#12 Eight Lessons On Rail Travel – Beijing, China

Travel Dates: 2 – 7 May 2009

Not many people enjoy reading a descriptive travel piece without any extra value towards their base of knowledge, so I shall give some travel ideas and dish out some advice about going to Beijing  instead. What’s of utmost concern to you, the free and easy traveler? Getting to your destination of choice, before anything else!

Lesson #1: Travel guide books may have some doubtful content, but they are mostly right! Believe what Lonely Planet says, at least the travel advice!

We sit, we stand, we whine and we grumble…in the hard seat carriage

My journey to Beijing is an exhausting, close to hellish, train ride, but nevertheless rather ‘adventurous’ and thus made it pretty unforgettable indeed. It did occur to me to book tickets in advance, but since we decided to take the train from Shenzhen (China) instead of Hung Hom (Hong Kong), we needed to buy them in Shenzhen. And we didn’t want to make the extra trip across the border, so we just simply hoped there were tickets to Beijing while we arrived in Shenzhen. Bad move, because there weren’t ANY seats left, let alone sleepers! Booking train tickets in China can be a bitch, so unless you go to a travel agent, you can’t get return tickets, because tickets are only sold at the point of departure. The only good thing is that we paid RMB260 for a one-way ticket, and that’s half the price of a hard-sleeper and near 1/10 of a plane ticket. Money saved in exchange for some physical hardship. Aah, come on, this is what travelling is ALL about! :)

Lesson #2: Always buy tickets in advance to avoid surprises and potentially uncomfortable situations, and especially if you can’t bear to stand throughout a 24-hour train ride.

We were determined to get our asses to Beijing the next day, so in the spirit of adrenaline-charged adventure, we bought a “no seat” ticket, which is essentially just a standing space confined to a particular carriage on the train. This proved to be a challenge, especially the culture shock at first. When Lonely Planet mentioned that hard seaters could be quite unbearable and not for the uninitiated, they were absolutely right. In a narrow aisle space of less than 50cm along the carriage stood at least 25-30 people who all purchased “no seat” tickets.

Lesson #3: Know your threshold before you embark on an adventurous journey.

After 1-2 hours of standing, and with the prospect of standing for another 23 hours at the back of our minds, we decided to sit in the aisle, while people continued to walk up and down the extremely narrow aisle, going to the extremely unsanitary bathroom, or just near the doors for a smoke. It was warm and stuffy, people were eating and YELLING at each other (no fear, this is how Chinese people conduct a cordial conversation). The smoke from both ends of the carriage wafted in and filled the space, since there was civic mindedness in people to close the carriage doors. On top of this olfactory annoyance, there would be annoying standing passengers who would plonk their butt down onto a seat they didn’t pay for, and ask a paid seated passenger to scoot aside to make space, and they usually do because they want to avoid making a scene. Essentially this means that you won’t be spared from having your private space invaded even if you DID manage to secure a hard seat for yourself. For the pampered tourist, this would be the part where you will flung your prissy ass across the tracks and contemplate suicide because you won’t be able to stand this nonsense.

Lesson #4: When in China, do as the Chinese do.

Very soon, adversity forced us to learn the Chinese way. Whenever someone stood up to use the bathroom, we would take their seats until they return to give us the evil eye, of which we would promptly ignore and dismiss. Close to nighttime, after 10 hours of sitting/crouching/standing like an illegal immigrant smuggling into another country, we decided to conquer some space, and sat at someone’s seat and just refused to get up, managing to get 2 hours’ of nap while the rightful passengers stood and watched us (rather patiently, in fact). At this point, I realized that these people must be regulars in these situations and they are quite nice indeed to not have demanded for their seats back, knowing that standing passengers have much rougher time on the ride than they do.

Lesson #5: Be flexible and willing to part with a little money for some precious slumber.

We didn’t learn the Chinese way quick enough though. By 2am, we felt the exhaustion settling in and we were desperate to look for a place to sleep. Looked for the train conductor in hopes of upgrading to a sleeper. No luck… Decided to go to sleep in the restaurant car instead. Passengers need to be paying customers in order to stay there, so we paid RMB35 each for the standard snack set they had on the menu to earn the right to stay until 6am. I later learnt that we could actually spend that RMB35 and stay in the restaurant car from 10pm to 6am, but it was good enough for us to have a bit of personal space for 4 hours. Even though the seats were too short length-wise and a little hard in spite of the padding, I promptly fell asleep, curled up like a fetus, only awoken by a crick in the neck…

Lesson #6: The beautiful moments on a journey are transient and unpredictable, when they appear, just sit back and enjoy.

Sunrise, sunrise…

The sun began peeking out from beneath the flurry clouds at a little before 6am. The scenery of the countryside was dream-like and whimsically beautiful. A thick blanket of fog shrouded the rolling plains of farmland somewhere 8 hours south of Beijing, around one-third of the journey left (near Jinan perhaps?). The sunrise was spectacular, since we were facing seawards towards the east. The weather was balmy and crisp, very promising for a great day out in the city…though it was really too early to tell since we were still far from reaching our destination. We were recharged even though we barely slept, but the little shuteye and the prospect of actually surviving this “worth a story-telling session” train ride perked us up and gave us the strength we needed to endure till the end. Continue reading

#10 Lady on the Minibus – Hong Kong, China

Travelling to foreign places can be an exciting and daunting experience for many, let alone wandering the unfamiliar labyrinths of new cities alone. I was in this situation myself a few times, walking around a city by myself, guidebook and map tucked safely away in my tote bag, hoping that I’d never have to pull them out and risk looking like a fresh-out-of-the-airport tourist. There’s this sense of trepidation, the fear of the unknown, yet at the same time, I felt this rush of satisfaction, knowing that I’m challenging my personal boundaries and building a new me that I never knew I could be.

This story is the first in a series of foreign encounters’ tales I’ll be writing about. Enjoy.

Lady on the Mini-bus in Hong Kong

I was on study abroad at the University of Hong Kong and my hall of residence was 15 minutes away from campus. It was one of the furthest halls away, allocated to me out of a balloting process so I couldn’t complain there. But I must say, those precious 15 minutes that I initially hated ended up featuring some of the most interesting fleeting moments I experienced in the city.

I was, as usual, running super late again, and missed the shuttle bus that I could have taken for only 2 dollars with a student bus coupon. Dang, I thought, as I hurried down to the minibus-stop at the side of the road, frantically tossing back the black and white scarf that was unraveling off my neck. Hopped onto Bus No. 8, eagerly awaiting the bus to move so I can for once get to class before the mid-lecture break. Three stops later, a lady with a heavily-tanned complexion from many happy days in the sun and sunglasses atop her coiffure plopped down on the seat across the narrow aisle next to me and gave me the kind of once-over that would make anyone uncomfortable.

I was happily chatting away on my cellphone with a friend, so I smiled nervously at her and quickly glanced away. After I put down my phone, she started talking to me in a mixture of English and Tagalog, and couldn’t stop for the next 5 minutes while I looked at her with an incredulous expression on my face. Realizing finally that I didn’t quite understand anything she said, she asked, “Are you from Indonesia? Are you working here?” Continue reading

#8 How To Travel Cheap in Macau

Here’s how you can spend less than $50 (or S$60) in three days in Macau, China.
Well, provided you don’t hit the jackpots.

Conversion rate: SGD 1 to MOP 5.7

First off, it is handy to note that Hong Kong dollars (HKD) can be used interchangeably with Macau patacas (MOP), which is really cool because most people visit these two cities together due to their proximity. However, one little glitch is that, Macau vendors/shops DO NOT accept the HKD 10 coin due to fears of counterfeit coins.

I’m going to show you how you can enjoy the city on a shoestring budget (well, almost) and some nifty tips on accommodation and public transport in Macau! Continue reading

#7 What It Feels Like To Be A Lighthouse Keeper, Pt. 3 – Macau, China

Even the chilly rain can’t dampen our spirits! — Amie and I at Guia Lighthouse

Before we know it, two days of fun in Macau have passed us quickly and it’s almost time to go home…but wait, before that we still have some places to visit, such as the Guia Lighthouse, taking the cable car from Guia Hill, and last but not least, making some wishes at the A-Ma Temple!
Continue reading

#6 Trekking in Coloane Island and Yummy Egg Tarts, Pt. 2 – Macau, China

On the second day, we are ready for a different Macau experience!

Exploring the great outdoors out on Coloane Island, hiking around the Coloane Trail, visiting the A-Ma Cultural Village, eating Lord Stow’s Bakery’s tasty egg tarts, trying out authentic Portuguese cuisine and more!

Continue reading

#5 Rock the City Beat, Pt. 1 – Macau, China

MACAU, China

Travel dates: 1 – 4 Feb 2010

Watching the dazzling neon signboards and the sweeping strobe lights from the Macau Tower  illuminating the night sky in a silver glow, it is not hard to imagine that Macau, as one of the richest cities in the world, attracts its fair share of tourists by the truckloads to witness its post-colonial beauty, savour its wide array of Eastern and Western cuisine, and of course, try their hand at the jackpot and poker tables in the countless casinos dotting the landscape.

When my sister Amie and I received the notification that we won the Jetsaver Light Challenge that would bring us to Macau, we were both really excited to start exploring the city together. We were supposed to plan an itinerary such that we had to maximise a SGD30 allowance and have an enjoyable holiday in Macau.

Seeing Macau is famed for its nickname as Asia’s Las Vegas, gambling in the casinos seemed like a tourist staple. Yet, Amie wasn’t quite of age to enter the casinos, so we would then have to find another, perhaps not the most typical, way of enjoying Macau?

So, you would ask, how to enjoy Macau without gambling??!

Well, Amie and I seemed to have perfected how to do exactly that, by focusing our itinerary on exploring the beautiful, and sadly overlooked, colonial monuments and buildings around Macau island, the great outdoors in Coloane, the quaint countryside vibe of Coloane Village and the mouth-watering cuisine that awaits us in little nooks and crannies.

First stop: Exploring Mount Fortress (Fortaleza do Monte) and  a History Lesson at Museu de Macau

In order to better appreciate the history of the city that was under Portuguese rule for 442 years (!), we trekked up a steep slope from our hotel to Mount Fortress, one of the must-go places in Macau.

Wandering around the fortress, we took in the view of the city around us and the many cannons that used to protect the city.

The museum was conveniently situated on the hill as well, so for a fairly decent admission price of MOP 15, we ducked into the well-designed and interactive Museu de Macau for a little history lesson for the day. What caught my eye the most was the miniature dioramas that depict life in Macau decades and centuries ago. There was also a special temporary photography exhibition by Zheng Jingkang, a propaganda photographer during Mao’s rule of China, which enlightens visitors on communist life and Mao’s political campaign.

Time’s a-wasting…next stop, Ruins of St. Paul!

Second stop: Be wowed by the Ruins of St. Paul, Senado Square (Largo do Senado), Leal Senado

Ta-da! Presenting to you…the famous Ruins of St. Paul!

Treading carefully down the stone steps from Mount Fortress to Ruins of St. Paul, we joined scores of mainland Chinese and Japanese tour groups, as well as locals out for a day of fun, on the steps leading up to the façade of what was originally the Church of Mater Dei. Destroyed by fire in 1835, what remained eventually became the touristic icon of the city, one that speaks of her rich history and represents modern-day Macau.

The sheer size of the façade and the intricate architecture was a sight to behold! Flash bulbs from countless cameras fired away as everyone jostled for a good spot to capture a photo of themselves with the old church facade. A must-do in Macau, akin to not leaving Paris without a picture with the Eiffel Tower.

We climbed up the rickety steel staircase erected for tourists to get up close and personal with the wall, and peered out of the opening (that presumably used to contain a stained glass window) and were greeted by an interesting scene — the many people dotting the wide steps juxtaposing against the crowds pouring out from the narrow street of Rua Do Santo Antonio.

By then, all the ooh-ing and aah-ing had our stomachs growling…I guess it’s time to battle the crowds for some food!

Third stop: Egg tarts and cookie tasting at Rua do Santo Antonio -> St. Dominic’s Square

Famed for the countless confectionaries (or pastaleria) and food stalls packed tightly side by side and flanking it, this pedestrianized street is a stop on every tourist’s itinerary if they want to get a juicy piece of Macau’s cuisine.

Moving down this bustling street where everyone was packed shoulder to shoulder and towards St. Dominic’s Square, we could see there’s something for everyone around here, beyond the local stores boasting its tasty wares of almond cookies, barbecued pork and various pastries. The bright yellow facade and its dark green windows make St. Dominic’s Church an unmistakable landmark in the bustling square. Here, Asian tourists would see familiar clothing and beauty product stores like Bossini, Giordano, SaSa and Bauhaus, while most would recognize Starbucks and McDonalds instantly.

We paused for a pearl milk tea (珍珠奶茶) for MOP 10 and an egg tart for MOP 7 by Koi Kei Confectionery, a pastry chain enterprise specialising in all sorts of delicious Chinese pastries from peanut and cashew nut cookies to fragrant egg rolls. See Amie’s post about our yummy Koi Kei egg tart here!

We spied a massive Chinese New Year display was placed in the middle of Senado Square, much to the delight of tourists and locals alike. The vibrant colours of the golden ingots and the cheery-looking tigers welcoming the incoming Year of the Tiger brightened up the streets considerably, injecting a merry festive atmosphere to Senado Square. :)

Fourth stop: Witness local culture at Luis de Camoes Garden & Grotto (Jardim e Gruta de Luis de Camoes)

After a few hours of jostling with frantic tourists around Leal Senado, we put our navigation skills to the test and took Bus 26 to Luis de Camoes Garden & Grotto, or in short Camoes Garden. One of the biggest public parks in Macau, the garden was originally owned by British India Company’s chairman, came under ownership by a Portuguese merchant and eventually was presented to the state in memory of a Portuguese poet Luis de Camoes.

Under the shading canopy of banyan trees, we took a breather from the hustle and bustle of city life to bask ourselves in the lush serenity of the sprawling park. Here, you could almost forget about the post-colonial vibe that the city channels all the time… We witnessed the local Chinese senior citizens playing Chinese chess in the pavillions, sitting on benches having a chat with their old friends, and performing Cantonese songs complete with a singer and a quartet playing live music from their traditional Chinese musical instruments (i.e er hu, pi pa, Chinese flute).

Later on, we also popped into the nearby St. Anthony’s Church and the Old Protestant Cemetery for a short visit.

Fifth stop: Diving deeper into the heartlands in Three Lamps District + Burmese cuisine for dinner

A 20-minute walk and intense map navigation brought us to Three Lamps District (Rotunda de Carlos da Maia), a neighbourhood characterized by an extremely dense network of small hawkers, street vendors, affordable places to eat and stalls offering clothing and knick-knacks at bargain prices.

Dinner time was approaching, so we headed to Restaurante Birmanes Aromatico for some Burmese cuisine!
Hop over to Amie’s blog to read all about the yummilicious coconut chicken noodles in soup and cold stirred noodles in Burmese style now!

Sixth stop: A quick snapshot outside Casino Lisboa

Amie was a little bummed that she couldn’t get into the Grand Lisboa casino…but a picture outside with the humongous chandelier and the opulent-looking pillars with the golden dragons emblazoned on them would suffice for now…

The casinos definitely looked way better with its colourful striking neon lights shining against the dark night skies. After an eventful day of exploring around the Macau island, we headed back to our hotel in anticipation of next day’s adventures…