Monday, January 30, 2012

I do love a good plan

I'm so excited. Having made the decision to take the second six months of this year off, I'm already in planning mode. I've mentioned before that I really enjoy the research stage, finding out as much as I can about a place before hand, and then starting to come up with a plan.

My plans are not what other people call itineraries. No way would I commit to actually booking stuff ahead of time, aside from an airfare that is. My reasoning is, that if I have enough knowledge about a place I can estimate an approximate amount of time I might spend there before moving on, thus working out what might be feasible within the time span of my visit. I kind of end up with this massive amount of information about my destination, from which I can pick and chose.

I travel slow. Sometimes when I read on a travel forum or in someone's blog about a projected itinerary I begin to get a head spin. Seriously! Probably the most annoyingly tedious part of travel for me is the incessant packing and repacking, and so I usually plan to stay at least a couple of nights, often much longer, in most destinations. I also find that it isn't really practical to spend more than 3-4 hours doing sightseeing in a day, and that I like to factor in a heavy dose of aimless wandering, chatting to locals, exploring markets and experimenting with new foods. All of which can take me in any number of directions.

Because I plan for a snail's pace, I sometimes find I am running ahead of schedule. In which case it's nice to be able to pluck a destination out of the research hat and run with it. That's what happened to me in Java in 2010, when I headed off to Madura, a fairly sizeable island just off Surabaya, home to some of the friendliest people I've ever met. Not to mention great food and nice beaches. And no mass tourism whatsoever. Yeah, most of you have never heard of it right?

My two countries of choice for this upcoming trip have many similarities yet are also vastly different. I'm not talking about New Zealand. I'm just going there first for some alpine hedonism but perhaps I could rebrand it as pre-trip training and acclimatisation. Because I'm going high altitude trekking in China!!

Everybody goes to Nepal and India to trek the Himalayas, and one day I'll probably go there too. But China has Tibet, not only the Tibetan Autonomous Region where independent travel is no longer possible, but also the neighbouring provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. Here there are spectacular glaciers, high altitude lakes and pastures, Tibetan monasteries, yak herders, and some of the most biodiverse environments on the planet. Not to mention a rich cultural heritage and the ability to travel relatively unhindered by the government authorities.

Researching a destination like this is so important. Being abreast of the politics means being aware of recent local uprisings and the extreme sensitivity of the Chinese government. Since the March 2008 uprising in Lhasa there have been sporadic protests throughout the Tibetan milieu, causing the government to restrict access to certain areas, even some outside the TAR, during anniversaries of these events. Last year much of north western Sichuan was closed to Westerners for more than a month after a protest at one of the monasteries. And each year in March the government suspends all western permits to visit the TAR whatsoever. I do wonder whether the response by the government is somewhat counterproductive, as few tourists speak the language so our access to knowledge about what was going on on a day to day basis would be extremely limited. Publicising it through restricting access not only legitimises the protest, but puts it on the radar for longer than it might have otherwise been.

Prior to March 2008, access to Tibet wasn't so restrictive, and so there's some excellent books around on trekking the region,  including areas outside the TAR. There's also a handful of informative websites advertising numerous trekking options within Sichuan and Yunnan, aside from the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. I'm eternally grateful to whoever left that trip brochure behind in a guesthouse in Berastagi, North Sumatra, because it was in that brochure that I first heard of TLG. It was that dream that got me to Yunnan in late 2008, a visit that made me fall in love with China, and make me want to return to explore further. Well, 2012 is shaping up to be the year!!

At present I'm hoping to spend 2-3 months in China, doing a number of expeditions into the hills. No extreme mountaineering, just trudging along, crossing a few passes above 4000m ASL, camping in alpine meadows, visiting remote monasteries, some glaciers, and generally gorging myself on spectacular mountain scenery. I've found at least five or six possible 2-3 week treks I could do, so I'm accumulating lots of options. I'm also planning to include some tourist sights, I mean a visit to Sichuan is hardly complete without seeing the pandas is it? There's also an all important assignation with the local food specialties, like hot pot. Years of watching Iron Chef means I'm looking forward to trying some hot Sichuan pepper dishes!! And then there's dumplings for breakfast, I'm salivating already....

I'm going to look for company for these treks - besides local guides - amongst friends, along the way, and also out here in the world wide web. I've had mostly fantastic travel companions in the past, and have learnt from the bad ones how to work out whether a prospective travel companion will be compatible. I'm a journey woman, not a destination junkie, and I now know how to tell the difference.

If you are at all interested in doing some China trekking with me, between September and November this year, then drop me a line. All comments are moderated, which means I can delete your contact details prior to comments being published.

As for country number two? Well I mentioned it in a previous post: Myanmar. More on that next.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Planning the next adventure

Happy Australia Day. Or should I say: Happy "made in China" Day. Ever since Sept 11, this obsession with flying the Aussie flag has gone crazy, and no day exemplifies it more than Jan 26, the day the First Fleet sailed in to Botany Bay and began appropriating this land as a penal colony. It seems appropriate to note that two things Australia Day is known for are excessive flag waving and more arrests for aggressive drunken behaviour than any other day of the year. Hmmm..

I have been agonising over the retirement issue, and have at last decided not to pull the plug completely but to exit my working life slowly over the next few years. I think this smacks of total cowardice on my part to not just take the plunge. But there's still too much uncertainty in my life, particularly the financial situation and Hazel's health, to make finishing up in July just a bit too daunting.

I have noticed a certain fatigue starting to re-enter my life, and after falling into such a spectacular mess back in 2008 I know what I'm facing if I don't listen and do something about it. I am who I am, and the fact is that my work life sees me continuously taking on more and more responsibility and I am forced to say no to people. I no longer feel guilty about saying no, but I do feel angry that people keep asking, particularly when I have bared my soul, told people that my mental health is precarious and that I use protective strategies to keep sane. I work part time for a reason, accept it!!

I talked to the boss, and he is open to me taking extended leave without pay as long as I give him enough notice to get a locum. This leaves the door open for me to come and go from my job, a pretty envious position that few people get the opportunity to do. Being an Australian trained doctor who has worked exclusively in Aboriginal Health for the last 14 years actually makes me a very rare commodity, so I've earned it.

I have work commitments till July, due to my responsibility to supervise a new training doctor in the practice, but beyond then, the rest of the doctors can take responsibility for any other trainees. I also have some volunteer positions I'll need to extricate myself from, which may be a little trickier, but the fact that I'm not planning on leaving indefinitely makes it easier to negotiate. Now I just have to decide how long and where I'm going! How exciting!!!!

I'm definitely going back to NZ in July for a ski trip. I've already bought the tickets, well a one way ticket to Queenstown at any rate. I'll stay at least a month, then make my way back across the ditch to visit mum in Canberra and hit the embassy circuit for a visa or two. At this stage it's a toss up as to where I'll go, between China and Myanmar. Or maybe both?

I've been contemplating a trip to Myanmar for a long time, but have been caught up in that political conundrum of whether to visit or not. I have a colleague at work from Myanmar, who has given me some advice on places to visit, and can possibly give me some in country contacts. Unfortunately the military government (no matter that they've just had that recent rigged election) is paranoid, and there are spies everywhere, so my friend has to be careful not to risk endangering family members and friends living in Myanmar. I've thought about where I'd go, what I'd do, and have decided that with my low comfort needs when travelling I'm unlikely to be heavily supporting government enterprises anyway.

Researching Myanmar it appears to be possible to direct most of your money to private enterprises, but there do seem to be a few areas where sticking with principles would be counterproductive. With appalling roads and a limit of 28 days in the country I think a couple of domestic flights seems a better option than spending a week on buses. Entrance fees to famous sites may well go to the government, but they aren't a lot, unlike the huge fees that everyone pays to the corrupt crony ridden Corporation that runs Angkor in Cambodia, or into tourist sites in China, and the Chinese government is hardly blameless when it comes to human rights abuse. I actually find the contempt with which the Lonely Planet authors speak about paying the $10 to see Bagan (for as long as you like) a bit excessive given the number of tourists to Myanmar is minuscule compared to the millions visiting Angkor and propping up that government. As much as I hate how people may be treated in some countries, I'm not convinced that Myanmar stands above all the others as the worst, and therefore I shouldn't visit it. Seems to be more a case of political correctness gone awry.

It is possible to fly between Mandalay and Kunming in China, so I'm thinking about combining both countries. September to December are great times to travel in the region, so I'm currently researching my options, flights, itineraries etc. This should take me a few months I reckon.

Links, ideas, advice - all welcome.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Rediscovering music

A few months ago I bought a Macbook Air. Remember? Well we are still head over heels in love, still discovering each other, and I'm continuously amazed at the new and exciting things I can do with my new beau.

Last weekend, whilst sweltering in a typical summer heatwave, I decided to rip all my music CDs into MP3 files, using Apple's iTunes. Then I can get rid of the CDs, and the stereo, in my attempt to declutter prior to heading off on a prolonged trip. Thing is, I really haven't been listening to music much over the last 10 years or so, I tend to tune into Radio National on the car radio, and rarely go out to see live music anymore. My CD collection has a rather weird datedness to it, it sort of stops in the mid nineties. There's an eclectic mix of jazz, classical, world music and classic 80s rock anthems, not to mention the ABBA boxed collection! How can anyone survive a long road trip without belting out a few Abba tunes I mean seriously???

Since getting the new boy, I've been lurking over in iTunes. And I discovered podcasts, and lots of free music downloads. OK I bought a few things too, but only with the cunningly purchased iTunes gift vouchers I got at a discount price using Target vouchers I'd redeemed from credit card rewards. Lost? Don't worry. Suffice to say I am now the proud owner of some NEW!!! music as well as my dated collection of 80s and 90s classics. And an iPod Nano to listen to it on. All for free, clever ain't I??

Now some of you may not know that a Macbook Air doesn't have a disc drive. One of the main reasons it's so slim and light. So how the hell could I rip my CD collection? Believe it or not, easy peasy. See my new beau is a darn clever communicator and he talks to all my old boyfriends, even the old flasher. Mainly because the old flasher has a perfectly functioning optical disc drive that we'd like to use please.

So, I simply load the CDs into OF*, rip them and share them using WiFi between the 2 computers, my modem and the internet. Awesome hey?? Next step DVDs.....

Now that I have many gigabytes of music at my disposal it really obligates me somewhat to actually listen to it. I already had a cheap, rather pathetic, MP3 player that had an unusable menu and kept chewing up batteries. You know the old saying about pay peanuts you get monkeys? Enough said! So the iPod Nano (free purchase remember!) is my newest wee toy.

So there I am with mountains of music, over 1000 (yes I got a tad carried away!) podcasts and a tiny 8Gb piece of perfection to clip to my clothes. Where do I start? Do I listen to the music album by album, do I create playlists? That will take forever. But hang on, there's a solution.

One word: GENIUS!

I love it. You just pick a song and iTunes analyses your music library and puts together some really interesting playlists. You end up with lots of songs down the back catalog of your albums, as well as the classics, that you haven't heard for ages and often didn't notice much in the past anyway. Sometimes when I listen to an album the whole way through I find myself tuning out after a while. This way I seem to be continuously rediscovering old songs. I'm having a great time. And enjoying listening to music again. Eureka!!

I'm also enjoying some great podcasts. Some are new music releases, others are comedy, others are my favourite Radio National shows. The absolutely best so far is a wonderful series with Wendy Harmer and Angela Catterns called "Is it just me?". These two women (I'm not calling them girls or ladies, listen and you'll know why!) talk about day to day issues, bringing up kids, their opinions about varied topics, all with the wonderful self deprecating humour that us Aussies are good at. It is the ultimate show for cackling out loud and rolling around the floor in hysterics. I challenge anyone not to find them hilariously funny. Unfortunately the shows are no longer being produced, but the podcasts of 30 odd episodes are available here.

Enjoy! I am...

                                            *OF = Old Flasher, my ex, see this past post

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The whys and hows of travelling wisely

I read a blog the other day about a girl who has been travelling for 18 months and hit the wall. She's burnout and heading home, but I think she'll be stronger and wiser for it. One thing she found hard was the continual need to travel on a very low budget, and the supposed competition amongst other travellers to do it on as little as possible. Well that just sounds plain exhausting to me, and probably about the worst reason to travel I can think of.

Her honesty inspired me to write a little philosophical post about travelling wisely. It's not about prescribing a particular path, but about people deciding their own path, planning accordingly, and most importantly, keeping things in perspective.

 Budget for your comfort level 
Everybody has different comfort levels. If the thought of camping, or staying in a place without aircon gives you the heebie jeebies, then it's a good idea to plan your holiday around a budget that allows you those creature comforts. It's not a crime to want comfort, but it's also a good idea to be flexible, to occasionally have a go outside your personal comfort zone and see how you cope. After all, travel is about new experiences, isn't it? It really isn't cool to expect a champagne lifestyle on a beer budget, so if you can't afford the creature comforts, either save up more money before you go, or travel for a shorter period.

Before my last big trip in 2008/09 I gave myself a list of things I wasn't going to do anymore now that I was older, and had the cash. I wasn't going to do long overnight bus trips and I was going to stay in places with hot water and ensuites. I quickly discovered that some of the locations I ended up in didn't have the latter, and sometimes the rooms with the best character and views didn't either. Having my own bathroom actually stopped mattering very quickly, and I soon got used to sluicing myself with cold water from a bucket in a room down the end of the corridor. As for the buses, well in China they have sleepers, and I'm short enough. I still flew when the alternative was a 24 hour bus trip, and as far as I'm concerned, it makes me no less a bonafide traveller than the next person.

 Know why you travel
There has to be a reason beyond building a list of countries seen. When you get jaded with travel it usually means you've lost sight of why you left in the first place, or that the reason has changed and you need a new one. I travel to experience other cultures, to enjoy spectacular scenery, and to push myself physically. For this purpose I try and learn the language, eat the local food, go to the local markets, couch surf, and frequently end up spending almost all my time hanging out with locals, not with other backpackers. My trip to Java in 2010 was exactly that sort of experience. I also combined it with a bit of walking (not as much as I had planned), and an expensive sunrise tour of Borobodur. I got the sunrise photos I wanted, isn't that why I travel, to follow my dreams?

 Take time out
Experiencing new things gets exhausting, especially when it's day after day. I don't exactly plan them, but from time to time I find myself encamped in a backpacker ghetto for a few days. Here I don't need to worry about wearing modest clothing, or drinking far too much alcohol, and I can use the internet to catch up on the rest of the world. It's also when I take the time to upload my photos, write a few blog entries, do the internet banking, do all the "housekeeping" so to speak. These little oases of familiarity the world over allow me to chill out, recharge my batteries and head on to my next adventure. When I'm ready.

 Travel at a pace that suits you
Some people love setting up in a place for a while, others spend a different day in a new town, and the nights travelling between destinations. And the rest of us are somewhere in-between. At different times you'll find the pace right, at other times it isn't. If it isn't, change it, it's your trip. If that means saying goodbye to a travel companion, so be it. A grumpy travelling partner is no fun whatsoever. If it means forfeiting a flight, it's your call, but it means you're planning too far ahead and you need to stop and have a rethink. Only leave when you're ready, even if it means a few visa runs. That sort of discontent over doing things too quick can be quite hard to shift once it sets in, so stop! And go back to point number 2.

 Contribute to the local economy
Spending money is really important for the economy and if you spend wisely, then the locals reap the benefit. This is particularly important if planning to visit countries where the politics are suspect and the government highly corrupt, like Myanmar. Finding out whether the transport and accommodation is government owned or not and spending wisely will make a huge difference to the people. Booking ahead via the internet usually means a lot of middlemen, and possibly not locals, will be getting a cut. If it isn't necessary to book, then don't, because you'll almost always find as good accommodation as those on the internet, usually at cheaper prices. As my comfort needs are quite low, I also don't need to rely on chain hotels etc, and can stay in family home stays where the money stays local. Spreading the rest of your budget around also makes sense. I remember explaining to a driver in Bali one day why I wasn't going to book him tomorrow: because I wanted someone else to get a cut of my tourist dollar. It's also a damn good reason for trying different street stalls and restaurants, and for avoiding places run by expats. Finding a local guide is never difficult, almost always dirt cheap, though quality can be hit and miss, but then the fee usually reflects that anyway.

Sometimes you meet people who get a kick out of spending as little money as possible, and are rarely much fun to be around as they can't seem to afford to accompany you to see the sights, have a beer or a meal etc etc. I can't quite see the sense in this myself, and I certainly wouldn't want to emulate them. Some even steal, cheat and take advantage of newbie travellers. An English guy I met in Hanoi had got a young Australian girl enamoured with exciting stories of his travels, and of his life as a travel writer (unsure whether this was true). Over the course of 3 days she "lent" him money and paid for all his meals and drinks. At one stage he invited a group of us to eat at a "great restaurant", we all got ready and headed out, and then when it was time to pay the bill, well he'd somehow forgotten to bring any money hadn't he? Once this girl left, he then honed in on the next one.

On the other hand there are people like Roman, a Czech lad I met in 2008 as my first Hospitality Club (this preceded couch surfing) guest. Roman had been travelling the world by hitching, camping and staying with locals through Hospitality Club and similar organisations, as well as through people he met when hitching. He went out of his way to cook meals, help me in the garden, and show me some of his awesome photography. Roman slept under trees in the outback one night, the next bought and cooked an exquisite chicken roast dinner for his host. He didn't contribute much to the economy, but he didn't take much either. I doubt there is a person out there who met Roman and wasn't spiritually enriched by the experience. After 6 years travelling, Roman had his last few dollars stolen from him on a truck ride through Iran, and arrived home penniless. He's now writing a book. Check him out.

 Maintain perspective
Everyone gets scammed from time to time. Almost always you can learn from the experience, be smarter and wiser for the next time. But if it was just that you paid more than you should have, remember you were happy to pay it in the first place, and it's only in retrospect you feel cheated. You could have walked away and not paid. You probably hadn't done your research, didn't know what the price should have been etc. In this internet day and age of so much information, almost every well known scam anywhere in the world has been written about on numerous travel forums and even published in guidebooks. Your hotel/hostel/guesthouse concierge is also a good source of info about local prices and will happily keep you informed. Just ask.

Similar to the scam is the double tiered pricing where you pay more than the locals. There are ways of getting around this, but if you haven't found out how, just try and look at it as still dirt cheap anyway. Why ruin a trip arguing and worrying about a dollar or two? If you find yourself thinking this way, remember how much a cup of coffee costs in your hometown....

Another area where us westerners need to maintain perspective is around cultural differences, hygiene standards, rubbish etc. Come prepared for public toilets with your own wipes, desanitiser, whatever you need, ask the guy spitting on the bus to spit somewhere else rather than on your bag, understand that it's someone's livelihood to sort the rubbish and reuse it, to collect the money at the public toilet, or whatever. That there may not be a social welfare system, or a tax system that provides public infrastructure. We have nice roads and working amenities in our countries because we pay taxes and our governments are slightly less corrupt. It isn't the fault of the bus driver that the bus is falling apart, he's just earning money to feed his family, and he'd prefer not to be driving a death trap either.

 It is not a competition
Anyone who plays the one up-manship card in my book is a rather insecure person who needs attention to feel worthy. Or is looking for a fuck. We are all out there trying to achieve our individual personal goals. Unless yours is child sex tourism, who am I to criticise how and why you travel. The person who has been to 100 countries is no better a person than the person who's just arrived for their first week ever of overseas travel. Particularly if said traveller brags about it. 100 is just a number. So what? And do I care how little or how much you spent? No, I just want to know that you had a good time, and what you can recommend of a particular destination.

  Listen to yourself
One thing about travel is you spend a lot of time with yourself. You get the opportunity to become attuned to not only your body, but your moods, and I can highly recommend taking notice. Travel isn't a job, where you've got to force yourself to get up to go to work every day whether you feel like it or not, so let the right brain rule and indulge your intuition, your feelings for space, time and place. And when the mind and body say you've had enough, you've had enough. Accept it. If that means going home, so be it. I mean friends and family are hardly going to do anything but welcome you back with open arms. And it doesn't have to be forever right?

I've done 2 big overseas trips, one for 20 months and the other for six months, and a number of shorter trips. The first was in my mid twenties, and a year in I started to notice the jaded long term traveller, who'd been on the road for years, had no real attachments, had lost contact with family and friends back home, and had had experiences that  people back home wouldn't understand anyway. They didn't really fit in with the bright young things like myself who had short term plans to travel for a year or so then return to an education or build a career, and they rarely had work skills that they could translate into something well paid should they return home. All their friends would be settled into careers and families, and here they were still chasing young backpackers' tails and doing drugs. They seemed lost to me, and I decided I never wanted to be like them. So when I was ready to return home to continue my career, I did.

My second trip I could have continued longer but my house/dogsitter was moving on and I needed to come home. I could have found another sitter, but returning to a depressed dog broke my heart, and I'll never travel longterm again till she passes on. Then I will indeed head off for longer. But I'll listen to the inner demons, and react accordingly.

 Giving back is easy
It's all too easy to feel a lot of guilt for having so much when you see the poverty that exists in the world. I don't think it's particularly wise for individuals to give to a school or an orphanage in a poor country because it just encourages a type of institutionalised begging, as I saw in Cambodia. Spending your money locally is a better way to help that economy help itself. I regularly donate to Oxfam, an organisation renowned for providing sustainable community development programs throughout the world.

An important way to give back is by respecting local custom and speaking to people with courtesy and respect. This gives the message that overseas tourists are nice people, who value other cultures besides their own and aren't as crass and rude as they appear to be on Jersey Shores! Unfortunately I often see rudeness rather than courtesy, and it only reflects poorly on all of us.

Because of exposure to Western popular culture there is a danger that people will aspire to ours and devalue their own. I don't want the places I visit to lose their unique cultures, I want them to know that I value them. That's why I eat their food, follow their customs, take interest in their handcrafts and textiles and try not to impose my personal standards on others. In that way I give them pride in what they have. It's not a lot, but it's something.

So there you have it, just my thoughts on travelling wisely. Feel free to leave your thoughts too.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Don't knock it till you've done it

Before I headed down the beach, I was recalling my travel to China back in 1989. I left you in Guilin, on the River Li, about to take a ferry trip to Yangshuo.

As an obsessive travel forum/ travel blog lurker, it seems to me that the ferry trip from Guilin to Yangshuo is these days denigrated as a bit of a tourist trap, and that only the lower reaches are worth the expense of jumping on a boat to glide along a river surrounded by karst peaks. I've also read similar things about numerous other boat trips along rivers throughout Asia, and basically, there's no consensus really. There's those that put down any trip that includes the more middle class package tourist, unless it's possible to see the real estate by a more "real' method. This was the logic around the well heeled tourists taking the tour boats, and the backpackers taking the felucca down the Nile in Egypt. Then there's those like me, that realise that the real estate is what we've come to see, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If a person is more concerned about the comfort, or lack thereof, of their chosen mode of transport, then I suspect they won't have the inclination to enjoy the spectacular scenery they are floating through. So live and let live.

Anyway, back in 1989 I can assure you the River Li cruise was already a tourist trap. But I kind of get a kick out of this anyway (I clearly recall us all doing brown eyes from our felucca at passing cruise boats all those years ago!), as I enjoy watching other people and how they deal with a different environment and culture. And the whole touring palaver was new to me back then, everything fascinated me. In fact it still does.

The cruise was spectacular: karst peaks, mist, clouds, moody river, verdant green paddy fields, and occasional fishermen. There were at least 10 ferry boats, and there was lots of hooting of horns and possibly some racing shenanigans going on between boat captains. We were the only westerners on our boat, the rest being from Taiwan and Japan and after considerable jostling, the boats set off. The first part was thick with peaks surrounding us on all sides, the middle section was undulating pastures, then the peaks returned as we approached Yangshuo. Arriving in this small town we were shocked to see so many tourists alighting, the numerous signs in English and to realise we were in some sort of different place to anywhere we'd been before. Yes, this was our first backpacker ghetto.

Over the next day and a half mum and I were left to our own devices. We were installed in one of the better hotels in town, although the room was damp, the toilet didn't flush and there was no hot water. Or electricity a good deal of the time either. We checked in and headed out, passing The Hard Rock Cafe, Charlie Chaplin's Bar and the Sheraton Hotel. We had a wonderful giggle at the Chinglish and had a first encounter with the ethnic minority people of Southern China. Little did I know that 20 years later I would spend over 3 months exploring these interesting cultures of SE Asia, absolutely fascinated with their textiles and needlework.

Next we did some money changing. In 1989 foreigners could only exchange their western currency for Foreign Exchange Certificates, or FECs. The people's money, Renminbi (RMB), could not be exchanged into foreign currency, and could not be used in the government owned Friendship Stores to buy overseas consumer goods, like TVs. Funny to think that back then everything wasn't made in China! The locals were very keen to get hold of FECs, and tourists were keen to get hold of Renminbi to pay for day to day expenses, especially as the exchange rate was about 1.8 RMB to 1 FEC. The only way to get RMB was to use the black market, often small private stallholders selling tourist souvenirs. Whilst mum rode shotgun, I did the deal, and we emerged with a fistful of real chinese money. Boy we were proud of ourselves!!

The difference between these two forms of currency meant both sides had the opportunity to get a good deal. As both FECs and RMB were in "Yuan", the official currency, shopkeepers would bargain in Yuan but expect FEC. Imagine their disappointment when the tourist gives them RMB instead. Score one to the tourist!! And if the tourist travelled using RMB the cost of living was so cheap. It wasn't totally all on the tourist's side though, because transportation and entry prices to tourist sites were much more expensive, and often only accepted in FECs. When the Chinese government finally discarded the two tiered monetary system they also outlawed different pricing tiers as well.  But that combination of fear, danger and joy experienced when playing the black market for the first time is an experience I will always cherish.

Next morning we decided to head out of town on bicycles to explore the countryside. Mum's newly acquired asthma had resolved by now, but it appeared that the saying "just like riding a bike" isn't totally to be believed. I am sure my mother has ridden a bike in her youth, but do you think she could manage to stay upright on a bog standard Chinese bike? No way Jose, she needed trainer wheels, not an available extra option at the bike hire place outside the Yangshuo Hotel. What to do?

We'd been in China for at least a week by now, and had not failed to notice that riding a bike is rarely a solo affair. Mum, dad, three kids, two chickens and a pig could be easily accommodated on one rusty Chinese treadly by the average peasant, so why were we getting all hot under the collar that the old lady couldn't ride her own bike? Admittedly the steel carrier rack would not have been all that comfortable, but mum cheerfully perched herself sidesaddle behind me and we peddled off into the countryside. Let me tell you, when a westerner cycles past with a more senior western lady perched behind her, Chinese style, on one bicycle, most peasants fall off their bicycles themselves. A few westerners did too! We laughed a lot that day, both with and at the locals, saw some beautiful scenery, and only once ended up in a ditch when mum tried to move her weight to get a little more comfy.

That evening we visited one of the backpacker bars for an Irish Coffee, discovered banana pancakes for the very first time, and had my first exposure to the loud fat arrogant American tourist.

The next day we drove back to Guilin and prepared to fly on to Xi'an, home of the terracotta warriors.