Wednesday, March 01, 2006

To Antipode...

The far side of the world. Antipode. Where is it? I mean where is it exactly? I had a thought the other day about literally going to the furthest possible point on the planet away from my home in Dublin. Any further and I would already have started coming back. I reckon this would be a pretty cool thing for any traveller to do.

So I set about working it out, and it seems there is quite a good bit of information about it available online. But it also seems that for the vast majority of us we will never be able to reach our antipode, that is, unless you have access to a boat capable of handling vast ocean crossings. As it turns out, most of the antipodean points for most land masses are in the middle of an ocean. I suppose you might get lucky and land on an island, but you'd have to be very lucky indeed.

Anyway, to work it out exactly you need to get your latitude and longditude points for where you live. This can be done easily via Google Earth (if you don't have it - get it!!). To find the antipode point for anywhere in the world you need to litterally invert the co-ordinates. For the latitude its just a case of changing North to South or vice-versa. The number remains the same. For the longditude you subtract your co-ordinates from 180 and change from West to East or East to West. Lets use my home town (Dublin) as an example:

Dublin: Latitude 59.19N, Longditude 06.14E.

Change latitude to 59.19S (swap North for South or vice versa)

Subtract longditude from 180 to get 173.46W (swap East for West or vice versa)

Enter your new co-ordinates into Google Earth (these new co-ordinates would be entered as 59.19S, 173.46W) to go to your antipode. Easy.

Another way would be to check out this map. Simply check whats behind where you live to see whereabouts your antipode is. Click it to open up the page where I found it and a better version too.

My antipode turns out to be smack in the middle of the ocean between New Zealand and Antartica so I guess I won't be able to visit it any time soon. Even the nearest land mass is 400km from there - Campbell Island. It's a tiny unihabited island that is part of New Zealand territory and, I'm told, is home to the largest colony of King Albatross in the world. So I guess its not that bad a place. But since no one lives there it'd be pretty impossible (or too expensive) to charter a boat to get me there. Oh well. Here's hoping!! Maybe some of you guys will have some luck.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Xi'an, China - Warrior Country

Surrounded by a fairly impresive wall, Xi'an is a surprisingly big and modern city with plenty of money, reflected in the high rise glass buildings and the high end international fashion brands that have set up shop on the main thoroughfare and in some of the many new shopping malls. The city centre is spotless, bustling and very westernised with Pizza Huts and KFCs on every other corner.

We arrived in Xi'an on an overnight train from Datong, which took about 17 hours. This is quite an interesting journey with some nice scenery along the way, just make sure you get a sleeper cabin where you can actually get some form of sleep. We met some people who decided it would be a great idea to save a measly few bucks and settle for a carriage seat. They spent the whole time squashed into their seats with no air conditioning with people sitting on the floor around them and even sitting on top of them and their bags!! So unless you like to travel uncomfortably in order to save less than it would cost to buy yourself a crappy breakfast then by all means get a sleeper cabin!! You'll thank me.

Outside the station you will be greeted by shouting taxi drivers and bus drivers all eager to take you wherever you need to go. They know all the hotels and hostels so you should have no trouble. Also outside the train station (probably sheltering out of the sun under the massive arches of the City Wall) are hundreds of country folka and farmers who have come to Xi'an in the hope of a better life or to try get a train to another big city to earn a living. Since it is a major hub for the region there are trains to and from every major town and city in China, as well as an international airport about 17 miles outside the city that caters for the streams of tourists here to see the historical sights and the many business men coming to take advantage of the economic boom.

If you're guide book is more than a couple of years old you can pretty much gaurantee that it will be hardly any use to you in Xi'an. The city is changing so fast that restaurants and hotels that were in our 2 year old guidebook had been replaced by massive sky scrapers and apartment blocks. In fact it was hard to find anything that was mentioned in the guidebook at all, and even harder to find any decent food as it has all been replaced, as I mentioned earlier, by crappy western fast food joints.

Stay Here:
We stayed in the Xi'An City Youth Hostel, a perfectly located old style chinese building just on the inside of the South Wall. In fact the wall is literally outside the door. Its by no means a great hostel, although it does have a decent restaurant serving up fairly good Chinese and western cuisine which is good when you can't find anything else. There are double rooms in an open courtyard as well as dorms sleeping anything from 6 to 12 people. Prices can depend on how busy they are and on how much you can bargain off the price. Generally though, prices in Xi'an are more expensive than say, Beijing for example.

Do This:
No trip to Xi'An would be complete without a trip to see the incredibly impresive 'Terracotta Army', a collection of thousands of 500 year old life size hand sculpted warriors that were discovered only about 30 years ago. They were made to gaurd the tomb of an emperor and are lined up in intimidating formations near his tomb (which is about 1 mile away). The strange thing about them is that here is no historical record of them ever being made, which is all the more compelling when you see them for real. There are so many of them and it must have taken so long to make them that surely someone wrote something down somewhere? Anyway, to get here take one of the lines of public buses just waiting pounce on you outside the train station. They will probably charge you more than they charge the locals to go the same distance but its a lot less than you would pay to go on a tour bus (which can be organised in the hostel if you wish) that'll go to the same place. Make sure you get off at the actual Terracotta Army site and not the fake 'Tomb' abobut a mile or so before it which is a rip off tourist trap. We got caught out ourselves and had to walk all the way to the proper one in the scorching heat.

In the city itself you can walk up on the City Wall, nice at night when the lanterns are all lit. The Drum tower in the centre of town is pretty nice too. If you want to shop this is a great spot with lots of big shopping malls and some bargains to be had in the smaller shops on North side of the drum tower.

You'll be hard pressed to find a decent chinese food place on any of the main streets, especially a reasonable one. As mentioned previously, the hostel does fairly decent food. For the fun of it you should eat in Pizaz Hut. We actually had to put our names on a list to get in and come back over an hour later, which is crazy. To see the ques outside and the way they enjoy having the 'Western' experience is an experience in itself. They even try to use knives and forks - an entertaining sight, though I'm sure not as entertaining as us trying to use chopsticks.

Other Stuff:
The CITS Office in Xi'An was by far the worst one we visited in all China. They have no interest in helping you unless you are obviously rich and willing to spend extortionate amounts on the tours they offer to the Terracotta army. They were very ignorant towards us when we asked them anything that didn't relate directly to what they wanted to sell us and had no information to offer us about getting out of Xi'an.

A better option would be to get info from the hostel or from one of the travel agents based across the road from the train station who are much more helpful and have good English.

There are options to go visit panda bears in a sanctuary about 200 miled or so out of Xi'An among a few other touristy things that didn't really interest me or seem worth the time. But for the Warriors alone it was worth thr trip, they really are impressive.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Datong (China) - Coal Country

Datong is a large industrial city about 280km west of Beijing. The journey by train from Beijing takes about 7 hours and winds through some spectacular mountain scenery and endless paddy fields. There are even sections of the Great Wall for you to spot along the way.

This is a coal mining region and the pollution in the air in and around the city is immediatly apparent as you approach. Black soot appears to have lightly coated everything, including the
outside of the train and the attendants close all the windows when the train approaches the city as a result. The last thing you want is a face full of soot!!

The train station is chaotic, full of people either coming home from Beijing or those looking to leave Datong for a better life elsewhere. You'll be pestered by the touts and taxi drivers outside, something you can expect all over Asia. You'll also be pointed out and stared and face the likelyhood of a trail of interested kids following you around, which is kinda cute. But before you even get outside the station the chances are that you will be nabbed by one of the CITS guys who are based here in the station. Check out my post on those guys by clicking the link above.

Stay Here:
The Datong Hotel - 3 star (though more like four star) This place is the tops. We managed to bargain about 50% of the price!! The staff are very friendly and helpful, especially the consierge who has good English and is dying to use it!! It's literally across the road from the train station. Make sure you avail of your complimentary massage (there's a massage and relaxation floor) and the restaurant serves a good breakfast (included) as well as excellent lunch and dinner fare.

Do this:
Xuankong Si, or the Hanging Temples (pictures above) as they are more commonly called, are a bunch of spectacular tempes impossibl perched on the side of a sheer cliff face, hidden deep inside the mountains about 50km from Datong. You can make your own way here by using public transport, but it is not advisable if you don't speak the language as the buses have no set route and may not go directly there, or even take you back to town. The best way to get there as a tourist (if you are not from China, you are a tourist. I don't want to hear any of this "I'm not a tourist, I'm and 'traveller'" bullshit!!) is with the CITS, located in the train station. We met some people who went on trips organised by other places, such as thier hotels and hostels and can safely say they had a terrible time. A half day is plenty of time to see the temples.
The Yungang Caves, about the same distance from Datong as the temples though in the opposite direction, are another must see here. There are over 50 caves, each of them with spectacular sculptures of The Buddha some of which are over 50 feet tall. Some of the caves are deep enough for you to go into and walk around but most are sealed of with a waist high fence, though you can still see what is inside fairly well. Flash photography is prohibited here in order to preserve the paint on the walls, though that doesn't seem to stop a lot of people lighting the place up. The caves are also accessible by public transport with the same risks as the temples but an easier option is to, again, go to see them on a tour. The CITS can include both the caves and temples on the same day if you wish as they visit the temple in the morning and the caves in the afternoon. If you do decide to take both trips in one day with CITS you will get a complimentary (though not very appetising) lunch after you see the temples.

One more thing to see around Datong is the Wooden Pagoda, China's oldest surviving and tallest wooden structure. Unfortunately we didn't get to see it as it is a bit far out of town and it rained heavily the day we planned to go, meaning that some roads were impassible. Shame really. So obviously I can't really comment.

Datong city itself is nothing really to remark about. The only things of any interest are the Drum Tower in the centre of the city and the Nine Dragon Screen, a screen with nine golden dragons used to keep bad spirits away. The main street through the city, Xinjian Xilu changes name to Da Xijie (big west street) inside the walls and then to Da Dongjie (big east street) further east. Both it and the north south Da Nanjie are where you'll find most of Datong's main shopping, with some decent bargains to be had, though not too much choice.

Eat Here:

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

I can see me from here!!!

Check out the 'Clustrmap' on the sidebar. It shows where all of the readers of this blog are from. Click on it for a more detailed view. Now we can see who wants to find info about what I'm blogging about, or at least the part of the world they are from.

If you want to get one for your own blog or site just go here and follow the prompts. Its easy as pie.

I reckon it will be interesting to find out the whearabout of people who are interested in what I have to say.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

CITS - A Sometimes Helpful Hand

Who are they?
CITS (or China Tourism Service) were once a state owned and run company who were pretty much the only travel company you could deal with when travelling within China. Now, since China has opened up, CITS have become a private company. They are the biggest travel company in China and the chances are that if you are travelling independantly in the region you will need to deal with them in at some stage.

So are they any use?
Well, that varies from place to place. Generally they are average when compared to other companies but in some cities they are really good.

The best office we encountered was the one in Datong. They seemed like conmen at first the way they tried to grab us as we were getting off the train but they turned out to be very helpful indeed.

The worst office was in Xi'An. They were ignorant and rude (a rare thing in China) and charged extortionate rates for everything.

The office in Yangshou, although helpful, was more expensive than other travel companies in the town.

I will rate the CITS office in each town as I blog about them later.

What do they do?
They can book accomodation for you and are a good resource if you have just arrived in town and have nowhere to stay. They can get good discounts at local hotels and guesthouses (though you can always bargain a discount at hotels for yourself too), even at places where you have been told there are no vacancies.

They block-buy train tickets in all classes, which they will sell back to you with a small markup (some offices have quite a high markup). This can be a lifesaver if for whatever reason you couldn't make it to the station in tome to book one for yourself.

They also organise trips and tours of areas of interest in the region which will have an English speaking guide. However, you may be able to get a similar tour organised via your guest house or hotel for less. Check them all out before you commit to one because there can be quite a difference in price. Alternatively you can get there independantly on public transport, which will be cheaper but will probably involve an indirect route and a longer journey overall.

I'm sure there's probably someone somewhere who mayhave had a good or bad experience with CITS. Please let us all know via the comments section.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Chinese Train Tips

Despite what your guidebook may tell you, train journeys in China are quite easy to organise. All it takes is persistance and patience, oh, and money. Most journeys are epic (China is deceptively huge) and surprisingly comfortable if you're willing to pay a little more for a sleeper cabin, especially for overnighters. Being sure of getting some sort of sleep is worth the extra money. The last thing you want is to arrive at your new destination too tired to enjoy anything after an night of cramped seating, crying babies and inquistive locals.

One thing to keep in mind is that train tickets in China only go on sale three days before the train leaves, so you have to be quick!! You'll have to book early to be sure of getting a seat. If your Mandarin Chinese is not too great (like mine was) you can simply write down what you want by using the language section in the back of your guide book. The tellers always appreciate that you went to the effort and are then eager to help you. If you start blabbering on in English and they have no clue what you are saying then they will simply gesture you aside and attend to the next person in the que. They simpy don't have the time, and when you see the ques you'll understand why.

Sometimes there may be someone working at the train stations who has some sort of English. Thier desk will have a sign above it saying "English". Use them if you can, obviously. If you can't make it to the train station in to book them for yourself you might be able to get your hotel or guesthouse to book them for you for a small fee.

All in all train journeys in China are a good experience, although you may encounter the odd bad tempered attendant who just won't open the toilet no matter how nice you are to them. One way around this is wait until they fall asleep (they always do) then use your trusty penknife to open it for yourself. Make sure you close it afterwards though. Or you could leave it open and freak the attendant out!!

You'll undoubtedly end up with some Chinese people sitting with you, even if you get a cabin as there are four berths to a cabin, and they will always be very interested in you and your belongings. Those who have some English are always eager to talk you and they'll giggle with pride when you understand them. Of course it can be fun trying to communicate when no one has any idea what you are saying - I once had an hour long conversation with a guy in our berth using the language section in the back of the guidebook - but usually they want to look at your books, find out what you do for a living and what's your opinion of China. Another guy got highly offended when I was discussing the exchange rate between the Euro and the Yuan. he couldn't believe that Yuan was worth so little. Rather than insult the poor guy I backtracked and pretended I had gotten the rate wrong. He was satisfied with that and didn't thump me one.

They love their country, and rightly so. It is truly a wonderful and unique place.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Beijing = Fantastic

Beijing is truly a Great city. Big, bustling, friendly and Beautiful. It's a great introduction to China. If you are of Western Origin you will stick out like a sore thumb and be the centre of attention for your whole trip with people staring, pointing and laughing at how unbelieveably strange you look.

Stay Here:
The Far East International Youth Hostel - No. 90 Tieshu Xiejie, Xuanwu District. Probably one of the bset places to stay in Beijing. Its right in the middle of one of the last surviving Hutongs - a smelly, old and very friendly area full of life and character with lots of markets and little nooks and crannys to explore. Tienamen Square is only 10 minutes walk, 5 if you take a rickshaw. The Hostel has recenly been refurbished and, as well as the usual dorms where the backpackers stay, there is a new building across the street of around 3 star hotel standard with fantastic rooms, a restaurant, bar and a very good trip organiser. A double room en-suite will set you back around $12 (US). Comparitvely you can share a dorm, bathroom and shower with 10 people across the street for $8 (US) per night. I know where I'm staying!!

Do this:
Go to the Great Wall. You can easily do it in a day trip or two. Arguably one of the best routes to take along the wall is the walk from Jinsanling to Simatai (about 10km). This is an unspoiled and less touristy part of the wall. Some sections are in some disrepair to say the least, but that just adds to the authenticity. The scenery is quite spectacular too. The travel desk in the Hostel can organise reasonably priced transport to and from the wall. You might need to pay a small entry fee if the officials are on duty. Don't go to Badaling to see the wall, if not for the simple fact that the wall is actually a fake reconstruction, then for the fact that there is a ferris wheel and carosel in a fairground at the entrance. 'Nuff said.

Of course there is plenty to do in Beijing itself. No trip would be complete without visits to The Forbidden City, The Summer Palace and the Temple of Heavan, all of which can be done by yourself with no need for a guide as there is ample information on everything within each of the grounds in about 7 different languages. You can even rent Roger Moore as a guide for the day. Well, at least his voice anyway. Mini MP3 players with his voice can act as your guide and can be rented at the entrances.

Other things I would recommended to see would be a Gymnastics show and a Chinese Opera, bith highly entertaining and reasonably priced. In fact, just wandering around the streets is entertaiment in itself. There is so much going on.

Eat and Drink Here:
Eat anywhere!! The food in Beijing is some of the best in China. It will cost you next to nothing and every restaurant pretty much serves the same thing. The best and most reasonable places (which will serve everything including fantastic steamed dumplings and Beijing Duck) can be found along Qienemen Daije, which runs south from Tienamen Square. For traditional tea check out the tea houses on Tieshu Xiejie, bustling yet relaxing at the same time.

The bars in the Hutong district are a far cry from anywhere in the western world and generally consist of a small room with a few wooden tables and chairs full of smoking men playing board games for money. If you end up in one of these places you won't be dissappointed as they are surprisingly cosy and welcoming. You will be the centre of attention. If you prefer more western style bars with cheesy disco music and (admittedly) a fun and youthful atmostphere then head to the student district around Beijing University where you will also be the centre of attention. Take the undergound metro from Tienamen Square. The staple alchoholic beverage in Beijing (and most of China) is Tsingtao which will set you back about $1 a bottle or less. You can get other drinks as well if you don't like beer but it'll cost a little more.