Thursday, June 30, 2011

China Trip!

On Monday night, I got back from my three-week vacation to China with Alex. I was not able to post in the blog from mainland China (not all websites are accessible...), but we had a laptop with us and I wrote a sort of travel journal. I guess this will be my longest blog entry ever... Enjoy!

Day 1
Our first day in China was an abbreviated one as we arrived at the Beijing airport at around 3:00 pm. The near-13-hour flight was long, but not terribly unpleasant, as we had enough legroom, 3 meals and an abundance of movies to watch. The Beijing airport is almost unbelievably large, but we made it out without any hassles. We had arranged to be picked up by the hotel owner, Angela, and she was waiting for us with a little sign with our names. She drove us to our hotel in her Jetta, after having donned her Victorian lace driving gloves. The highways did not look that different from our own and we made it to our neighbourhood (Dongchen) without hitting any traffic. The area where our hotel is located is a really quaint neighbourhood full of cute shops, cafes and restaurants, and does not fit with the image I had of Beijing as a bustling and impersonal metropolis. We were very happy to see that our hotel was as promised in every way. The room was spotless, the bathroom renovated and there was Wi-Fi. After Alex freshened up, we went for a long walk around Behai lake, which is a sort of lake and park in the middle of the city, surrounded by cafes and bars, and had dinner at a lovely Szechuanese restaurant (total price of  a large meal for two, 15$). We got a bit lost on the way home, but within a very limited area near the hotel. The streets here are not laid out in a grid, maybe because the neighbourhood dates back to 1267? We tried to stay up as late as possible to avoid the effects of jet lag, but I only made it until 8:30 pm.

Day 2
This would be our first full day in Beijing and, indeed, in China. We were awake quite early because of jetlag. We enjoyed the hotel’s complimentary breakfast made up of soup, eggs and spiced cucumbers. Our plan was to visit the Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We walked from our hotel to the square. As was written in our guide book, it was huge and also impersonal. It reminded me a bit of the National Mall in Washington D.C. After making a lap of the square, we headed north to the Forbidden City (just across the street, in fact). As it was still early, the line to get in was short. There were tons of people, mostly Chinese, visiting the site. We were following throngs of tourists from one temple to the next, crowding to try to take pictures. Most temples were either roped off or had been converted to souvenir shops or cafes. By the time we had walked the whole length of the complex, I had had my fill of temples, and I pointed Alex towards the exit sign. She said she wanted to exit on the southern end, the way we had come in, and I reluctantly agreed. This was the best thing we could have done. We ended up taking a completely different route back, through small passageways and arches.

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We sometimes found ourselves completely alone. This is where we got most of our pictures, as we had access to any statue or urn without other people getting in the way. We were satisfied with our visit before we headed back out the main entrance. I was the one in charge of choosing our lunch location and I looked in the guide book to see what was nearby. I saw that the Oriental Plaza, one of Beijing’s largest malls (with food court), was not too far away, so we headed in that direction. By then, it was over 30 degrees outside. We ate at the food court (one of many, as it turned out) at a place where they served stir fry in stone bowls. It was great, and I had no choice but to improve my skills with chopsticks if I wanted to actually eat any of the slippery noodles in my broth. After enjoying the air-conditioned mall, we headed out to a main shopping boulevard that was very wide and reminded me of Champs Elysees.

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We walked down an alley that sold all kinds of food, including cicadas on a stick, some of them still alive. We eventually entered the large park just north of the Forbidden City. There was a small admission charge (less than 1$), but it was worth it. There is a man-made hill (made from the earth dug out when they built the moat around the Forbidden City) with a temple at its summit which allows for a splendid 360-degree view of the city.

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From there, you could see that Beijing does not have that many high-rise buildings, and looks more like Paris than Manhattan. We headed back towards our hotel around 4:00 pm with the intention of taking a power nap. The power nap lasted over three hours. We were supposed to meet the gentleman who had booked our train tickets at our hotel, but Angela told us he was running late, so we headed out to eat. We found chicken and satays (3 large ones for 1,50$) and ate in the street before slowly heading back to our hotel. We had booked a visit to the Great Wall for the following day, and were to be picked up at 6:20 am. Hopefully the jet lag would make it easy to get up so early!

Day 3

We got up early for our trip to the Great Wall. Angela, our hostess, helped us choose a trip that involved no detours to shopping destinations. We had chosen to visit the section of wall at Jinshanling, which was known for its steep climbs and breathtaking views. Although it is only 110 km from Beijing, it took 3 and a half hours to get there in a bus with very little leg room. During the bus ride, I began to feel indigestion or some other stomach ailment. When we arrived, we were given the choice of getting up to the top of the mountain on foot or by chair lift. We chose the chair lift (I believe everyone in the group did) so we could spend more time on the wall and less time climbing through bushes and trees to get there. The view was indeed spectacular when we reached the top. It really looks like in the postcards. Unfortunately, I began to run out of steam after a few steep climbs, and after one really brutal climb (more than 45 degrees!) to get to a guard outpost on the wall, I thought I was going to throw up. I think this was provoked by something I had eaten the day before (satay?). On the way back to the chair lift, I had to take many breaks to catch my breath. Alex was patient and used some of these breaks to take photos.

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When we got to the bottom, there was a buffet meal, but my stomach was too upset to partake (I did have a small amount of rice and noodles in the end). We got back on the bus for the 3 and a half hour return trip and arrived back near out hotel around 6:00 pm. We were quite pooped so he had a power nap and then decided to go walk around Behai lake again, as we had done on the evening of our arrival. The difference from the first time was staggering. Whereas on the first occasion it was raining and quiet, there were now thousands of people walking, drinking and smoking at the restaurants and bars around the lake. We were looking for a place to eat, but the choices were not that appetizing. We ended up eating pastries with meat, not unlike what you would find in Montreal’s Chinatown, and going to bed at around 10:00 pm.

Day 4

My stomach was feeling fine and my appetite had returned, so I was able to enjoy Angela’s breakfast. We took a taxi to the summer palace shortly after 9:00 am. When we got there, there were throngs of people like we had never seen before. There were people selling all kinds of tacky stuff and thousands of people slowly walking through the park. We we not terribly interested in the temples, as they were sort of less grandiose versions of what we had seen in the Forbidden City. We took a boat ride across the lake and ended up in a much quieter part of the park. We slowly walked back on the causeway where there were only a handful of people, which was nice.

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We exited the park through the North gate and found a taxi to take us to a new area of town, the embassy area. We were dropped off at a very avant-garde looking mall called the Village, but it was not that interesting a place. It was probably the location with the most non-Chinese people we had yet seen. A white guy helped us ask a security guard where the restrooms were in Mandarin. We ate at a chain restaurant called Macau Taste. It was the first time we faced poor service and also the first time a mandatory service charge (of 30%!) was added to our bill. From this area, we chose to slowly walk back to our hotel so we could relax a bit before taking a taxi to the train station for our night train to the ancient walled village of Pingyao. The taxi ride lasted an hour in traffic, but luckily cost less than 10$. I ate at McDonald’s at the train station because it was convenient. My Big Mac tasted the same as at home for about half the price. Alex had a meat pastry and a mango. The train station was one of the biggest buildings I have seen in my life. We easily found our train and boarded a few minutes before the 7:03 pm departure. We had not managed to book the soft sleepers, but the hard sleepers were really not that bad. Despite the noise of other people, we both got to sleep. I can’t imagine what this 12-hour train ride would have been like in a regular seat!

Day 5

We woke up in the train and got off at the historic town of Pingyao. The city itself has 450 000 inhabitants, but it is known for its ancient walled city. We found the ancient city without too much trouble after leaving our baggage at the train station. It was shaping up to be another oppressively hot day. The ancient city is really quite something and the streets are charming. Given that the walled city is not that large (maybe a square kilometer or a bit more), we were able to explore quite thoroughly in the day we had to spend there. We chose a lovely courtyard hotel and restaurant for lunch and we enjoyed crispy chicken (it had red flesh, like duck) and vegetable dumplings.

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We sort of ran out of things to do and it was quite hot, so we spent part of the afternoon sipping drinks in a bar. It was strange that we would see large clumps of tourists, then turn a corner and be totally alone. We popped into a supermarket on our way back to the train station. We had to take a first train to Tai Yuan, then switch to a night train to Shanghai. The train to Tai Yuan was filled with locals. We squeezed into a couple of seats and sweated with the others for the 2-hour train ride. Alex managed to strike up a conversation with a guy who spoke decent English. I was happy to arrive in Tai Yuan. I think Tai Yuan is a typical medium-large Chinese city. It has 2.8 million inhabitants. I briefly explored the area around the train station looking for food. It was an almost surreal experience. The station was facing a 10-lane wide avenue. There were 100’s of people crossing the street in clumps, as there was no walk/don’t walk traffic signal. I was the only non-Chinese person out there, and there were people everywhere. I went into a relatively large supermarket to find us some dinner and was surprised to see there was no fresh produce available at all (Alex wanted a mango). I found us some pastries with meat and some drinks. I popped into a nearby KFC with the hopes of getting some chicken nuggets. When I entered, I saw that the menu on the wall was all Chinese text except for three photos (none of which depicted nuggets) and that there were no numbered combos, no menus on the counter and not a word in English. I left without ordering. Clearly, Tai Yuan is a city where you need to speak some Mandarin to get by. When we finally got onto the train, we were pleasantly surprised to see how nice the soft sleeper cabins were. Each bunk had its own TV and earphones, and even little slippers. There were only 4 bunks in a cabin, instead of 6 in the hard sleeper cars. We went to sleep, looking forward to waking up in Shanghai (where we would get to take a real shower!).

Day 6
What can be said about Shanghai? After one abbreviated day, I could already confirm that I loved this city. We arrived on the train at around 9:00 and took a taxi to our hotel, the Astor House, Shanghai’s oldest hotel (1846). When I saw the hotel lobby, I couldn’t believe we could afford this … but you can save some serious money booking online well in advance. Our room was ready as soon as we arrived, so we enjoyed the luxuries we had been denied over the past couple of days (a nice shower, TV, etc.). By the time we started our day, it was lunch time. We headed out onto the Bund, the waterfront boulevard with its lovely landscaping and huge boardwalk. There is a feeling of positive energy in this city that could be felt right from the start of our long walk. We really walked a lot on this first day in Shanghai. We started out by having an inexpensive yet very satisfying meal in a noodle restaurant (featuring an English menu, this time). We then headed into the old town, which is both bustling and charming. There are so many tastefully restored colonial buildings as well as beautifully designed modern buildings in this city that it boggles the mind. We were criss-crossing between traditional Chinese buildings and modern ones in the Old Town before we decided to make our way towards the French Concession. This neighbourhood was further away than it had seemed in the guide book, but we eventually found it and strolled down the main strip of Haihua. This is one of the busiest and nicest commercial streets I have seen. There were people everywhere, like on 5th avenue in Manhattan. We ducked off the main road to take a break and people watch in a lovely medium-sized park, the kind of which there are not enough in Montreal. The architecture in this area was a curious mix of European and Chinese, but every street had an abundance of trees and the neighbourhood just oozed charm. On more than one occasion, we found ourselves saying “if we lived in this city, this is probably the area we would choose to live in”. We strolled down Changle road and eventually found Nanjing road, the main strip of the whole city. This mega-boulevard was teeming with people, neon signs and cars, but it was still a pleasant place to be. I don’t know if this is related to how many trees there were or the fact that, for once, it was not oppressively hot out, but we just kept on walking and gawking. By the time we got to People’s Square, we were ready for a break, so we sat down in a park and decided to eat at the huge Pizza Hut across the street. I had been craving pizza all day. Alex had a chicken and rice dish. As we ate, it began to get darker out and when we left the restaurant, the timing was perfect to enjoy the light show that is East Nanjing street. We slowly walked back towards the Bund, enjoying the nice weather and throngs of people out for a Sunday evening stroll. The Bund had taken on a completely new look after dark: it was lovely. There were people everywhere smiling and taking pictures. The high-tech looking skyline is animated like a video game. The overall effect is entrancing. I guess it’s obvious that I my first impression of this city was that it was pretty awesome.

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Day 7
I tried to stay up to watch the Canadian Grand Prix, which was on at 1:00 am, but there was a 2-hour-long red flag caused by the excessive rain in Montreal and I fell asleep. I slept really well in our lovely hotel room and did not wake up until after 10:00 am. We took our time leaving the luxury of the hotel and one of the friendly front desk employees helped us book our next hotel over the phone. We then stepped out into the foggy weather and followed a walking tour of the Bund from our guide book. Afterwards, we headed for the Yuyuan gardens. On our way, we ate in another Chinese restaurant. I had duck, and was a bit disappointed with the meat-to-bone (and claw) ratio. Luckily, Alex shared her massive shrimp noodle dish with meWe continued on foot to the gardens, situated in the Old Town. After navigating a maze of lovely old buildings in a shopping district, we entered another maze that was the garden. It is unbelievable how many lakes, bridges, rocky structures and buildings this garden’s designer crammed into an urban space, and there is no way to know if we actually saw the whole place! Afterwards, I began to guide us toward the 2010 world expo site, but I soon realized that we were basically walking around massive construction sites on huge boulevards when we could be walking somewhere nicer. As a result, we hopped into a cab and headed back to the French Concession. We got off at Tianzifang, a maze of little artsy businesses in a lovely neighbourhood. We then found our way back to Changle road, stopping in an English-language book store before ending up on Nanjing road again. We made our way back towards the Bund and I grabbed some Subway (less than 2$ for a 6-inch) and Alex picked up some mangos. We finished off a bottle of Chinese wine we had started last night and chilled in the room. We were too tired to leave the comfort of the hotel, but we still managed a visit of the hotel’s other floors, which have not been much modified since the 1800’s. Day 8 would be our last day in Shanghai and we were scheduled to take an overnight train to Huangshan at 5:45 pm.

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Day 8
The first thing we had to do on our last day in the area was to buy our train tickets from Huangshan to Guilin and book a Guilin hotel. We headed for the train ticket office nearest our hotel and asked to book the ticket. The rail employee told us there was no way to travel that route by train. We then looked at our map and found that the city of Nansheng was between the two destinations. We asked if we could travel from Huangshan to Nansheng, and the answer was yes. We then asked if we could go from Nansheng to Guilin. Also yes. I don’t understand why this was not proposed to us! Anyway, we booked the tickets and sent out an email to reserve a room. Our plan was to visit a town an hour outside of Shanghai, but, given that it was raining out, we decided instead to visit the famous Shanghai museum. We dropped our luggage at the train station and took the subway to the museum. The subway is affordable, clean and user-friendly. After a quick stop in a noodle restaurant (no English menus, I accidentally ordered a tofu broth when I wanted some kind of meat), we easily found the museum without getting too wet. The museum is situated in a huge but lovely building. It’s filled with ceramics, jade, paintings, furniture and bronzes. Although this is not usually my type of thing, this made for a relaxed activity for a rainy day. Also, the admission was free, which is surprising for such a nice place. It was still raining quite hard as we ended our visit, so we decided to go into an underground network of shopping complexes (I found a 7-11 and had a Slurpee, and later a Dairy Queen ice cream cone... I know, not very Chinese things to eat/drink!). We took the subway back to the train station and had a quick bite (roll-sandwich and fruit for Alex, KFC and Oreo’s for me) before embarking on our 14-hour train ride (in a soft sleeper). It was time to say goodbye to cloudy Shanghai, but I had a feeling we would be back someday.

Day 9
Our plan on this day was to climb the scenic mountains of Huangshan, stay at our luxury hotel at the peak, then hike down the following day. We arrived at the Huangshan train station in the morning. We had had a cabin to ourselves so we were well rested. I hadn’t really looked in our guidebook to see how one gets to the peak of Huangshan. It turns out it is not that simple. Before we even got off the train, we were encouraged to buy bus tickets, as the mountain was actually 65 km from the train station. This bus took over an hour and even stopped for a bathroom brake (Alex did not partake). When he arrived at the town (Tangkou), we were approached by an enterprising businessman who tried to sell us a spot in his hotel (not needed), a meal (too early) or a place to leave our heavy backpacks (sold). There are three ways to climb Huangshan: take a cable car, climb the Eastern steps (7.5 km) or climb the Western steps (15.5 km). No matter what you choose, there is an element of hiking, so most people (including us) leave our large backpacks at the town and travel up the mountain with smaller bags containing the bare necessities. We had planned to climb the Eastern steps, but it was still pouring rain. We therefore decided to take the cable car. The gentleman who was keeping our baggage, Mr. Hu, drove us to the cable car station (maybe 2 km) and asked us to promise we would eat at his hotel the next day (we promised!). We then took the cable car and arrived at the summit at lunch time. It turns out that the summit where the cable car arrives is only one of multiple summits. As soon as we disembarked from the cable car, we could see why people come from all over to look at the views, even though it was cloudy. The extremely steep-sided mountains looked as if they came straight out of a Chinese painting, complete with trees growing out of the cliff walls. We began the hike to our hotel (it turned out it was one of the ones furthest from the cable car station).

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There is really not much civilization at the peak. The only restaurants or stores are in the hotels, and there are only 4 hotels. It was still raining and we were glad to arrive at our hotel. We checked in (this was the most expensive hotel of the trip at 120$ per night) and made our way down to the restaurant for lunch. We shared noodles and dumplings, which were tasty, but twice the price they would have been at ground level. Apparently, everything at the summit has to be carried in by porters, as there are no roads up the mountain. At least we had the whole restaurant to ourselves. There was not much to do as it was still raining, so we watched TV, used the pay internet service, and dozed in our tiny hotel room. There was only one English channel (CCTV news), but I watched the East-Asia basketball finals (Korea beat Japan). We had seen that the restaurant was supposed to close at 9:00 pm, so we made our way down at 8:15. It was already closed. This was pretty depressing. We were sent to the little hotel store and one of the employees, who, as it turned out, operated a small café adjacent to the hotel, agreed to make us some noodles. We ended up going to bed early, hoping for a clear morning so we could see the famous views. The walls of the room were paper thin and, when a group of tourists arrived, speaking loudly to each other, it was as if they were in our room with us. Still, we managed to fall asleep.

Day 10
I had awoken a few times after 5:00 am to listen if it was raining. It always was. If we wanted to walk the 15.5 km down the Eastern steps and still make it to our train at 4:20 pm after picking up our bags and taking the 80-minute bus ride to the train station, we would have to get an early start. As it was raining, we slept in a bit. At 8:30, I went outside and saw that it was no longer raining at all. Alex hurried up to get ready so we could begin the hike. I didn’t know how long it would take to get down the mountain, as the tiny map in our guide book was not very useful. We left the hotel just before 9:00 and at 9:20, we had found the beginning of the Western steps. The walk down the Western steps was not a walk "down" for the first hour or so… it was a walk down, then up to another peak (breathtaking, photos, etc.) then down and up again, for maybe four peaks. This stretch was between the top of the cable car route and the summit and was filled with hundreds of tourists, all Chinese except one small group. We almost had to push our way through at some points to follow the trail. The trail, unbelievably, was paved the whole way, and every incline had steps. The engineering involved must have been crazy, which partially justifies the 35$ entry fee to the mountain park. After we passed the cable car station (we made only one wrong turn, going to the station when we could have bypassed it), the number of tourists thinned out and we began to cross only porters carrying their loads up or down the mountain, or other tourists (quite few) walking the whole 15.5 km. One guy wanted to have his friends take a picture of him with me. I assume this is because I am white and some of these people never see a white person. After a few brakes, we made it to the bottom and took a bus from the cable car station to a spot near the town, then a car to Mr. Hu’s restaurant. It was 1:00 pm by then, so we ate lunch (sweet and sour pork for me, some kind of meat and vegetable broth for Alex) and Mrs. Hu flagged down a bus for us to take us to the Tunxi train station.

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We arrived at the train station a bit after 3:00 pm and I handed Alex her ticket. This is when Alex noticed that our train was not at 16:20, but at 20:56. I had misread the ticket, as it was written the date (16) with a symbol, then the 20 of 20:56. Oops. We now had almost 6 hours to kill in a town that we thought was not even mentioned in our guide book and for which we had no map or even basic information. We later found that the book did mention the town and that we had been looking in the wrong province. Despite all the walking we had done, we decided to walk some more. We chose one direction and followed it. We were coming across mainly car and truck repair shops when we decided to turn at a major boulevard. This led us to a river and a lovely pedestrian bridge. We crossed it and walked along the waterfront until we could cross back on a different bridge. We eventually found more commercial areas with more people. This town was different from the big cities we had seen, as there were no luxury shops or even McDonald’s. We walked on and on, losing track of where the train station was. We figured we could always hop into a taxi to get back. At one point, we found a sort of old town within the city that looked a lot like Pingyao. This was the only place we saw other white people in this whole city. Alex loved this area, as can be expected. I don’t usually like souvenirs, but I bought a small wooden pig. There were dozens of them, each unique, and Alex helped me choose one to accompany the other Chinese knick-knacks in my office. I ate at a Chinese chicken place called Dico’s and we asked directions back to the train station. The first people told us it was very far and that we should take a taxi. It turned out we were less than 20 minutes away on foot. We must have walked over 20 km in total this day. We arrived at the train station and it was unusually dark, with only a few people waiting. As the time for our train approached, I decided we should head upstairs, as the doors leading to the rails were locked on our level. This is when we realized the real waiting room was upstairs, where they had a snack bar and the place was fully lit. Pretty funny. Our train arrived and left late, which made me nervous about making our connection the next morning, as we only had a 45-minute window to switch trains.

Day 11
What can be said about Day 11? It was a day spent entirely on trains or in the train station. As I had feared, our train was not going to make it in time for the train to Guilin. I found this out when I showed my ticket to an employee on the first train and she shook her head. Somehow, she arranged it so we could get off the train before our destination to wait for the train to Guilin. I guess that there was an overlap in the two routes. Anyway, the train for Guilin was supposed to leave the unknown station where we got off at 7:20 and we arrived there at 7:40. However, the train only arrived at about 8:15. We boarded and took possession of our soft sleepers, but unfortunately, we did not have the cabin to ourselves this time. We generally hung around our bunks until 11:20 pm. There was not much to do. I read about 300 pages from my book (a translated Chinese novel called “Brothers” purchased at the Shanghai museum) and took a nap while Alex also dozed and read. We both had instant noodles which we had bought at the supermarket (55 cents each) for lunch and again for dinner, with fruit. We arrived on time and checked in to a really nice little hotel called the Riverside. The room here was only 23$ and is much nicer than the one in Huangshan, plus it had free wi-fi in the room. The plan for the next day was to head out of town to Yangshuo to enjoy the countryside and maybe rent some bikes.

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Day 12
We woke up in our lovely hotel room and I went to get some breakfast from a supermarket (white cake muffins, mini Chips Ahoy, apple-flavoured milk) while Alex hung around the room. I went online and searched how we would get from Guilin to the island of Hainan and found out that one had to take two overnight trains, passing through Guangzhou, or a 16-hour bus. Just for comparison, I searched how much a flight would cost and was surprised to find out it was only about 75$ per person. This seemed too good to be true, and other websites had much higher prices. I had noticed a travel agency near the market and we decided to pop in. Sure enough, we were able to book the tickets at 72$ each. This meant we can spend one more night in the Yangshuo area. We called ahead to book a room at the Outside Inn, a farm converted to a hostel 4 km outside of Yangshuo. We had lunch at a riverside restaurant, sharing spare ribs and noodles. We then took a bus from Guilin to Yangshuo (a one hour trip, after 45 minutes of driving around the town picking people up) and arrived at the Outside Innat around 2:00 pm. I was a bit disappointed with the hotel at first, because it was not in an isolated spot in the country side, but rather at the end of a sort of alley in a very small town. However, after walking around the small complex and seeing our little second floor room in a rustic outbuilding, I was totally sold. The hotel had its own restaurant as well. The staff was super helpful and handed us a guide of what to do in the area (bamboo rafting, kayaking, cycling, hiking) as well as a sheet of paper describing three short hikes that could be taken from the hotel with little hand drawn maps. There was even a site to go swimming in the nearby Yulong River. We decided to start out with one of the hikes (called Rural Round Trip) and after trying to follow the directions, I realized the map was not to scale. We eventually found our way, however. This is really what we hoped the countryside would be like: fields of rice or corn, farm animals walking the streets, people tending their gardens and crops, beautiful mountains and quiet, slow-moving rivers. Add to this the songs of birds, the croaking of frogs and the glow of lightning bugs, and you can begin to imagine the scene. The only downside was the presence of mosquitoes, but they had mosquito coils at the hotel and we brought along insect repellent. By the time we reached the swimming hole at the end of the hike, the sun was not beating down on us so hard (it was 5:30 pm) and Alex decided not to swim. I went for a short swim and it was a fantastic experience. The water of the river was a bit cool, but not at all cold, and the current was so slow you couldn’t feel it. The scenery around the swimming hole was beautiful, as it was surrounded by green fields and sharply jutting hills. We walked back to the hotel, Alex snapping pictures left and right. The people of the area didn’t speak Mandarin, but rather another dialect (called Guilin), but they all enthusiastically said hello as they rode by on their tandem bikes or scooters. Back at the hotel, we shared a local stew (called Snoozing Dragon) with pork and eggplant, as well as some curry chicken. The eating area for the hotel was outdoors, under a sort of gazebo. The Dragon stew was one of the best dishes we had tasted so far, and I realized it’s often best to choose from the section of the menu called “local dishes”. We were loving this spot so far and were really happy we will be staying a second night there.

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Day 13
We woke up in a great mood in our lovely air conditioned farmhouse room. We decided to rent bikes and explore the area. After discussing the idea with the staff, we decided to head to the locally famous dragon bridge. We decided to skip the main activity of the region, which was being pushed down the river on a bamboo raft (kind of like the gondolas of Venice). Alex really wanted us to rent a tandem, but I was not interested. I agreed to try one for a minute to see if I liked it and it was indeed completely unpleasant. The seating position is ridiculous. We then proceeded to choose our bikes. I lucked out and found a cool 6-speed Dutch city bike (Eagle brand), and Alex chose an 18-speed Giant mountain bike. We hit the road with our photocopied map and eventually found our way. Once in a while, we would accidentally veer off the gravel lane we were supposed to be following and end up in a rice paddy or some other type of dead end. We crossed the paths of dozens of tourists, almost all Chinese. It was really weird to be in a touristic area that was not aimed at all at the Western tourist market. I was coming to realize that China had enough tourists from China, and doesn’t even really need Western tourists. The tourists we came across were coming from Guilin and, surely, other Chinese cities. The ride was lovely, although sometimes, a bit too off-road for my city bike. When we got to the several hundred year old dragon bridge, we took a break, had our photo taken by some Chinese tourists, photographed the same tourists with their own cameras, and headed back on the other side of the river. After trying unsuccessfully to follow the trail markers (we ended up at the river’s edge, and noticed that the people waving to us from a bamboo raft were none other than the girls we had photographed!), I realized that all we had to do was look into the distance and keep between the two long rows of hills, as the river meandered through the valley between these hills. This made navigation much simpler. We found our way back to our little town and ate a local restaurant (fried beef in onions and garlic, noodles with egg) and went back to the hotel. We parked the bikes and headed for the swimming hole to cool off. This time, Alex actually entered the water and swam. We met some other tourists there and they strongly suggested taking a kayak trip in the Li River. We headed back to the hotel and booked the kayak tour as well as our taxi for the next day. We decided to head back out on the bikes to see a different bridge and then pop into the town so we could get some cash at an ATM. This little excursion had us using mainly on roads and we made good time. We passed countless tourist buses from Guilin. The scenery was sometimes unbelievable, and I shot some video to try to capture it. When we got close to the town, the traffic became crazy and unpredictable, so we found an ATM and got out of there. We headed back to the hotel, arriving around 7:00. For dinner, we wanted to order the beer carp, which had to be ordered in advance. The employee said she would check if there was fish available. At this point, she walked over to a small artificial pond a few steps away from the outdoor eating area, and we could all see that the only carp in the pond was floating… We decided to try the beer duck instead. It was a sort of stew with a light beer taste and we both enjoyed it. After dinner, we grabbed Alex’s flashlight and went for a short walk in the village before heading back to the comfort of our air-conditioned room. We were both really happy we had chosen to spend a second day in this breathtakingly beautiful area.

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Day 14
We woke up early to grab breakfast at the hotel before heading out on our little kayak expedition. We were picked up at the hotel and brought to our kayaks on the Li River. We were told a guide in a motor boat would follow us and that the trip would last two to three hours. The kayaking itself was not that hard, as we were going along with the flow of the river. We arrived after two hours and we had not been paddling that much at all (although we both ended up with blisters on our hands!). 

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As we were being driven back to town, it began to rain really hard. I was glad to be in a car just then. We had lunch at our hotel (pizza and sandwich) and hung around until our airport taxi arrived. The trip to the airport took over an hour and took us along several toll roads… the 45$ charge was a luxury, but well worth it. Our flight to Haikou went seamlessly. I believe we were the only non-Chinese people on the plane. Despite the 60-minute duration of the flight, a meal was served. We didn’t know exactly how we would get to the town of Bo’ao (the resort town we had chosen for our stay) from the airport. It looked quite complicated, as we would have to take a bus into town, then walk or take a taxi to the long distance bus station, then take two more buses. In our guide book, a high-speed train was mentioned, but, according to the book, it was not yet operational. When we arrived at the airport, we went to the information booth and asked what the best way to get to Bo’ao was and we were told the train. I tried to ask if it was a fast train, using the word “kuai”, for fast. She did not understand at first. I added the word “huo che” for train, and she said “ahhh! kuai che!” and nodded. We then headed for the rail station, which was accessible by an underground tunnel, and bought 2 high speed train tickets for 6 $ each. We waited for our train for over an hour in a near empty train station. I guess people don’t know about the high speed train yet. The high speed train was efficient, but the train station was nowhere near the area of the hotel. We did not know that though, so we were surprised when the moto-taxi wanted 8$ to take us there. We negotiated the price to 5$, then rode in the back of a 3-wheeled moto taxi for over half an hour. I guessed that the high-speed rail line was built in such a way as to avoid built-up areas, which meant that you could not take it to the town center. When we arrived in Bo'ao, we realized that they really do not speak any English in this town! Choosing the hotel room and paying required me to pull out my dictionary more than once. The room was clean and simple. We knew that the next day, we would at some point have to figure out where the beach was in this town!
                                                                                                                                   
Day 15
We woke up in Bo’ao with the intention of spending at least part of the day at the beach. Little did we know this would prove to be a bit difficult. We headed out on foot in the general direction of the beach. When we got to the coast, we could see that there were sand bars off the coast and that seemed to be where beach-goers had gathered. We could not see any way to access this sand bar by land, but noticed that there was a boat landing with a ticket stand. I asked how much the tickets were, and was told 53 yuan, or about 8$. This seemed like an excessive amount to pay to travel a few hundred meters by boat, especially when you compare this with the less than 7$ we paid yesterday to travel city-to-city at 250 km/h by train in first class! We decided to see if there was a beach that could be accessed more easily. As I mentioned yesterday, no one, and I mean no one, that we encountered spoke English in this town. I knew the Mandarin word for “beach” and asked a moto-taxi driver, but he seemed to say it was not possible for him to bring us to a beach. We were approached by a taxi driver, and I asked him how much for the beach, using the Mandarin word “shatan”. He replied 40, and we said OK. 40 was much cheaper than two boat tickets. We hopped in his taxi and he drove us away from the boat dock. We drove and drove, and we were clearly no longer in Bo’ao at all. We could see many condo projects on what must have been the coast, but he was not stopping. We then entered an urban area and I began to think he had misunderstood where we wanted to go. He stopped at a bus station in the city (by then, we had figured out we were in Qionghai) and told us we had arrived. I was quite angry and told him “the beach, the beach!” and showed him the Chinese writing for beach in our phrase book. It took him a while to understand, even when I showed him the word written in Chinese, and then he was angry too, as we had driven for half an hour to get where we were. We then realized that this guy probably did not even speak Mandarin, but only the local dialect. He drove us back to where we had started. I paid him the 40 yuan despite the mix up. To his credit, he did not want the money at first, but I would have felt bad if we had cost this guy money due to a misunderstanding. We decided to take the stupid 8$ 5-minute boat ride to get to the stupid sand bar beach. It was noon by then and we had not eaten yet, but we figured we could get lunch at the touristic beach. We got onto the boat with a group that was on some sort of tour. There were no white people, only Chinese. The tourists were dressed in cabana suits or city clothes. Not one of them was actually wearing a bathing suit. We arrived at the beach and disembarked. We then saw a row of vendors with parasols. They were almost all selling fruit and cold drinks. Not one of them had any other kind of more substantial food! We saw that you could also buy flip flops or a sun hat, and that you could rent a jet-ski or a 4-wheel ATV. What was most surprising was that there was not a single person swimming in the ocean among the hundreds of people!

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There was not one person even wearing a bathing suit! All the people did was walk up to the water line, step close enough to get their feet wet, giggle, then snap dozens of photos. I guess that this was a group of people that had never seen the ocean in their lives. They must have been quite well off for Chinese people, to be able to spend 8$ each on a 5-minute boat ride (surely they spent much more to be on their tours!). To top it all off, the sand was coarse and there was a sign stating that swimming was not recommended. I could not believe the absurdity of this beach. Our guide book had mentioned that we would simply be able to walk to the beach in a couple of minutes, but this was clearly not the case. The actual beach, which cost us more than the price of our hotel to get to, was a total joke. I decided that I was absolutely going to go swimming and that I would watch out for the undertow. The beach was quite steep and there was a strong undertow, but it was very manageable if you remained in water less than waist deep. After settling into the ocean, I became less angry and more relaxed. Alex came into the water as well, then settled down on our beach towel (probably the only one on the beach) and proceeded to fend off countless sellers trying to get us to buy photos or rent motorized vehicles At one point, I saw another person jump in the water, then swim right back to the shore. No one else entered the water. There were no white people at all on the beach and we seemed to be quite a novelty. The sellers kept coming by to check us out or try to sell/rent us stuff. At one point, they formed a group around us with their stupid ATV’s and had a smoking break. At this point, I was quite fed up, and we decided to leave. At least I got to swim in the ocean a bit! We headed back on the boat and, once ashore, started to search for a place for lunch. There was really not much on offer, as the seafood places were closed (it was 2:30 pm) and most other places only had pastries. We finally found a place with a photo menu and ordered a fish in some type of red sauce that turned out to be very tasty. It was the best fish I had had in a long time, in fact. I was impressed with the server who thanked us warmly, in English, at the end of our meal. As we walked back towards the hotel, we saw more people staring at us, as if we were a real novelty. I am surprised that our guide book did not mention the fact that nothing is written in English here, on signs or menus or anywhere, and that many people do not even speak Mandarin. It also felt like when you are staying in an all-inclusive resort and then heading out to see how the locals live… there was only luxury, or low-end, with nothing in between. The local businesses seemed not to need western tourists’ business. We were not even able to use computers at an internet café near our hotel, as we had no Chinese ID cards. We went to get out passports and found a different café. We focused on our next beach destination: Sanya. We managed to book a room in what looked like a very nice spot, very close to the beach. Also, we found an amazing deal on a flight directly from Sanya to Hong Kong (100$ tax in per person!) which would save us a ton of time, bus, taxi and train transfers. We were pretty pleased with this and returned to our air-conditioned room to relax before dinner and watch 32 Chinese TV channels. After a while, we headed out for dinner and found a place with photo menus. I decided to order the octopus, and even Alex liked it.

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We walked around the town one final time and went back to the hotel to get an early night’s sleep so we could try to get the 10:00 train to Sanya in the morning.

Day 16
As planned, we woke up, checked out and headed to Sanya by high-speed train.

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We negotiated a taxi ride to our hotel in Dadonghai Bay, one of the beach areas of Sanya. We noticed cranes and high-rise projects throughout the city and the area of our hotel was also filled with tall buildings. They were building hotels and condos like there was no tomorrow. Sanya is very frequented by Russian tourists and there are many signs in Cyrillic as well as Chinese. We checked into our small, clean hotel room. As promised, it was an easy walk from the beach. We had a quick lunch of noodles and dumplings (I didn’t know how to order the dumplings that were not in a soup, we ended up having both kinds) and headed out to the beach. I was glad to see that we had finally reached a normal beach!

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People were swimming, many were wearing bathing suits, there were beach chairs and beach umbrellas, and little bars and restaurants. Alex thought it was a tad too developed for her tastes, but I was just happy to be at a typical beach. The waves were not as strong as at the Bo’ao beach, and we were able to relax in the water, as if we were in Cuba or Thailand. After a while at the beach, we went for a stroll on the boardwalk and the streets around our hotel, then back to the room to relax with some air-conditioning. We headed out for another walk and to find dinner. We decided to head for a different part of the city and began to walk. We had to cross over a couple of bridges, and we saw the docking area for the traditional fishing boats. There were hundreds of them all packed together like sardines.

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We saw some pretty fancy restaurants, but settled on a Taiwanese place called Cominup, where you would choose several small dishes. We had spicy shrimp, chicken, and some kind of green vegetable. It was quite tasty. We strolled back to the hotel, stopping at a supermarket on the way to get some wine and snacks. We headed back to the room to enjoy the one English-language TV channel for a while (as well as a Chinese singing competition show) before calling it a night. The day turned out to be relaxing and low-key and it really felt like a day of vacation.

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Day 17
We lazed around our room in the morning as the weather was pretty cloudy. If we had known it would soon start to rain for the rest of the day, maybe we would have got an earlier start! We started the day (at around lunch time) at our local dumpling shop, exactly replicating yesterday’s meal (although it was somehow even less expensive than yesterday, with our total bill being about 2,50$). We then headed in the direction of the city center, as we had done last night. It began to rain harder and harder, so we ducked into the giant duty free store. The prices were the same as at home, with absolutely nothing on special. We lingered because we didn’t want to get soaked. Eventually, Alex decided to wear her plastic poncho while I decided I’d rather get wet from rain than from sweat. We kept going towards the center and I finally decided to buy an umbrella (2,25$). We eventually found a 3-level indoor/outdoor mall selling all kinds of clothes and products. Alex bought a few unmentionables, and, after the transaction, she felt she had lost face with her failed negotiation of the price. We kept on our way, noting that this was not one of the nicer cities we have seen, although there were still many trees and much greenery. We eventually found our way to the coast line and the huge public beach. We walked on the brick pathway between the beach and Sanyawan boulevard for a long, long time. It was still raining a lot, but there was not much else to do on such a wet day, so we kept walking along the beach for several kilometers. I finally caved in and suggested we hop into a taxi to get back to the hotel. We made it back and relaxed a bit. I was worried I hadn’t received confirmation of our airline booking to Hong Kong, so I went online and chatted with a customer service rep for C-Trip. When I received the email confirmation, I was worried when I saw the price, but the C-Trip rep told me that was the full fare price. I noted that the full fare price for our tickets was more than three times what we paid. Yeah! There were three British girls leaving the hotel and they saw Alex’s poncho and asked Chris, the friendly hotel owner, if he had any of those. I had been making fun of Alex’s often used disposable poncho all day, but she was beaming with pride when the girls wanted identical ones! We asked Chris to recommend a seafood place nearby and he actually walked us over to the place and helped us choose our fish from the huge aquariums in front of the restaurant. We let him place the order and when the fish arrived, it was huge! I forget what kind of fish it was, but it was delicious. The meal was expensive, for China (about 23$), but I didn’t want to miss out on the fresh seafood for which the area is reputed. It was still raining, so we grabbed some dessert at a supermarket and went back to the room. The heavy rain was weakening our satellite TV signal so we could no longer watch the one English TV channel. We ended up watching one of those Japanese-style game shows where people have to run and jump on crazy floating obstacles, like in Super Mario Brothers. It was hilarious, and we didn’t need to understand Mandarin to follow it (we had noticed that we could also watch some cartoons and understand the gist of the story).

Day 18
The day began in Sanya and when we saw that it wasn’t raining, we headed to the beach. We were there at 9:00 am. The waves were high, but safely predictable. After about an hour, we headed back to the room to shower, change and pack. We took a taxi to the airport and arrived over 2 hours before our flight. The airport itself was beautiful, in that the whole structure of the building was made of wood. However, there was no air conditioning and our flight was delayed by about 45 minutes. I was really looking forward to getting to Hong Kong! The flight went smoothly and there were no hassles at the Hong Kong airport. We had planned to take a taxi to Kowloon, the area where we hoped to find a hotel, but the friendly information clerk told us that we should take the bus. This proved to be the right choice, as it was rush hour and the double-decker bus was roomy and allowed us to take in the scenery. The first thing we noticed was how much greenery there was around Hong Kong. I also noticed the large amount of luxury cars on the road. There were no more Chinese cars here, probably because they drive on the left. This meant that there were many cool Japanese cars, along with some pretty exotic European cars. As the bus drove us down Nathan road towards the neighbourhood where we would choose our hotel for the first night, we saw the throngs of people out for a stroll on a Friday evening. We walked to a large building called Mirador Mansion. We did not have a hotel booked for the night, so we randomly selected one of the low-cost options in the huge building from our guidebook. The room we ended up with was tiny, like a jail cell, but it had a/c, an almost double bed, and a bathroom. We were in and out and went looking for dinner at about 6:30 pm. We first walked down to the ferry station to see the famous Hong Kong skyline and it was indeed impressive. There were so many people and stores that it was hard to simply find a place to eat. We ended up walking around a bit before settling for McDonald’s. I was pretty hungry and my burger and fries really hit the spot. We continued walking north on Nathan road and Alex bought a few items of clothing at a giant underground Esprit store. We were in a pedestrian shopping area and the stores were still open even though it was 10:00 pm. We went into a trendy store called Izzue and Alex bought a few more small items. We noticed that in general, people here were dressed more fashionably than in China. The staff at the store was very friendly and helpful. We walked all the way home and arrived at our jail cell at about 11:30 pm, pooped and ready to sleep in our tiny bed.

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Day 19
We woke up in our jail cell and packed our bags. I hoped the hotel we had reserved for the rest of our stay in Hong Kong in the same building would be nicer. We headed down to the 6th floor of the Mirador Mansion, as the same massive building housed both our old and new hotels. We found that our new hotel, the Hello Inn, was locked. There was no way to get in, so we left our bags at our old hotel and started our day. The plan was to cross Victoria Harbour and head to the island of Hong Kong. This was achieved by taking the lovely Star Lines ferry, which takes only a few minutes and costs less than 50 cents per person. The Hong Kong skyline is impressive when viewed from the harbour, or from anywhere for that matter. We followed a walking tour from our guide book through the confusing streets of Hong Kong. I was a bit underwhelmed after having seen the high tech area near the ferry port. We had lunch at a western style restaurant called Café de Coral, and it was quite a satisfying meal. 

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We walked some more, then found the long string of escalators that took us virtually to the top of the city. We were so high up the hill that we actually had to walk back downhill to get to the Victoria Peak tram line. On our way, we came across the city zoological and botanical gardens and relaxed there for a while, watching some entertaining monkeys. 

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We found our way to the tram and bought tickets to the Peak, a spot from which we would be able to see the whole city and harbour. We did not pay the extra fee to access the 360-degree viewing platform. When we got to the peak, many of the views were actually blocked by huge ads for the viewing platform! Luckily, there was a mall next door that had its own free viewing platform, with free binoculars, and we enjoyed the view from there and took a bunch of photos before taking the tram back down. 

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We walked back down to the pier and headed for the ferry. Once back in Kowloon, Alex chose an Indian restaurant for us. I accepted, not knowing it was also a vegetarian restaurant! The restaurant was called Woodlands and we had the sort of variety platter, which was both tasty and filling. During this dinner, I hatched a plan for us to visit Macau the following day, as a day trip. It was possible, using the high-speed ferries, and not terribly expensive (40$ per person return). We had decided to skip Macau when planning the trip, but with all the time we had saved taking planes instead of trains, we could now squeeze it in! We headed out in time to see the surprising light show in the harbour at 8:00 pm. If you head to the Walk of the Stars near the waterfront, you are treated to music playing through speakers that is synchronized with lights and lasers projected on the building across the harbour. It’s a bit tacky, but still mesmerizing. After this show, we walked up Nathan road for a while and eventually headed back to our nice little room where we slept soundly.

Day 20
We woke up early and headed for the Star Ferry, which would take us to Hong Kong Island where we could take the high-speed ferry to Macau. The walk between the two ferry ports was short and we bought our tickets. We went to the departure lounge and were shuffled off towards a ramp by an employee. When we got to the boat, we were told it was the wrong one and that our boat was leaving 15 minutes later. When another employee saw our look of confusion and disappointment, he got on his radio and arranged some seats for us on the boat that was about to leave. He assigned us seat numbers and sent us off. When we arrived on the boat, we couldn’t find our seats and had to ask where they were. We were sent upstairs and we then realized we had been bumped to first class. The economy class was already nice, but the first class seats were even nicer, and they even served a small meal on the one hour journey. When we arrived in Macau, we were ready to start our day of exploring. Unfortunately, there was a 45 minute wait at immigration. When we finally made it through, it was 11:30. We hitched a free ride to the historic neighbourhood on the shuttle bus for the Grand Lisboa hotel and casino. We walked through the casino on our way up from the parking level. I don’t really get why people are into casinos and I didn’t see the big deal at this one. The actual hotel was a tall and weirdly shaped building and its top looked like a cross between a pineapple and a bouquet of flowers. We began to walk towards the landmarks mentioned in our books. I had not realized that Macau was so small. It is much, much smaller than Hong Kong, only a couple of kilometers across and deep. It is also much shabbier than Hong Kong. It reminded us a lot of the poorer parts of Portugal. While we were exploring, I accidentally made us walk to the top of a long steep hill and we were both sweating and panting in the tropical heat.

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On our way back down, I could see that Alex was tired, hot and hungry. We stopped at one of the first restaurants we saw and the owner recommended a curry chicken that came in a huge bowl made of bread.

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We followed this recommendation and shared the big bowl, greatly enjoying it. After dealing with the fatigue, hunger and heat (thanks to the chairs, dish and a/c), we set off towards some other sites. We then found the really touristy part of town. It was quite nice and we were glad we had made the side trip to Macau.

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When we had had our fill and seen many sites, we headed back to the casino and grabbed a bus back to the ferry. If it had not been so hot, we could easily have walked back. We got back to Hong Kong, where the wait at immigration was only a few minutes, and headed back to the Star Ferry. Once we were back in Kowloon, we began to walk around, enjoying the last evening of the trip. We were again faced with the decision of deciding where to eat. We stopped at a place mentioned in the guide book (it was in a mall, but it had a Michelin Star… that’s Hong Kong, they love their malls!) but we were unwilling to wait 30 or more minutes for Chinese food. We kept walking north and found another Café de Coral. This turned out to be just what we needed: slightly western food at an affordable price with generous portions. We enjoyed our meal and continued our walk. We walked and walked through Tsim Sha Tsui and Yau Ma Tei and, when we could walk no more (and after a quick ice cream break) we got back to the hotel at around 11:30. Alex made me set the alarm early enough so that we could enjoy our final morning of the trip, as our flight was at 3:10 pm, which meant we had to leave the neighbourhood at around noon.

Day 21

We woke up at 8:00 am on last half day and decided to head for the huge swimming complex at Kowloon Park not far from our hotel. This complex is made up of six or seven swimming pools with artificial islands and waterfalls, both indoor and outdoor. We hoped that any member of the public could just pay and enter and, sure enough, for about 2,50$ each, we were in. We swam and relaxed until about 10:30, then headed back to the hotel. We showered and packed and headed for the bus stop (I had been to 7-11 to make sure we would end up with exact change) and caught the bus after less than a minute of waiting. As usual, now that the trip was over, I wished I could just snap my fingers and be home rather than take a 14-hour flight followed by another one hour flight. Alex, as is usual for her, was feeling melancholy, as this was the end of a great trip and a vacation. We ate and lingered in the airport and looked to spend every last Hong Kong dollar (cookies, Vitamin Water and some mints), and by the time this was done, it was the final boarding call for our flight (I hadn’t realized you needed to take 5 escalators and a train to get to our gate!). The flight to Toronto took 14 and a half hours. We dozed and watched movies and finally got home at around 11:00 pm. The vacation was over and I was due to be back in the office the following morning. Still, I felt rested and happy. The trip was simply awesome.

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