Photos from China

10 06 2010

Hi all

Last night I compiled the best photos from our trip to China last April.  Check out the Video below

How much does it cost to backpack in Asia?

31 05 2010

Finally I’ve taken together how much we spent during our four month trip through South-East Asia and China.  As you can read about here on the blog we tried to keep our budget down with the occasional splurge when we felt like it.  We most often stayed at budget hostels and guesthouse (see further here) and travelled with local transportation as much as possible but money was never an obstacle when it came to activities that we really wanted to do.

Before we flew out to Asia we basically bought three things.  These three things are not calculated into the average spending per day below.  These three things were (note – all numbers are in USD):

Flight tickets $3,354
Vaccinations $800
Chinese Visa $200
Total $4,354

The flights that we booked beforehand were Reykjavík-London-Bangkok-Hong Kong-Beijing-London-Reykjavík – in that order.  We bought all our tickets through a company called airtreks and were very happy with their services.

I think that we had all possible vaccinations available – or at least those that were recommended by the tourist clinic in Zurich.  The vaccination cost might be a bit higher, at least this is what we can remember for sure.

For the most of the trip we used debit cards to get money from ATMs so it was fairly easy to see what we spent in each country.  I just had to look up the dates, when we crossed the borders and voila!

Country Days stayed Total spent in country Spent per day per person per day
Thailand 42 $2,449 $58 $29
Cambodia 10 $503 $50 $25
Vietnam 25 $2,212 $89 $44
Laos 7 $591 $84 $42
Hong Kong 4 $251 $63 $31
China 22 $1.548 $70 $35
Total 110 $7.554 $69 $34

As you can see we spent on average $69 per day including everything except the three things mentioned at the top.  Cambodia seems to be the cheapest country according to our experience and Vietnam the most expensive one.  To be fair to Vietnam we did spend over $400 on clothes in Hoi An and if I subtract those $400 the average spending goes down to about $72 a day.  We also did a few expensive things in Laos like the elephant ride that pushes the spending in Laos up a bit.

In total we spent close to $12,000 on the trip or about $1,500 per person per month, which is definitely on the low side.  At least what we got out of the trip is worth so much much more!

Of course we did everything as a couple and people travelling alone can expect to pay a bit more for accommodation and food but maybe not that much more.

In the end I would just like to encourage anyone thinking about taking such a trip to just to go for it – it’s easier and less expensive than people think!

If you have any comments or questions, don’t hesitate to post them below.

Re-review of Lost on Planet China

8 05 2010

Before going to China, Elínborg and I read Lost On Planet China by J. Maarten Troost to prepare us for what was to come.  We both really liked the book, it was both entertaining and interesting and a good preparation for our trip.  You can see my previous review here.

First I would like to restate that reading the book was a great preparation to visiting China.  What the book did was lowering almost all of my expectations of China.  The book displayed the people as rude  and difficult and I found the author, especially towards the beginning, to a bit like a baby that has leaving home for the first time without the knowledge that other people might be different from him self.

I can see now, after travelling through China for three weeks, that the author obviously chose to exaggerate quite a bit to be create a more compelling story.  After all, fiction is so much more exciting than ordinary life, so who can really blame him? 

To the author’s defense I’ve read that before the Olympics, Chinese authorities campaigned for a better behavior from Chinese citizens, hanging up signs and handing out pamphlets – no spitting on the street  and so on – so that might contribute to the discrepancy between our experience and his.

Of course we didn’t travel as extensively as Mr. Troost but I don’t think that really changes much.  As I’ve said before he seemed to like China more and more each day.  We definitely loved China and the Chinese people (as you can see here) the culture and the many historic sites in China – even though we thought that quite many of them were way over hyped.

Just to summarize, I would again highly recommend this book to anyone that intends to visit China.  It is highly entertaining and if nothing else, at least it will lower your expectations.  Like someone told me – happiness is nothing more than expectation management!

Are tourists evil?

6 05 2010

This is a question I have often pondered and no wonder if you think about the reputation tourists have:  the French tourists are considered intolerably arrogant, the British are always wasted (as are the Icelandic), the Germans are so cheap that they fill their pockets with the bread from the buffet, the Japanese don’t care as long as the get the picture, the Swiss get agitated if the train comes one minute too late, the Russians don’t know the meaning of courtesy, the Americans are way too loud and the Chinese respect no rules and so on and so on.

As I’m writing this we are graduating from being tourist to just ordinary people in transit :)  We’ve been tourists, surrounded by tourists for a few months now and we’ve thought about and talked about tourists a lot.

What we have noticed is that tourists are very special people in deed.  For one, tourists dress in a way that is immediately noticeable.  Somehow they are always a bit out of tune – too heavily dressed in trekking shoes and fleece sweaters, too lightly dressed in flip-flops and shorts, too much new gear, too much Columbia and North Face or too much local stuff that no local would ever wear – what ever that may be.  Tourists definitely don’t dress in the same manner as they would at home that is for sure.

Tourists are not the best mannered people either.  Often they are pressed with time or money or both and act accordingly.  They want everything – right now – this minute – either free or for as little money as possible.  They are on a tight schedule and want to get their money’s worth, including pictures and all and can get a bit agitated is things are not going their way.

According to our observations, the bigger the tourist group – the more exaggerated this (mis-)behavior becomes.  I thought that when people come in groups they would be more concerned about their behavior so that the others in their group would not condemn them but it seems that in big groups one’s misbehavior is another one’s license to misbehave.  Who hasn’t been in a group where you really want that perfect photo of that local person doing that local stuff but you feel it is inappropriate just to go for it.  But when someone in the group takes the first picture everyone thinks that it is OK to fire away.

Throughout our trip I’ve thought a lot about the impact tourists make on the local communities and the environment and quite often the picture isn’t pretty.  Communities and ecosystems have been spoiled and even ruined due to the arrival of too many tourists and same goes for invaluable cultural sites that have been tramped down by tourists hungry for that perfect photo.

So are tourists evil?  Just so that I can live with my self for being a tourist for the past few months I’m forced to think of some good things about tourists and the tourist industry.  So what is positive about tourists …humm ….?

I think there are two great things about tourists and tourism.  First, it is the money tourists bring with them and spend along the way.  Tourists spend huge amount of money and they are most willing to spend their money where prices are low and most often that is in low income areas so tourists often make the most impact where there is the most need.  One can therefore argue that to some extent tourism is one sort of income or wealth distribution. 

Secondly, I think that tourism or rather travel provides a great platform where different people can meet and get to know each other, share experiences and learn about each other.  This should bring us all closer together and lower the walls between different cultures.  It is just like the small town rivalry where I grew up, we hated (ok, more disliked) people from Akureyri and despised all that they stood for – there was simply no other option.  But all (most) the people from Akureyri that I’ve gotten to know have been very nice people indeed – so getting to know them has eliminated my “hatred” :)

I’m sure there are more positive sides of tourism like spreading knowledge,  stimulating the economy, extending the collective gene pool, decreasing racism, showing that all the animals in the forest need to be friends and so on but I’ll let do with those two above.

During our trip we (the tourists) tried as much as we could to stay away from other tourists during our travels.  Maybe not because tourists are evil but because we weren’t travelling to see them with all their quirks – we were travelling to see the natives and local people and their quirks.  

What do you think?  Are tourists evil?  Have they changed your community?  Do you have a compelling story about tourists?  …or better yet, a funny story of tourists?  Bring it on!

The Chinese people

1 05 2010

To be honest, when we arrived in China we were a tiny bit skeptical about China and the Chinese.  We have seen Chinese tourists in action, rushing forward in a big group without respecting any rules or customs and we read the book Lost on Planet China so we didn’t really know what to expect.

However we have found the Chinese to be great people in every respect.  We have been travelling through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos but we have found the Chinese in general to be the happiest and the most helpful of all the people we have met. 

Despite the apparent language barrier the people on the here have been so helpful, giving us directions and trying to help us in any way, that it has been fantastic and they have seemed really interested in us having a great time in China.  Sometimes we have been skeptical and thought that  some people have been out to get us but they have always had the most genuine intentions.

We have also found the people here to be very cheerful, always joking around and sheering laughs – no matter the situation.  Before coming to China I thought it was all hard work and no play but that has been proven wrong as well.  People  seem to be very happy and contend with life even though they really work a lot and put in more hours than we generally do in the West.

The only complaint that we have about the Chinese (generalizing again, I know) is that despite the enormous crowds the Chinese don’t seem to know how to behave in a crowd.  Proper lines are almost unheard of (like in Iceland) and people elbow them selves through the crowd (literally).  When exiting an elevator or the subway they stack up in front of the entrance and seem always as surprised that someone comes out of the door.  On the streets there is no code of conduct like trying not not get in each others way or anything like that – like in the traffic where it is not enough to have traffic lights to control the traffic, they also have to have traffic wardens so that people obey.  This made us very uncomfortable.

We have also noticed one thing about the Chinese psyche – or at least the tourist authorities psyche – they are extremely engineering minded.  All signs and guide books that we have seen are extremely occupied by how many square meters each exhibition or sight occupies, how high or wide a road/bridge/tunnel/cave is and where in the world order a particular sight is – they always want to be at the top. 

To get to the top they just invent really narrow categories like “The longest city wall in the world still standing and publicly accessible” or “the largest underground tomb fully excavated” or “the longest graveyard in the world”. 

To be fair to the sights that we visited they can really stand on their own without any previous hoopla.  China has many fantastic sights to offer and the Chinese seemed (at least to us) fantastic people.  All the hype and over-advertising just spoils the fun.

So if we have any advise to all the people that want to visit China: believe all the bad things (as it drives town you expectations) and don’t listen to all the hoopla – just enjoy the great things China has to offer when you are there.

Leaving China

30 04 2010

We spent the majority of the last two days in China shopping.  We went to the Pearl Market and again to the Silk market and managed to get some great deals (in our opinion :) on bags, shoes and watches but most importantly we got some cheap useless crap, some looked-like-a-good-idea-in-the-store-but-will-probably-not-work-at-home kind of stuff that always makes you feel good. 

The Pearl Market was similar to the Silk Street market, just a bit smaller and had fewer tourists and thus was a bit cheaper.  We managed to spend all our remaining Yuan (sans some dinner and ride to the airport money ;) but could easily have spend loads more.

Between the shopping we went to the Olympic park where all the main buildings constructed for the 2008 Olympics reside.  The park is a vast, gray, concrete park with a few impressive highlights.  First of course is the Bird’s Nest or the Beijing National Stadium – an unconventional, beautiful building that surely catches the eye.  Next to the Bird’s Nest is the equally impressive Cube, especially after dark, where Phelps won eight gold medals during the Olympics.  The other buildings in the park were just huge piles of concrete, steel and glass.

On Wednesday we had planned to go and see Chairman Mao in his mausoleum but we were a bit intimidated by the line and decided to come back very early Yesterday.  The mausoleum opens at 08:00 in the morning and we planned to beat the crowds and arrive early on Thursday.  We managed to get there around 08:15 and the line was already enormous!!!  It was about three times as long as the day before.  I measured the line on Google Earth and it was almost exactly one kilometer long and had about 4,000 people cuing up to see the mummy.  It was probably extra long due to the long weekend around the first of May, which is especially important here in China.

This was our last chance to see the Chairman so we had no choice but to cue up.  Fortunately for us the line went pretty fast and we went through the kilometer long line in about fifty minutes – not bad.  After passing the extensive security check, where Elínborg was thoroughly body searched, we got into the mausoleum.  Apparently they’ve had recent problems with Scandinavian blonds harassing the Chairman :) 

We entered a smallish hall with a grand statue of the Chairman flanked by a great painting of a Chinese landscape.  I was a bit afraid, after a few disappointments with over-hyped Chinese tourist attractions, that this was it but fortunately we exited the hall and went into another smaller one where Mr. Mao rested.  We had heard that the mummy was unnaturally yellow so we were prepared for anything. 

It was a bit strange that there were signs everywhere telling us to be quiet, respectful and courteous and then there were plenty of guards yelling at the people to hurry up and stay in proper lines.  So many people long to pay their respect to the chairman that there isn’t a lot of time allocated to each individual and the guards have to keep the line moving.

I thought the whole experience would be creepy but when inside I just thought of how the mummy was unnaturally real and untouched – that’s all.  It just seemed like chairman Mao was just sleeping peacefully under the thick red blanket embodied with the hammer and the wheat cutting instrument which English name escapes my memory right now …maybe a bit orange rather than yellow… but it wasn’t creepy at all – at least not until we got out and started processing the experience.

We were very happy that we stuck with the cue and saw the chairman and now it is one of our biggest regret of the trip not to have visited Ho Chi Minh’ in Hanoi or Uncle Ho as he is called in Vietnam.

We have now left China.  It has been great three weeks and I’m sure that we’ll return some day.  Thank you Yong and Amanda for welcoming us to your cities and thank you for the hospitality!

I’m sure I’ll continue to write about our trip through South-East Asia and China as I continue to digest the whole experience.  This has mostly been a travel blog I’ll continue to blog on my travels – be that back home in Iceland or abroad so stay tuned!