Friday, 17 August 2012

Culture shock, in Paris!

I arrived back in Paris on the 25th, where I said goodbye to my mother who was returning to Edinburgh. Charles De Gaulle airport is massive. I left the bamboo stick from Emei shan in the loo cubicle before going through the nothing to declare barrier... After retrieving my baggage, I met up with a Parisian friend who I had met a year before at the language school in Florence. He is a manager of a business in Paris, and it would seem that he is doing pretty well for himself. We took the metro to this flat in a district near the Eiffel tower, but more hip and local. I was pretty exhausted, so the French language, the metro and the change of location were really getting to me. It is strange how I only ever get culture shock when I return to Europe. During the first afternoon in Paris, I really didn't want to be there. I had taken less than a week of my time to practice French, and I already wanted to go to Italy.

My friend took me on a walk to see the local area. We walked around the gardens next to the Eiffel tower, bought some croissants from an organic bakery and he reserved a table at a stereotypical French restaurant. I was surprised at his generosity, he paid for all of my metro tickets and all of my meals. That evening my stomach also had a culture shock: fried goats cheese followed by cheesy ravioli washed down with almost half a bottle of red wine. After a month of rice, vegetables and broth, this was way too rich, and the service too formal. I did however appreciate the good wine.

The following morning I woke up more relaxed. I accessed facebook for the first time since being in China. At lunch time I met up with an Italian friend, Giada, from Cremona, who was coincidentally in Paris at the same time. We met by the side of a carousel near the Seine. She was traveling with a Canadian friend called Amanda, we all got on really well fortunately! We walked around the centre chatting and trying to practice our French, shopped on the Champs Elysees and drank coffee. Thanks to my friends, I felt a relief from the shock I had felt on arriving in Paris. That evening my French host took me to a Michelin star restaurant across the road from his flat. I had champagne, red wine, cheesy gnocchi and an ile flottante for pudding. Despite another shock to the stomach, the wine was incredible for stimulating conversation in French. I was rambling about all sorts before the end of the night. Giada sent me a text asking me to meet up, so after dinner I took the train to a suburb full of nightlife. We went to a bar/disco with a few other friends of hers and returned after 1am...

Whilst Giada wanted to spend the next day shopping, Amanda and I met up and went to Versaille together. After exploring the old town of Versailles, we headed toward the palace. It was sunny but not too hot, the perfect weather for walking in gardens. We had finished wondering around the gardens rather early, though decided to skip the interior of the palace itself as the length of the queue was ridiculously long. 

We went in search of one of the so-called best patisseries in Paris, la patisserie des reves. We each had a choux pastry, mine was filled with pistachio cream and raspberry coulis. 

How on earth was this vegan??

After our energy boost we walked on a to Victor Hugo metro, from which we headed to Monmartre. I hadn't been there for four years, it was a nice nostalgic trip, despite the crowds and tourist traps. The views are amongst the best, if not the most romantic views in Paris. I had this song going through my head:

That evening my French host took me to a creperie, where we had sweet sparkling cider, savoury galettes and sweet crepes. After a cup of herbal tea that evening, I fell asleep reading the second book of Game of thrones

The next day was the last day in Paris. I walked around the streets of Saint Germain, where I bought an inexpensive edition of Madame Bovary. From there I went up to see La Sorbonne, the university where I could potentially study for Erasmus next year. I really liked the area and the building itself, though I am still torn between Paris and Grenoble. I kept walking, over the Seine and past Notre Dam, until I reached the Pompidou centre. 

That evening I went to a vegetarian restaurant with my French host, where I ate a hearty salad with some organic red wine, followed by soya ice cream. 

Just as I was remembering how much I loved Paris and France, I had to leave. The next day I left Paris on the TGV train, traveling in 1st class (it cost the same as 2nd!) through France via Lyon, the alps, into Italy via Turin to Milan. I shall definitely be returning to France (or a French speaking country) as soon as possible to practice my French and enjoy the change of scenery.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

China and Chinese...

I have just returned from two months abroad: a month in China, a week in Paris and a month in Italy. In China I could not access blogger as it was blocked, according to the great firewall of China. In France and Italy I seldom had access to the computer, so I do apologise for the lack of posts for a few months... In China I encountered amazing landscape, architecture and culture, alongside the same destructive forces which wreaked havoc in the United Kingdom during the industrial revolution. My sensitivity toward animals was tried as I was forced to see slaughter in the streets and struggled to communicate my vegetarianism. From the most westernised shopping streets to the markets which smell of carrion, elegant restaurants where one eats off mother of pearl to the public toilets (which are very public, you can see someone shitting whilst you piss even if you are a woman). Anyone who has spent some time in China would for sure be familiar with the sound of a man clearing his throat on a train or plane, right next to your ear, the constant 'hello's from locals, which are followed by giggles if you respond, the enthusiastic requests to pose for photos with absolute strangers.

The famous mountains by the river Li

China is a weird and wonderful country, where people overcharge you and nothing is ever as described on the box, but with patience and a lust for adventure, it will deliver. Linguistic problems are inevitable if you do not speak Mandarin, opportunities for mother tongue English speakers are abundant. But could I live in this country which seems to have a very different idea of privacy to that of our own? After my trip, I still feel enthusiastic about South west China, the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. They offer some of the most tranquil and beautiful unspoilt areas. Here is a briefing of my trip to China.

  29th May-Flight from Edinburgh to Paris, from Paris to Beijing.

That familiar site from the plane

We took a bus from the airport to the city centre to find our hotel, the Chinese culture holiday hotel in one of the many hutongs. First impressions, Beijing was much cleaner than expected, as was the airport bus. Given the massive population of China, hundreds of people are constantly cleaning the streets in the inner rings of Beijing (the structure of the city is made up of rings, the forbidden city being in the centre). The taxi man from the bus stop didn't speak English so drove round and round before finally finding our hotel. The hotel was extremely traditional, with the red colour prominent in the lobby and corridors, Chinese lanterns adorning the ceilings and a little fish pond standing in front of the entrance, in the tradition of Chinese gardens. Language limitations again! The hotel receptionist spoke perfect English, but no one else. My mum headed immediately for the bedroom to nap, I took a look around the room before heading out to see the local area. The complimentary condoms and sex toys were quite unexpected, as were the bizarre translations into English such as 'Do Not smoke on the bed'... So one can smoke on the floor? The decor was very minimalist, with none of the offensive luminous colours so often seen in big chain hotel rooms. Heading out, I got a few stares from people in the surrounding hutongs.

I quickly learnt that no one spoke English, and that my adventurous traveller nature was soon to be challenged; usually when I travel I eat more or less everything (there is always a vegetarian alternative), despite learning 'wo chi su' (The closest sentence in Chinese Mandarin to I am a vegetarian, which actually means 'I eat vegetables'), it was quite ineffective and I still experienced difficulties. Why? Primarily, because Mandarin is a tonal language. If you don't pronounce a word with the right tone, it could take on a completely different meaning. Secondly, the concept of vegetarianism is not so diffused in Chinese society and may not be understood. This to me is strange. There are many buddists in China who eat no meat whatsoever, and plenty of amazing vegetarian restaurants to cater for them. The Tao religion was also very respectful towards life, yet if you go to a normal restaurant and ask for vegetarian, you will more often than not receive vegetables or tofu with tiny pieces of meat inside. The Chinese famines were probably responsible for this. Even now the Chinese need to be careful about what they are eating. A distrust in the authenticity of the food they are eating has pushed the Chinese to seek food which is without doubts food, hence why Chinese are very excited about the prospect of food being killed right there in front of them on their plate. On the first evening, we took a taxi to the Pure Lotus in the sweltering heat for an extremely extravagant vegetarian feast, with a menu the size of the tree trunk which read like Chinese poetry, under a marque amongst antique treasures from around China, served by waiters dressed in sparkling silver, eating mock fish made from tofu and seaweed off mother of pearl dishes, followed by a smoking volcano of watermelon, and fresh lotus flowers on exit.
Elaborate Menu at the Pure lotus
 Fortunately we ate before having our palates destroyed for the entire trip at Wanfujing market. "Let's go and have a nice cup of tea" suggested my mother. The smell was rather intoxicating, in a narrow damp street full of tourists and Chinese alike, eager to try delicacies such as live scorpions, dried out lizards and tarantulas, whole sparrows, a variety of worms and sea cucumbers, seahorses and various other peculiar edible goods...

Exploring the Forbidden palace gardens

Mo Po tofu and seasonal vegetables, rice, coconut juice at Fairy Su, a vegetarian restaurant located near the Lama temple. 

Snacks at Wanfujing market

Marble boat in the lake of the Summer Palace

Approaching the forbidden city

Badling section of the great wall

Actress near the great wall at Badling preparing for a photoshoot

Walk through Jingshan park near Forbidden city

Temple on the peak of the hill in Jingshan park

Distant pagoda

Beijing is extremely beautiful, diverse, and rich in culture. Though it is at times overwhelming, considering its sheer size and population, tranquility can be found in its many parks and in the mountains a short drive away from the city. The Forbidden palace, the summer palace and the temple of heaven, the lama temple and many of its numerous parks are well worth a visit. The great wall is also a must, especially if you like walking and the Ming tombs if you are nearby. The both offer a rural refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city centre on an epic scale. Then again, more or less all the historic sites in this city are epic in dimension. The Chinese tourist board must be very appreciative of the Emperor of the Qing dynasty, for all his self loving he patented many of the most famous and loved sights in China.

 A few criticisms are to be made regarding Chinese tourism:

Beijing on the whole was extremely beautiful in places, and rich in culture. The Forbidden palace, the summer palace and the temple of heaven, the lama temple and many of its numerous parks are well worth a visit. The great wall is also a must, especially if you like walking and the Ming tombs if you are nearby. The both offer a rural refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city centre on an epic scale. Then again, more or less all the historic sites in this city are epic in dimension. The Chinese tourist board must be very appreciative of the Emperor of the Qing dynasty, for all his self loving he patented many of the most famous and loved sights in China.

1. Admission prices... So 50 yuan to enter the summer palace and 250 yuan for a day out at Emei Shan doesn't seem so extortionate for a day out, but if you want to see the temple of heaven, the forbidden city, the summer palace and the great wall , you could easily set yourself back a couple of hundred or more for a weekend. The prices are often much lower for Chinese people.

 2. Tours with undisclosed shopping trips, or shopping trips which are elaborately disguised with misleading descriptions, e.g. 'BADLING WALL AND MING TOMBS, with a trip to the silk market to see how silkworms make the silk and to the jade factory, where you will learn how to tell the difference between fake jade and real jade. Lunch is included on this tour'. What you will really do on this tour is waste at LEAST half an hour of your holiday at a jade shop and a silk market; sure you will see the things they promised you, but you will then be encouraged to buy items which provide the tour guides with commission. Your free lunch will then be consumed at the mediocre tourist restaurant of the shop, where they will do very little to cater for allergies and other special diets.

3. Many Chinese seem to actually enjoy these undisclosed shopping trips, and spend a lot (the prices are far more expensive than those seen in markets for locals). Capitalism has definitely hid hard in communist China...

4. It is very difficult to get to places as an independent traveller. In countries such as India, taxi drivers are more than happy to take you wherever you want. In China, taxi drivers are very reluctant to take you farther than the city limits. I am not sure why this is, be it a language barrier or a government restriction, but it gets damn annoying when one must rely on tour groups. Frequent buses are not always available.

2nd, Southward Bound: Guilin and Yanshao

After 3 hours in an old China airways flight, with ominous engine noises, a fat man snoring for the entire duration of the journey and plenty of turbulence, we landed in Guilen. Though another massive industrial city, Guilin even from air promised a break from city life and a taste of Chinese natural beauty. The very recognisable vivid green kast hills that follow the Li river were really awesome from above. We stayed for 2 nights in 'this old place' hostel by the river and 10 minutes from the city centre. The English spoken here was good, I could use facebook for free on the computer (some expensive program they were using to avoid the Chinese government's extensive list of blocked websites), and there was that vivid feeling of being in an international, friendly hostel, which hotels so often lack. The rooms were a bit tatty but it was acceptable for the price. The restaurant was ok, with good prices.

Pagodas in Guilin

Village near Longji
 From Guilin we went to Longji rice terraces for a day. On the way we stopped at a village of local people, with a set of unique traditions. The women grow their hair as long as possible, and have three different possible hair styles, which are used depending on their marital status. They live in wooden houses by the side of rice terraces and a river, in a very humid sub-tropical climate. Longji itself is a very well-preserved village which clings to a steep hill, which one must climb to reach the rice terraces themselves. Why did we travel for 3 hours in a minibus to see rice terraces? At Longji, the rice terraces are artily shaped like spirals and snails with follow the natural contours of the hills in the valley. When it rains, the many ditches fill up with water, which is retained when the sun appears and reflects itself from the many different pools. It is truly testament to what man is capable of; the beauty of a landscape needn't be ruined by agriculture. On the contrary, it can be enhanced. Unfortunately when we were there, there was a lot of fog and so the whole spectacle could not be seen. I guess I will have to return one day. We ate in a wooden restaurant on stilts with a view of the village below and above. Steamed sweet potato and vegetables such as bamboo, a very nice vegetarian meal in a non-vegetarian establishment.

Look at her hair, is she married?
The rice terraces

Restaurant in Longji

local cuisine

Stir fried vegetables

Steamed sweet potato
Tea plantation

Tea ceremony
Jasmine green tea

The next day we took a bus to Yanshao. Finding the bus station was enough of an experience/trauma in itself. The taxi driver didn't speak English, nor did it seem he understood our gestures. We experience the by now familiar sensation of going round and round in circles without really knowing where we are going. Eventually we drove past it by chance and he allowed us to get off... The journey was uneventful, a bus driver who liked beeping his hooter, bumpy roads etc. The seat covers were of more interest to me, a publicity was printed onto each one 'Want to prolong your stay in China? We are seeking English mother-tongues to teach English to Chinese locals. We offer generously paid jobs in many parts of China. We cover Visas, insurance, accommodation and flights'. Given my problems in Beijing with the sheer size of the place, linguistic difficulties and frustrations over finding vegetarian food, I really didn't think China was a place where I'd like to live. Hearing more and more Chinese, I was starting to think it could be a very rewarding linguistic challenge. I wouldn't aim for academic perfection, but the ability to communicate would be like unlocking a lost treasure. Yanshao is loved and hated by travellers. Hated because it was once a little village and is now a large town. It is still, however, superbly located, right beside the Li river and between kast mountains. It is the final destination of most tourists ferries that travel up from Guilin, and a centre for viewing the local area. After a vegetarian wonton soup at the Pure Lotus (not the same branch as Beijing), I hired a bike and ventured off into the countryside. I had this in mind after seeing the comic documentary by Paul Merton, in which he escapes the crowds in Yanshao and cycles into an idyllic natural paradise. It really was. A 10 minute cycle ride and I arrived in the middle of unspoilt countryside, riding between kast mountains and rice paddy fields. I was greeted by men wearing the traditional sedge hats and stared at by cows pulling ploughs. If you are just using Yanshao as a well connected base to explore this area of spectacular beauty, it is perfect. If you are just hoping to hang out or rely on touristy ferries to take you down the river, your experience may be less positive.

Yanshao centre

View during bicycle ride

That evening we took a less touristy, more rickety bus to Xing Ping, a small traditional village further down the river Li. There is a view point there which can be seen on a 20 yuan note. We stayed at the sister hostel of 'this old place', another vibrant hostel. This one boasts a wooden pizza oven and a 1 minute walk to that incredible view of the landscape. The next day we woke up early to take a bamboo boat down the river. It took about 4 hours, there and back. I am glad we didn't bother with the ferry as 4 hours was already enough. It was a very pleasant journey but all our photos look the same. That evening we returned to Guilin where I bought a frilly dress, which seemed like a great idea at the time. I am not sure I would have the nerve to wear it here though.

View from Bamboo boat

Spectacular kast landscape, river Li

Bamboo on the banks of the river Li

6th, Kumning

On seeing Kumning from above before landing, I wasn't so impressed. Flat land, infinite construction sites surrounding the centre, which seemed a mix of skyscrapers and traffic jams. We were planning to visit Kumning for the stone forest, pity it was 3 hours away from the city. Our hotel was a massive skyscraper in the centre, a business hotel, rather sterile though clean for the most part. Arriving late at night we hoped to find some decent food at one of the two restaurants. Pictured on the menu were several raw intestines and a very cute little white dove. I asked the only waiter who spoke a little English for something vegetarian, rice was served with tofu, with little pieces of meat inside. That night I ate fruit and chocolate from 7eleven.

The next day we awoke early (5.30am!) for a tour to the stone forest. We were promised there would be no shopping trips, and that it was a private tour. We hopped into a minibus with another couple, and started picking up other couples in different hotels until the minibus was full. Everything was entirely in Chinese and we didn't know what was going on. First stop: A shop which sold headrests, door plaques and other miscellaneous goods. Customers were rounded into showrooms to hear about the manufacture methods and benefits of said items (I am just presuming, it was all in Mandarin) and the customers ran off to buy the products they had seen made. It was rather surreal and we stayed there for over an hour. Next stop, a jewellery shop where loads of fake jade was being sold for at least x10 the price. It was absolutely heaving with people who seemed eager to spend their hard earned money. It was midday when we saw in the distance the stone forest. The minibus headed in the opposite direction and stopped at a tatty looking roadside café. People were sitting on the dry, arid streets outside selling random Chinese memorabilia and looking rather desperate. Inside we were offered a buffet of meat, meat and vegetables floating in mono-sodium glutamate and meat stock, with a rice which really resembled plastic. I didn't eat again.

At 1.30pm we actually arrived at the stone forest. The car park resembled Disney and I was starting to think my mother had been conned... The tour guide then found someone who spoke a bit of English to translate for her: "You have to pay now 150 yuan for the white mini train". We argued over this, the tour price was apparently all inclusive. Eventually, after several phone calls, everything was resolved and we didn't have to pay extra. Good thing too, this mini train ride lasted for 2 minutes, as it dropped us off at the main gate of the national park. The tour guide started in Chinese, when we found another translater to explain that we would rather go off alone. The response was "okay, but you have to be back here in an hour". You pay to see the stone forest and only see it for an hour, despite being out for an entire day? Something dodgy about that. The stone forest is very picturesque, once you lose the crowds and the paths, and work your way into its inner crevasses. I was apparently rather exotic there, and ended up in numerous photos of strangers. An hour didn't really do the place justice; the ideal scenario would be to lose oneself in the midst of the fairytale like rocks without time restrictions. Alas, after a few photos to prove we'd been there it was time to get back in the minibus. On the outskirts of Kumning we stopped in a shopping mall disguised as a historic town, with modern escalators bringing customers into jewellery temples, a McDonalds under a pagoda overlooking a large man-made pond. One hour there. We did get some money back after a bit of arguing, but it was still a waste of a day. In hindsight I think we could have skipped Kumning and gone straight on to Lijiang.

The stone forest

8th, Lijiang, Shuhe and Tiger leaping gorge

The 8 hour train journey to Lijiang was worth it, we left the Industrial lower part of Yunnan and climbed higher, past Dali and the three pagodas, into the land which meets Tibet and Shangrila. In a minibus on the way to Shuhe, a man told his daughter in Chinese that I had beautiful hands and asked her to translate. A strange greeting, eh? It was such a relief, emerging from that crowded train from Kumning and arriving in a high up place with fresh air, mountainous, dotted with traditional Chinese buildings and crowned by the Jade Dragon snow mountain. I regretted having decided to stay outside of Lijiang, until arriving at Shuhe. Unlike Lijiang, it had no suburbs or evidence of being spoilt by tourism. Like Lijiang, Shuhe is a traditional little Chinese town framed by the mountains. Close to Tibet, the many shops sell pashminas, Buddhist jewellery and mantras, jade, silver chopsticks and silk shoes. Though the shops become slightly repetitive, there is a relaxing hippie feel to the place.
River view, Shuhe


The hostel was by far the best hostel I have ever stayed in. The Nomad hostel is a vegetarian retreat in the centre of the old town of Shuhe, which still retains the traditional features of the Buddhist monastery it once was. The owner is a Dutch man who found fortune in Tibet where he met his Taiwanese girlfriend. Both are well travelled vegetarians who treat every guest like a trusted old friend. The restaurant is absolutely superb, offering both western and Asian dishes. It was great to find a place in China which sold REAL Western cake and coffee. The first morning I spent wondering around the various shops, before walking to Baishi old town with my mother. It wasn't the nicest walk, an old dirt track through the heat, but Baishi was pretty and very antique. I stumbled across the practice of the apparently world renowned Chinese herbalist Dr Ho, who I had never heard of before. He prescribed me some herbs for my reynaud's disease, which he told me to mix with 500ml of pure medicinal alcohol and massage into certain points of my skin. There was no price, just a donation.

The Nomad hostel

Road to Baishi village

Dr Ho

The next day I took a bus into the mountains and along a dangerous and narrow pass to climb into tiger leaping gorge, with an English bird watcher who lives in Malaysia. It was pretty treacherous, steep ladders with sheer drops over the fast flowing Yangtze river in its earlier stages. I suffered from vertigo on numerous occasions. Another 4 hours in the bus and I could have arrived at Shangri-la, but I think I will save that for another trip. The scenery was amazing and has made me eager to return to that part of China.


Treacherous bus ride 

The following day was spent in Lijiang itself, which though beautiful didn't have the same charm as Shuhe for me. It had too much of a Disneyland hype to it, which is great in Disneyland but not in a place where a traveler seeks authenticity. I bought a jade pendant of a pig for my sister-in-law (her Chinese zodiac sign). The fresh food market was an eye opener, fresh lychees and oranges to carcasses of dogs, aquariums full of fish and turtles slaughtered on the premises, and eggs boiling in horse urine. Appetising. I was glad to return to Shuhe, soak up its evening atmosphere and sleep.


Lijiang and Jade dragon snow mountain

Eggs boiled in horse urine

Stir fried chicken's feet

The following day was the last in Shuhe. I went shopping, then walked in the mountains behind the town until I reached the colourful Tibetan flags which could be seen from below. Leaving the next day was sad, that sensation in which you are not sure whether you will ever return. Those lands which you stood on, the local people you saw, soon all will be nothing but a distant memory.

Bride on horseback

Heading to the mountains behind Shuhe

Puppy who didn't approve

Tibetan flags on the mountain

14th, Plane to Chengdu

Arriving in a great big dusty city with no green in sight and smothered by fog was rather a let-down, after the clean air and open spaces in Yunan. Chengdu is reputed for having a relatively unspoilt and well-preserved historical centre, though this was clearly not visible from the air. The main reason why tourists come to Chengdu is to see the pandas, which have become the symbol of conservation given their tragic declining numbers. Our hostel was called Sam's guest house, an old traditional building amongst hundreds of skyscrapers. It looked nice enough from the garden, the staff were pleasant though the rooms could have done with a bit of renovating/cleaning. We walked into the centre that afternoon, it took 20 minutes to reach the beautiful area. On the way we came across Chinese women doing Tai Chi and dancing in the park. This is a common practice organised by the government to encourage a sense of community and keep people fit. Something like that should exist in Britain/America. The historical centre was extraordinarily beautiful. First one walks through a narrow street similar to those in lijiang, with wooden buildings and flowers, people selling lolly pops inflated up like balloons in the shape of animals and toffee wound around itself in delicate thin strands to create patterns. There is a starbucks on the left in a historical building, I did actually feel like cake. Onward, on the left hand side there is a garden with moon bridges, ponds filled with koi carps and people walking. The road splits; on the right under a low wooden arch there is another narrow street filled with shops selling typical Chinese goods, on the left is a street full of regional street food, from entire bloody sparrows to rice steamed in bamboo. We strolled through these attractive streets and gardens before exiting and entering the Tibetan district, where just about every shop sells Buddhist souvenirs and items used for worship.

Gardens in old town

Street food

Inflated bunny lolly....

We took a taxi to jujubetree vegetarian lifestyle, a vegetarian restaurant in the modern part of the city inside a shopping mall. We ate a mock fish in a spicy sauce and a bowl of fake crab row with rice and a delicious corn tea. The following evening we returned to try the Sichuan hot pot, which was indeed very hot! On route home we stopped in Carrefour to buy some snacks and picnic items for the following days, besides finding relatively inexpensive chopsticks.

Sichuan hot pot

The next day was spent seeing the pandas in a panda conservation centre. Red pandas and the more commonly known black and white bear-like animals. Nothing much to say, just very cute! It is sad though to think that so few now exist in the wild that we must visit them in a conservation centre. That night, I woke up at 4am because I heard a mosquito buzzing around my face. I felt my skin and realised it was swollen. I leapt from my bed to check in the bathroom mirror, I looked completely disfigured and couldn't see from my left eye. We had booked a taxi to see the big Buddha and Emei Shan the next day, and I looked like that. I went to the hospital straight away, skipping the queue (apparently because I was Western... awkward) and immediately seeing a practitioner. Four random people followed me into the consultancy room, who were staring at my face continuously. I asked the doctor who these people were, it turned out they were just other patients who were rather curious. Va bene! After half an hour of me trying to explain that a mosquito had bitten me, the doctor finally made a diagnosis. He said I had been bitten by a mosquito... Well, I was prescribed some cream and antihistamine, told to rest and apply ice to the swelling.

Panda conservation park

I spent the entire day at Emei Shan and the big Buddha with an ice lolly covering my face as I didn't know the Mandarin for 'ice', which probably wasn't available in these national parks anyway! The big Buddha was seriously impressive, the buddha was build to watch over the river. One must climb a steep and narrow stairway to reach the head, setting off from the feet. Within the park were many Buddhist carvings and cave paintings, besides pagodas and shrines. Emei Shan is a national park located in the mountains south of Chengdu, about 3 hours away. We cheated and took the cable car (Austrian design) over the high canopies of the rainforest to the peak of the mountain. We did have to walk a bit before arriving at the temple on top. I was ambushed from all sides, I don't know how many people's holiday photos I appeared in, smiling but looking somewhat confused. Walking down at first was monotonous, steps through thick forest. Then there was another temple, a beautiful mantra was being played in the courtyard, where people were lighting incense in front of various shrines, to statues of the Buddha. We had a tea break, and then the landscape became more idyllic. Winding river, bamboo, willows and pagodas every so often dotted around the tree. We crossed treacherous looking hanging bridges, moon bridges and followed the river in its various stages. I wish I could have stayed there longer, a natural habitat of the panda and holy site.

Head of the big buddha

Buddhist temple on Emei shan

One of the many bridges

We arrived back in Chengdu late that evening and packed. The next day we would be catching a train to Chongqing to embark on a cruise down the yangtze river.

17th, Chongqing and the Yangtze

Train stations in China are more like Western airports. You check in your bags, show your passport and ticket on entering and boarding, there are boarding gates and hi-tech departure boards. Music is also played, often a western hit, such as Hark the herald or Silent Night... After three hours spent on the clean and speedy train to Chongqing, eating instant noodles along with everyone else and being stared at by the elderly man behind, we arrived in Chongqing.

More skyscrapers, more smog, Chongqing is one of the fasted growing cities in the world. We spent very little time there, just suffered a little bit carrying our suitcases up and down stairs in the humid heat and catching whiffs of what smelt like Wanfujing market. Before embarking on the ship we had 6 hours to kill, we met a Dutch couple and had tea with them in a tea house at the port. My mum was immediately disappointed by the sight of the cruise ship, I had had no expectations to live up to, not caring much for cruises, so it seemed ok.

The cruise turned out to be one of the greatest wastes of money and time ever, especially considering the false advertising. When my mum booked she thought she was booked for a luxury cruise, all inclusive, 5 stars with a swimming pool and gymnasium. In reality, it was described as 5 star even inside, but it was a sister ship which had all these facilities, which was described as 5 star plus, but only inside the ship. Our cruise ship apparently only served foreign tourists, who the company obviously thought worthy only of inferior treatment. The landscape has also been greatly damaged by the flooding of the river. The gorges are no way near as deep and dramatic as they were in the past, and many historical sites have been flooded or relocated. We took the optional tour to Feng Du, the ghost city on the first day. It cost £45 each and was nothing but a mere shadow of the original, with plenty of plastic additions. Whilst some buildings had been relocated, others had been built from scratch, and everything had a very plasticky feel to it. It felt really artificial, so we didn't bother with the next pay trip.

 When we actually reached the three gorges the scenery was worth looking at, though the view of the Yangtze at tiger leaping gorge was far more impressive. The trip to the tributary of the river was the most worthwhile trip, the gorge was still narrow and there were hanging coffins and monkeys along the banks of the river.

It was both depressing and wondrous going through the locks. It took hours to go through as each lock required a certain amount of ships inside before it could be closed. The next morning we woke up on the other side and explored the dam from the visitor centre. The power generated from the dam is immense, the total electrical energy generating capacity being 22,500 MW.

 I was glad to have seen the Yangtze river, though I doubt I shall return. I just wish I had seen those historical sites before they were relocated, the gorge before it was flooded.

20th, Train To Xi'an

My mum was about to be disappointed again. After waiting in the train station for 6 hours, she had expected to hop on board a plush overnight train. Chinese false advertising, again. The dining cart looked rat infested, the beds were creaky and old, the toilets smelly and the hot water full of chlorine. Despite Xi'an being touristy, it was a relief to arrive there and see a real historical wall of the city and the hustle and bustle I have come to like about Asia was quite apparent.

The hostel, Han Tang House had a great vibe, full of travelers who were covering China, Asia or the world. There was even a sauna and roof garden, french toast for breakfast and spotless rooms. The heat in Xi'an was quite unbearable, 42 degrees celcius! Despite the heat, I met a nice guy from Tasmania and agreed to go cycling with him along the wall in the afternoon. At least up there there was a little bit of breeze, and a serious lack of people. I guess they were being sensible. On route home we stopped for a crappy gin and tonic (no way near enough gin, too much ice) and went out to eat some 'real' western food down the road, I had a panini, which was nice apart from the fact it described itself as containing feta, when in actual fact there was a slice of processed cheese. It really seems that good quality cheese does not exist in China.

The next day we did what we went to Xi'an to do, we left early to catch the bus to the terracotta army. The site was massive, with many covered excavation sites. The majority of the pits contain just broken horses and soldiers, though the most famous one is a real spectacle. The army are all in excellent condition, lined up in position to attack. One feels quite at the mercy of these stone warriors. The emperor would surely be better defended in the afterlife by those than dozen sacrificed concubines. That evening we met up with my Tasmanian friend, had a drink in the old town and then went to a karaoke bar (a KTV centre), which was a very surreal experience. It felt like walking into a cinema on steroids. There was a snack shop, selling alcohol, fizzy drinks and popcorn, loud music belting out lady Gaga and very modern decor. The staff were dress like cinema ushers. This was by far the most Western feeling place I'd been to in China. We paid for two hours in a booth, and were put in a very luxurious lounge with a screen, a dj box, leather sofas, a table and two microphones. There was also a selection of instruments. For two hours we sang a play list we created for ourselves, a strange selection of English songs. Some were really outdated, others were Christmas carols or from Disney films. That evening we said goodbye to our new found friend and headed back to the hostel, to pack for our return to Beijing.

The terracotta army

23rd, Train back to Beijing

Eight hours on a train, half way through the seats were all turned around as the train changed direction. A man kept offering me peaches and water, we met a man from Mongolia who wanted to improve his English. On arriving back in Beijing we were greeted with a ridiculously long queue for the taxis. The Novotel was the first chain hotel we had stayed in, and was well located near a metro line and just off Wanfujing shopping street. It was 4 star, rather luxurious and a good place to relax for two nights before heading back to Europe. The breakfast was amazing, I had a crepe with dark chocolate sauce, fresh watermelon, pineapple and lychees, a smoothie shot and an espresso coffee.

We hurried to fit in as much as possible on our last day, first visiting the Silk market, where I bought some cheap converse shoes (now I am utterly convinced that they were fake) and an elegant fake silk night dress. I also had a cheap manicure, pedicure and foot massage. I then went on alone to the Lama temple, a beautiful Buddhist temple in the form of concentric squares, each new layer more epic than the next. The golden Buddha statue was one of the most charming I had seen in China. Fighting the crowds on the metro, we returned to the Pure Lotus restaurant where we began our trip, and ate the same thing we had on the day we arrived. We said our farewells to the Thai waiter who remembered us, received our lotus flowers and went back to the hotel.

The Lama temple

Mock fish at the pure lotus, served on mother of pearl

Decor at the Pure lotus

25th Beijing to Paris

We set off for the airport early in the morning. We argued to get my bags sent to Paris as Air France's Chinese office was determined for them to go back to Edinburgh.

Goodbye China, it was incredible and strange and difficult but rewarding to meet you. I would love to return to the West, continue on to central Tibet and learn a conversational level of Mandarin to enhance the travel experience. Perhaps after I graduate I will take a year out to teach English there, we shall see.

Now West, to Paris.