Saturday, 21 September 2013

The First Solo Adventure

I left Borneo on a pre-booked flight back to Hong Kong to stay with Sally.  I left some great new friends scattered around the area, but travelling with them would mean re-tracing my steps and going backwards didn't seem right this early in my trip.  The only problem was that Sally's birthday was in 2 weeks, and I could not afford to spend that time in Hong Kong.  Nor could I really afford to do what I did next, but at least it was movement...

I had not considered going to China when I thought about coming out here, but not having a plan means you can make these last minute decisions..  However, it's a big place with so many diverse sights and backdrops, so where could I go for just a week?

Beijing was the obvious first choice with many things to do within the city and the Great Wall of China very close.  With little idea of what to expect I arrived with just as little idea of how to actually get to my hostel.  Thankfully the locals were very helpful & sent me in the right direction - even the little boy who just came over to chat while I was sat on my backpack gave me good ideas on what to see.  The friendliness did cause me a set back.

I am not ashamed to say I got scammed.  My guard was down from the initial experiences and I was truly not expecting it to happen here.  Thailand definitely, but not here.  Especially when my scammer was a dumpy little 30-something woman (I would have known something was wrong if the more common 2 young attractive girls had approached me - that doesn't happen to me anywhere!).  She said hi, said she was here on holiday & what was I doing?  I was hungry.  She knew somewhere she had gone the week before with her friend.  Would I like company & conversation?  'Why not?', I thought.  First impressions of the place had bells ringing, but I went with it trying to be more outgoing & willing to experience things.  The food was good.  So was the company.  The bill was horrific.  But by that time you're stuck.  You have to pay.  I'm just glad I only had one beer...  I learnt from others that I met later in the hostel that one guy decided to drink champagne.  I'm really glad I didn't do that!

It took a day or so to meet people.  The bar at the hostel/hotel was nice but pricey, so we would only go there to see who was in, check emails and drink water.  This was good though.  It meant the days were spent doing what I wanted to and then catch up in the evening for beers at the bar over the road, learning dice drinking games with the bar staff.

Within Beijing the usual attractions are Tienanmen Square, The Forbidden City and The Summer Palace.  These were duly done in a couple days and much walking.  The Forbidden City and The Summer Palace are vast with lots of history.  The audio guides are a bit hit and miss in reliability but offer very good  information as you walk about.  Tienanmen Square is (unsurprisingly) full of Chinese people having their photos taken as groups, individually, in front of this, that, anything.  Actually, everywhere is full of Chinese tourists, but there is nothing at Tienanmen Square that hints at the events of 1989, except the security checks at all entrances (they love these - bags are checked entering the underground and at all entrances to attractions).  Chairman Mao had it completely remodelled.  And then had his tomb located at the south end so he would not be forgotten.  This they love.  I decided to see it and queued for 50 minutes (I say queue - the Chinese do not know how to queue.  We shuffled along at faster than normal Chinese walking pace while everyone tried to shove past to gt ahead in a queue to see a man who wasn't going anywhere anytime soon) for less than 30 seconds viewing of what honestly looked like a mannequin.

Also well worth a visit is the 798 art district.  Located in an old electronics factory this is a collection of modern art galleries, cafes and shops which has a feel much more like Camden than Beijing.  This was a nice little diversion from the more touristy attractions.

But the highlight was of course the Wall.  There are a few sections of the wall accessible from Beijing but I decided to go to Jinshangling.  I was joined by James who I had met a couple of nights before.  The first surprise was how big Beijing is.  The journey took four hours.  We only left the city limits after 2 hours.  But the journey was rewarded by a phenomenal sight.  Jinshangling is one of the less reconstructed sections of the wall.  No paving exists in places, towers have fallen down, parapets are missing and steps have collapsed.  And it winds over the mountains, disappearing into the distance in both directions.  Towers can be seen dotted along the ridge on the horizon as if it goes on forever.

And, importantly, because of it's condition and distance from the city, it is not covered with tourists.  James and I, with another English couple, often had entire sections of wall between towers to ourselves which added to the sense of scale and remoteness.  You can imagine how Mongol invaders would have stared up at the wall and realised it wasn't going to happen.  We were all really glad we had decided to see this section of the wall, and there were some parts where renovation had taken place to give an idea of how it would have looked nearly 600 years ago.

My next stop was Xi'an, for the Terracotta Warriors.  With time in short supply I took the bullet train.  I actually missed the train by 2 minutes due to going to the wrong underground line for a transfer I had booked but the ticket office just changed it free of change for the next train.  That would not have happened in the UK.  The train was great.  With big comfy seats it did not feel as if you were travelling at speeds of up to 309 kph and 1000 km was covered in under 5 hours.

The Hantang Inn Hostel is one of, if not the, best in the city.  The food is not great and overpriced, the iced cappuccino was lovely and the beer was cheaper at the street bar outside, but the rooms were very good, staff very knowledgeable and efficient, and the common area very good for meeting people.  Which I promptly did.  A couple of German guys were chatting to some others I had seen at the King's Joy in Beijing and we became drinking buddies for the next few days.

I waited a day to see the Warriors as I was waiting for another friend, Adam, to join me from Beijing, so spent the first day exploring the city, starting with a bike ride around the city walls.  It was nice to give my legs a spin for the first time in weeks, even if the bike was less than could be wished for (steel frame, singlespeed, poor suspension and a bit small - why they wanted a deposit I don't know.  No one would consider stealing this.) but frankly the view was disappointing.  The city has been greatly remodelled in the last 20 years as Capitalism has moved into the country, leaving very little of the original city visible from the walls.  A walk around the streets was much more rewarding for that, in particular the Drum and Bell Towers and the Muslim Quarter, a street and couple of alley selling stall food really cheaply - spicy sausage on stick, meat skewers, dumplings, and a kind of stuffed, deep fried poppadom.  This kept us going back for a few visits!

Adam arrived later that day and along with the Germans we decided to see a couple of sights lit up.  The best thing we learnt from this is that taxis are very difficult to flag down in Xi'an.  But a good, and long, night was had.  Which made getting up at 9 the next morning very difficult.

I'm still not sure if I was underwhelmed by the Terracotta Warriors.  I think I expected to see more of them.  There are three pits.  Pit 3 is small and recommended to be the first visited.  Pit 2 has some warriors on view in it but mostly are under the original roof enclosure, which was good to see how the place was built.  The main attraction is Pit 1.  This is where the famous row after row of warriors can be seen.  They just don't go back as far as I imagined.  Maybe seeing the pictures over the course of years had given me a false sense of perspective which reality could not match.  What was a surprise, after a week in the country, was the entrance system.  You queue to buy a ticket, walk a long way to the gate and give the ticket to an attendant who punches it in the automatic gate, which I could have done myself.  Then you walk another 100m to another gate for someone to do it again.  I know they have a population of over 1.3 billion, but this seems a bit of an excessive way of creating jobs.

My final night was spent with my new friends, now including a Dutch guy who had also been at Beijing with us and pretty much anyone we get our hands on in the hostel.  The feeling of travelling camaraderie was akin to that felt in Kota Kinabalu, but at the same time we all felt it was fleeting, that most of us would not see each other again although some lasting friendships may have been made.  As we made our farewells the next morning part of me wished I hadn't booked my ticket back to Hong Kong.  But everyone was going in different directions.  Everyone else was spending longer in China and I hope they met each other again along the way, but as China has a blanket ban on external social media and especially Facebook keeping in touch is more difficult.

So what did I learn?  Well, I only had one week so did not have much to arrange unlike the next few months. I was annoyed by being scammed, partially for falling for it but mostly because it just went to make me more cynical of the kindness of strangers. But I survived (ok, for a short time) in a country that is not as easy as the rest of Asia for travelling.  English is not as widely spoken, and in Xi'an it seemed almost non-existent (signs are all in Mandarin only).  This trip would not have been as easy if not for the people I met, especially Adam who was actively learning Mandarin as he went along, although the differences in dialects made it hard sometimes.

I know that while travelling solo means you can do what you want when you want to, but it will be even more fun to spend time with people going in the same direction for a while.  China was a big success for me, but it could have been a fatal failure and left me doubting my ability to go further.  Let's just hope the knowledge that there will be silver (and gold or platinum) linings will give me the strength to get through the clouds that will eventually arrive...

Borneo - Part 3: The Hardest Part Is Saying Goodbye...

'When you're young you just believe there'll be many people with whom you'll connect with.  Later in life you realise it only happens a few times.  You can screw it up.  Miss-connect.' 
Richard Linklater, Before Sunset 

This is hopefully where this stops being a 'what I did' blog (well, a bit) and I start the musing.  Three very important people were about to arrive who would make me realise what I was capable of.

When this trip was being planned by Sally she had booked a climb up South East Asia's highest mountain - Mount Kinabalu.  She was unable to do this after getting a new job and leaving early.  Lucy was kind enough to sell the ticket for us, and did so very quickly.  As Lucy spoke to an interested person I sat on the balcony wondering who it was.  Would we get on?  Would I spend the best part of 3 days in excruciating boredom?  Or not being able to communicate due to the English arrogance of feeling English is the only language we need?  Then a very pretty head pops around the door - "Hi! I'm Laura!".  She told me later that she had the same concerns as me, but from the off we knew this was going to be fantastic.  Unfortunately we could never manage to meet up until the last night before the climb to be able to get to know each other a bit better.

In the meantime Steve arrived.  I was on my way in after an aborted dinner date with a Dutch couple, he was on his way out for food.  So with 2 weeks of local knowledge under my belt we headed off for food, and the same the next day, to the Filipino fish market.  Beers were an important part of these diners and Steve got us chatting to two Italian girls who we met up with again over the next few days.  Solo travelling was proving to be fun!

On my last day before heading to Mount Kinabalu my third friend arrived.  Technically this was a return.  Marie had been here before Sally and I went to the river tour.  We had spent a long time chatting into the early hours on the balcony, and I had been eagerly awaiting her return fro a 12 day tour.  We spent our day mostly shopping, on the most entertaining shopping trip ever (pink and yellow bunny gloves for a mountain climb anybody!?) followed by a food tour - starter, fish course and mains at different hawker stalls.  It was a novel idea of a couple of Marie's friends from her tour and finished with more karaoke!  A curfew lock out was narrowly avoided, but on our return Steve was on his way out exclaiming that beers, the Italians and Laura were awaiting just around the corner.  Knowing I would staying out on my last night, but really needing to see Laura & get to know her before climbing a mountain with her I went back down the stairs and into what I hope is first of many mad nights.  The bar shut, drinks had to be brought in from another restaurant and we finally crashed at 3am.  Laura and I had realised the next few days were going to be immense fun and Steve and I realised we had to find somewhere to sleep in the early hours.  We were warned away from sleeping on the waterfront by some locals, so heeding their advice we finally decided to sleep on the stairs at Lucy's, waiting for her to open the gates and receive us with admonishing glares.

A few hours sleep were managed, another tearful farewell with Marie, a text to Steve as he had already gone out, and I was off on another adventure.  The agreement with Laura was to make our own way to Kinabalu Park an meet there.  This only proved to be a bad idea when Laura managed to get an upgrade on the room and it took nearly an hour to find her.  But oh, what a room!  And what a view onto Mount Kinabalu, our nemesis for the next two days.

Laura and I were effectively forced together by circumstances and need - but we agreed that we could not have wanted more from a stranger to travel with.  Laura is a fantastic person with one of the most happy, outgoing personalities I have ever encountered.  Anyone who truly knows me will know I'm not exactly outgoing, but the previous couple of weeks had really seen a change in me.  And that I will give anything outdoorsy a go.  So when Laura suggested in the morning that we walk to the gate which marks the start of the climb adding another 4.5km to the 5.7km (at least - meandering up the mountain to the Laban Rata lodge could actually mean over 7km of walking) I thought, why the hell not?  Surely a climb should be done from the park entrance and anything less is not paying respect to the mountain!  Should we do the via ferrata descent?  A cable and bridge decent across the sheer cliff face?  Bring it on!  The climb itself is not exactly difficult.  It just doesn't quit.  Ever upwards on endless stairs and stepped rocks, it's  trudge.  5 hours later you arrive at Laban Rata lodge and the views are incredible, and the sunset at nearly 4000m is beautiful but short.

Then comes the worst bit - in bed by 8pm in order to get up by 2am for breakfast and the trek to the summit in time for sunrise at 6am.  Not much was spoken in these last hours.  Words of encouragement only.  Just one step at a time, make it to the top at your own pace, and then there it was - the goal - the final scramble up Low's Peak, and time for celebratory photographs and a rest before the descent - and the via ferrata.

Again, this is not difficult.  It is 99% safe.  You are roped to your fellow climbers and caribinered to the route cable.  You can still slip and fall, but you're only going to hit the rock face - not fall off it.  As soon as you make the first step over onto the face and lean back on the cable, any fear of heights (not an issue as I do climb, and have done the paragliding) are gone.  This is a fun sport, and very tiring.  By the time we had wended our way, getting ever more confident at this new experience, our bodies were exhausted and in agony.  Unfortunately we still had a 5.7km trudge back down the mountain, mercifully taking much less time than going up, but barely capable of movement by the end (and still Laura had nothing but words of encouragement for those we passed going up - a quality I greatly admire).  Alas, all good things must come to an end, and great things end the hardest.  We collected our certificates, shared a couple of beers, and made our very tearful farewells at the bus stop.  Laura continued her journey to Sepilok, I returned to Kota Kinabalu.

But my farewells were not over.  Before the altitude sickness kicked in, wiping me out for 16 hours, and almost before my legs finally gave way under me, I had one last night out with the Italian girls.  And a final word of wisdom from a 21 year old: 'The best thing about travelling is meeting new friends'.  'Yes,' I agreed, 'but the hardest part is saying goodbye'.  Unfortunately, I don't know if that is ever going to get easier.  But I know I haven't miss-connected these last couple of weeks...

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Borneo - Part 2: The End Of An Era

So, what did happen in Kota Kinabalu?  Not a lot really, but I was very busy doing it.

Lucy's proved to be a great base for my time in Sabah.  Apart from the midnight curfew, which proved to be a bit of a stumbling block from the very start.  Until now we had not been out drinking too late, but on arrival were greeted by Denise who was having her last night of freedom before heading to a teaching job in Kabul for a year.  Needless to say it was only right to see her off in style.  Midnight came and went and much karaoke was sung (I will not say enjoyed) and we had to spend our first night in a different hostel.

Kota Kinablu is a nice city but there isn't much to do beyond drinking and shopping.  What day trips there are are either expensive or need good weather, which we didn't get to begin.  It is mostly used by travellers as a stopover on their way to other excursions in Sabah, such as scuba diving, rainforest tours and climbing Mount Kinabalu.  We got ourselves booked onto a trip to the Kinatabangan River as soon as possible and headed to Sepilok to start our rainforest experience at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.  Here they rehabilitate orphan orangutans so that can be released into the wild when they are fully grown.  Visitors are able to view the orangutans twice a day during feeding times.  It could possibly be seen as a bit tacky, especially the amount of visitors that crowd onto the viewing platforms, but the money does go to a very good cause and many of the orangutans at the centre may never even get that level of exposure to humanity, as other feeding platforms are not accessible.

Our real experience started with a transfer to the Kinatabangan Nature Lodge where we would have river cruises and jungle treks and the chance of seeing animals in their habitat.  At first this was a lot of monkeys - Proboscis and Macaques, and on the night trek nothing but a kingfisher (which everyone seemed to see, no matter which night they saw it on, on the same branch, leading to the theory that it was in fact just stuck there).  What we did get, however, was a 4 foot long Doctored Cat Snake in the open roof space of the dorms which was chasing a very large Gecko for it's tea.  This moment spawned a lot of excitement, and some terror when it disappeared.  It was eventually shooed of into the undergrowth, which I'm sure was perfectly safe.  A 3 hour day trek did not reveal anything except some old elephant tracks, but it was a good experience of being in the rainforest.  Our first treat came on the second day - a sighting of an orangutan in the wild.

These are rare as they like to stay away from rivers (they can't swim) and this one was staying above a small lodge, so clearly had no issues with humans.  And we finally saw lots of birds, which had been noticeably missing from the earlier cruises.  Although these were far away in the tops of trees, it was nice to see the Hornbills of Borneo.  And then we had our biggest surprise as another boat went passed us - and there was Rob from Miri grinning and waving!  Much to the bemusement of everyone else dates were arranged over the water to meet up back in Kota Kinabalu.  We got our final treat on the last morning - the eyes of a crocodile peeping up out of the river.

I have heard of better sightings than this, but at least we could check it off the list.  The only animal we didn't get to see was the Borneo Pygmy Elephant.  These are very rare and you either see none or entire herds.  The river is long but the forest curtain narrow, so seeing these elephants can never be guaranteed.  We were told that this nearest herd had travelled further up the river a couple of weeks previously.  Apparently they returned a couple of weeks later...

We returned to Lucy's and settled into life again.  The friends that we had made only a few days earlier had gone on their ways, but new ones were not far away.  Eventually the weather improved and we made full advantage by heading out to the local islands to take in some snorkeling. I'm not a big fan of water so this was a bit nervy, but to see live coral reefs with the most amazing fish and other sea life was wonderful.  Discussions with various people over the next couple of weeks have mad me seriously consider diving to experience further what lies below the surface.

Sally was due to leave at the end of the week and so on our last night we met up with Rob as arranged and our friend Anna, who we had met before heading to the river.  And then the first farewell had to be made.  I had been travelling with Sally for 7 weeks and it had been an amazing adventure, but she had to return to real life.  I feel she has prepared me well for the months to come, but it was time to do it alone.  Which meant staying where I was awaiting the big event for Borneo - the ascent of Mount Kinabalu.  I was not left alone however.  Rob had also left for further adventures but Anna was still here for a couple of days and so we did what you do in Kota Kinabalu - drink, shop, and watch films.  The Sunday market was fun (apart from the possibly dead pets) with the most incredible range of large foam food fridge magnets.  But that fun was also soon over, and saying goodbye to another friend I looked forward to my first night alone in a 6-bed dorm.

This feels like a short blog, and the next is not far away, but chapters of our lives are not of standard lengths.  That would be dull.  And this is a good time to end this chapter.  With the departure of Anna I was alone.  I knew no one in the city.  It's not a great feeling.  But it was short lived.