The Orient – but not express!

xUioq7JpSAylL3yJ+k4QTw_thumb_21feI thought I would share my experience of traveling on the overnight train from Beijing to Wudangshan, as I know there are a few articles out there on the subject which might be off-putting, and some rather more matter of fact ones. In any case, the latter turned out to be pretty much accurate. Why was I going to such an obscure place in central China? As an erstwhile practitioner, or should I say ‘dabbler’ in Chinese martial arts, I have had romantic notions of this place for many years. It would have been odd to go to China and not see Wudang Mountain, and yes, I could have got a plane to Shiyan, but what would be the fun in that?

I booked my journey on a soft sleeper many months prior to my trip, through China Highlights. It cost about £70 as opposed to the plane which was over £200. I arrived at Beijing West Station with over an hour and half to spare, and went straight through the ticket gate with ease. This was seeming far too straightforward. I do confess to cheating a bit and picking up my ticket the day before.  The queues for checking tickets were confusing but not very long and, sweeping though the station, I had to find the correct waiting room for the K507. ( you have to go specific waiting areas in China, depending on your route.) There are many waiting rooms, more than a dozen, and of course I couldn’t see the K507 on any of the notice boards . There were hordes of staff present and they directed me to No.3. Now this looked like a bottle neck – and I wasn’t wrong. After chaotically, and with much jostling, getting through the ticket checking, there followed what was probably the worst bit of the trip. The waiting room was so overcrowded,. people were just sitting on their suitcases or lying on the floor. Why I didn’t go to the toilet in the main building still haunts me. I don’t quite know how to say this tactfully, but the waiting area was clearly full of  people of an unrefined nature. There was a disheartening queue for the one toilet, coarse ladies smoking in the washroom, and the state of it was quite shocking to me. A desultory attendant was doing nothing about the smoking and would not watch my massive bags while I negotiated the narrow space. The experience was unpleasant at best, and after I extricated myself, I just found a small place by the wall amongst the heaving masses.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_220cThankfully this crowd thinned out as one of the other trains started to board. And boarding the train was very straightforward – my ticket included the car no and the bed number – and I was relieved to have a top bunk. I’ll explain why in a minute. There was a woman with a small child, a man and a fashion conscious sharing the cabin. I couldn’t see a single Western person anywhere on that train, (probably because they were on a plane), which was just a little intimidating.  The soft sleeper did not live up to my expectations of luxury. And this is where the learning part comes in. Because, to everyone on that carriage, this WAS luxury. So first you have to introduce yourself to your fellow travellers and share some food. I shared my teabags, because my GF sesame coconut crispy rolls and green tea marshmallows were too precious. And to be honest this was an interesting and enlightening intercourse.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2205
winter dates

I had some long liquorice like substance made of hawthorn, some delicious small apple-like fruit (winter dates) and some kind of chewy peanut toffee. The gentleman had sunflower seeds still in the shells which he continued to eat all through the night. The lady with the child wanted me to call her Helen, and had a little English. I thought what a strange name to choose if you’re going to be English. I managed to ascertain that her husband was a headteacher and worked in Xiangyang. I also learned that for many, many families this kind of separation is necessary because of economics, and that families have to live apart. A day’s travel apart. When I became tired form the usual travel stress, and trying to communicate in different languages, I was glad of the top bunk. If you are on the bottom bunk, I guess you have to wait until the top people go to bed as everyone sits on the bottom, socialising. And there is zero space.

F5Taw78QQdmFWSLuzE0y7A_thumb_2208
Helen and Annie – my soft sleeper companions

I retired up to the top bunk after visiting the toilets. There was a western toilet at one end of the car, but somehow this was either locked, or someone had fallen asleep in there. The squat toilet at the other end was also locked. The I had to go on search through the train for a toilet. The toilet situation is not a good one – and the stench is something we are not used to. There is no toilet paper anywhere in China – you are expected to have your own – so stock up and always have some in your bag or pocket. But, you know, we service these things – it’s part of seeing the world.So did I sleep? Well yes actually? There were a few things that disturbed me, attendants shouting the station names, a baby crying in the next room, some disconcerting jolting of the train. And the man cracking the sunflower shells. But really it was just like a moving hostel dorm. I had about 7 and a half hours sleep which is a good part of the trip. My charger didn’t fit the socket well and I had to prop it up with my washbag. Other things to remember are a flask for boiling water as this is the only water you will get on the train. There were various food trolleys coming round occasionally including plenty of fruit, but I read the advice and brought my own.AsL5V4BOR+yIW+7sRhJ1FQ_thumb_21fb

In the morning it seemed that many people must have left the train. The aisles were quiet, there was less smoke, and the toilets were accessible. I sat in the aisle so I could watch the scenery, but many people found me fascinating and wanted a picture taken with me. Funny. So actually the day time part was very comfortable, and passed quickly. My compatriots left me at Xiang yang and I had a couple of hours alone.

The verdict; completely bearable with a few grim moments.

VWljWccFTRier0g6x2Wx+w_thumb_21fc

A Week in Busan – Colour and Chaos

tGjx02fkR3eDpyUWFEhK5A_thumb_1dc5I thought I’d share my week’s activity in Busan, a place which, after initially overwhelming me, totally captivated and charmed me. I was lucky enough to stay in the Hyu Plus guesthouse, a 7th storey bijou establishment more like an apartment than a hostel, and it being low season and all, I oftentimes had the place to myself. I thought it was a great location next to Nampo Dong subway station. This city is the most generously served with public transport that I have seen yet. All the things I wanted to see were all within an hour or so.

l4Q5HyzuSiiKu3nynKu76w_thumb_1d21I got a weird vibe from this place when I arrived but I soon warmed to it. I have covered the Lotte Mall and Gamcheon in previous blogs. So here are some of my other experiences/impressions/adventures. A really good days hiking was to be had at Amnang Park to the South of Busan, past Songdo Beach. I couldn’t call it leisurely exactly because there is a lot of stair climbing and steep undulation as it follows the coastal headland round. Being stupidly self challenging, I thought the orange loop back went pretty close to the route out, so I decided to take the green route and ended up at the International Fisheries Administration, where I had to be given a lift back to the park from an official. (So grateful!) It was then possible to walk all the way to Songdo Beach via the 1km walkway which winds along the cliff (with another load of stairs).

Or get the cable car – but I’m on a budget remember.  Songdo is obviously very busy in the summer and has a lot of strange, gaudy attractions including some bright coloured concrete, the ‘Cloud Walk’ and the most unusual sea food I have ever seen. Typically, I waited for the sunset to see Hangan Bridge lit up but it was a bit anticlimactic. Although going up in the lift to walk on top of it was pretty thrilling actually.unadjustednonraw_thumb_1cbf.jpg

+TDcPQ5HTOmsSkkQsyQzag_thumb_1c92I caught the bus to Dongbaeksoem Park, one day and saw the APEC building where all the Asian dignitaries meet to discuss matters Asian. I walked all the way from there to Gwangali Beach, some 8 miles, and spend a few hours watching the sun change the character of  the the Gwangan Bridge, also named the Diamond Bridge.  Watching Gwangali come to life was a pleasant evening pastime and I got the subway back.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1c3e

Shattered from walking my average 9 miles, I decided to visit Haedong Yonggungsa Temple instead of hiking into the wilderness for the one which no-one can find. It is pretty breathtaking perched on the coast if a little busy. There were some quieter areas walking northwards from the temple along the rocks and it was the perfect day for photos – maybe a little bit of a haze.Gmv+MlA2Tbyl3jXZCGh76A_thumb_1da7

I visited a few markets either inadvertently or deliberately. The Jagalchi Fish Market is a spectacle – with many varieties of uncooked and cooked and dried delicacies – it’s a real working place not a tourist area – I mean, I suspect Busan is not a first stop for most traveling people. I went to the Busanjin Market, an indoor, multi-storey  melee near Beomil Station because my daughter wanted a Hangbok. I’m sure I was a little bit overcharged, but the experience wasn’t altogether unpleasant. Think Aladdin’s Cave. Something that is really quite remarkable is the extent of the underground market that links the Subway. It goes on forever with anything from antiques, iPhones, cosmetics and second hand clothes…anything you might think of. In addition there are very cheap restaurants where you can see that locals eat – I tried a hot stone bibimbap for 5500 – around £3.50. Nothing exciting but pretty good for gluten free me after a week of gimbap and weird rice crispy rolls.

9TA5JlmLSdOpCoY1L46Jiw_thumb_1dddAs a bridgephile, I can say that this country does its bridges proud and, like Japan, celebrates the aesthetic and architectural qualities of them. The Koreans particularly seem to like lighting them up – a veritable joy for me. But if you don’t fancy loitering under the archways after dark, you can go every day at 2pm to the Yeongdo Bascule and celebrate with everybody else, the lifting of the single leaf to let traffic through. And they do it in style.GqnRhHj1QSCSCe4PpCArlw_thumb_1de6

 

Like many places Busan surprised me and I would go back there  – I felt I hadn’t seen enough of the country. But I think Gamcheon Village sticks out for me as something I have not encountered and probably it might look like Cornwall or somewhere in the Mediterranean that I haven’t been.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1c1e

It wasn’t Japan. People are nowhere near as polite. The spit and smoke everywhere, are louder and there is not the order, or the air of a prosperous, gentile society. But the colourful charm of this city certainly captivated me. There are quite a few English speaking bars such as the Beached Bar at Gwangali and the Basement near Pusan University, as there is large community of ex-pat teachers here. The transport, as I said already,  is the best I have ever encountered in a city. You can get anywhere on the subway or  bus – but not after 11.30pm – then you have to get a taxi. If you haven’t enough cash to pay for the taxi you could try singing 80’s songs such as The Power of Love and Take My Breath Away to the driver  – this worked for me.

 

 

 

Gamcheon – Busan’s Dreamscape on the Hill

fullsizeoutput_756Holly’s Coffee seems to be the perfect blog writing refuge and has  become a little bit of a routine. Its a great latte and not far from the hostel. For some reason Busan has made me feel really relaxed and I don’t feel that pressure to go out early and make the most of the day – because Busan is just about as 24 hour as you can get – this lovely coffee shop included.

IMG_1179Yesterday,  I certainly had a lazy start and ventured at somewhat of a dither to Gamcheon Cultural Village. As my first proper sight seeing day I hadn’t decided where to go and was just wandering up the hill. But the Maps.me was telling me it was only a 40 minute walk. So if you visit, although there are plenty of transport options to get up that hill (and it is steep) you can easily walk from the Gwang Book area. Also you get a chance to see a less touristy part of the city with local markets and interesting dwellings. There is a small tourist office at the start (top) but I just found myself sauntering aimlessly and in a delightfully desultory fashion up and down the lanes, many stairways, narrow passages and just enjoying the strange, beauty and colour of this area. I know I am probably overly descriptive about things I see, but you could be in a scene from an Anime film, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Grand Budapest Hotel if you like any of that stuff. Its slightly fantastical, slightly Southern European…no I shouldn’t try and compare.

Whilst revelling in the slightly trippy, colour assault was quite enough for me, some visitors might need more. There are many things I didn’t explore or quite understand such as the House of Peace, Hope, Darkness etc (maybe someone can enlighten), but the higher part of the village seemed to be where all the trinket/tack shops are and some interesting street food and cafes. IMG_1211Lower down the slopes there is a temple, a market,  a cultural centre with an excellent viewing deck, and the more high brow restaurants. Many of these are closed on Sundays incidentally. It also starts to mingle with the real lives of residents: flooring shops, groceries and snooker halls – because actually people live here – its not like an attraction with a really tangible perimeter.

IMG_1237After my passion for coffee shops, the next really important thing for me is tea, and I found a tiny place called the Plate which boasted a British menu. And for the first time in 3 months, I had a ‘mug of tea’. I applaud them.

I think the key here is not really to go to Gamcheon with any expectations. Just delight in its quirkiness and dreamlike colourful beauty. I imagine in the height of summer this would be pretty crowded but I was lucky enough to be here in mid October on a slightly rainy, cool day. I would go again because I think I haven’t been able to take in its beauty in one visit. IMG_1188

Busan – slumbering beast

fullsizeoutput_713I have just arrived in Busan after an easy transport day from Kansai. Yes one of those days when everything goes to plan – my bag weighed in at 22.7kg – even the check-in staff were impressed. The plane was a new 737-800 – nice and with excellent service. At Gimhae Airport I headed straight for the KT roaming centre as recommended on some travel forums. I bought a 5 day SIM for 27 000 won – I had to fit it straight away for some reason but they even gave me a paper clip and it worked immediately! (In contrast to my Japan Experience B Mobile one which never worked.) Next to the KT centre was the Tourist Info – and the excellent staff member there rung my hostel and asked what was the best way to get there.  An airport limousine bus took me literally to the door for 6000 won (about £4) . I’m incredulous.

IMG_1135I enjoy traveling on a bus through cities as you are slightly above the traffic and can see many things. I have been a Japan a month and got used to its ways, and Korea definitely had a different feel. When I say slumbering beast of a city – its because it reminds me of something that spreads a bit like an oversize, uncomfortable amphibian. fullsizeoutput_73f.jpeg
Or the way bread dough spreads if you drop it down. With a little elasticity and heaviness, pulling it back from the sea – just. Very tall slender high rise clusters yawn out of the sloping, colourful traditional villages as you are looking into the distance. Closer – everything is gaudy – a bit dirty, and the graphemes look like potato printing. Traffic is bad and there is a very hurried vibe. Crossing the road to the hostel was a very dicey business.

The hostel is on the 7th storey of a high-rise with a view of Busan Harbour Bridge. I can’t complain. It’s kind of odd being sandwiched between an accountancy firm and an IT company or something. Next door is the monumental Lotte Mall – a phenomenon I have not come across before. Thirteen storeys high – it boasts a Sky Garden which is the size of an average UK city park, a 360 degree observation deck, aqua park, cinemas etc.  Hudson Bay meets Meadowhall squashed upwards. It was my first port of call as I needed some groceries. Not the right place. (£2 an apple) But the park and observation deck seem pretty  spectacular and distinctive to me.

After a brief exploration this morning – I am gratified immensely to find a plethora of proper espresso coffee shops after the complete dearth in Japan. No need to make do with  Asian Starbucks’ weird, creamy mix.

IMG_1167