Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The unforgettable tour to Hukou Waterfall, Yichuan, Shanxi, China

The local tour bus which took us to Hukou
A quick stop to stretch our legs and for the restroom
After two days, we exchanged smiles frequently
As I expected, life in Xian was much better at the Ancient Youth Hostel, Xian. Most of the staff speak English and they are very helpful. The fact that many backpackers and foreigners are residing in the hostel, the staff have lots of opportunity to practice English. We were extremely happy to meet travelers from other parts of the world.  The hostel is well located, just next to the metro, Bei Dajie station. The shopping malls, Bell Tower, Drum Tower, Muslim Street and the Xian Great Mosque is just about 10-15 minutes walk away.

We sat at the corner of the bus for more than 7 hours
We have about 10 days in Xian and this is our third day.  At the hostel reception we saw the advert of Hukou Waterfall and that was my plan B.  We asked about the tour and was told that the 2 days/1 night tour cost RMB 480 per person, inclusive of entrance fees, guide and one night accommodation.  The price was good and we decided to go the next day. We paid RMB 960 and was told that we will be picked at 8 am the next day. 

Our new friends smiling for the camera
Although, the hostel allowed us to check out and offered to keep our things, we decided to keep our room.  One of the guys at the counter assured us not to worry as there will be an English speaking guide.  We do expect that getting halal food would be difficult in villages and small towns, so we packed snacks and simple food in our knapsack. We were told that we'll be spending a night in the mountain village and I'm not expecting much on the quality of the accommodation.  

Reading about Hukou Waterfall ( 壶口瀑布) and the pictures on the internet have always triggered my interest. The largest waterfall on Yellow River and the second largest in China, Hukou Waterfall is located at the intersection of the two provinces, Shanxi and Shaanxi with Fenxi City 165 km to the west and Yichuan 50 km to the east.  

The next morning a huge bus picked us from the hostel, about 10 local Chinese were in the bus and we thought this bus must be picking up people on its way. About 15 minutes later, just after we exit the ancient gate of Xian, everybody got off the bus and they were running towards another bus. We showed our receipt to the bus driver and in sign language, he instructed us to run to the other bus and we did so. We got on the bus and it was one third full with Chinese and there were still plenty of empty seats.  Soon the bus moved on and we were hoping we're on the right tour bus. Ten minutes later the bus stopped and again everyone stood up and got down the bus and ran towards several other buses near the stop. I began to be impatient, not knowing what was going on!

I asked a girl who looked like a tour guide pacing up and down giving instruction.  I spoke to her in English and she spoke to me in Chinese.  We showed our receipt written in Chinese and she directed us to another bus. By the time we got on the bus, it was full with Chinese and no foreigners, except for my husband and I! Everyone in the bus looked at us like aliens as we made our way to the two empty seats at the back of the bus. After being soaked in the rain like rats, we were hoping that, we were on the right bus. Surely, this is not a straight forward tour like we had many others before.   

As soon as the bus entered the highway, I was confident that we'll not be changing to another bus and hopefully we'll arrive safely to our destination. The girl whom we first talked to was the tour guide and she started talking in Chinese - perhaps explaining about the tour. After she was done with the group, she came to us and looked into our eyes for few seconds and at that point we understood that she does not speak English at all. Now, I fully understand why most foreigners would take China tours through the many advertised English speaking travel agents on the internet. 

We were determined not to give up on her...for the next two days we used drawings, sign language and body language. Sometimes it works but most of the time it doesn't.  In Yan'an, everybody got down the bus and we followed because we thought they were going to the Museum but they actually went to the toilet (an open space toilet)! 

And in another instance, my husband pointed the gun sign just to tell the guide that our hostel is next to the police station. Her eyes bulged and her mouths opened wide, in shock, yet not understanding what we were trying to say. We showed the address of our hostel but she shook her head. Out of frustration, she instructed the driver to drop (throw is a better word) us in the middle of Xian city and ultimately after all taxis refused to take us we end up marching to the police station. Although the police oficer was not able to speak English he was kind enough to call the hostel, stopped a cab and directed the driver to send us to the hostel. Overall, it was a good experience :)
Interesting sculpture at one of the rest area
The tourist :)
The tour guide

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The bustling Muslim Streets in Xian - Xian, China

Halal Restaurant on Muslim Street

Since we were not going to Zhangye...we decided to be closer to the city centre and all its attractions like the Drum Tower, Bell Tower, Muslim Quarter, mosques and the shopping malls. We moved to Ancient City Youth Hostel near Be Dajie metro station.  Getting a cab was much easier with the help of the hotel security staff. We went to Muslim Street for lunch and dinner and we visited the Xian Great Mosque almost every day.  
The street is always full of people and most stalls open until 3 am
The food at the Muslim Street is cheap and tasty but you really have to observe the level of hygiene. Some places can be quiet dirty.  Some of the chefs wore inappropriate attires like sleeveless skimpy shirt. So we were selective about where we eat and what we eat to avoid any related illness. But you'll love the Muslim Street even if you're not keen of eating there. The vibrant streets are lighted with neon all days and nights, the shouting vendors are calling for customers and the creative candy man are pounding the sugar with all their strength.  There're so many activities going on and it's just an amazing scene. 

Just behind the Muslim Main Street, there were many shops which sell Chinese antiques, painting, clothing, shawls, souvenirs and just about anything you may think of. But you really have to be careful with the prices. The price difference from one shop to another can be so huge that you really have to be cautious.  We asked the price of a table runner from a shop in front of the mosque's entrance and he quoted RMB 185, That was really exorbitant as we already asked the price further down the lane where it was quoted for RM 40.  We did not bargain (do not bargain if you have no intention of buying, they might get annoyed) but the vendor slashed the price to 120 then to 85 and finally to 50. We kindly refused the offer because we did not bargain for any price and we walked off. I read the advice of other travelers, where they advised that the bargain should go for 50 to 70%, which I found to be perfectly true. 

But nevertheless, food is cheap and you need not have to bargain. Most of the food prices are labeled and you don't have to worry about being cheated.  I saw the food vendors charging the same price to the locals so no worries about that.  However, we saw an European man bargaining for food which made us smile and perhaps he was taking the advice of other travelers about bargaining.  

This fried pancakes with fillings are really yummy
He's mixing the sugar and nuts before pounding
Pounding the candy
Pound till it's flat
The candy is cut into pieces
Huge pieces are then packed for sale
Small pieces of rice cakes fried
At another stall they stretch the sugar
Then he twists the pliable candies
This bread is delicious when you eat them with grill lamb or chicken
Side road stalls
The street is full of people

A long stretch of the candy
The queue for food can be very long 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

My first travel to China - Xian, China

Traveling Chinese style - Xian Railway Station, Xian, China
Due to my tight working schedule, my blog has not been updated for months.  I have yet to write about Xian, China and Aceh, Indonesia.  I was in Xian, China from 12 to 22 September and it was full of surprises.  On arrival in Xian at midnight of 12th September, I sort of sensed the difficulties we were about to encounter for the next 10 days or so. The immigration officers, customs and people at the airport speak only Chinese.  I scanned through the signage around the airport and everything is written in Chinese. I got back into the arrival hall and look for the information counter.  The girl spoke a little English and she showed us where to get the taxi. Feeling confident that I have printed my hotel booking confirmation both in English and Chinese, I joined the queue for taxi.

Soluxe International Hotel - spacious, very clean and good facilities
When it came to our turn we showed the address of our hotel in Chinese.  He talked in Chinese and soon the security man came to us and we handed him our hotel reservation letter in Chinese and after reading it, he directed the taxi driver in Chinese. We entered the taxi and I was surprise to see a taxi with steel bars separating the driver and the passengers.  I thought this must be part of the Communist practice.  The driver talked to us in Chinese and I kept shaking my head as a gesture that I do not understand him. Suddenly, he pulled off by the road side and asked us to get down.  Not knowing what's going on we refused to get down. He can't just throw us anywhere he likes...few taxis behind us were honking and a security man came to our window and he asked us to get off the taxi and using sign language he indicated that the car needs petrol. Ohhhh ok now we understand, but such strange procedure...the driver drove  into gas station and we walked towards the directed exit.  
The reception was quiet when we arrived just after midnight

Then, another cab stopped near us and we saw a foreigner arguing with his driver and refusing to get down. I knocked on his window and I told him "You have to get down here...he's filling up his tank." He's French and speaks English well...we had a short conversation with him and we bade goodbye when our driver was done.  The journey from the Xinjiang Airport to downtown Xian took about one hour and the taxi fare was Reminbi 150. 

Nice hotel

It was midnight and we were glad to arrive at Soluxe International Hotel , where we will be putting up for 2 nights. We purposely chose the hotel because of its close proximity to Xian Railway Station and we were planning to get the tickets to Zhangye tomorrow.  I did my homework on China, prepared my dialog script and my husband planned to use Google translate to facilitate our journey, not realizing that Google is banned in China and so are other social media. Like usual, we decided to do the tour on our own, but we did not expect that it will be a difficult journey for us.   

Xian Railway Station - huge building and full of people
Electronic board displaying the train schedule 

At the hotel, though it was a huge beautiful 4 star hotel, few staff spoke minimum English but most do not speak English at all.  Next morning, we went to Xian Railway station and like "Alice in Wonderland", we were utterly perplexed with our surrounding. Nothing in English, the train schedules were all in Chinese and we didn't understand anything. We spent a few hours browsing through the huge railway station packed with Chinese travelers.  I told my husband that we should give up on Zhangye,  not only the journey will be too long but we may get into more serious problem as it will be further north and we have very limited time. We have to manage our time efficiently and with the long queue and language difficulties, it would probably take the whole day at the railway station.  I also read that getting train tickets especially the soft sleepers need to be done at least a week before. 

We both agreed on the change of plan. We managed to get a taxi and lucky, the word Muslim brought us to the Muslim Quarters.  The rain never stops since we arrived and we just have to manage with the weather.  I was amazed with the crowd in the Muslim streets and bazaar regardless of the rain. The street were lined with food vendors and big restaurants.  Just go to any stalls and ask them..."Yuan?" and show them what you want.  They showed us their fingers or calculators to tell us the price and transaction was done.  We survived the day at Muslim Street and had great lunch at one of the Muslim restaurant.  The tender grilled lamb was succulent and delicious.  I love the spice they used which was basically crushed cumin and of course chilly flakes.  The aroma was so enticing that we ate like we have been starving for days!

The vehicle that took us back to Soluxe Hotel - RMB 20 (expensive)
The rain gets heavier and it's time to get back to the hotel. It was difficult to get a taxi and we had to be happy with this new transportation we found in Xian. It travels almost everywhere; on the pavement of huge malls, pedestrian path, back lane, narrow tiny streets and huge road. At some point, when the congestion got worst with these vehicles and other vehicles....they would stop, get down their vehicles, shout and quarrel with each other until they are able to make their way through the tiny lanes .  This vehicles even throng in crowded pedestrian lanes  and we were so close with the pedestrians that we could almost touch them. We were so glad to arrive to our hotel in one piece :).  And that was day one in Xian!
This is how close the vehicle gets to the pedestrians!
Buildings are huge in China
A brand that needs no translation :)
How simple traveling can be in China - you don't really need fancy suitcase
Day 1: raining day and night - in front of the rail station
There were huge crowd everywhere at the station
Trying to figure out what it says - hopeless
We bought an umbrella for 10 yuan
We spotted few Muslims at the railway station
We looked at the electronic screen...trying to make sense :)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

We love Lovina Beach House - Lovina, North Bali, Indonesia

View of Lovina Beach House from the beach
The plunge pool in the garden - very clean and private
We took a ferry from Ketapang, Banyuwangi to Port Gilimanuk in the northern part of Bali. This is our second time in Bali and we booked again with Eddy for a private tour but as usual Eddy always does more than he should. The journey by ferry took about 40 minutes and as soon as we got through the exit gate, the cheerful Eddy has been waiting for us.  We told Eddy we were really hungry and he took us to a restaurant for lunch and after that we were heading to Lovina Beach House.
Very relaxing and the maid came in the morning to serve us fruits
I booked Lovina Beach House through Booking.com about a month ago, after reading positive reviews on the accommodation at TripAdvisor and thanks to the reviewers for giving precise information about this place. Upon arrival, Made was waiting for us and we sorted the payment and he showed us around the house. The house is very spacious, clean and the furnishing gives it the Balinese feel.  Our house has two bedrooms, a huge bedroom with a huge balcony facing the sea upstairs and another bedroom downstairs leading to the pool in the garden.  

All the bedrooms are air-conditioned while the open living room and open kitchen concept give the house a good ventilation and airy. The only disadvantage which was not a problem for us is the location of the house which is about a hundred meter away from the main road. You can hire a motorbike for IDR 50,000 (about USD $5) per day or you can hire a private vehicle with a driver. For us, we asked Eddy to stay with us so that he could drive us to the town and at night when we feel like dining outside.

This place is ideal if you intend to go for the dolphin trip in the early morning. Eddy arranged for the boat to come and pick us at the beach in front of the house.  And I saw some people went snorkeling from the balcony of the house but I never tried so I have no idea of the underwater. But overall, we had the a perfectly relaxing stay after climbing Ijen and Bromo. 

Note:  People have been asking about our contact in Bali. Our agent cum faithful guide in Bali is Eddy Santoso. His number is +6287861274094 and he's also available at Whatsapp. 
The bedroom down stairs
The open space bathroom
We had dinner here
The door to the bedroom
The open living room facing the garden in the yard
Entrance path
There's a small door connecting us to the house next door
In the morning, we had breakfast at the little table
The view from the bedroom
I love the furniture 
At the entrance gate
The black sand beach in front of the house
Some people went snorkeling/diving
View of the house from the beach
Few boats near the house