Monday, January 30, 2012

To the land of Avatar's and back...

Continuing on our vacation with the Pope's...

We left Hong Kong on New Year's Day, and took a short hour flight to Guilin, China. From Guilin we headed to Yangshuo to see the legendary peaks. The peaks in Yangshuo were the inspiration for the landscape used in the movie AVATAR!

Several months ago a good friend of mine told me that if I ever made it out to Hong Kong I should take the opportunity to stop over in Yangshuo and see the famous peaks. (Thank you Mari for your suggestion...the peaks were worthy of the extra time...truly a once in a lifetime sight!)

The flight there was super quick, but the travel arrangements were another story... Nick and I are glad to say that China can be checked off our "bucket list" but don't know if we are willing to deal with the Chinese again in order to make another visit there. In the future we will be visiting countries that aren't so strict!!!

It took forever but we got our Visa's to get into China....passport stamp from China...CHECK!

Pope trying to help the cab driver and her posse get our luggage into the trunk. Don't ask me why it took so many Chinese to figure out where we were trying to get to.... We had a map and everything! (They were smiling though and not yelling...always a good thing.)
The hour+ cab ride from the nearest airport to our hotel was long, but as we pulled up to our hotel we looked up and were surrounded by those famous peaks we had come all this way to see. Even at night we could tell it was definitely worth it!
We stayed at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat located right on the river and completely surrounded by dozens of peaks. This expat retreat is totally American friendly and very very inexpensive! A cozy lodge, built as an escape from all the cauos in China, but has expanded because it's ever-so-popular. (We actually booked it over 4 months in advance)

Too tired to go out, we had dinner at the retreat that night before retiring to bed.

Their menu was very extensive, offering a wide variety of foods...from local Chinese dishes to foreign American favorites. Though it was our first night in China, so naturally we wanted to try the Chinese cuisine.
(Pope giving his "Asian grin")
A complimentary treat of ginger tea and homemade cookies.
I just had to take a photo of the bathrooms downstairs in our hotel...this is what most looked like everywhere we went. You had the option of either going in the hole in the ground, or with the Westernized modern toilet. Which would you choose???
(Also, disgustingly enough, in China you aren't supposed to flush toilet paper! That being said, there are trash bins next to the toilet for you to dispose of your waste instead. You can only imagine how unpleasant China smells because of it!)

Our room was very cozy...As indicated in the picture here, our bed wasn't much bigger than a twin and our bathroom was separated with nothing other than a curtain....but, we had a balcony with an amazing view!

That second-story balcony was ours...complete with two rocking chairs!

The first morning we woke up to see the peaks in their full beauty in the light of day.
They seemed less daunting than the night before. (Laura confessed she didn't get much sleep because she kept having nightmares that the Avatar mountains would come caving down on her during her slumber!)

The weather wasn't what we had hoped for, but bundled up and armed with umbrellas, we headed out on our first day of sightseeing in Yangshuo.

It was a lengthy walk from our hotel to where we were heading, but part of the appeal of the Yangshuo area is the leisurely strolls and bike rides one can enjoy while there. We kept ourselves entertained by taking photos and coming up with clever "Avatar names" for each other during the trek.

Yangshuo is in more rural China, so not as crowded as the city but more poverty-stricken, very dirty and the livestock roamed free.
Snapping pictures of the locals cleaning their waste buckets in a small pond, (no wonder their water is unsanitary) we were yelled at by one of the ladies. Despite the language barrier, with her high pitched words and vigorous hand gestures, it wasn't hard to determine what she was telling us NOT to do!

Our first quest of the day was to take a ride down the Yulong river for great views of the peaks and surrounding scenery.
At the mouth of the Yulong River we found what we had heard so much about...the small river rafts made out of bamboo!

This hawker wouldn't leave us alone...she kept asking if we wanted to buy rain panchos! "Ok? Yes? Ok?" The Pope's were blocking her with their umbrellas and she still didn't get the hint! "Ok? Yes?"
Two per raft only, (excluding the "guide") our group of 4 had to split into 2!

The cute little Chinese men balanced on the ends of the raft, while guiding us down the river!

"Taking a bamboo raft ride is an excellent, relaxing way to take in the amazing views of the Yu Long River and watch the countryside just drift on by. The starting points are at different locations along the rivers and the rides range from half an hour to 5 hours. The drift is very slow and you are floating gently down the course of the rivers and across a few weirs."

Bold move on my part, jumping from our raft to the Pope's for a photo op!

A few times along the ride there were dips, where our raft would make a vertical dive and leave us both drenched! Whoo! (This photo says it all!)
At other points, the guide would make us get off of the raft and he would have to cleverly maneuver the raft over a dam-like bridge...

We used that spare time for a photo op...

And right at the end of our raft ride, we came upon our retreat.
The guidebooks don't really is picturesque!

Our guide was very patient with us...
but then again, in the end, he asked us for a tip! Ours and the Pope's guide both told us they needed money for booze!!! Who does that?!?

After the wet raft ride on the river, we were drenched and freezing. A short ride in a tuk tuk-like transportation took us to Luna for lunch and to get warm.

Luna Cafe is an Italian rooftop restaurant, famed for it's pizza and views of Moon Hill. The weather wasn't cooperating with us that day, so we weren't able to sit outside, but the three walls of windows allowed for a view worthy of our attention.

Luna Cafe sits on top of the Yangshuo Village Inn, which is the sister hotel to the Mountain Retreat where we stayed. They had a full board advertising our hotel in the restroom! (We agreed that ours was the better hotel!)
The boys couldn't get warm enough, so they moved their food so they could sit directly over the space heater!

After lunch we walked down the street to one of the village markets. The Pope's picked up some Chinese hats!
That night we toured the streets and did a bit more shopping in West Street.

"West Street is the oldest street in Yangshuo with a history of more than 1,400 years. Situated at the center of Yangshuo County, West Street has become, since the 1980's, a window of eastern and western culture and the biggest 'foreign language center' in China."

The next day it was off to get more pictures of the gorgeous peaks!
Another river ride, but this time on the famed Li River!
Still a bamboo raft, but this time fit for four and with a motor on the back!

Covered seating, for a drizzly day.
We were all a bit cold, if you couldn't tell.
Avatar country...AMAZING!

The guidebooks all boasted about the "water buffalo" that we would see grazing by the river while in Yangshuo. I of course, was the most excited about this. "Water Buffalo!?! We can't go home until we see Water Buffalo!" And then, just before our boat ride was over, we saw TWO! Though, we were all so shocked that they did in fact exist (cause we hadn't seen any trace of them as of yet) that we didn't get a good photo of them in time!
The entire boat ride, the driver of our boat was going SOOOO slow, we were being passed by one boat after another. Then, when it mattered that he drive slow (ie-so we could snap a pic of our treasured buffalo) he takes that opportunity to finally find his speed!!!!

Of course!

After the boat ride Nick instructed our cab driver (yes you can pay a few bucks to have a cab driver for the whole day...everything was very inexpensive) to stop at a few of the street markets.

We witnessed this weird street game where people were tossing rings into a pen of ducks. The idea was to get the ring around the duck's neck. A twisted version of "Ring Toss" mixed with "ringing a duck's neck"?

After street shopping we went back to the hotel for lunch. Then the boys headed back out to do some hiking up Moon Hill....
Though I was mad at myself later for missing such a gorgeous hike, Laura and I had had enough cold and rain and opted to get a massage instead!
"After a long day enjoying the countryside in Yangshuo, a traditional Chinese massage in your guest room at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat is the perfect way to relax. We offer traditional Chinese massage by a well-trained and experienced local masseuse."
After reading this in the guest books in our room...who could pass a massage up? Apparently not us!

The boys had fun without us...

"On a sunny day, blue sky and white clouds can be seen through the cave and on cloudy and rainy days, the 'moon' is deep in mist. Viewed from different places, the moon takes on different shapes, sometimes full moon, sometimes half-moon and sometimes crescent, forming a marvelous spectacle in Yangshuo."

The scenery, especially the peaks in Yangshuo was out-of-this world breathtaking, but we still left on a bad note. All four of us got sick off of the food and left with a sour taste in our mouths (literally). We believe it to be due to the unsanitary water, and the washing of fruits and veggies in said water. Otherwise we were very careful while there. Nonetheless, we got extremely sick off of the food and left several pounds lighter!

The area is gorgeous and I would recommend anyone to visit, but the best time to go would be during the summer when the weather's warmer and everything is more green (and those darn water buffalo are more plentiful!) When we were there it just so happened to be during the 2 weeks of the year that the famous Liu Sanjie Show on the Li River was on their winter break and not having ANY performances! Otherwise, it's a nightly occurrence. This show is put on by Zhang Yimao, who choreographed the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The show is supposed to be spectacular! Sadly, we didn't get to witness it.
We parted ways with the Pope's in Guilin airport...they headed to Beijing and us back to Hong Kong to catch another flight back to Japan. We were sad to say goodbye, it had been a great trip (despite the last several hours of a nasty stomach bug, which is why there are no pictures of our last day together!)
Nick and I decided to take a couple extra days by ourselves in Hong Kong. We stayed at the Royal View Hotel for the second leg of our Hong Kong visit.

The view from our room..
The Royal View is a little closer to the airport, but also we chose to stay there because it was right on the water and overlooking the sites of the city!
Though this hotel didn't have free Wi Fi (a must for us) nor did it have the awesome breakfast buffet that the Island Pacific did...our room was huge and as I said before, came with a great view!

Nick and I were still feeling sick those last 2 days in Hong Kong. In trying to get over our food poisoning, we stayed very low key.

But, after not eating for almost 2 days, I suddenly was starving...what does this Texas girl crave most when I am most hungry (despite being completely nausious just prior)??? Tex-Mex!

Our hotel had a digital guidebook that boasted all of Hong Kong's finest foods. Coyote Bar & Grill was said to have some of the best Mexican food in Hong might not have been the best decision after a stomach bug, but it sure was delicious!

The next day, after a long day of traveling back to Japan, Nick and I were very happy to be home in our part of Asia! As Nick posted on his facebook on our way home from the airport along with the following pic:
"After just returning from Hong Kong and China, the Tokyo skyline has never looked better!"
I couldn't agree more... Traveling is fun, but we like it here in Japan the best!