Not Shanghaied yet

18 04 2010

Shanghai is China’s largest city and and the largest city proper in the world with a population of over twenty million.  We’ve been in Shanghai now for two days and the difference from Beijing and Xi’an is obvious.  The city is ultra modern, international and slick with huge skyscrapers towering the streets everywhere you look.  The city feels a lot brighter than Beijing and has less air pollution and somehow has a better all-around wibe to it.

Coming to Shanghai has been a great relive in two ways.  First, there are signs in English almost everywhere and a lot of people speak English so the language barrier is a lot lower than elsewhere.  Secondly, it doesn’t take a local to find good food here in Shanghai :)  There seems to be good restaurants everywhere you look so the problem of finding something decent to eat turns into the luxury problem of choosing what to eat: Chinese-, western- or Japanese food.

In the MBA I had two Chinese classmates – you have already met Yong but Amanda lives in Shanghai.  Amanda met us at our hostel after we arrived and took us to lunch for some Hong Kong style food. 

We had deep fried rice cubes that tasted a bit like french fries, pork and shrimp dumplings, stir-fried veal, fish and meat balls, chicken feet and cake for dessert.  Everything was really good, especially the dumplings, the deep fried rice and the dessert cake.  The chicken feet were a bit weird but a lot better than we though.  It seems like China continues to surprise us with some fantastic food!

After lunch Amanda took us to town and showed us around, gave us tips on where to shop and where to go for the main attractions before she had to dash off for her best friend’s wedding.  We continued to stroll around the city and enjoy the sights.

Initially we had planned on staying for three nights in Shanghai but we’re considering adding another night before exploring the neighboring cities of Nanjing and Hangzhou.  Shanghai seems such a nice city to just stroll around, enjoy the food, sip tea and watch the people pass by.

Of tombs and barbecues

16 04 2010

Yesterday we went to another tomb close to Xi’an – the tomb of emperor Jingdi who ruled in 188 BC–141 BC.  This tomb was discovered by highway construction crew in 1990. 

We had to take two busses to get to the tomb but on the first one we were told that the second bus wouldn’t go until thee hours later.  Fortunately we were rescued by five local ladies (one spoke English) that were also going to the tomb.  With them we took a local bus to the middle of nowhere and walked for 25 minutes until we found the tomb.  The ladies were great fun, always laughing and joking around – and really helpful and took care of us in the museum and took us back to Xi’an after the visit.  The Chinese people seem really cheerful and very helpful – even though the language is often an obstacle.

While emperor Qin was said to have ruled with an iron first, emperor Jingdi was a just and fair and ruled according with Taoist believes of going with the flow – he seems like he had a lot in common with the laissez-faire capitalists that have been ruling the western world for the last 10-15 years.  He lowered taxes, used diplomacy rather than force and shrunk the state – and the people prospered.

The tomb was similar to the terracotta army in some ways, it contains many terracotta figures but most of them are quite small – the men about two feet high (Maybe the emperor thought he might spend the afterlife in Lilliput) and not so much army focused, more just items from regular life.  The museum facilities are cleverly constructed and you can get very close to some of the artifacts.  There are glass tunnels above and at the side of the excavation pits where you get a good view everything.

The highlight for me was a holographic 3-D movie telling the story of the emperor and his wife – or so we think.  The movie was only available in Chinese :)  I hadn’t seen such a holographic movie before and was fascinated with the technology.  The movie was shown in a small room and the stage and the figures were quite small, about a foot high.  It was amazing how the figures and the props interacted with the real stage.  Elínborg was less impressed but I was just fascinated.  Just imagine the possibilities for theatre and live performances.  We could be watching plays with the best actors in the world “live” but at a fraction of the current cost.  I think that the 3-D phase that cinema is going through now will be short lived and holograms will take over – or maybe these technologies can work together?

After we returned to Xi’an Yong and Mr. Lee took us for dinner and a few beers.  He took us to a special Xi’an barbecue place that served meat, bread and vegetables.  It seemed like everything (meat, bread and vegetables) was put on skewers and fried and then coated with a spicy herbal seasoning and barbecued.  We had some beef, mutton, bread and bread balls with vegetables and like when we had the hotpot, everything was extremely good.  Yong told us that Xi’an is famous for its noodles and ordered one portion of noodles for us to try.  The noodles were wheat noodles hand made in the restaurant boiled and then covered with some hot oil and chilies and tasted great as everything that Yong has offered us – surely the best noodles that we have had.

It is strange that we have been struggling to find good places to eat in but when we are taken out by locals we have these wonderful meals.  There seems to be a some sort of disconnect here.  I have heard the same stories from people visiting China that the food is a problem but then fantastic meals are just waiting around the corner.

Now we are just preparing for the 16 hours train ride to Shanghai where we will arrive around noon tomorrow.  Yong has told us how nice Shanghai is and we are really looking forward to seeing for our selves.

Of Chinese hotpots

14 04 2010

When we arrived in Xi’an we were greeted by my colleague Yong, Yong and I were classmates in the MBA in St. Gallen last year.  Yong lives and works in Xi’an and was at the train station with his colleague Mr. Lee.  Yong and Mr. Lee were kind enough to show us around until we could check in to our hotel at noon.

We saw the fanciest part of town where the government has built a great looking garden to jack up real-estate prices in the surrounding areas.  It is quite obvious that there is no recession in Xi’an, you can see building cranes everywhere and a lot of things going on. 

We went to a culture center that acted both as a museum displaying traditional Chinese art – paintings, sculptures and antiques – as well as a restaurant and a meeting place for the rich.  The whole place was fancy to say the least but the fanciest piece in the whole place was a nice piece of pork that had been conserved in some kind of transparent coating.  Very arty!

For lunch Yong and Mr. Lee took us to a Chinese hotpot restaurant.  We had never tasted a Chinese hotpot before so we were very excited.  On the table came two pots, one with some kind of lightly seasoned fish broth and a the other with a spicy kind of chili soup. 

We went to a communal table to create a dipping sauce where we could choose from about twenty different ingredients: garlic, chili,  spring onions, ground peanuts, sesame oil, soya sauce, peanut sauce, fish sauce and many others that I didn’t recognize.  We just followed Yong and tried to do as he did.  In the end our dipping sauces tasted great :)

Finally all sorts of things to dip into the boiling hotpots came to the table: mutton, beef, ground meat, mushrooms, seaweed, noodles, beads, fish balls and cabbage and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few items.  Gradually the dipping things were were dipped into the hotpots to boil and then we ate them.  We can both agree that this was absolutely fantastic and the best Chinese food we have ever tasted.  We had a Japanese hotpot in Bangkok but this was much better, especially the spicy one. 

Thank you very much Yong !!!

After the late lunch we had no choice but to go back to our hotel to digest and relax for the rest of the day.  We watched Resident Evil II on the computer – highly recommended …hehe.

Is backpacking in Asia something for you?

30 03 2010

It is only natural that before going on an almost four month journey with just a single back pack, something that we hadn’t done before, we had some concerns and worries regarding how things will turn out.  In this post I will list the main concerns we had before leaving home and address them now that we have visited all the four countries, here in South East Asia, that we will be visiting on this trip.  So below are our concerns.

Is backpacking something for us?
Will it be fun to travel for four months?
How will the accommodation be at our price point?
Will we like the food?
What about sanitation and what diseases could we catch?
What about visas?
What about bugs and other unknown creatures?
Will there be people everywhere trying to scam us?
Will we be in danger?

Is backpacking something for us?

We have seen people from the age of seventeen up to almost seventy backpacking so it is fair to say that backpacking can be for anyone – at least age doesn’t seem to be a deciding factor.

Being on our own with nothing other than our backpack has given us great freedom to go wherever we have wanted to go, whenever we have wanted to go.  We have had absolute freedom regarding how we spend our money and when.  All that freedom has been just fantastic. 

We have been on an organized trip before and I have to say that backpacking suites us much better than a package trip, especially here in South East Asia where there are so many people backpacking and the infrastructure for it is great.  It is less of a hassle than one would think and it quickly becomes a routine to find a new hostel or organize activities or decide where to go next.

Will it be fun to travel for four months?

Before heading off this was a big question mark.  Before this trip our longest trip had been three weeks or so and we have always been quite happy to return home. 

Travelling for such a long time has definitely been different in many ways.  We have not been in such a rush to see as much as we can before returning home and that has given the whole trip a different rhythm.  It has also affected our buying habits in a nice way – often when abroad we’ve been thinking about what to buy and maybe focusing too much on that aspect but now we have just postponed all buying decisions and just been enjoying the places we have been visiting.

Of course there have been ups and downs in the almost three months that have already passed but for the most part the trip has been a fantastic adventure.  I think that the downs are mostly connected with staying too long in a particular place and we have become bored of the place or maybe more the atmosphere at that place.  A couple of times we have also experienced a kind of travel boredom where for instance we can go and see a world famous temple or something like that but because we have seen so many fantastic temples we aren’t really interested, which is kind of sad.

I’m not sure we’ll ever go on such a long trip again and this has surely been a once in a lifetime experience.  I think that the optimal trip length for us might be somewhere around six to eight weeks and we would surely rather go twice for eight weeks than once for the four months :)

There are numerous stories of people that start backpacking and when the get back home the can’t wait to go on the road again …and again so only time can tell how thing will go in our case :)

How will the accommodation be at our price point?

We have been staying at budget hostels and guesthouses, typically priced between 8-20 dollars for two depending on the price level in that particular town.  I would say that the accommodation in general has been better than we expected.  Of course there have been a few instances where we should have looked further but decided to stay but for the most part we have been fairly lucky.  The worst experiences have been when we have arrived after dark to a new place tired and annoyed and not bothered to look hard enough and settled for something less than satisfying – we’ve kind of always known but still didn’t look further.

Will we like the food?

The food around here has ranged from being absolutely fantastic to being nothing special.  It has never been bad and that says something.  We only had problems finding something we liked on two occasions, first in Bangkok after we arrived and that was just that we were afraid to try and too conscious about sanitation and cleanliness, which has never been an actual problem here.  The other time was in Phenom Penh where it wasn’t easy to find nice places to eat at.

In general the Western food hasn’t been too good except that we’ve had a few good pizzas.  The Western food is also a lot more expensive than the local food and definitely not worth the extra money.  In quite many places we could find Indian food and that was always very good.  A bit more pricy than the local food but great to mix things up.

The Thai food has been fantastic wherever we have been – at the guesthouses, with street vendors or at restaurants.  The curries and the fried rice, soups and nonames, noodles and pancakes and the variety of fresh seafood is astonishing.

The food in Cambodia was a bit of a disappointment after the Thai food.  It always felt like they put too little chilly in everything so it tasted a little bland.  The exception was the Amok, which is a special kind of Cambodian curry.  The food wasn’t bad but just needed more seasoning for our taste.

Vietnamese food received mixed reviews in the group.  I loved the food but Elínborg was less impressed.  They have a great variety so there is plenty to choose from and everyone should be able of find something they like.  The street vendors offer really fresh and good baguettes that we ate a lot for breakfast and most places have wonderful Vietnamese coffee.

The food in Laos was always good – even the Western food.  It had some French influence with great baguettes and fantastic Lao coffee and I only remember everything tasting good in Laos.

What about sanitation and what diseases could we catch?

In terms of diseases we took some precautions before heading off.  We went to a vaccination clinic in Switzerland and got all the vaccinations they recommended.    Of course one can not be vaccinated against all diseases so we took some medicine with us.  What we took is listed here.

We have actually been surprised about the sanitation level of food and food products. We just expected that we would have a mild food poisoning once in a while or stomach aches after eating something bad but that hasn’t occurred at all.  We have had some aches after eating something too spicy for our stomachs but that is easy to avoid.  We have eaten at Western restaurants, local restaurants, local homes, street vendors and food markets and at no point have we eaten anything that has given us problems.

What about visas?

When you fly into Thailand you get a 30 day visa exemption for free (at least most European citizens) and if you enter on land borders you get a 15 day exemption so there is no hassle to enter Thailand, just make sure that you don’t overstay the exemption or you’ll get a 500 baht per day fine.

Visa into Cambodia is available at most borders for $20.  We had heard of Cambodian border controllers asking for more money and to avoid all hassle we bought an e-Visa off the internet for $25, a very easy two day process and in the end you have a print-out that you show at the border.

We got the Vietnamese visa in the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok.  I think that it cost 1,900 baht if you wait for two days but 2,200 baht, just over $60, if you want to pick it up the next day.  However it was much cheaper to get the visa at the Vietnamese embassy in Phenom Penh, Cambodia.  I think that it costs 30-35 dollars over there.

The Visa into Laos was available at the airport in Luang Prabang and cost about $30.  We were out of dollars but they were happy to take baht instead – at a reasonable exchange rate.

When we entered Burma we got a day permit (apparently good for two nights) at the border for $10 or 500 baht so bring dollars if you have them.

The visa for China we got at the Chinese embassy in Reykjavík.  We got a six month visa with two entries just to make sure and that was around $100 if I .remember correctly.  Maybe a three month, one entry visa would have been sufficient but we didn’t really know at the time.

So if you stay slightly informed the visas shouldn’t pose any problems.  Just check before the trip if all the countries that you want to go to offer visas to citizens of your country.

What about bugs and other unknown creatures?

The only creature that has really been bothering us are the mosquitoes.  They seem to love fresh Nordic blood.  There are over 3,000 different types of mosquitoes, each slightly different from the others.  We have usually been most bitten when we are at a new place.  Then we learn how, where and when the mosquitoes bite and can better avoid them.  Some bite in the morning, others at dusk and yet others during the night.  Some bite mostly by the joints, others on the feet and some in the limbs so the are a bit difficult to figure out.  The best way to avoid them is to be properly clothed in the early morning and at dusk and apply some mosquitoes repellant – we have used 50% deet.

We have once meet bed bugs.  We didn’t see them at first, actually we weren’t really looking but as soon as we laid on the bed the came forwards.  Bed bugs are nasty looking creatures looking a bit like lice and they bite you if they can.  The bite is not dangerous but itches a lot.  We had been warned that we could encounter them and that we should always check the beds before deciding on a room but we hadn’t seen any after ten weeks so we weren’t really checking any more.

We have seen some rats but only in the street so they have not been bothering us at all.  We have seen some cockroaches as well and had a few of them visiting our rooms but I wouldn’t say that has been common – maybe in every tenth guesthouse or even more seldom.  There are ants everywhere here so if you leave something they like they are pretty quick to find it and carry it away so don’t forget those chips on the table :)

Will there be people everywhere trying to scam us?

We have encountered a few scams along the way as can be seen here.  I think that all of them can be easily avoided by using common sense and be a little prepared.  The Lonely planet books list a few of the scams so that is a good start.  Just remember that there is no free lunch and always double check all prices and you’ll be good

It is understandable that people with little money try get as much for products and services as they possibly can – it’s the same as we do in the West – so that can’t really be categorized as a scam.  We have however seen that it pays to shop around and check for the prices at other vendors.  Often people add a tourist premium or just think that you have just arrived and try to charge too much.

Will we be in danger?

I don’t think that we have been in any danger at any point in our trip, at least not more danger than if we would have stayed at home ;)  Everyone connected with tourism has seemed to us as very responsible and safety minded.  Even the bus drivers, that seem to have a bad reputation on the internet, were quite good and drove responsibly.

Just one warning, always keep all valuables with you and not in your big back pack, especially while on the busses.  At one point someone went through our bags during a bus ride and we have heard of other instances on boats and in storage rooms at guesthouses so it is better to be safe than sorry and keep everything valuable with you!

Hanoi City

10 03 2010

We arrived back in Hanoi from Halong Bay on a Sunday and after learning that all the museums and some pagodas would be closed the following Monday (like any other Monday) we decided to visit the Perfume Pagoda, which is up in the Marble Mountains, about 70 km. outside of Hanoi.

The perfume pagoda is a natural limestone cave with a fully fledged altar and everything.  To get to the pagoda we took a bus for two hours, went in a rowing boat for one hour and walked up the mountain for forty minutes so you can imagine the anticipation.  I’ll let the pictures speak on how beautiful the pagoda really is.  Going to the Perfume Pagoda to pray and give sacrifices to Buddha is supposed to give you good luck, good health and prosperity for the whole year and if we get any of that, the effort is surly worth it. 

The main attraction for us on this trip though was to watch all the Vietnamese tourists visiting the pagoda.  The guide said that the days before our visit the pagoda was visited by over fifty thousand people each day but we were visiting on the twenty third day of the newly started lunar year and odd days are not as good for visiting the temples according to local legend so we escaped the crowds.  We were especially interested in the many restaurants that lined the pathway.  The local specialty here seemed to be some kind of soup with fresh meat in it and the meat was was on display in front of the restaurants so that the guests could ensure its freshness.  For the soup there was a choice of beef, deer, cats and dogs – all sounding delicious but we took a pass for this round.

There are a lot of trips that you can make out of Hanoi, either daytrips or 2-3 day trips but we have been told that the city it self is nothing special.  Never the less we walked a bit in the old town and visited the Temple of Literature (where they, like professor Dumbledore, seemed to like the Phoenix an awful lot), which was nice, but in the end we totally agreed with what we had been told.  Hanoi is a bit like an overgrown village with endless narrow streets where people are selling anything and everything and scooter after scooter.  Hanoi has no big city feel to it event though there are five million people here, at least not where we went.

We had planned to stay until the eleventh but changed our flight ticket to Laos and we left two days early for Luang Prabang in Laos – town we have only heard the nicest things about .

Hoi An sights

3 03 2010

Between fittings at the tailor shops we have tried to see the sights here in Hoi An.  As I said before this is a cozy little town with a lot of old houses that have been nicely restored.  The Old Town is a protected area so there are no new buildings there and the atmosphere is quite special.  There are both traditional old houses on display as well as museums, pagodas and assembly halls. 

We have been into a few of the old houses and even though nothing is quite spectacular, everything is very cozy and nice.  There is one thing worth mentioning that puts a big mark on the houses here.  Hoi An is build next to a big river so every year during the rainy season, there is a flood and the river grows enormously.  Therefore every house is on two floors so that people can move all the furniture and other stuff from the ground floor up to the second.  In most years the flood is modest and might not even get into the houses but in others the flood can be as much as two meters high up in the the houses on the river bank.

One evening we were eating at this restaurant when we were approached by a man called Mr. Phong.  He told us that he organized tours to his village that was near by and handed us a big book with references and great reviews from people that had joined him at the village.  We decided to visit him the following day.  In short the visit was fantastic!  It was great to see visit a proper Vietnamese village, even though he said that his village was above average in wealth, and to be able to talk to a local.  He went through the Vietnamese war from a Vietnamese perspective, talked about communism, he educated us on the religions of Vietnam and told us about the daily lives in the village.  All fascinating stuff to us

We went with him to a couple of families in the neighborhood and to the market and the looked at all produce of the village: tobacco, moonshine, fruits, vegetables, herbs, rice, pigs and so on.  When we got back to his house his wife had prepared a great big lunch for us including tuna in tomato paste, shrimp spring rolls, fried morning glory, melon soup and rice of course.  We would highly recommend Mr. Phong’s tour to anyone visiting Hoi An.

Mr. Phong’s full name is Nguyen Ba Phong and he can be reached at Quang Than Restaurant on the corner where Le Soi Street meets the river every evening between 18:00 and 21:00 if anyone is interested or by email at  The whole tour, including lunch, was only $,10 if we got us to the village at our own cost, otherwise $15.

In the next blog I’ll tell you about the results from our visits to the tailors.