to make a claim we have to obtain a police report - which turned out to be a slow and painful process thwarted with bureaucracy. The first lot of policemen didn't speak English, the second lot weren't part of the tourist police team and so couldn't help us, and the third lot couldn't comply with our request for a copy of the police report (which our insurance policy fineprint requests), and instead could only give us a piece of paper with a stamp and a report number on it. So to receive this small piece of paper took four hours and we still didn't get exactly what we needed! To finish off a frustrating night, we went to 6 banks to top up our dwindling cash supply, and every ATM was either out of order or failed to recognise our card. So we can't wait to say goodbye to Xian and start afresh tomorrow in Pingyao... Love Graham and Nicole.
September 16... Beijing - Before coming to Beijing, we stopped for two days in Pingyao, a very small town (that is, 40,000 people) known for its well-preserved old city, surrounded by an intact city wall 6 km long. There was certainly a different feeling here than elsewhere in China, as if we had stepped back in time. Most of the buildings were of traditional Chinese architecture, with wooden doors and pleasant courtyards, although they looked rather dirty. The town also had a terrible stench throughout it - a result of authentic ancient plumbing we presume. Still, it was fun to wander around the lanes, dodging bicycles and the odd donkey or horse-pulled cart, past bakeries, shoe-makers and masseurs. The 1,500 year-old city wall standing at 10 metres high with numerous watchtowers was impressive. There were no ATMs in the city and no currency exchange offices, and unfortunately, we were down to our last few yuan - not enough even to catch a bus to our next destination. We were saved by the kindness of an Australian-Chinese traveller, who was happy to swap some of her yuan for our spare American dollars, so we made it on to the bus to Taiyuan (which had lots of banks) and from there on an overnight bus to Beijing... Bejing is an ultra-modern looking city. It's clean, sparkling even, and has row upon row of flashy highrise buildings and shopping malls, although the view is seriously obscured by the thick white smog. Despite being exhausted after the bus trip, we spent the day buying a new digital camera. This afternoon, we wandered around Tiananmen Square, a large concrete expanse in the centre of the capital. It was packed with Chinese tourists taking pictures of the flag ceremony and the enormous portrait of Chairman Mao that hangs across the street on Tiananmen (the Heavenly Gate). It was from this gate that Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China in 1949, and at this square that the Chinese army brought a violent end to a pro-democracy demonstration in 1989. A few Chinese people have stopped us today either to chat or to take our photo - apparently it brings good luck! Love Graham and Nicole.
September 18... Beijing - According to our Lonely Planet guide, when Richard Nixon saw the Great Wall of China, he said, "It sure is a great wall". We reckon he was right, although we would add spectacular and awe-inspiring. Yesterday we caught a bus filled with other backpackers to Jinshanling, about 100 km north of Beijing where we hiked along a 10 km stretch of the aforementioned wall to Simatai. Some of the wall was restored, other parts have been left to the elements making beautiful ruins. The wall is about 10 metres high (or more in some parts) and about 5 metres wide, and clings to steeply rising and falling hills; we could walk along the top almost the whole way. There were parts of the wall that had dangerously narrow and steep steps with almost certain instant death if one was to topple over the edge. The Great Wall isn't just a wall we found out - it had frequent watch towers that we could climb and explore as well as strategic walls within walls. We've read that the Wall was built from about 200 BC onwards to keep out invading Mongolians from the north (a task which it didn't perform very successfully) and eventually grew to over 6,000 km long! The Wall still fails to keep out Mongolians who now take the form of persistent souvenir sellers claiming to be "poor Mongolian farmers" who are prepared to follow you up and down hills for kilometres just to sell a bottle of water or T-shirt. We resolutely refused to give in, but quite a few other backpackers ended up buying T-shirts just to be left in peace. Despite this though, there were still plenty of magical moments with just us, the Wall and stunning scenery... Today we spent the day trying to work out how to return to Hong Kong - it was no easy task - everything we've come to expect when travelling in China. After checking out the price of a flight and hearing it was $500 each we planned on catching a train instead. Despite searching high and low, we never found a person who could actually sell us a ticket to the "international" destination of Hong Kong. Our hostel which has a big sign up saying that it can organise train and plane tickets, was no help. Neither was the travel agent next door. Nor were the 3 different tellers in Beijing Main Train Station for which we had to queue for ages (of course, no English was spoken by any of them). Finally, we found out that there existed a "foreigners ticket office", in which there were initially no staff, although a lady eventually turned up, who told us, "No" (they didn't sell international tickets either) and said to go to the China Tourism Service (CTS) down the road. The CTS building looked big and impressive - so did the security guard who immediately leapt to his feet when we tried to enter the main door and directed us out of the building (why?!). We tried a different, smaller door, only to find a lady who kindly pointed us in the direction of a very shabby looking independent travel agency across the road. We enquired about tickets here and although the travel agent couldn't book an international ticket, we were pleasantly surprised to find that he could book us a plane ticket to Shenzhen (just north of Hong Kong, and within China) for about half the price of a train ticket. So yes, we will get out of Beijing (we're flying out on Tuesday). After the ticket fiasco (and eventual success) we found we had almost no time left in the day for sight-seeing so that'll have to wait til tomorrow. Still, we're beginning to feel like we know the streets of Beijing very well and have seen plenty of interesting everyday activities including barbers giving haircuts on the footpath, youths showing off their rollerblading skills, people flying kites in Tiananmen square, countless Chinese tour groups in matching red or yellow caps marching down shopping malls, and Chinese men smoking and playing card games on the roadside... Love Graham and Nicole.
September 21... Kowloon, Hong Kong - Among the many things Beijing seems to have going for it is the combination of old and new - nestled among mirrored skyscrapers, lies the Imperial Palace - the residence of emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties (China has had many dynasties, of which we knew nothing about before we arrived in China; the Ming and Qing were the last two dynasties, from the 13th century until the early 20th century). On our second-last day in Beijing, we visited this grand collection of buildings, bridges and courtyards bound by a high wall and moat. Once off-limits to everyone but the emperor and a few elite chosen guests, it became known as the Forbidden City. With the help of an audio guide narrated by one very posh-sounding Roger Moore, we learned about the functions of the various buildings - almost all of which had the words heavenly or harmony in their titles, such as the 'Hall of Preserving Harmony' and the 'Hall of Supreme Harmony.' We saw the royal bedchamber (the emperor had dozens of concubines as well as a wife), the hall for the civil servants examination (a thorough knowledge of Confucian teaching was a prerequisite for serving in the government) and the imperial garden, where the emperor could unwind after a tiring day of being absolute monarch. We really enjoyed taking in the beautiful architecture, and having some of the finer details and interesting history explained... Later we made our way to the Lama Temple, the most important Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. Buddhism is the most common religion in China (and flourishes today despite the government's push for atheism), although it began in India about 500 BC. Tibetan buddhism is apparently the most mystical form of the religion, with priests acting as mediators to spirits, gods and demons, and rituals being of great importance. At this temple, we saw all sorts of statues of buddhas and other deities, some with specific 'roles,' such as the "longevity buddha," and the "medicine buddha." At every statue there were several people praying, offering large bundles of incense and cash. The centrepiece of the Lama Temple, housed in a magnificent golden pavilion was a 55 foot statue of buddha carved from a single piece of sandalwood (complete with Guiness Book of Records plaque). There was also a display on the reincarnation geneology of the Dalai Lama, the supreme patriach of Tibetan Buddhism... The next day, our last in Beijing, we were all rearing to go for a full-on day of sightseeing, but it was not to be. The Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of Revolutionary History were both closed for renovations (in preparation for the 2008 Olympics - they're sure getting ready early). Graham was really looking forward to seeing Chairman Mao's body in his mausoleum (or Mao-soleum as Nicole calls it) but, it too was closed. Tiananmen Square (in which the mausoleum lies) was abuzz with activity and had been transformed in the two days since we were last there. Huge flower arrangements, makeshift hills and gardens, models of rockets and the solar system had all appeared overnight, as preparations were underway for the October 1st celebrations. Its 55 years since the People's Rebuplic of China was proclaimed. Its been difficult for us to gauge the feeling of the people here about their government and lack of religious and democratic freedom. Emotions seem to run strong at the daily flag-raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square; one young man we bumped into said it brought tears to his eyes the first time he saw it. Chinese flags and Mao memorabilia certainly appear to be very popular with locals. The media (which is government-run) paints a very rosy picture with almost every news article a celebration or feel-good story of some achievement in China, be it in sport, economics or foreign relations... Fortunately, the last attraction left on our list was open - Jingshan Gongyuan - a hill north of the Forbidden City that we could climb for a brilliant view of Beijing. This was when we realised just how many high-rises there are in this city - it looks unreal - like Legoland... Today we flew out of Beijing to Shenzhen, and from there caught a bus to Hong Kong. Love Graham and Nicole.
September 23... Kowloon, Hong Kong - After settling back into our room on the 12th floor at the Cosmic Guesthouse in Kowloon, we set out to see some of the sights of Hong Kong, as our last fleeting visit really only gave us enough time to buy a bus ticket out of there. We strolled along the harbour for a stunning view of the Hong Kong skyline across the water on Hong Kong Island. As night fell, more and more coloured lights appeared on the buildings, and the sight was just amazing. Almost as incredible was the thunderstorm that suddenly appeared out of nowhere - while the Hong Kong residents appeared to be used to such storms, we'd never heard thunder so loud - Graham was so startled at a burst of nearby thunder that he nearly knocked an old lady over - it was scary! The next day, the cosmic forces weren't at their best - our section of the guesthouse was flooded after a pipe leaked and we had to quickly move all our stuff out - luckly nothing was damaged. After a late start to the day, we caught the ferry to Central Hong Kong. We stopped at the Australian Consulate to vote, but we were too early - we'll have to try again in India. Our next stop was Hong Kong Park, but as is all too easy to do in Hong Kong, we got lost in a shopping centre. We had to laugh - it was called "The Mall" - as if there was only one mall in this shopping-mad city! After going through the maze twice (honestly, they're designed so you can't leave), we were relieved to reach the park, which was blissfully empty and quiet. We enjoyed a walk through the free conservatory and aviary, taking in the view of the gleaming silver and gold skyscrapers that surrounded this patch of green. We couldn't resist the urge to go on the world's longest covered escalator, actually a series of escalators lasting 800 metres, that run uphill during the day and downhill at night. Walking back took us through some interesting streets, full of shops selling herbal medicines, dried seafood, lizards and frogs and ginseng. We had fun trying to discreetly photograph these oddities, at the same time, wondering how many endagered species were on sale. We also passed a Taoist temple, and a sign marking Possesion Point - where the British first hoisted up the Union Jack to claim Hong Kong Island in 1841. We finished off the night with a movie - the Bourne Supremacy - which was excellent - we can now say we've seen a movie on every continent... Today we had a change from the fast pace and smog and caught the train and then a bus to Ngong Ping on Lantau Island. This island is twice the size of Hong Kong island and is mostly covered in dense woodland. It has 45,000 people living on it, although they all seem to congregate in a clump of 50 storey buildings in the main town Tung Chung. At Ngong Ping we saw the Giant Buddha which at 26 metres high is the world's tallest, outdoor, seated, bronze buddha - what a claim to fame! We were surprised to read that it was built only 11 years ago. A walk back down to the main town took us past beautiful views, green hills, a few other temples, massive spiders, ferns and to Nicole's great excitement, dozens of what she calls "sensitive plants" (plants that have leaves that fold up when you touch them). In the evening we walked around the markets of Mongkok passing whole streets devoted to flowers, aquariums and fish as well an almost endless stalls selling anything and everything. We're really enjoying just looking around in Hong Kong. Love Graham and Nicole.
September 25... Kowloon, Hong Kong - We're saying goodbye Hong Kong and heading off to India tomorrow. We've really enjoyed Hong Kong, which surprised us a little, because neither of us tend to like really big cities much. Yesterday we used our Octopus card again to travel to Hong Kong Island. We've been really impressed with the public transport here - it's so easy to get anywhere with all the interconnecting subway, bus and ferry routes all payable by the one card that you just whiz over a little card reader before walking through the turnstile. We spent a few hours at the Museum of Medical Sciences, which had several displays with hard-to-swallow defences of traditional Chinese medicine, and lots of samples of herbs and animal products - even the lizards we'd seen at the market the night before made an appearance. On the more scientific side, it had some interesting exhibits of x-rays showing the effects of foot binding from the times when small feet were considered very desirable for Chinese women. We also learnt that the cause of bubonic plague was actually identified during the 1894 outbreak of plague in Hong Kong. Later in the day we walked through the free zoo and had a good look at playful orangutans and very cute lemurs... Today we caught the Peak Tram up a steep hill overlooking Hong Kong Island, and spent the rest of the day hiking through rainforest. We would not have believed we were still only a few kilometres away from the highrise sprawl were it not for the occasional glimpses of buildings through the trees... Our impressions of China - Big, diverse, fascinating and changing fast. There are dozens of cities we hadn't heard of until passing through them, all with at least 5 million people and endless skyscrapers. Trying to comprehend the population of this place is difficult, especially when we saw so many areas that were almost empty. It's a place with many pockets of great natural beauty (the forests and hills of Yangshuo in particular) and magnificent historical sites (the Great Wall was our favourite). The culture here is fascinating - especially the elements of traditional Chinese and buddhist beliefs that make their way into modern living (for example, we read in the paper today that the opening date of the new Hong Kong Disney Land is to be determined after consultation with a Feng Shui expert). In some parts of China, the landscape isn't particularly nice with countless construction zones and the accompanying rubble making for some very run-down looking towns. Perhaps the worst two things in China though are the squat toilets and the long-distance bus rides with intolerable Hong Kong movies. Getting around is tough (mostly because so few people speak English - although they always tried to help us out and were extremely patient with us). The people have been very friendly, and even the hawkers don't bother you for long (except for the Mongolians!) There's obviously a great gap between rich and poor, but you get the feeling that living conditions have improved dramatically in the last few years, and people seem confident that things will continue to get better. One of the strongest impressions we've had in China is that it's changing very rapidly and the coming olympics are speeding things along especially quickly in Beijing. We feel lucky that we've had the chance to visit China in this interesting transition phase... We're really looking forward to our next stop, India, and then home in just a month! Love Graham and Nicole.Click here to see some of our photos from China