Charming Beijing

If you got the impression that we experienced Hong-Kong as a rather uncomfortable city to live in, well, then you are perfectly right. So we departed to Beijing with a frown, expecting the metropolis to be similar, or even more difficult. How wrong we were! First of all, we met Wu Jiqing, Steve’s former mathematics study-mate in Darmstadt, who now lives and studies at the ETH Zürich. He will accompany us through China during 2 weeks, whereas he’ll see the different places for the first time, simply like we do. We are very glad to travel with him and don’t know how we will survive in China after his return to Europe. He is not just a great help in organizing things but it is also a pleasure to talk with him about everything we notice and think about.

But this is not the only aspect we like in Beijing, where we stayed at the highly recommendable “Lucky Family Hostel” and met Mathias Boegner, internationally renowned violin player and professor. The city appeared to us totally different from our expectations. Yes, there is smog, but it is bearable and nearly vanishes on the weekend (just a pity that sometimes the view is not very clear). Apart from that, the capital is a fascinating mix of wide and monumental communist architecture, harmonic traditional Chinese style and bold modernity. Due to the large Stalinist-like avenues and the rather low buildings (seldom more than 15 floors), the metropolis appears bright, very bike-friendly and is able to deal with the masses without hassle and stress. Especially in the center there are also many “Hutongs”, old little labyrinthine streets with small houses of not more than two floors, often lined by trees. The atmosphere is so relaxed that you would never think you are in the capital of one of the most dynamic countries of the word. Finally, huge green parks with lovely lakes contribute to the high quality of life. Continue reading

Visa Problems between Western Culture and Chinese Tradition

Hong-Kong, the first city where something should go terribly wrong on our world-trip …. our plan was easy: stop there on the way to China, get the visa for the People’s Republic (as a German resident I could not get it in Argentina) in two days and enjoy the other two days visiting the metropolis. However, the Chinese embassy had other surprises for us. When we handed in all the necessary forms, I was told to provide tons of additional documents. But even worse was that the express service was not available for Europeans anymore and therefore we would get the visa after 4 days, which would be too late to catch our plane to Beijing. The official who told us so was so rude and aggressive that we can now understand why the dragon is China’s heraldic animal. It seemed like we would have to wait over the weekend and then try to get some new flights, while a friend of us was waiting in Beijing all the time (since we won’t travel in China on our own during the first weeks, but be accompanied by Wu Jiqing).

At the same day, Steve found a travel agency which announced they could offer him to get his visa in 3 days without providing ANY documents other than his passport. As he had no real alternative, he simply tried and accepted. But for French citizens, things are more complicated: there was no other way for me than providing the required documents (flight tickets, international insurance, travel schedule and hotel reservations, whereas it doesn’t matter whether the latter ones are faked or not) and I would have to wait the 4 days anyway. I must admit that I should have known this before, because it is all written on the French websites of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Unfortunately for me I had just phoned the German and the Argentine embassy of China, which both told me it would not be a problem to get the visa in Hong-Kong in 3 days, but I had not thought there could be some differences between German and French, since until now Europeans had always been treated equally. Hence, I would miss my flight to Beijing on Friday, without a chance to change anything about it. I later found out that the whole reason was Sarkozy’s welcoming of the Dalai Lama like a head of state …. Continue reading

What a Wonderful World

After having had rather poor weather during our first week in Tonga, we were happy that the conditions improved from Sunday on. Everyone who is now expecting us to tell you some spectacular story will be disappointed, because we simply spent some days relaxing at the beach. But what a beach! We were mostly all alone, the long strip of white sand is lined by a forest of coconut palms, the water always has a comfortable temperature of about 25 degrees and going to the sea is like jumping into an aquarium: the whole ground is covered by coral reef and you see hundreds of different fishes of all sizes, shapes and colors. They come close to you, some blue sea-stars are relaxing at the bottom and you can find many mussels and crabs everywhere. Since it was my first time snorkelling and I was so amazed by this underwater-world, I did not see a bigger wave coming, which pushed me towards the reef where I scratched myself a bit. And exactly at that moment, when I was slightly bleeding, I saw a 1.5 meters big reef shark swimming 3 meters away from me …. scary experience when you have no idea whether they are dangerous or not! However, the shark did not seem to be interested in further interaction (or was disgusted by my blood) and later the hotel owner told me that such a meeting is quite common and that at least in the past 40 years no incidences occurred. So the next days we swam to the area where I had seen the shark and we looked hours for this guy to come back again, but unfortunately in vain. You see, also in the South-Pacific not everything is perfect :-) At the resort we also met lots of travellers of all ages who had interesting routes and a great way to discover the countries they are visiting: almost everyone took the public bus to the “city” (with respect to the Tongan definition), couples in retirement cycled across the island to see the sights and all were interested in getting into contact with the local people. So it seems you can do large and challenging travels when you’re retired, but though they were experienced travellers maybe it is hard to first learn it in that age. Continue reading

Rain in Paradise

So finally we arrived to the “Friendly Islands” …. it was rainy and windy again, but this time the pilot (male, by the way) landed so smoothly that I did not even wake up! In the plane we met Siue, a young Tongan working in New Zealand, who arranged the airport transfer to town for us, so we did not have to take a taxi. At the same day we went to the wharf in the capital city (Nuku’alofa) to ask for the ferries to the Ha’apai Group, where we wanted to spend a week on a lonesome island. However, still due to the stormy weather, the sea was so rough that there was no ferry service that Wednesday. Hence, we returned the next morning and they announced that there would not be any passages until Monday. As also the flights were full (the only domestic airline had resigned the Sunday before and there was just some replacement service available) and we only have two weeks for Tonga, so going to that group was not worth it for us anymore because we would have spent just one night there. But luckily, finding some alternative program is not very difficult in Tonga.

We spent two days in Nukualofa (staying at Sela’s Guest House), visited the market and the King’s Palace and did a bike tour around the main island (Tongatapu) to the blow holes. What impressed us most was how green the landscape is, everything grows here in abundance: mangos, bananas, melons, sweet potatoes, the people’s bellies and most important, coconuts. We were taught how to drink the milk and afterwards how to open and peel them, and we cook a lot with them (together with curry). The taste of a fresh coconut which has fallen from a tree 10 minutes before is simply awesome! From Friday on, we stayed in a simple but great Beach Resort (Heilala Holiday Lodge), so we have a more or less comparable beach experience as we wanted to have in Ha’apai. And since yesterday the weather is also improving a lot. Continue reading