A Travellerspoint blog

January 2014

Hanoi Food

sunny 20 °C

Being back at work, where I have already submitted two pieces of writing this year, has really sucked away my energy for writing here but I will get there!

One of the top rated things to do in Hanoi is to go on a walking tour to sample its street food: I had booked in for a tour for my first day back in Hanoi. Luckily the bus-induced illness had passed and I was feeling quite peckish when (Miss) Ngang turned up at my hotel to take me to the tour. I nearly opted out, however, when she said she'd be taking me there on her motorbike: this is Hanoi, world famous for the pandemonium on its streets, we were travelling at the peak of rush hour and, not to be disrespectful, my rider was tiny. But she was all "I know what I'm doing" and "you'll be fine" and "it isn't far" so I went with the flow. There was certainly a lot of traffic, mainly motorbikes, and they seemed to be going in all directions at each intersection - we basically bumped and nudged our way through. Naturally, I took no photos while I was clinging on for dear life, and I never saw traffic quite like I experienced it, but these give some idea of how things are:

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The walking tour was great: nominally finishing at 8, we were still sampling beer well after 9. It was me, a young fellow from Estonia, an Indian woman of maybe 30 working in Singapore and two women in their mid 20's from London (one Indian, the other from the Maldives). Ngang was the life of the party, telling us lots about Hanoi generally as well as specifics about the food we were sampling - in between jibes about the size of my stomach and how scared I was on her bike. We started with that Vietnamese staple, Pho, made by a woman who has been doing it for more than 60 years, in premises no wider than a carshed but apparently worth more than a million bucks! I thought I took more photos but have only found two - a pile of fruit and some deep-fried sweet potatoes and bananas:

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We ate a whole lot more, about 7 stops in all to the point that at the last one we were all saying "no more". Apparently the beer we finished up with was the stuff made fresh each day in Hanoi - I am not convinced, as it tasted a lot like regular beer. The pub we went to was on the corner of a street that was given over to drinkers, but even here you could not escape the motorbikes (I really don't think that having motorbikes in crowds of drinkers is a very good idea)

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One of the things that Ngang talked about was the legend of the Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which means lake of the returned sword. As the legend goes, a god sent a turtle up to demand a sword back from the Emperor. Apparently there were a handful of giant turtles living in the lake, but they have been dying off (I actually saw one in the Temple of Jade Mountain)

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People believe there is still one in the lake, but there have been no sightings for quite some time. The Temple of Jade Mountain is on an island in the lake: to get there you go across the Welcoming Morning Sunlight Bridge (or The Huc Bridge)

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Apart from the turtle in its glass case and a gift shop, there are several shrines to commemorate a famous soldier and a couple of scholars (now that's an idea I can get behind!)

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Further down the lake, there is something called the Turtle Tower, to honour the mgic turtles which guard the sword

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Emboldened by my food tour and internet research, I went in search of a dish called Bun Cha and thanks to a wee lack of carefulness on my part had one of the best things so far. Essentially Bun Cha is BBQ grilled pork, although there seem to be variations after that. Recipes I have found talk about a dipping sauce, but in the version I had, the pork was put into broth with noodles, bean sprouts and other bits and pieces. The broth was lightly spiced (with something like star anise and maybe cinnamon) and a bit sweet. It was up to me to add other ingredients: I could only recognise coriander and chilli, so that's what I had. Man, the chilli heat really spreads when it is in broth! I was almost in trouble, I had made it so hot.

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I was in Hanoi for Christmas, but there was (to quote a favourite TV programme) a bit of a cock up on the catering front. The food I had was nice, but the place I went to (one of the top rated in town) was a bit budget, I even had some random sharing my table for a bit, and I was in and out in half an hour. Luckily I'd had a great experience on Christmas Eve - another top rated restaurants in a hotel had really looked after me. I had a couple of these

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(it is a Hanoi Sunrise - tequila, rum, Campari & orange), followed by very posh spring rolls and something called Bo Lo Lat ("minced beef with pork grease, garlic, black pepper wrapped in Lolot leaves then fried").

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One other notable meal was in a place called Highland Coffee: the coffee and Banh My were nice, but I was more impressed with the people watching opportunities. This is where the young Vietnamese middle class come and just hang out, chatting, using the internet. The guys in particular intrigued, as a lot had gone for the James Dean look - leather jackets, belt buckles, pompadour (I had to look that one up - it is the combed back high hair style he adopted).

The worst food experience I had was at the airport. When I change countries and have a small amount of money, too small to get changed, I normally swap it for chocolate or, back in the day I did such things, cigarettes. The chocolate I obtained at Noi Bai airport was truly dreadful - it tasted of nothing but palm oil, no sweet, no chocolate, just this oily flavour.

I'll finish with a few random images of Hanoi

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Posted by NZBarry 05:39 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hanoi

sunny 18 °C

When I left home, I had the idea that China was going to be hard work, so that I would need to spend some time over Christmas in a more relaxing environment. I was wrong about China and am not sure that Hanoi is a particularly relaxing place. In any event, I had four nights there: I have been before, so did not seek out the main touristic sites (such as Ha Long Bay or Uncle Ho's museum). Instead, I really only meandered around with little by way of a fixed purpose.

My first day took me into the French Quarter, home of the Opera House (in a wee crescent formed by the Hilton Hotel) and Museum of Vietnamese Revolution. The former was not open and the latter was mainly a collection of photos, news articles and artefacts owned or used by those caught up in the revolution. The guillotine was used by the French at the Hao Lo Prison in Hanoi - I was more than a little disturbed by the wooden container which presently had a rope coiled in it: I could imagine it full of heads.

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I can't say I was enthralled by this museum, but I had a much better experience at the Alliance Francaise: I had noticed they had a cafe as I wandered around and since I had had nothing to eat for more than 24 hours, decided to splurge on lunch. The cafe shared a space with a gallery, which had these absorbing images on display

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The thing which is not obvious about them is their age (have a guess how old these photos are). They were installed to celebrate the French in Hanoi, and are all around 100 years old (taken 1915-1916 using techniques developed by the Lumiere brothers).

There were a couple of other notable buildings in the Frech Quarter - the Government Guesthouse and the Sofitel Hotel (which was evidently a popular place for weddings, as I never walked past it without seeing at least one wedding couple being photographed):

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That last fellow, Lý Thái Tổ, was an earlier Emporer: he moved the capital to Hanoi in 1010. I spent some time in the nearby park, completely intrigued by a group of gentlemen, as I could not quite work out what they were doing.

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This may have been some sort of bicycle club, or maybe the bike on the right side of the picture was for sale, as several of the guys hopped on and road it around the park. If it was for sale, it did not sell: as far as I could tell, the same fellow who brought it in rode it away again.

Posted by NZBarry 14:13 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Dali - Hanoi

sunny 15 °C

This is a journey of roughly 1,000 kilometres, which I decided to do in one rather less than seamless hit: it took me almost preciesly 48 hours! It started well: because a hard sleeper is no softer than a soft sleeper, I went for the hard sleeper back to Kunming. I shared the six berth space with a young couple from near Beijing, just out here for a week's holoday, and a cluster of middle-aged guys. As soon as they were on the train, they started to party, divesting the train attendant of all the beer she had to sell, along with large quantities of noodles and tasty looking vacuum-packed chicken legs. They were easily amused: the guard raised a prolonged laugh from them simply by asking me "how do you do" and another when he said at the end "have a good day". Luckily lights out on the train meant they moved their party away from my bed.

Arrival at Kunming was at the inhospitable hour of 5:00 a.m. and I knew the waiting room would not be heated, so opted for one of the 24 hour restaurants and a rather potent breakfast of champions: spicey (ie intense chili and Sichuan peppercorn) beef noodle soup.

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I could have bussed down to the Vietnamese border but in some circles, admittedly rather small and obscure ones, the Kunming to Hekou narrow gauge railway (built by the French in 1904 - 1910) has legendary status (it actually runs all the way to Haiphong, near Hanoi - when it was built, it cut the travelling time from 28 days to little more than one). Last time I was in Hanoi, I seriously considered coming up this line but, what with the need for a visa and me being short on time, it all became a bit complicated. That's a bit sad, really, because not long after, bits of the line on the Chinese side were wiped out by landslides, and they closed it. For ever. But they are building a new one, and have the first two thirds open, and so I caught a hard seat train down to a place called Mengzi - catching glimpses of the rather forlon, rusted remains of the old line. I read a blog by a fellow who had cycled through and he made Mengzi sound rather good, so I should really have stayed (would have if I had the benefit of hindsight) but I was on a mission: Vietnam today.

Things were a little haphazard in my planning at this point: the internet told me it was easy to get a bus south, but with no details, excapt that one fellow thought the bus left from near the old railway station (the new one is 17 km out of town). There was a big bunch of local buses waiting for the train, which were heading in to town - they all stopped at what looked like a rather random place to me, so I had to ask some locals where the bus station was: they conferred for quite some time before advising me that we were standing outside it (it looked more like a mall to me and had neither English signage nor buses to indicate its purpose). I was on a bus speeding down the expressway within about 20 minutes, and was able to appreciate the difficulties of running the railway line through here - the Red River has created a particularly rugged sort of gorge: the expressway just ignored all features of the landscape by having a large number of viaducts and tunnels, and so this part of the trip was over in about two hours. I had planned to walk to the border, but the bus stopped outside the centre of town and a lady with a taxi convinced me to pay her 10 yuan to drop me off at the immigration control office. After a last linger on Chinese soil, I went through and was in Vietnam.

The change was immediately apparent - in China, no-one who talked to me seemed to have any sort of agenda, were either helping me or just wanted to talk. In Vietnam, almost everyone had an agenda: to sell (money, taxis, motorbikes) or to con. I wasn't even out of the Vietnamese Immigration building and some bloke is officiously telling me to go to a particular counter, which turned out to be a dodgy money changer. I have a low tolerance for this sort of thing, so it wasn't long before I was getting a bit grumpy. Then there is the change in language, in the script, in the economic situation (Vietnam is and looks poor compared to China): one welcome change was that I could now recognise most of the important local foods (Pho Bo, Pho Ga, Banh My and Bia). In one evening, I managed to indulge in all of them!

The plan was to catch the train to Hanoi, but I was thwarted. The station attendant had no tickets - but I was approached by a number of touts who could sell me one, including one fellow who was leaning against the counter. They wanted something like four times the going rate, which was still not a fortune, but I really had no wish to support this practice. My hotel seemed to think that going back at 8:00 in the morning might produce a different result but (a) the train left at 9:15, (b) the one day bus I could find left at 8:30 and (c) I really did not want to stay in Lao Cai longer than I had to. So, I caught the bus.

Now, I've been in lots of rumpety old buses in rugged terrain (old Tata buses in Assam or traversing Nepal; old Hyundai buses in Laos) and never had any problem. The bus produced for me in Lao Cai looked better than any of them and the road south, although it was extremely twisty, was at least sealed. But it was a sleeper bus (if I had known this, the touts or the waiting in Lao Cai would have been so much more attractive). For the most part, the bus is comprised of individual pods - three across and two levels. But at the back, it is more or less a sleeping platform, for five people, with two levels. The worst position is in either upper rear corner - not only because the movement of the bus is most pronounced here, but also because there is a big speaker box for the sound system straight above your head - so sitting up is impossible. This is where I was put, for a 350 km journey which google maps confidently said would take 5 hours: it took TWELVE! The only small good thing is that the sound system was never turned on. Here are some pictures of the road and the terrain through which it passed, for about the first 250 km

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By about lunchtime, I was feeling sufficiently off-colour to think it was best not to eat anything. Oddly enough, I managed to make it through to where the road improved before I finally needed to find a bag, urgently. Not just once. This last bit was a nightmare, particularly when I had convinced myself that the town we were going through was so big it must be Hanoi and then I see it is still nearly another hundred k. Of course, we get to the bus station, and I am crowded by taxi and motorbike drivers, clamouring for my meagre bit of business. I'm not ready for this, am less than polite and sit in the bus station for quite a while before I am ready to go find a taxi and make my way to my hotel.

Posted by NZBarry 19:16 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Dilly-dallying in Dali

sunny 15 °C

I could have lounged languidly in Lijiang or even shilly-shallied in Shangri La but, well, they are even further away from Kunming, and the 8 hours each way to Dali was enough, given I could only stay a night. As it happens, Dali proved to be a fantastic way to end my time in China. Of course, Kunming had to do one last thing to me - I was on a day train, so wanted a soft seat: the train clerk misunderstod this and sold me a much more expensive soft sleeper. But then the tentacles of the Dali magic took over: I had the compartment all to myself the whole way. Being an older, single track line it was a slow journey but through pictaresque country so I was happy.

Dali was the capital city for the ancient kingdom of the Bai people (more than a thousand years ago) - the old walled city is still there (albeit rebuilt in 1400), about 10 km north of the mdern city (in which I spent no time, except to catch a bus), east of a line of mountains which still had quite a covering of snow and west of Lake Erhai (which is apparently quite special but I never saw it). It is close to the so-called Tea Horse Road, a hugely important trade route for the distribution of tea into both India and Eastern China - Pu'er is an important source of tea in the Yunnan mountains. I would have loved to have spent some time exploring that aspect of Dali and its environs, but just looking at the city itself took all my time. It currently has around 40,000 residents, so is tiny compared with anywhere else I have been, but has maintained its traditional importance as a travellers town, so that there are many bars, restaurants, hostels - making this a very cool place to hang out even if the cooler crowd has moved on.

As I got off the bus in the Old Town, it was about the first time since I arrived in China that I was conscious of blue sky and actual, discrete clouds. It took me a little while to find it, but once I did, the Yinfeng Hotel proved to be a great find: huge wooden floored rooms, balconies on the upper floors (it only has three) and very close to the centre of town - I reckon I could live here.

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Walking around in the evening, I could immediately see why it is so popular among travellers - a bit like Kathmandu, but without the chaos and dirt and beggars and just the two scammers (both wanting to shine my shoes, but I sensed there was something dodgy about them, and it is reported that they actually hold your shoes to ransom, demanding about 200 yuan before you get to see them again). One of the core streets is Foreigner Street, so called because about a hundred years ago, it housed the only hotel permitted to lodge foreigners, and so a bunch of related businesess sprung up around it - the restaurants with their English menus and western food are still there

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but it is by no means the only place to eat - every street in Dali seems to have its share, including restaurants where you just pick what you want them to cook (I nearly tried one in Kunming, but the chicken I picked was still frozen, which did not augur well).

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I ended up in a rather odd place, which didn't know if it was a Japanese restaurant or aritisinal art place: the only other occupants were a group of Chinese businessmen who seemed to be in the process of getting seriously drunk. Unfortunately, I could not eat my meal - the chicken was still rather raw on the inside. I did better for my other meals - a rather delicious pork and pepper concoction

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and for my final meal in China, I did what is compulsory in Dali and ate yak steak (I have a photo, but for some reason the chips have become very prominent and then there is a nondescript piece of meat). This was pretty good - the chips were fresh to the point I had seen the cook peel the spuds, and the steak had had to be given a stern lesson with a hammer in order to be edible.

I basically spent the evening and the whole of the next day (except for an hour or so where I sat in a cafe with a pot of the local coffee, some chocolate cake and my book) just wandering the streets of old Dali, from North Gate to South, amused by the various actors - not exactly sure which period in history they are representing.

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There is a museum which I investigated, but didn't find very interesting - unlike the Dali Rural Film History Museum, in a recreation of the former Dali Cinema, which was first established 110 years ago and was rather rudimentary: the second photo says it all. Basically, the screen was set up, and people would just gather round. The intent behind the museum is to show off Dali's connection with film (several have been made here) and the more general social connections between people and movies (which it did by having a room devoted to film posters, presumably of films which have a local importance.

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Dali is very much on the circuit of places visited by Chinese bus tour groups - they basically get dropped off at one gate, walked through the main street and collected from the other gate, or they ride around on 12 seater golf carts. At one point I was just sitting idly, watching the world go by, noticed one fellow go behind me while another took a cheeky photo of me (and I guess his mate behind me). This seemed to give an entire group of these Chinese tourists the same idea: they abandoned thier guide and took it in turn to have their photo taken with me - slightly insane but curiously gratifying.

I did take a wee walk outside the walls, along from the south gate - the next couple of blocks was given over to woodworkers at their trade - making a mixture of modern furniture and various building fixtures in traditional style

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Back in the old town proper, I basically took lots of pictures of what I saw - including a machine for making walnut cakes, some schoolkids in the local uniform, a brush seller

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and a whole bunch of random shots. I really liked Dali and would not be surprised if I am back here (I see Tiger flies direct from Singapore to Lijiang, which is just two hours north). The last photo is of some people playing a game a bit like tennis, in that they hit a ball backwards and forwards, but they do not use a racquet. Instead, they have to catch the ball in the paddle thingey, and it propels the ball back

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My departure from Dali was yet another occasion for the locals to demonstrate their kindness. I was waiting for the bus back to the railway station, at the stop my hotel had told me was correct. This was not only wrong but the only bus this stop did serve had stopped for the night. Waiting with me were a bloke about my age and two young women: the bloke got a bit agitated about the lack of a bus (even I could work this out) and started talking to the young women. They were evidently agreeing to take a taxi. Eventually, I worked out that the bloke was talking to me as well, although in Chinese only - he was able to create three ideas: this stop was for local buses only, they were finished and "follow me" They took me in their taxi and dropped me at the right place for my bus (I could show him my train ticket, so he knew what I wanted) before carrying on to where they were going.

Posted by NZBarry 19:26 Archived in China Comments (0)

Kunming: The Good Stuff

snow -2 °C

Like I said, Kunming was not all bad. After I was settled into the hostel, I went for a walk into the downtown area, because (a) I needed a shop for a passport photo and (b) I was hungry. I found several wedding and fashion photographers, but don't think they were quite right for the job (later on, with some help from the hostel, I found a bloke on a back street who was very punctilious and charged $4). As for the food, I was spoilt for choice - in common with every major Chinese city I've been in, the centre was dominated by malls, but they tend to have lines of proper restaurants on their rooftops - I found a Japanese teppanyaki place and pigged out on lamb, fish and chili green beans (called cowpeas on the menu). On my second day, I ended with another enjoyable food experience, although of a rather different character. Not far from my hostel, there is a food street - for a couple of blocks, most of the shops sell food (although there were quite a few clothing places) and the footpath turned into a bit of a night market. The most highly rated place on tripadvisor to eat in Kunming was here - oddly enough, it sold no Chinese food at all, but it was a very relaxed bar cafe, the sort of thing that would not have been out of place on the hippie trail. So, I went with the flow and had whiskey and a burger.

On the Monday, I had successfully found the Vietnamese Consulate (rather difficult according to everything I saw on the internet, but I had no trouble, so have now corrected the internet): their instructions were very specific - pick up the passport between 5:00 and 5:30 on Wednesday. I ended up having quite a marvellous Wednesday in Kunming, taking the day to walk to the Consulate. First, I went north, to the North Railway Station and Yunnan Railway Museum, only to find both closed in 2011 because of the impending metro (which does look imminent, as they were doing street refurbishment when I was there)

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A sign pointed to a locomotive shed I could inspect, but it looked like the site of that shed has had a big now building erected on it - when I tried to go further, I encountered a rather concerned security guard who could neither tell me where the locomotive shed was nor let me proceed any further. So, a bit of a backtrack, almost to where I had started, to visit the Yunnan University, which doesn't look like much from the outside

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but opens up to reveal a campus which is absolutely smothered with trees (spring must be fantastic here)

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The buiding in the last picture is the library: I wanted to go in but it is card access only. So I did the next best thing, went to the Sunrise Cafe under the library and had a beer and some lunch. The University fronts on to the Green Lake

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- I took a very slow meander down its East side, enjoying the musicians at work and watching all the seagulls congregated on the lake. I actually walked around this lake a couple of times as it was very close to the hostel - I am not sure why, but every so often all of the birds would take flight all at once: an awesome but slightly scary sight.

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I'd walked past a building across the road from the lake a couple of times, even walked in and had a look, without having much of an idea of what it was. The layout should have given me a clue - it is the 100 year old military barracks. There is actually an art gallery/photography exhibition but I didn't find it all that interesting plus there seemed to be huge tour groups of locals being shown through continuously, so I gave that a miss.

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Next in my walk was the Provincial Library - only about the bottom six floors are used for public access library space but still, it is an impressive facility with many spaces set aside for study or quiet reading - completely unlike my local library, which has given up on those aspects of a library in favour of "the more people in the door the better".

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Finally, the Yunnan Museum, which had made a huge exhibition for calligraphy - one-take aphorisms by a particular master of the art. Again, there were lots of locals enjoying this but I don't have the background to appreciate it. I was more taken by the cute structures used to house up to about four policemen and women

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As I walked, I found a very small space occupied by old Kunming - wooden buildings with one or two floors, maybe a dozen in all. The rest of Kunming is very modern and lacking distinctive character, although there is a section where they are establishing a new ancient city (which made me think for some strange reason of starting a business "antique furniture - made to order"). I suppose with the massive shift in population (the Chinese Government is deliberately growing the population in these western cities) this sort of progress is inevitable but, still, it would have been nice to see some old China.

I was struck by the slow pace of life outside the CBD - every street corner had its collection of (mainly) blokes lounging on their scooters, doing what seemed to be nothing, not even waiting, just hanging. People dawdled up the streets - one woman was knitting as she dawdled, but the dawdling became so slow she ended up just stood there, in the middle of the footpath, knitting contentedly.

BTW - I accomplished my mission, arriving at the Vietnamese Consulate at 5:10. As soon as I had retreived my passport, I took full advantage of it my buying train tickets out of there and booking myself into a warm hotel for the night.

Posted by NZBarry 07:25 Archived in China Comments (0)

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