On the road again - North East Asia Review

Trip Start Sep 05, 2005
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Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Woke up like a kid at Christmas this morning. The day had finally arrived and I would be leaving China and headed to South East Asia and specifically Laos! I couldn't wait and not even the prospect of an 18 hour sleeper bus could dampen my spirits!

The weather was awful today and as a result we spent all morning indoors waiting for the 3pm bus. Wasn't so bad as I sat around watching BBC World and seeing whats been going on in the world. Riots in France apparently?

At 3pm, still raining, we boarded the minibus to the long distance bus terminal. It was packed and we were all headed to Mengla, the biggest town near the border. That is all except Jesper who was headed to Guilin and another month in China, poor bastard. Wished him well and were soon on the bus.

What an experience! The beds were tiny and there was no way in hell I'd get much sleep tonight. The beds couldn't have been more than 2ft wide and 5.5ft long. 3 beds across and another row just below the roof, our home for the next 18 hours!

As typical for China we waited around for another hour before finally setting off. The bus wasn't very comfortable and the beds rattled around so much that it made my nose itch constantly. We also stopped every hour for no discernable reason and for as long as they felt like.

Everyone was trying to sleep but it was impossible as they had an old war film on the TV at full volume which made it impossible. I just put on my mp3 player and waited for as long as possible before trying to sleep and hoping for better weather tomorrow.

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North East Asia Review
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Seeing as I'm now out of NE Asia I think I'll jot down a few comments on what I think of the places I've been to.

Japan
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Looking back at Japan there are a few things I miss and some I don't. I think we got thrown in at the deep end with Japan and it wasn't really like I had expected it to be. I thought far more people would speak English and the language barrier was a real problem. It especially made it a problem when looking for restaurants as even if one looked really good there was no way of getting across what we wanted to eat.

This in turn led to further frustration as none of the food I ate in Japan was particularly that good. This led to loads of supermarket dinning and fast food. Shame really as I had looked forward to eating Japanese food.

The weather was also nothing like what I expected. The humidity was unbearable and had a profound effect on my liking of Kyoto. Had I been there at a colder time of year I probably would have loved it. As it was I just couldn't be bother to do anything as it was too hot.

This makes it sound like I hate Japan but I really didn't. It's the small touches that you miss. The "killer pigeon" noise bleated out by traffic lights, the random jingles played at train stations, the effectiveness of the train system and the colourful red lanterns everywhere.

The train system is superb and the train pass a fantastic investment. We only had the pass for 7 days but they never checked it anywhere. I think it was checked 3 times in the many journeys we took! We could have abused their trust and used it after the expiry date but I didn't fancy a heavy fine!

Looking back it was a very expensive 10 days but well worth it. The 25 quid (each) we spent on the Dormy Inn now seem ridiculous and we could probably have found somewhere else easily. Put it down to inexperienced travel and I would never spend that much again now.

I still went slightly over budget but it was worth it. It wasn't even the amount of beer as most of the time we stuck to supermarket 1 quid cans, the old "good time" beers. The 5 quid plus we paid for a pint in Roppongi was criminal however and we shouldn't have paid it.

There didn't seem to be much of a backpacker scene in Japan but the people we met were great. Some people really kept to themselves though and I still can't understand that as we are all on holiday to have a good time, not mope around feeling miserable all day.

Taiwan
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I really enjoyed my time in Taiwan but it would have been totally different had we not been staying with a native speaker. I doubt I would have even visited the country to be honest as I knew nothing about it.

The language barrier alone would have been enough to put me off but having now been to China I think that it wouldn't have been that hard. Maybe in the smaller towns but we would have coped fine in Taipei.

Taipei was a really nice city and one I wouldn't mind spending a couple of days in again if the need arose. Tainan was totally different and not really a place you would normally go whilst travelling, but it was nice to be pretty much the only westerner in town.

There is virtually no backpacker scene at all and most of the younger people we met in Taipei were only there to learn Chinese, as they still use the traditional characters there rather than the simple script used in mainland China.

China
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Onto China. I was really looking forward to seeing China before I left home and I wouldn't say I was left disappointed but rather irritated. I loved my time there for the initial few weeks but over time it really started to annoy me.

Most of the big sites were closed for renovation and most of the time there was no mention of this prior to entry. The really detracted from my enjoyment of a number of places. I mean half the Forbidden City was closed and at the Temple of Heaven the main temple was closed. They also charged money to see sights after you had paid the main entrance fee which really irritated me.

After visiting Tibet however I couldn't stand China any more and just wanted to leave as soon as possible. A lot of things the Chinese people do is really disgusting and they need to eradicate it before the world descends on them in 2008.

The constant spitting is foul. The sound they make whilst "hawking up" is deafening and they spit everywhere, and I mean everywhere! It's bad enough on the street but I experienced it on public transport all the time. Buses, trains and even airplanes weren't safe! Quite why they need to spit so much is beyond me?

Another disgusting thing was the kids in their "crack pants" as we dubbed them. Little kids with slits in the back of their trousers so they can squat and go to the toilet in the street! I can't even count the number of times I witnessed parents holding their kids, helping them crap in the street! Just plain foul!

I was really looking forward to eating the food in China as I love Chinese food back home. Well it was all dirty crap and nowhere near as good as home. I think I ate about 3 good meals the entire time I was there. We still stuck to Chinese food as they were even worse at Western food!

But don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed a lot of my time there. The Great Wall was fantastic, as was Tiger Leaping Gorge. The 3 gorges boat trip was alright and I was glad I did it in a day rather than the 3 day bore fest. Looking back Hong Kong wasn't as bad as I thought as people everywhere in China are trying to get your money, I would just rather it was the locals rather than foreigners who have seen an easy way to make a quick buck.

I believe I have seen pretty much everything I wanted to see and wouldn't really want to go back. It was far more work than I imagined and quite stressful. Not really what you are after from a holiday.

One aspect that deserves special mention about my time in China is the other travellers I encountered. I mean the backpackers rather than the package holiday makers that looked at me with an expression like I had just killed their entire family! Looking down on us backpackers as if we were the scum of the earth. The other backpackers were the most down-to-earth, sound people I could possibly meet and it was a privilege to travel with them. Shame the same can't be said of the locals who I found for the most part to be unfriendly and incredibly miserable, to put it nicely!

Tibet
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And finally Tibet. I loved my time in Tibet and it was well worthy of the ridiculous amount I spent getting there and back. Not really something I would say about a spur of the moment decision!

I hadn't even planned to visit Tibet at all and instead travel the Sichuan plateaux to Zhongdian so I am incredibly glad I ran into Jesper again and drastically altered my plans. I am also extremely fortunate for the tax rebate that paid off the entire trip! Cheers taxman!

The scenery in Tibet is gorgeous and looks so much better in person than any picture could do justice. The people we met were also incredibly friendly but still just as keen as the Chinese to rip you off!

When I think about the amount we paid for the jeep tour it seems like the biggest bargain I have ever had! Less than 70 quid to see everything I did, the pinnacle of course being Mount Everest which was unbelievable! When we talk to people now they are all amazed that we went there which makes me feel very privileged indeed.

But I fear it will all change in the next couple of years now that the train to Lhasa is complete. It will make the country far more accessible for all, especially the Chinese. Hopefully it will get rid of the stupid restriction of having to obtain a permit for foreign travellers, which was the biggest expense.

So thats NE Asia done. It's been one hell of an adventure so far but I am glad to be in SE Asia now and looking forward to seeing what it has to offer and the differences from the North.
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