Trans Siberian Leg 1 – Beijing to Ulan Bator

The superstitious may consider my trouble reaching Ulan Bator from Beijing a result of travelling over Friday the 13th. However, the real culprit was much more mundane. The Naadam Festival in a Mongolian national holiday which stretches from the 11th July to the 15th July. By all accounts it is a lot of fun to go visit and I know a lot of tours will digress from their normal route to attend for at least a day. Unfortunately for me, the Festival also meant that the China/Mongolia border was closed.

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Fooood!

My travels started out smoothly. On the morning of the 12th I had gone to Yongdingmen Bus Station and purchased my sleeper bus tickets for 180 yuan (£20). After lazing around the hostel for the day and enjoying some potatoes and skewers for lunch at a little shop in the Qianmen area, I returned to the bus station and boarded the bus. So far so good. It was smooth travelling the entire way to Erlian on the border and aside from being rather hot (all modes of transit in most of Asia are either roasting ovens or competing to host the next winter olympics) I had a good nights sleep.

Quick price hike.

This good fortune came to abrupt halt when I returned to the bus stop having got some more cash to be told “border closed. No bus, no car, train tomorrow” via phone translator. Ah. Now that could be a problem. Just a tiny one. Interestingly it seemed that no one realised the border as closed until we arrived in Erlian and there was no mention of it anywhere online. Thankfully I didn’t have to worry about my visa running out – I still had a few days on that front – and I still had a number of days before my Mongolian tour started.

I’d just go to the train station, book my ticket, and find somewhere to spend the night. Simple right? Not so much. When I tried the most obvious ticket office they sent me off, saying that I would have to buy the tickets the morning of the following day at a different office in that direction. Deciding to try and find the office in advance, I went next door but they waved me off further down the road. My exploration of “100m down the road” yielded a couple of maybes but no concrete ticket offices (no English signs here). It was only later in the day when I ran into another foreigner that they were able to show me which building to go to.

Train in Erlian Station.

I spent the night in a 40 yuan (£4.50) a room night that, had I wanted to use the shower (considering the lack of door, I didn’t) would have cost me an additional 80 yuan). Waking up the next day with a few new bites, I set out to the ticket office two hours before it opened to ensure I was at the head of the queue.

It was just as well I did. Over the next two hours more and more people arrived, many determinedly shoving themselves in the front, until the front of the queue resembled sardines in a tin. This didn’t stop a couple of small fist fights from breaking out ahead of me. Think of the US’s black Friday sales. Eventually the door opened. And I mean door. The entrance may have had double doors but the crush of bodies forcing their way through was so great that the moment one was opened outward, there was no way the other could be opened. After stopping everyone from crushing a small Swiss lady whose bag was caught, against the door frame, I dashed up the stairs and began the queuing process all over again.

Train in Zamiin Udd.

Fortunately it wasn’t as tightly packed. Instead there was lots of shouting and even more fisticuffs. Oh joy. Mercifully I was able to buy my Erlian to Zamiin Udd ticket (66 yuan, £7.50) and my Zamiin Udd ticket (233 yuan, £26) with little issue. The only downside was having to leave my passport so I could collect the second ticket later in the day. This was considerably cheaper than I had been expecting as the only online prices I had been able to find were for the official Trans Siberian from Beijing to Ulan Bator so I been expecting the price to be somewhere between £80 and £135. I think the difference was than this train was travelling from Hohhot rather than Beijing so had more local prices.

I spent the rest of the day with the swiss lady I previously mentioned and an American expat who works in Ulan Bator since they were both waiting for the train as well. This was a blessing as not only was it good to have someone to talk to, but the American had a wealth of infomation regarding Ulan Bator. We eventually boarded, my penknife getting confiscated as we went through security. After an interminable wait to get moving in Erlian and an even longer one for passport checks in Zamiin Udd I was ecstatic when the train finally began to move onward to Ulan Bator.

Government Palace in Ulan Bator.

The next day, after three days of travelling I finally made it safely to Ulan Bator, only a few more insect bites worse for wear. Upon reaching my hostel, I luxuriated in a hot shower and treated myself to a nice meal at the Veranda restaurant before catching an early night.

Beijing

Beijing was an interesting city and even now I can’t decide if I liked it. Here, even more so than the other cities, the continuous security checks were apparent. Perhaps it was because I used the metro, excellently signposted in English, which has a security check at every entrance or that every street corner seemed to have a policeman standing on it. Either way it always felt a bizarre mixture between unsettling and ridiculously over the top. Especially with most security checks being incredible lazy.

Tiananmen Square.

I started off with two of Beijing’s most well known tourist spots, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. There is not much to say about Tiananmen Square, it is a square that even with hundreds of tourists still seems empty. I didn’t fancy visiting Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum so after taking a photo of its exterior, I turned round and ventured into the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City.

Getting tickets was far more work than should have been necessary. Paying by mobile phone using WeChat or Alipay is increasingly popular in China in fact it is so popular that the majority of Forbidden City tickets are sold by scanning a QR code and paying online. This method doesn’t really work for those of us who don’t have either payment method. Instead I wandered around the entrance courtyard with the vague instructions of “go straight turn right” to find the counter that sells tickets for cash. I eventually found it under the title of service counter near the entrance into the Forbidden City proper. While I imagine this method is considerably quicker, I do feel there could have been a signpost showing where to get tickets if one didn’t have the correct online payment methods.

Beihai Park.

I sped through the Forbidden City, perhaps I would have spent longer if I had decided to rent an audio guide but my patience for them fizzled out somewhere in Vietnam. As it was, I enjoyed looking around and reading the few signs that were up. The shear scale of the palace was truly impressive. I particularly liked the huge man made rock formation towards the back of the complex.

People practicing dancing in the Qianmen area.

After refuelling with some beef noodles, I ventured into Jingshan Park which offered a marvellous view over the entire Forbidden City complex and, more importantly, a cold breeze. This was doubly precious since, as is generally the case, to get a good view one has to climb up a hill. It wasn’t a particularly challenging hill but the Asian sun makes mountains of molehills when it is pounding down from above. On the way up I ran into half of the Australian family that I had had such an enjoyable time with in Xi’an. This was my first time running into someone I had met earlier in my travels so I was very excited. I had begun to think of such events on an almost mythical level.

The Qianmen “historical” street.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in Beihai Park alternating between strolling and reading my book: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. The park was lovely and open with a huge lake in the centre and lots of little buildings and temples that one could investigate. This was also my first time trying the Chinese yoghurt which came in a cute little jar and is drank through a straw. It was rather tasty to say the least, although I dread to think how much sugar was in it. I wrapped up the day with Peking duck and a very full stomach.

Summer Palace.

The next two days were spent on my Great Wall tour, which was absolutely amazing and made my bucket list one item shorter. I spent the afternoon of the second day making friends in my new hostel and wondering around the Qianmen area. This is quite a touristy spot with lots of hostels but the historical buildings (a fair few of which I am certain were just imitations) were very nice to walk among with lots of fancy tea shops and more affordable souvenir shops. As I was meandering I came across a group practicing some kind of dance. This is one thing I like about China; it is common to seeing groups practicing dancing or tai chi together.

Summer Palace.

The next day I visited the Summer Palace with another lass from the hostel. The weather was horribly muggy and turned to rain just as we were leaving so we cut short the rest of our day. As for the Palace, I much preferred it to the Forbidden City as there were a lot more trees and elements of nature throughout the complex, including a large lake. I also think the buildings seemed nicer: they had more historicity to reference The Man in the High Castle. The aged paint and weathered walls made the whole place feel far more real.

The Temple of Heaven.

My final full day in Beijing, I visited first the Temple of Heaven followed by the 798 Art District. The temple was cool, I found the towering nature of it quite imposing and the symmetry was please but at the end of the day, I’ve seen a lot of temples and old buildings and sometimes they do tend to blur into one. The Art District of the other had was awesome. It was a lovely change from old Beijing to the quirky, new and upbeat modern Beijing (dare I say hipster).

Graffiti wall in the 798 Art District.

Stretched throughout the complex of old factories are galleries, cafes and boutiquey shops selling artists’s wares. My eyes hardly knew which store window to stare through as I walked along and my window shopping game was strong as ideas for entire outfits sprung from single pieces of jewellery. The galleries were also amazing. I had two favourites; one which worked with melted copper, turning it into both abstract and more realistic sculptures, including one that just hinted at mountain peaks with trees sprouting from them; the second contained beautiful abstract paintings that again just hinted at an idea of form and shape creating a tranquil harmony. The district, while out of the way from a lot of the main sights, is a must see and perhaps me favourite spot in Beijing, although Beihai Park is a close contender.

The Great Wall

In a way it serves me right, I should have known better than to talk of having good weather. However I do think it a tad unfair that the bad weather has pursued me so doggedly since Xi’an. As it was, I rocked up to my two day Great Wall trip with a slight drizzle accompanying me. After everyone had arrived, a German family, two Americans and two other Brits, we loaded into the bus and set off towards a wilder section of the wall.

Arriving at the wall around midday, we had lunch at a farmhouse before setting off. Our guide said flat. This is not a comment I can agree with. Admittedly he did eventually add the caveat that there was an up bit at the start and a down bit at the end but even then the stretch is the middle was, to my eye, by no means flat. This isn’t really a complaint in true form as I suspect walking along a completely flat stretch of wall would get boring very quickly. With the gentleish rolling of the hills along which the wall is built it meant we had a constantly changing view of the wall as it stretched out in front and behind us.

The visibility was not amazing due to the weather but the real downside was that while for most out hike it had been only cloudy, with a storm predicted for the night, we could not camp at the wall and instead had to stay in a farmhouse. This meant that we didn’t get the chance to see a sunset or sunrise (I do acknowledge neither would have been any good with all the cloud) or do any hiking on the second day, instead eating breakfast before returning to Beijing.

As previously mentioned the view was somewhat limited by fog but this did not detract from the walk all that much as we, unlike our cameras, could still see a fair ways into the distance as watch towers slowly became nothing more than silhouettes on the horizon. This section of the wall hadn’t been rebuilt like some of the more popular sections, rather the opposite, as in the 1960’s the Chinese government encouraged farmers to take bricks from the wall to build their homes. Furthermore, our guide tells us that in world war two there was a lot of fighting in the vicinity of the wall so bombs had damaged other sections. Fortunately it was still possible to walk along the top of the wall for the entire way, although there were a few don’t look down moments.

All in all it was and enjoyable trip with the only real downside being the lack of hiking on the second day. For those interested, I went on China Hiking’s Gubeikou to Jinshanling Great Wall two day camping trip.

Xi’an, the Terracotta Army and Lots of Food

While my days in Xi’an were relatively lazy, I did do a number of interesting things. Not least among these was my visit to the Terracotta Army. Getting to the museum was easy: I merely had to get the 603 bus followed by the 306, totalling 8 yuan, which is less than a pound. Finding the entrance however, was more challenging. The exit and entrance to the museum were at opposite ends, so by the time I found a sign to the museum, having to wade through the crowds of the adjacent restaurant and souvenir shop area, it led me to the exit rather than the entrance. After walking all the way back down the side, I eventually found the entrance I made my way in. Sadly my student card did not seem to apply here and I had to pay the full 150 yuan (£17).

Pit 1 at the Terracotta Army Museum.

Personally I found that while impressive in age and history, the warriors were a little disappointing with all three pits still in the process of being excavated and the lines note that straight. There was also little signage, although I will give credit where it is due and admit I was impressed that, with the exception of the artefacts in the bronze exhibition, all Chinese information boards had a English counterpart. I suspect the limited signs was to try and keep traffic flowing in the big hangers (the air con makes it tempting to linger even with the crowds) and to encourage people to hire tour guides. At 200 yuan (£23) for a guide this would be reasonable if one was in a group but is rather steep when one is alone and as such, was an experience I opted out of. This also meant I could see the museum at my own speed instead of rushing from one spot to the next so worked well for me.

Posters by visitors from around the world in the hostel.

Something I would have really liked an explanation on though was why there was an exhibit all about Pompeii in the exhibition hall. I wrapped up my visit to the museum in the food street with the most amazing cumin meat skewers ever. While they were more expensive than the ones in Xi’an, three for 10 yuan instead of one for 1 yuan, they were absolutely amazing and definitely worth the extra, unlike the one for 10 yuan in the Muslim Quarter which were mostly just fat and gristle on a thick fancy looking stick to make people more inclined to pay.

The Drum Tower, as seen from the Bell Tower.

The next day I relaxed in the morning, making a Guernsey poster to add to the hostel’s collection and chatted with an Australian family before spending the afternoon sightseeing with them. This was an excellent pairing because it was my third day in Xi’an so I had a good idea of where to visit and one of the daughters and her friend both spoke Mandarin so were able to negotiate and ask directions for us. Our first stops were the Bell Tower and its counterpart the Drum Tower. These offered impressive views out over the centre of Xi’an and included a live Chinese music presentation in the Drum Tower. I was particularly amused by the combination of traditional Chinese dress and bright white fashion trainers that the lead drummer was wearing.

Traditional performance in the Drum Tower.

From the drum tower we ventured further into the Muslim Quarter towards the Great Mosque. This took a while as we walked through a winding market and it was very easy to get sidetracked by the multitude of souvenirs on offer. When we reached the mosque, we had a peak through the main door but since the majority of what we could see was scaffolding, we decided to forgo paying the entrance fee and looking around.

Oddly enough there are lots of drums at the Drum Tower.

Instead we walked down the main food street of the Muslim Quarter, enjoying watching the pounding of some kind of cake or sweet that looked a little like fudge and a lady who was pulling noodles before throwing them into her huge pot of boiling water. We eventually settled on buying some flat bread for the next day and a pulled lamb Chinese style burger which was absolutely delicious.

Noodle pulling in the Muslim Quarter.

After refreshing ourselves at the hostel we set out again in the evening to cycle around the city wall. This was a lot of fun and it was great to see the city all lit up in the night. We had probably left this trip a little too late in the day as we spent more time cycling in the dark than in the light but honestly I don’t think this was such a bad thing as it was considerably cooler than cycling under the pounding heat of the sun.

The crowds in the Muslim Quarter. It gets even busier in the evening.

The next day we had planned to head up Huashan Mountain together but between getting the wrong train station and disgusting weather this did not come to be. After much deliberation, the family went to see the Terracotta Army while I regrouped at the hostel before braving the rain and visiting the Tibetan Temple. The temple itself was a wonderful splash of colour in a very grey day but with such weather I decided to count my circuitous route to and from it as my sightseeing for the day and retreated to the dry haven of the hostel.

Cycling along the city wall.

The next day I walked up Huashan Mountain, which I talk about in a separate post. In the evening I was relaxing in the hostel common area-cum-bar when I saw the most glorious words a food obsessed tourist can see, food tour, being written up for the following evening. Needless to say, my name was the first on the board closely followed by the young woman I had been speaking to’s.

View from the city wall.

The next day I did a little clothes shopping but spent a large amount of time taking it easy in the hostel, unwilling to push my self after the previous day’s hike. There was no way I was about to risk wearing myself out before the food tour. And what a food tour it was.

The Tibetan Temple, also known as the Lama Temple.

Instead of going the the widely touted Muslim Quarter for food, we went to a food quarter preferred by the locals that used to belong to one of China’s historic Prime Ministers. This suited me just fine as while everywhere online claims the Muslim Quarter is the place to eat, I found the food not as good as the small local restaurants that are everywhere as well as being supremely overpriced. I expect there are a few very good stalls or restaurants however, I am inclined to believe that there is far more chaff than wheat and that sorting through everywhere to find somewhere good is not worth the effort. By all means go and soak up the atmosphere just don’t bother with the food. The only exceptions are if one wants savoury bread in which case the flat bread is a good option, and the green stall selling lamb Chinese burgers for 15 yuan at the entrance to the main street opposite the Drum Tower.

The entrance to the Tibetan Temple.

The food at this market we went to was absolutely sublime. We paired up for each dish to ensure we wouldn’t become full too soon. We started out sitting at a long table and digging into some excellent noodles. Fortunately my buddy and I both prefer a less spicy genre of food so were both content to pass the chilli bowl along without adding any to our bowl. It was very amusing to watch all the locals walking passed while filming and taking photos of us. To me, it is an experience of China that only other people experience as with my relatively dark hair and a tan that makes me darker skinned than half the locals, I make a very uninteresting foreigner.

The most complex character in the Chinese alphabet is for a kind of noodle. 

While still at the table we tried a pulled pork bun where the pork is first cooked for hours and the bun was a wonderfully light and flaky pastry. This was so good that when a spare one was going free, I quickly volunteered to take one for the team and split it with the other guy who was interested. It was at this point that the bottle of Jack Daniels, produced by an American guy in order to celebrate the 4th July, made its first round of the group.

Just mashing some potatoes.

We then moved onwards, in amongst the buildings of the market and tried some roast potatoes, and a beef and cabbage bun similar to the pork one. The potatoes were good and I was surprised when the chilli covered ones weren’t actually too spicy. The only downside was I was hesitant to fully enjoy them, worried I would fill up before the end of the tour. We took a quick break from eating to pound mash potato with a giant hammer which was absolutely hilarious. The gentleman running the stall had a hat with a potato attached to it.

Gearing up to smash our cups – the pile of broken ones is eventually recycled.

Our next stop also wasn’t food, instead being a drink of some kind of local wine. While the alcohol wasn’t bad the real joy was smashing the small earthenware cups it came in after we had finished. Next stop was a variety of grilled vegetables, the aubergine of which was my favourite and mushrooms least favourite. This was last of our savoury dishes and next we had was skewers of hard toffee coated fruit. The selection of fruit was a little odd with tomatoes, grapes and strawberries. The old adage that it takes intelligence to know a tomato is a fruit but wisdom not to put it in a fruit salad did spring to mind. The final stop was some nut paste filled pastries but these were sadly rather dry and our guide reckoned he would find something new for the next tour.

A road in the food market we visited.

The evening wrapped up with a drink in the hostel and lots of full stomachs. Given the number of paragraphs I have devoted to food related topics in this post, I think it is safe to say that Xi’an has some excellent food on offer and I could quite happily go back and continue eating my way around town, especially with the number of places selling cumin seasoned skewers for 1 yuan.

The Most Dangerous Hike?

Starting out optimistic.

I seem to have a slightly masochistic streak in that, despite a deep seated fear of heights, I love finding sheer precipices to visit. Perhaps it is an addiction to the adrenaline that sees me seeking new heights (literally), or maybe my fear of missing out is greater than my fear of heights (unlikely). However, I suspect the true reason is my Guernsey donkey stubbornness in the belief that enough self inflicted exposure therapy will eventually overcome a fear that is only exceeded by my fear and hatred of wasps.

This slope isn’t so bad…

Enough rambling prelude, let’s start painting a picture of what has got me chattering on about heights and my fear of them. Imagine a mountain which has a (somewhat misplaced) reputaion as being the most dangerous hike in the world. Bloggers love to repeat the old wives tale of 100 deaths a year on these precarious slopes and no post is complete without a photo of the notorious plank walk: a plank of wood bolted to a sheer cliff with a 5000 foot drop should one slip.

…Oh wait.

When first researching China, I stumbled across photos of the plank walk and just knew that I had to try it. It was 90% of my reason for visiting Xi’an, the other 10% being generously allowed for the Terracotta army. Imagine my disappointment (and I’m not too proud to admit, miniscule spark of relief) when I arrived at the entrance of the plank walk to find it padlocked closed.

More stairs. At least one doesn’t have to climb the old stairs seen top centre.

Admittedly I had known from the start that there was a reasonable chance of the plankwalk being closed. Of the three days I had pencilled in for a day trip to Huashan Mountain, I had picked the one with the least bad weather but conditions were still far from good. When I had set out from Xi’an that morning, it had been in a fine drizzle which accompanied me halfway up the initial six kilometre climb from the Jade Temple. That climb in itself had been rather nervewracking. The first three kilometres had been a deceptively pleasant upwards gradient followed by some slightly tougher stairs over the next kilometre. The two penultimate kilometres before the north peak were continuous steps of evil which saw me using my hands on the steps in front of me for various stretches or clutching firmly to the chain hand rails.

Stunning views.

At this point my Guernsey donkey stubbornness once again reared its equine head. I had read that the walking time for the “One Way up Huashan Mountain from Ancient Times” path took between two to five hours with an average time of three and a half. Hence I had decided that I would do it in under two and a half hours. Nevermind that I would never classify myself as particularly fit, there is something about being given a walking time that makes me strangely defiant and determined to be quicker. This meant that I took no respites on my upwards sprint beyond a few five second breathers on the longer stairways. Given the heavy cloud cover, I had no fear of missing out on the any views and was able to devote myself fully to the hike.

Getting somewhere.

I made it panting and sweating to the top of the North peak in two hours and fifteen minutes without falling down any of the ladders masquerading as stair so a definite win on that front. There were two precarious feeling climbs that I wanted to complete on the mountain. The aforementioned plank walk and the climb down to the chess pavilion. This latter was on the eastern peak and it was here I head to first.

And finally a view.

Sadly for me, the northern peak upon which I was standing was the lowest of the peaks and instead of getting a break from all the up I had been doing, I found myself immediately having to climb up yet more stairs. Mercifully these weren’t nearly as steep as the more terrifying stretches of the One Way path. There was a ridge I crossed which was fine as I was crossing it but when I looked back, the clouds to each side had momentarily cleared revealing the sheer drop to either side of the path.

More stairs!

Walking through the clouds was very enjoyable with the tantalising glimpses of mountain tops they occasionally revealed. In amongst the peaks there were far less sheer drops to set my heart beating above what could be excused as a severe case of excessive stairs. This of course changed as I reached the queue to climb down to the chess pavilion. Even after being given my harness I had a long wait to consider just what I was about to do. Only a certain number of people could climb down at a time and it was clear that the operators were letting that number down each time rather than opting for smaller, more efficient groups.

The Chess Pavilion.

Even though the group before me had all descended when I arrived, it was a forty minute wait before they all returned and we could begin climbing down. This left plenty of time for the clouds to clear for a few scant seconds at a time. Each time I became a little more nervous as I saw the distance to the pavilion. My nerves were not improved as, when it was finally time to start climbing, two of the girls ahead of me quickly backed out and retreated back up the steps.

Climbing down to the Chess Pavilion.

Once I got started the initial climb down, the only stretch deemed risky enough to need a harness, it wasn’t so bad although my knees shook a little from the pent up nervous energy. The remainder of the walk out to the pavilion was quite pleasant and I took great amusement from a couple of bits that didn’t have a wire to clip one’s harness to but still had a sheer drop patiently biding its time to capture the unwary at the bottom. I guess one must laugh or cry in that situation. Heading back the the top was very frustrating as I had been near the front of the queue going down so then had to wait for everyone else to finish climbing down – another half hour wait.

Made it!

When I finally made it back to the top, safely away from all sheer drops into cloudy oblivion, I walked as quickly as my exhausted legs would allow to the south peak and the infamous plank walk. Each step saw a coil tension winding tighter in the pit of my stomach. My nerves were a delicious crescendo as I walked along the first, safely railed section of the walk. As I realised the walk was closed, the locked gate looming before me, my turbulent emotions deflated like a balloon into a hard little ball of disappointment. Admittedly there was a pin prick of relief that softened the sharpest corners but I enjoy pushing my limits too much for that relief to be overarching.

Almost glad I can’t see the drop here.

With nothing left to see on the mountain – I saw no benefit in climbing to the very top of each peak with so much cloud concealing the view. I made my way to the western cable car. While the drizzling fog made climb to the peaks an exercise in futility and was most likely the cause of my disappointment over the plank walk, it did create some eerily beautiful backdrops, especially where the ubiquitous padlocks were joined with rippling red prayer ribbons on their fences and railings.

The start of the Plank Walk.

The western cable car was ridiculously overpriced, 126 yuan (£14.39) plus 40 yuan (£4.57) for the compulsory bus (unless one wants to pay even more for a taxi, since walking along the road is forbidden) back to the tourist centre. In Europe this may seem reasonable but considering that my student entrance fee to the park was only 80 yuan and that the 120km bus journey back to Xi’an was also only 40 yuan, the cost did rankle somewhat. In hindsight I should have walked around to the northern cable car which is cheaper and from the bottom of which one can walk back to the tourist centre. However, the weather seemed to be closing in even more and all the mini cafes were closing even though it was only just after five so I was worried that the northern cable car would be closed by the time I reached it.

With all the adrenaline seekers it is easy to forget that the mountain is also a religious sight.

If I let go of my irritation over the cost, the cable ride down was a lot of fun. I had the whole car to myself and there was a breathtaking moment when I emerged from the base of one cloud layer and could see all the mountains poking their heads from the layer below. Even sitting suspended in a box, surrounded in all directions by a white void was a surreal experience, making me feel like I had entered the nothingness.

Red prayer ribbons and padlocks.

From the tourist centre, I circumnavigated the cries of taxi taxi and caught the bus back to Xi’an in time to devour a late dinner of a lamb Chinese burger and some excellent 1 yuan beef skewers. The only difficulty was that sitting still on the bus allowed my muscles to seize somewhat and my walk back to the hostel was more of a very slow penguin waddle.

Path to the West Peak summit.

A final note I would like to make for anyone who travels from Xi’an by train to Huashan Bei station is that the taxi drivers will pounce on you as you leave the station and tell you that the free shuttle bus to the tourist centre is closed. No matter how many times you tell them no they will keep following you trying to get you to get a taxi. Ignore them. Walk across the square, passed the statues of musicians, to the carpark. There is a small bus stop. Wait there for the bus and continue to ignore the taxi drivers. Ideally get the number one shuttle bus as it is quicker than the number two. Some websites imply the shuttle doesn’t run outside of peak season but given the level of continuous misinformation, I shall leave it up to the reader to decide if they want to try waiting for the shuttle in the winter months.

Descending in the cable car.

Avatar Mountains

After a tediously long but otherwise uneventful series of trains up from Hanoi, I finally arrived in Wulingyuan Village. I am not going to go into detail of my border crossing but for those who do intend to cross the Lao Cai Vietnamese China border, I highly recommend this excellent article by The Asocial Nomad. Arriving in the evening I sought only some food and a bed that was not situated in a fog of cigarette smoke.

There is one reason and one reason alone to go to Wulingyuan and that is the amazing rock formations that surround the area. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Zhangjiajie National Park’s Hallelujah Mountains, more commonly called by the moniker of the Avatar Mountains: it was these gravity defying columns that inspired the floating mountains of Pandora in the Avatar movie. After some confusion about how to get to the ticket office for the park (one has to pass through security first), I played guess the bus to head to the bottom of the Ten Mile Natural Gallery. What I didn’t realise is that the shuttle bus only stopped when the driver was shouted at in Chinese rather than at each stop. This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I discovered upon my descent later in the day.

As it was I found myself disembarking at the Water Winding Four Gates stop. Just inside the entrance was the Golden Whip path and a list of rules to follow in the park. In addition to the Google translate English, what I found particularly amusing was that as I walked around the park, I saw every single rule being broken at least once by the domestic tourists, including the rule not to photograph foreigners. The only possible exception was the final rule which spouted something incomprehensible about poisons and was rather open to interpretation in its meaning.

The further I walked along the path towards the Golden Whip, the less people there were. However, this did not equate to a nice peaceful walk through the breathtaking scenery because for the final stretch before I turned off the path, a gentleman some distance behind me was continuously yelling, I presume to try and create and echo. This chorus was occasionally accompanied by screams and shouts from other individuals. As someone who purposefully leaves all forms of communication behind when they are going on a walk, I was also baffled by the number of people I passed who were facetiming on their phones as they walked. Each to their own I suppose.

Had a sedan chair not been parked at the turning off to climb up to the arching peaks of the Avatar Mountains, I most likely would have missed the narrow staircase that branched off from the main path. Fortunately, I didn’t as this climb was perhaps my favourite part of the day. It was certainly one of the most peaceful sections. Ascending the stairs, I was rewarded with occasional glimpses of sheer cliffs and rocky spires. There was a brief moment of nervousness when I heard monkeys overhead as like in all tourist stops they have a reputation for grabbing bags and trying to steal food. Happily they seemed content to leave me alone and I continued upwards as their calls faded into the distance.

A Google translate sign.

As I got closer to the top, I passed a few small groups descending and a large tour group who were also climbing up to the top rather than having taken the easier and more popular options of bus, cablecar or elevator. To my amusement, they had hired porters to carry their bags for them on long shoulder poles. These were most difficult to overtake without getting knocked on the head. Finally emerging from the trees and realising I had reached the top was a glorious moment. With the famous towers of rock arranged before me, trees clutching to their tops, I once again found myself thinking “I should have studied geology”. Of course that would have involved a chemistry A-level so it is probably just as well that I didn’t.

The increasingly wonderful views were so enchanting that I quickly found myself able to ignore the heaving tides of tourists and the clamour they created. I did however take great (and slightly immature) amusement at the main walkway’s name of Ecstasy Terrace since one rarely hears the use of the word ecstasy outside of drug use and excessively amorous writing. Each corner rounded left a new vista stretching before me and my camera was working overtime. Looking back at my photos there is an element of same same but different as the grandeur of the magnificent, gravity defying karsts is lost on a 2D screen and one set of rocks begins to look much like any other. I am supremely lucky that for me the photos are only a spark to light the true fire of memory.

From the Avatar Mountain section of the park I caught the shuttle bus around to Tianzi Mountain and began my descent back to the exit of the park, passing a McDonalds near the top. This returns us to the topic of my blessing in disguise with the bus not stopping at the bottom of the Ten Mile Natural Gallery. When I had missed the stop earlier in the day, I had shrugged my shoulders and decided to do my planned route in reverse. Seeing the Avatar Mountains first would be no hardship on my part.

Paint Brush Peaks.

This meant that I now descended the path. And by descend I mean descend it seemed the stairs would never end, each time I checked my location, I felt like I hadn’t moved at all. Had I already passed that rock? Was I going round in circles? The whole ten mile description suddenly seemed very accurate. I later met some guys at the hostel who had climbed up the path and they confirmed that the ascent was just as brutal as my descent had suggested it would be, so I most certainly had a narrow escape there.

Yay for stairs.

Dinner that evening was acceptable but I later found out the province is known for it’s spicy food which would explain a lot. It was also tourist prices since Wulingyuan Village seems to comprise solely of hotels and restaurants for the huge influx of tourists that come to visit the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Though I can’t deny most the buildings are very prettily designed to include more traditional looking architecture.

Feeling that I had seen everything I wanted to in the National Park, despite the ticket being valid for four days, I headed in the opposite direction to the Grand Canyon and the glass bridge that spans it. I was fortunate to run into a couple of other westerners, one of whom spoke Mandarin, on the way which made the day all the more enjoyable for having someone to talk to. We had a little difficulty at the entrance as tablet computers weren’t allowed in the park (’tis a mystery why) so I had to check my bag into luggage storage.

View from the glass bridge.

Normally this wouldn’t be an issue but the lockers could only be open by scanning a QR code and paying with WeChat, an extremely popular payment method in China. There were staff on hand who could pay for people who don’t have the requisite 4G and accoutrements. However, the initial two gentlemen at the desk seemed rather untrustworthy, trying to get me to buy entrance tickets off them for an extra fee rather than just waiting until I was through the security check. Luckily, another staff member turned up and was much more helpful opening the locker for me and asking only for the five yuan it actually cost.

Don’t look down!

After that hassle we made it through the ubiquitous security check and purchased our tickets (yay for 50% student discounts). The bridge was amazing and, as someone who is generally terrified of heights, I was very surprised that I did not have any issue with walking over the glass sections. I suspect the ground was so far away (300m) that my brain just tricked itself into thinking I was walking over a painting rather than a terrifying drop into nothingness.

Walking through the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

We then descended into the gorge we had just walked over. This tragically meant even more stairs and my legs, having not recovered from the previous day’s vigorous walk, complained bitterly. I really should stop moaning so profusely given the charming view but I suppose us British do enjoy a good whine. The walk along the bottom of the gorge wasn’t nearly as taxing and we had a good time discussing our various travels and laughing at the signs with such phrases as “No smoking, the mountain shall be forever green”.

The river next to Wulingyuan village.

For my third and final day in Wulingyuan I had initially planned to visit Tianmen Mountain in Zhanjiajie before catching my train on to Xi’an. However, looking over the costs it was rather expensive and looked suspiciously like everything would have to be paid for separately from the initial entrance fee. Furthermore, I could not find any information on what could be walked and what could only be reached by bus or cablecar, making me reluctant to visit. Instead I wondered around the scenic Xibu Street in Wulingyuan Village and down along the river with other hostel guests before giving my legs a well deserved rest at the hostel until it was time to leave and catch my flight onwards.

 

Returning to Hanoi

While I spent several days in Hanoi I did very little that makes for interesting conversation. A large amount of time was spent visiting various markets in search of fabric. Tragically this was a wasted effort as I only found one fabric that I liked, a gorgeous red velvet, only to find out there wasn’t enough left in the bolt. There were admittedly a considerable number of fabrics I fell in love with, but I went into my shopping spree with strict rules in place that I would only buy fabric for patterns I owned or specific clothing items that don’t need proper patterns. Sadly I couldn’t think of any uses for the glorious two tone brocade silk or the lovely chiffon in its wide range of colours (actual fabric types may be misnamed).

Fabric stalls at Dong Xuan Market.

A lovely thing about the indoors markets is they are a lot less touristy and are almost inflicted with the opposite issue to all other South East Asian markets in that one has to exert effort to get the attention of the stall holders in most cases. Elsewise they seem more interested in sleeping on their hoards of fabric like eclectic dragons or eating whatever meal that time of day indicates. This made all my fabric hunting a lot more pleasant as I was not being continuously ordered to look at someone’s stall or feeling pressured to buy something. The most unprompted conversation with shopkeepers I experienced was having the cotton pointed out to me. Always the cotton. Never any other type of fabric. Just cotton. Most odd.

One Pillar Pagoda.

In terms of tourist spots, I visited only four (five if you count the lake and seven if the fabric markets are included). Three were on purpose and the fourth was a happy accident we stumbled upon. I spent my first full day chatting with a girl from my hostel as we strolled around Hanoi. We did a very quick walk by of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It was the wrong time to go inside (not that either of us were particularly inclined to do so) and walking across the completely exposed square with the sun pounding down on us was almost unbearable so we had a five second photo shoot in front of the Mausoleum before scurrying off to the fractionally more shady One Pillar Pagoda. This pagoda is exactly what it says on the tin; a pagoda balanced on one pillar in a pond. This would have been another five second photo stop but we were delayed by a group of children asking to practice their English on us.

The railway road. I do wonder how they warn people a train is coming.

As were walking back to the hostel, looking for a suitably hipster cafe to get our condensed milk with coffee fix, we stumbled across the railway road. Tall houses crowd along both sides of the tracks. Frowning down at them as if to say how dare you intrude on our street? As there wasn’t a train coming we walked a little way up the tracks and took the compulsory photos before returning to our hunt for a cafe. We found one not much later and passed the rest of the afternoon chatting about life of the road and various escapades.

A typical Hanoi Old Quarter road.

The next day was spent fabric shopping and doing yet more aimless wandering around Hanoi since the city is so well suited to it. I also spent a reasonably large time fuelling my bánh mì obsession. These mini baguettes normally filled with salad and marinated pork may just about be the best sandwich category I have ever tasted. If I liked Subway (I don’t), I imagine their subs would now turn to ash in my mouth after the delight of Vietnamese bánh mì (they already do). I’ve met many a tourist who admits to having indulged in the bánh mì diet on at least one occasion: breakfast consists of whatever the hostel offers for free (normally very good in Vietnam); lunch is bánh mì; an early dinner of bánh mì; and a final snack of bánh mì to fill up the corners before bed or partying. Since the average price in around 20,000đ (60p) it is a very affordable diet. Sadly there have to be any studies into the positive effects of the diet however, as someone who has tried it I can attest to an improved mood with every bite and sense of community with other backpackers who have had their eyes opened to this unique Vietnamese backpacker’s diet.

Ao Dai on display in the Women’s Museum. I really loved this style of dress.

My last day was spent with another cold (bánh mì do not appear to improve the immune system) but I did manage to visit the Women’s museum about the role and lives of women in Vietnam, with the same young lady from my hostel. The first floor discusses marriage ceremonies, child rearing and women’s involvement in religion. The next floor was more interesting to me and discussed different women and their involvement in the Vietnam war. Some of the stories about their actions were amazing. The final floor was all about the different fashions of the various regions and ethnic minorities of Vietnam. The audio guide was good however it the tracks were rather long and we skipped quite a few on the first floor out of boredom. We did listen to all of the second floor but very little seating while standing in front of small exhibits, we were ready to leave by the end of it and only did a cursory sweep of the final floor.

We walked past the Opera House, I have to say it was much more pleasant seeing it this time without all the rain.

This concluded my time in Vietnam and what an experience it was! There are a good few meals I will be trying to cook when I get home and a lot of fond memories to look back on. I would love to return one day but with so many places to see who knows if I will ever set foot in this unique country again? All I can say is that while I have no doubt it will have changed in that fluid way of all developing countries, it still have lots of surprises and places to discover.

Cycling Ninh Binh

They said it couldn’t be done, and maybe it can’t for some, but that didn’t stop me seeing the sights of Ninh Binh province by bicycle. No need for the unanimously touted motorbike. Another broken rule was that I stayed in Ninh Binh City rather than closer to the sights in Tam Coc. This may have meant some longer stretches on my awkwardly shaped bicycle but the longest stretch was still under an hour and a half and honestly when over half of that is through mountainous karsts and alongside rice paddies it is really no hardship. Furthermore, the nature of the Karst landscape in Ninh Binh, commonly referred to as Ha Long Bay on land, means that all the roads are almost completely flat with only the occasional minor gradient.

The view from Bich Dong Temple.

Having arrived in Nihn Binh Road City at four in the morning, I wondered around with another guy off the bus until we found a open noodle shop where we drew out eating our bún cha for as long as possible before giving up and sitting in front of a cafe until it opened at six thirty and we could order a much needed coffee. Coffee finished, we parted ways, me to check in to my hostel which had finally opened.

Cycling through the rice paddies.

Determined not to waste the day, I settled my stuff and rented a bicycle from the hostel. The bicycle in question was the most uncomfortable I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. Even after I pulled over at a bicycle rental and asked them to tilt the seat forward, the angles of the bike were all wrong and it felt as if I needed an extra six inches of arm and torso to reach the handlebars comfortably. This left me cycling along in a bizarre hunched over position and I must have looked quite odd with my scarf acting as makeshift sleeves to complete the look. All I can say is that at least by the end of the day my abs felt like they had had as good a workout as my legs.

View from the first peak of the Hang Mua viewpoint.

And it was a good workout indeed. I powered along the main road to Tam Coc, as I drew closer and reach the more minor roads, I began having to swerve around large patches of rice being dried on the road, timing it not to get run over by whatever vehicle was coming in the opposite direction. I breezed through Tam Coc pretty quickly as it is the most touristy spot in Ninh Binh and I had already decided to do the Trang An boat trip instead due to The Tam Coc boat trips having a reputation for scams. Instead I headed straight for Bich Dong Temple.

View of the first peak from the second peak at Hang Mua.

Bich Dong was hidden away in the fold of a karst. While not huge, there was a small flight of steps that lead up the side of the Karst and through a pitch dark cave with a small shrine tucked in the entrance. Continuing up there was a fantastic view of more karsts and rice paddies stretching into the distance. Descending once more into the central courtyard, I exited the temple and walked around to another path the climbed over a ridge in to an idyllic little valley that could have been part of the Shire if Lord of the Rings had rice paddies. For a small fee (I think 10,000đ) a gentleman was showing tourists around a cave but I opted out of that particular adventure, deciding one set of bats was enough for the day. Instead I admired the goats and returned to my bicycle.

DRAGON!!!

From Bich Dong I cycled back through Tam Coc and on to the spectacular Hang Mua viewpoint. Just as wonderful was peddling along the tracks that crisscross through the rice paddies. I knew the general direction I had to head in and which road I would have to join but beyond that I just picked roads at random and meandered between the rice paddies, encountering ducks and water buffalo along the way. At one point I almost went for a swim when I hit a patch of soft mud and swerved dangerously close to the edge of the road. Sadly the rice wasn’t in its most verdant stage of growth, the paddies more brown than green, but the looming karsts made up for this small downside.

Hang Mua view. As I understand it, the Tam Coc boat trip runs along that river.

I paid the entrance fee to get to the Hang Mua viewpoint and began the massive climb. In hindsight tackling that many stairs under the heat of the midday sun probably wasn’t my brightest idea. Halfway up I began to feel the effects of sleep deprivation and a lack of electrolytes take over. When I reached a fork in the road, the two paths leading to different peaks, I took the path less travelled, Robert Frost ringing in my ears. The view was absolutely breathtaking and there was even a lone chair which I scooted as far back from the edge as possible and parked my arse on for the shamefully long period of time it took me to get my breath back.

Pho Bo noodles. Very tasty and definitely something I plan to try cooking back home.

Descending and then starting up the other side, I was delighted to encounter a small kiosk where I could get a can of coke to battle the electrolyte loss. I crammed myself into the scant inches of shade to enjoy my drink and admire the huge number of steps still ahead of me. By the time I set out again, I felt much more like my normal self and the blessedly cool breeze at the top restored me fully. Once again the view was astoundingly beautiful and I was hard pressed to decide which peak I preferred. In the end the second peak won out due to having shade, a breeze and a giant dragon statue of which I took a photo by scrambling up some boulders.

Just cycling through the karsts was an adventure.

I eventually worked up the courage to leave the shade and descend the karst. Not yet ready to return to my hostel, I ponderously cycled through a variety of small back lanes, stopping for some pho bo noodles and scouted out the Trang An boat stop. I had vague thoughts of doing the boat trip that day if it wasn’t too busy but the tour group packs of boats were shipping out in droves so I made a note of the opening time and returned to the hostel, only getting mildly lost when I turned off a road early.

I saw these goats as I was cycling along. When I cycled around the corner I saw the same goats cooked, head and all, and ready to eat on little stalls on the side of the road.

I rose early the next day, determined to beat the crowd to the boat tour. This also meant that I had to gently poke awake one of the hostel staff to let me out of the hostel and get the bicycle out of the garage. It is pretty common for the staff of hostels to sleep randomly scattered through the common areas, often with very little in terms of bedding. In this case the three men who ran the hostel all slept on the floor of the reception. Given that the official breakfast time was only twenty minutes away, I didn’t feel guilty for having to wake one of them up however, it was damned awkward to poke a complete stranger awake.

The Trang An boat trip.

The boat tour was amazing. Being a solo traveller, I was put into a boat with a Vietnamese couple who spent most the trip talking loudly into their phones and at each other. By this point I had realised quiet is not a concept that exists in Vietnam, be it music blaring in restaurants or the musical tones of car horns, so I just tuned them out as we drifted through caves and weaved between karsts. I was amazed by the endurance of the lady rowing us along the two and a half hour route. The only break she had along the way was when we visited a small shrine halfway round. While the couple elected not to make the climb, I powered up and over the ridge to the small shrine, overtaking a tour group on the upward stretch. There wasn’t much to see but I did feel a certain victory when I passed the same tour group, still descending, on my way back.

Where we stopped to visit the temple on the boat trip.

Going through the caves on the boat was a tad nerve wracking as the bright lights made me completely night blind and trying to discern which shadows were stalactites waiting to hit me on the head was far from easy. Despite this, our guide steered us unerringly through the caves. As we reached the final stretch, I realised going early had definitely been the correct decision as a steady stream of boats passed us in the opposite direction. Furthermore, cotton wool cumulus clouds had full crowded out the blue sky and the day had begun to turn a little hazy.

More scenery from the boat trip.

Luckily the weather held off for the day. I hesitate to say I have been incredibly lucky with the weather for fear of jinxing the matter, but that doesn’t change the fact that I do not recall getting caught in the rain since Malaysia. There now I’ve said it, I have no doubt my days shall now be filled with rain. Alas I digress. Returning to topic, I cycled to Bai Đính temple. This took just over an hour thanks to some misinformation about the presence of roads on Maps.me but was well worth the trek.

View from the top of the ridge when I climbed over to the temple on the boat trip.

Bai Đính was absolutely huge and I spent several hours exploring it. The compound contained a lot of largests and longests such at the longest arahat hall and the largest Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva statue. I paid to go up the tower (tallest) since the rest of the temple is free anyway. Taking the lift to the top, I was rewarded with yet more stunning views, a recurring theme on Ninh Binh it seems. Upon entering I was given cotton booties to slip over my shoes. These almost proved to be my downfall as they offered no traction and I ended up sliding halfway down a flight of stairs after losing my footing on the way down. Finally having seen all of Bai Đính (I think – the map was rather unclear) I returned to the hostel.

Bai Đính Temple.

So Ninh Binh and cycling eh? Is it possible? In my opinion yes, it is perfectly possible. Admittedly I didn’t see every site in Ninh Binh but that was more a matter of choice rather than time constraints. Both days I returned to the hostel relatively early. If I had had the inclination, on day one I could have easily fitted in the Tam Coc boat ride or cycled into the bird park instead of looking at the Trang An boat stop and on day two I could have stopped at the Hoa Lu Ancient Capital but wasn’t in the mood for what are apparently very ruiny ruins.

Karsts, Caves and Valleys

Rocking up to the Easy Tiger Hostel just in time for happy hour, I unloaded my kit, grabbed a free beer and booked onto a tour for the next day. Beer finished and having reached a good stopping point in my book, I turned in for the night, determined to catch up on some sleep as rising with the sun (however unwillingly) is only maintainable for so long.

Rising early (at least for a backpacker) just after 0600 I tucked into breakfast and continued reading my book until the start of the tour. None of the times for the tour agreed, ranging for 0815 to 0845 so it was a case of sit in a conspicuous spot in the lobby and hope someone tells you when to get onto a bus. Around 0830 the minibus turned up and we all piled in before whizzing off to the 8 Ladies Cave. Bombing through the towering karsts, I could see why motorbike is the recommended mode of travel around the national park. As it was, I spent a large amount of time with my face smushed against the window, craning my head back in a vain attempt to see the tops of the looming monoliths.

The Martyrs’ Memorial Shrine.

The 8 Ladies Cave and Martyrs’ Memorial lie on Road 20 or Victory Road and are two shrines combined with memorial spots that remember the people who travelled up and down the road during the Vietnam war as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. With half our group draped in royal blue skirts and capes to ensure modesty, we walked up the final stretch of road to look at them. There wasn’t much to see but we did receive an interesting explanation about the use of the road in the war and how eight people had been trapped in the cave by US bombing and eventually died after rescue attempts failed.

Not so itsy bitsy spider.

The next stop was Paradise Cave, one of the biggest dry caves in the world. This cave is probably the location that put the rural Phong Nha on the tourist map. As such it was absolutely teeming with tourists, most notably busloads of Chinese tour groups that appeared only at caves with easy access and nowhere else in Phong Nha. To reach the cave, we had to hike up an horribly large number of steps, using several huge spiders as excuses to stop and take photos while catching our breath. Upon reaching the top we were blessed with a heavenly breeze swirling out of the cave mouth. According to our guide, this is the origin of the Paradise Cave name. Here our guide left us to explore the cave individually. Walking down so many steps after having to climb all the way up was extremely frustrating but the deeper into the cave we descended, the further my complaints drifted from my mind.

Paradise Cave

The cave was absolutely huge and crowded with hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites. We walked along the plank walkway, stopping regularly to take photos and dodging tour groups as they clustered around their microphone wielding guides. The cave was very well lit which allowed for some excellent photos (at least in comparison to most of the cave photos I’ve taken in the past). Having taking so many photos as we walked in one direction, it was easy to relax and merely enjoy the fantastic cavescape on the way up out of the cave.

Paradise Cave

Having descended the stairs, passing a small snake that captured our attention for a good while, we moved on to the Dark Cave for lunch. In all honesty the lunch was something of a disappointment. It had clearly been prepared hours in advance, the sticky rice having become a rather solid block. Furthermore there was more bone, cartilage and fat than actual meat on offer. While not inedible in terms of taste, it was probably one of the worst meals I’ve had in a long time, especially compared to some of the superb local dishes I’ve sampled and I would have rather stopped at a smaller lunch spot with freshly prepared food, even if it would have meant a longer wait.

Back row bunch.

The Dark Cave, while something of a blatant tourist trap, was a huge amount of fun. We started by ziplining down to near the cave entrance before swimming the last stretch. There was some disagreement on whether the water could be classified as cold (it couldn’t) but otherwise we made it to the cave safely. From there we scrambled through the cave, head torches shining, until we made it to the mud bath. Slathered from tip to toe in mud the most reluctant of us had to be practically dragged from the cave, it was just too much fun. This did mean we got a little left behind and there was one fork where we ended up just guessing on the correct direction.

Watching the sun set from Momma D’s.

Making it out of the cave, still rather coated in mud to the amusement of some, we played around on some inflatable kayaks, which proved very hard to steer with only half oars, and rode ziplines into the water before making the most of our lifejackets and just floating around (I told you the water wasn’t cold). A couple of bottles of Vietnamese rum later and we were on our way back to the hostel in time for drinks, pizza and sunset at Momma D’s bar.

The next day saw me getting all the dits for Phong Nha at the Easy Tiger’s 0900 talk on the area. This popular hour long talk is packed with excellent advice and is open to everyone, not just hostel guests. Attending helped me plan out the perfect day trip and what has so far been the best day of my journey.

Tapioca and chillies at Moi Moi’s.

I paired up with a young lady who had been on the tour with me the day prior. We borrowed two bicycles from the hostel and set out towards Bong Lai Valley. At the recommendation of the hostel, we followed the river away from the centre instead of the main road. While this had the added advantage of cycling along a quieter back road rather than dodging cars, busses and lorries, the best part was the view over the tranquil river and the boats that slowly moved up and down it.

Moi Moi’s restaurant.

We saw the Pepperhouse Homestay several minutes before we reached it, its distinctive mustard yellow paintwork standing out against the backdrop of greenery. Home to a lively Australian and his Vietnamese wife, the homestay was a welcome respite from the heat and we both enjoyed a coke while sitting by the pool and chatting to the other guests. While I didn’t hear this story from the man himself and so can’t attest to its truth, David, the owner, goes by the name Multi among many of the locals due to filling in his residence permit application wrong, writing his visa type in the name slot. This led to a residence card for one Mr “Multi Entry Visa” and an amusing anecdote.

Tapioca dumplings stuffed with meat and peanuts.

We departed the Pepperhouse for Moi Moi’s a small homestead come restaurant. At this point we hit a hill so were not surprised when everyone from the Pepperhouse whizzed passed us, perched precariously on the back of their guides’ motorbikes. Dismounting to push our bikes down the gravel hill, we emerged to see an open side dining area, complete with hammocks and a vast tapioca field stretching out behind it. Parking our bikes in the shade of some trees and next to a couple of cows, I could see chillies and a variety of herbs being grown along the field’s edge.

The bamboo pork served at Moi Moi’s.

Originally we had planned to eat bamboo pork and spring rolls on the advice of the Easy Tiger staff but upon seeing some tapioca dumplings being carefully wrapped in banana leaves, we quickly switched to the sticky treats instead of spring rolls. This was not a decision we regretted and we tucked into the dumplings with great gusto. The bamboo pork came with rice and was such a big serving that we shared a single ome between us. Served with a plate of rice, the dish is made by stuffing a large piece of bamboo with pork and vegetables before cooking it over a fire. This results in delightfully juicy pork flavoured with caramelised onions, mushrooms and carrots. We washed all this down with sugary lemon juice. Extremely popular here in Vietnam, the drink is made differently at every restaurant and I have to say that Moi Moi’s version was particularly good.

View on the way to the Wild Boar Eco Farm.

Pleasantly stuffed we continued cycling along to the Wild Boar Eco Farm. Fortunately, before we left Moi Moi’s David had told us to look out for and cross a large metal bridge otherwise I suspect we would have ended up rather lost. With food comas threatening and the sun beating down this stretch of our route felt rather tiring but perseverance won out and we were rewarded with some spectacular views and getting to feed some wild boar and pigs. Conscious of time constraints, we had a sunset to catch, we only stayed at the Eco Farm long enough to appreciate the view and cool down a little.

Wild boar.

The imaginatively named Pub With Cold Beer was our next stop. Until 2005 they didn’t have electricity and it was only much more recently that they got a fridge to chill the beer. The story goes that an Australian had rather cheekily stopped at the house and asked for some food. He was so blown away by the taste, he persuaded them to set up a restaurant and begun sending all his hostel guests their way. The only issue was that the beer was always warm. The initial attempt to bring huge bags of ice back to the pub from Phong Nha were unsuccessful given the minor issue that ice tends to melt. Finally someone asked why they didn’t just get a fridge and it was only at this point that it emerged they had no idea what a fridge was. Since then the beer has been consistently cold and sometimes frozen.

Baby pigs.

The beer was indeed excellently chilled when we went and the recently installed tarpaulin water slide was brilliant fun. My only regret was that I was still too full from Moi Moi’s to try what is widely claimed to be the best peanut sauce in Vietnam if not the world. We also gave the catch, kill and eat a chicken part of the Pub With Cold Beer experience a miss with too little time left in the day and the notorious Duck Stop to visit.

The stunning view at the Boar Farm.

Forget some of the largest and most beautiful caves in the world, when it comes to Phong Nha the Duck Stop is now number one on Trip Advisor. What’s better than being the duck leader, feeding ducks and getting a duck foot massage, not to mention getting to chuck a duck for luck? We were kitted out in conical hats and plastic sandals before entering the duck pen. Almost immediately the ducks ran up out of the pond to greet us. Rattling the tin of food we took it in turns to let the extremely enthusiastic ducks gobble food from our hands before letting them chase us around. Never have I felt more powerful than when my duck minions spread before me awaiting their food. Next was the mildly terrifying but utterly hilarious foot massage. Sitting down we made little bowls of our feet which were filled with feed and promptly attacked. The sensation was extremely ticklish and weird, certainly not something I had ever experienced before.

Duck stop outfits.

The final part of out visit to the Duck Stop was the duck chuck. Done for luck, this is exactly what it sounds like, we each grasped a placid duck and threw them into the air above a large pond. By all accounts the further one’s duck goes the more luck will be forthcoming. Hopefully this is not the case as my duck plopped rather rapidly into the water. Hands and feet rinsed of mud and duck, we leapt back on our bicycles and began a mad dash for the Phong Nha Farmstay, determined to make it in time for the sunset.

The duck minions and their glorious leader.

Just as the sky began to turn pink, we pulled up to the Farmstay and enjoyed the two for one on gin and tonics while watching one of the most spectacular sunsets I have seen in a while. Rice paddies with water buffalo plodding through them stretched into the distance until the mountainous karsts suddenly leapt up on the horizon, reaching to hide the flaming disc of the sun from view. What was even better was that we could leave our bikes at the Farmstay and catch the after sunset shuttle back to the Easy Tiger instead of cycling back in the dark.

Sunset at Phong Nha Farmstay.

My final day in Phong Nha was spent relaxing and planning a little more of my route out. Looking back I think the best thing about Phong Nha was the determination of all the hostel and restaurent owners to support each other and the local businesses. From the locally made pizza Momma D ordered for us to all the recommendations and advice on where to stop in Bong Lai Valley, it was definitely the people as much as the scenery that made Phong Nha so special.

Hue

Upon deciding to head up to Hue after Hoi An, I spent a lot of time debating whether or not to do the Hai Van Pass by motorbike as everyone whose done it reports absolutely stunning scenery. This was an on going debate throughout my stay in Hoi An and it was only on the last day I decided I wasn’t confident enough to ride a motorbike or scooter the necessary 160 odd kilometres. In the end I caught a local bus to Da Nang and then got the train the rest of the way. This meant I got to see a little of the beautiful scenery but missed out on the best bits. On the other hand, I arrived at my hostel in one piece and without an Asian tattoo of gravel rash.

Gates to the Hue Imperial City.

Cycling around Hoi An had given me the bicycle bug so the day after my arrival I rented a bicycle and set off to explore the sites around Hue. Within the city there is less to see but surrounding it are tombs and temples. I started off by powering along to the UNESCO Imperial City. Building started in 1804 but less than a century and a half later in 1947, Viet Cong and French fighting destroyed many of the buildings and burned the Imperial Palace to the ground. Then the Citadel was badly damaged in 1968 during the Tet Offensive and the South Vietnamese and American efforts to reclaim Hue. By the end of all this only ten of some 160 major buildings or sites remained. Fortunately, these have been or are in the process of being restored and preserved.

Inside the Imperial City

All this makes for a curious experience walking around the Citadel as some parts remain grassy ruins and others are perfectly solid (if a little weathered) buildings. While some of the weathering had clearly appeared naturally over time, there were a couple of places where it appeared intentional such as where doors had multiple layers of paint in different colours showing.

Inside the Imperial City

I eventually found myself at the exit and decided to move on to my next loaction: the Thien Mu Pagoda. The pagoda was magnificent but also interesting was some of its history as this was the home of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who famously self immolated in 1963 to protest the prosecution of Buddhists by the Roman Catholic government. The car he used to drive down to Saigon is on display at the pagoda and provided yet another insight into the build up to the Vietnam war.

Thien Mu Pagoda

Out of all the tombs, I decided to visit only one as the 100,000đ entrance fees to each would have quickly added up and the distant locations meant I wasn’t confident of fitting everywhere into one day. Hence, I went to the one that seemed to have the best reviews, the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc. While I cannot compare it to the other tombs I felt it deserved the reviews and enjoyed looking around the complex.

A building in Emperor Tu Duc’s tomb complex. 

I spent the evening recovering from all my cycling over a cold beer with an Australian from my hostel and woke up bright and early the next day to finish packing.

Emperor Tu Duc’s tomb complex. 

Packing complete, I set left my backpack at the hostel and set out riding pillion on the back of a lass’s scooter to the abandoned water park. The Australian from the night before was with us and my excellent navigation skills saw us arriving in no time. We ended up paying the bribe fee to the entrepreneurial local security guard to enter the park as the large group of girls we were standing with all caved and our sheep-like natures won out.

Sitting inside the mouth of the dragon at the abandoned water park.

The water park didn’t have tons to see but the huge dragon in the centre of the lake was really cool to climb up and look out from. A few small additions to the graffiti later and we came across some flumes and slides that had seen better days. Finishing our loop around the lake, we headed back into Hue for a rushed lunch before I caught my bus up to Phong Nha.

Flumes at the abandoned water park.