A Travellerspoint blog

China

Guilin

28 °C

We originally intended to take the train from Shanghai to Guilin, but we soon found out that it would take twenty seven hours and the price was almost the same as a flight. Naturally we opted to fly. I’ll come back later on how easy (correction: not easy) it is to take the train. Our flight into Guilin on Monday was delayed by three hours. As a result we didn’t get to our hostel until after ten that night. There’s not a lot to do here, but it lies on the west bank of the Li river, which is billed as one of the best nature attractions in China. We booked ourselves on two tours. We spent Tuesday travelling to Yangshuo, initially by bus and then on a ninety minute bamboo raft which include some stunning scenery. It’s very similar to Halong Bay in Vietnam. The pictures below will give you an idea.

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Yangshuo is surrounded by some beautiful countryside, making it an attractive place for tourists to visit. Unfortunately it’s become a victim of its own success. The area is surrounded by western tourists and every Chinese person in the area is out to sell to you. One old lady caught me queuing for the toilet so I had to suffer ten minutes of saying 'no' to the two wooden ducks she wanted me to buy. We had a wander around the shops, ate a nice lunch, took a bike ride and indulged in a fish spa. Alberto found it a little bit tickly.

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On Wednesday we took a trip to the Longji rice fields. It’s a long day. We took one bus to a central station, changed for a second, got off shortly after and walked for thirty minutes and then took a third bus up to the fields. We were also the only western passengers which didn’t make the transfers easier but some of the Chinese tourists spoke English and were really kind to us, helping us order food, find our way etc. You take a gondola up to a look out point. The view is awesome. This tour felt a lot more authentic than the Li River and is one of the highlights of our trip so far.

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Yeah soz about that pic...

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The paps won't leave me alone over here. We also made a new friend.

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Three nights in Guilin was perfect. We stayed in the Ming Palace Hostel. You'd find more craic in a graveyard but it's still a good place to stay and relax after the long tours. I mentioned earlier about booking trains. To cut a long story short, you need to book everything as far in advance as you can. Every train journey seems to sell out fast. As we couldn’t take a train directly to HK we had to book a second that would take us close to the border. This second train was oversold and unfortunately we had to wait four hours for a later one. I was told many times about how you’d have to get to the train station a few hours in advance to pick up tickets etc. due to huge queues. I had heard it so many times I was starting to wonder if getting off the Titanic would be easier.

Well, there were long queues, it felt like fifty degree heat (no air con inside), nobody had a word of English and there was even a dramatic fight going on in the middle of the room. We could only find one Western man and he didn’t know where to go either, despite having what seemed like a Chinese aide to help him. After lots of hand gestures, question mark signals and pointing at our pieces of paper we managed to find our way. Two train rides later we crossed the border in Hong Kong, took two metro rides into HK Central and from there a taxi to my friend John's apartment (living here over a year now). Given how bad I am at following directions I'm actually quite proud of doing all of that! The whole journey took fourteen hours. John has very kindly put us up for the next six nights so we can't wait to explore HK with him.

Lost in Translation:

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Posted by mattld 00:57 Archived in China Comments (2)

Food Glorious Food

We're two weeks into trip at this point and we've had a few friends ask us about the food in China since we arrived. ‘Lost in translation’ aside I haven't referenced it much. Where to start... I would love to tell you it's the best thing since sliced bread, but I would be lying. A very large percentage of the options available to you are deep fried, with some veg thrown in for good measure. The Chinese love their oil. You can get good soup dishes with noodles and a meat of your choice, and thankfully it's cheap, healthy and filling. Unfortunately there isn't a huge amount of variety, unless you look at the western options which are generally average and expensive. We haven't spotted an Italian, Mexican, Japanese or a Thai restaurant. Don't get me wrong, we're up for trying the local cuisine but there are only so many of these dishes you can eat on a daily basis. That doesn't mean it's all been bad.

Cantonese style beef with peppers, onion and garlic. You can easily get this one at home but it somehow tastes better here.

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Dumplings are one of the most popular dishes in China. I'm not a huge fan but they're growing on me. Alberto loves them.

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We tried this one earlier today, sticky rice with bacon/mango and chicken cooked over a fire in bamboo. Best meal so far!

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We knew curry would be hard to find so we thought all our Christmases had come at once when we found a specialist curry house in Shanghai. You couldn't make a dent in the pool of curry that was served up. I won't comment on the 'chicken'. We wouldn't recommend it...

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Posted by mattld 07:56 Archived in China Comments (0)

Shanghai

overcast 24 °C

We arrived into Shanghai late afternoon on Thursday 11th and checked into a really nice hostel called The Phoenix. The city is undergoing one of the fastest economic expansions in the world right now and it’s obvious as soon as you arrive. A lavish airport greeted us, followed by a high speed bullet train that brought us into the city centre. The underground metro is even better than Beijing and we’ve been using it non-stop over the past few days. We bought a 3 day card for roughly €5 each which offers unlimited journeys throughout Shanghai’s extensive rail network.

Just a quick side note, be careful of scams if you’re visiting China. We’ve had a few different groups of girls approach us (in Beijing and Shanghai) asking to have their picture taken. They have then tried to engage in conversation before suggesting a drink somewhere close by. Two other girls told us they were university students and asked us to spend an hour with them over a drink so they could practice their English. We politely declined. Our guide book advised that they’ll soon disappear off and you’ll be left with a couple of heavies and an expensive bill you’ll have to foot. Like any other city, be cautious and sensible.

Culturally the city offers a stark contrast to Beijing. There are people still randomly asleep in public places and a little bit of spitting going on but other than that you may as well be in any other major western city. Tall skyscrapers, neon lights, endless brand promotion etc. are everywhere. Disappointingly, it’s difficult not to spot a KFC, Starbucks, McDonalds or Pizza Hut on most high streets. The Shanghainese almost appear Western (their clothing, behaviour, phone obsession etc.). The city is a little bit of a cross between Tokyo and Vancouver, and a really good example of East meets West. There’s not a single stand out attraction, it’s more a case of the city itself which is the attraction. Everything is a little bit more expensive but not as much as you might think. You can still find a good meal for two for €10.

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Shanghai is without a doubt an advanced and futuristic city. Even the telephone booths have wifi. However Alberto wasn’t able to get it working. Silly foreigner.

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After Xi’an we decided to take a break from the organised tours. Shanghai is relatively compact so it was easy to visit all the main attractions by metro. On Friday we took a trip to the Temple of Jade. It’s a small but beautiful temple boasting a number of ancient statues. We took part in a small ritual ceremony where you light a number of incense sticks, say a prayer or make a wish and then discard them into a burning pit.

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We then headed out to the World Financial Centre which has over 100 floors and an observatory deck at the top. The most famous building in Shanghai, known as the Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower is relatively close by but it’s not as tall. However it’s hard not to be impressed by a building that looks like a spaceship. We went to the top of the financial centre but unfortunately due to rain and cloud the view was really poor. It’s not a cheap attraction so a quick word with the manager resulted in free tickets to return the next day. Don’t ask don’t get!

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On Saturday we visited the general museum which was disappointing. There was a really interesting section on ancient Chinese currency and another on masks but aside from that it was mostly just pottery, furniture and clothing. However it was free of charge, so I shouldn’t complain too much. Afterwards we headed to the science and technology museum. It was a lot better, if a little dated. Later we returned to the financial centre, this time during daylight and with much better views on offer. Finally we took the metro across/underneath the Huangpu river to the Bund, an area where you can view the old colonial architecture. It also boasts the best ground view of Shanghai. It’s worth visiting just before dusk. Stay around for the lights to come on as it’s a really nice contrast.

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[Say cheese...]

We spent our last full day with a trip to Yu Yuan, a charming 16th century Chinese garden featuring pools, walkways, bridges and rockeries. It’s just a pity it’s so crowded.

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Our final attraction was the ancient town of Qiboa. The town is over one thousand years old and you can enjoy some shopping, food or a very cheap boat ride.

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That evening we met up with Jeanette and Raquel, two of the girls we met in Xi’an. They took us to K-TV, a karaoke experience I would highly recommend (of course).

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Shanghai has been great, the city has a lot to offer and we will definitely return. Today we continue south to Guilin, and we’re looking forward to visiting a smaller town in the hope of experiencing more of the traditional China.

Lost in Translation:

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Posted by mattld 08:33 Archived in China Comments (2)

Xi'an

rain 20 °C

We flew into Xi’an late Sunday evening, and any worries regarding domestic flights were unfounded. Everything ran smoothly. In comparison with the hundreds of Chinese travellers, we only saw two other Western tourists, but we’re getting used to that now. We took a taxi to our hostel, the ‘Facebook Hostel’. There is no connection, and taking into account that China bans it, it was a little amusing to find a hostel with such a name. There were good reviews and it was centrally located, and cheap too. Our taxi driver got lost on the way and what should have been a forty five minute drive ended up closer to ninety minutes. Still, we only paid 110 Yuan for the trip (€13.50). We quickly discovered the Facebook Hostel was not all it was cracked up to be. The staff have very little English, so it’s difficult to get any advice or ask for anything. The wifi was non existent and you could feel the springs in your bed. We’d recommend staying at the Hang Tang Inn instead which is a couple of doors up. Their staff speak English, they offer great food at a low price, all the mainstream tours and provide free/fast wifi. Fellow backpackers staying there also commented on how comfortable and clean the rooms were.

Xi’an is the capital of the Shaanxi province and has a population of roughly five million people. It’s an easy city to get around and the centre is bounded by city walls, with a bell tower marking the crossroads of the four main streets. Xi’an is best known for the Terracotta Warriors. Approximately eight thousand statues were constructed two thousand years ago and left to guard the tomb of Qin Shi Huang (seen as an archetypal Tyrant). It is one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

Before I get into what we’ve been up to, another amusing cultural difference worth highlighting is the sleeping habits of the Chinese. We’ve seen a few nodding off in random public areas, some in an almost corpse like condition. I’m looking forward to having a snooze on the street if Alberto will let me.

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Monday was pretty much a write off. We woke up to the rain (it has been raining for the majority of our time here unfortunately). Problems with both of our bank cards meant that we were unable to take any cash out and were reliant on the little Yuan we had left in cash. We were just about able to get some street food for lunch with what we had. Three skewers of beef costs only 10 Yuan (€1.20) and a large portion of potatoes stir-fried in garlic, cumin, spring onion and chilli costs 5 Yuan. A bargain, and it’s pretty tasty too. Just make sure any meat is well cooked.

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We spent the day trying out other ATMs, emailing our bank and trying to call them (we have been unable to make any international calls though). Luckily, the Hang Tang Inn allowed us to book our Terra Cotter Army tour and order dinner via credit card, which worked fine. Phew! That evening we stayed in and watched a film on the laptop. It was a pretty frustrating and boring day all-round. We’ve since been able to withdraw cash so the problem seems to have been resolved.

Tuesday was an early start. The Hang Tang Inn offers an all-day breakfast menu so we ate there prior to departure. We arrived at the excavation site late morning and we had a great afternoon exploring three different museums. The government must have known they hit gold when it was found. A trip to Xi’an if you’re in China is well worthwhile for the warriors alone. The farmer who discovered it in the 1970s now works at the souvenir shop for a ‘meet & greet’ and photo opportunity. We're not really sure if it was him or not, but funny all the same. We were too poor at the time to pay for the privilege.

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We made friends with the tour group and that evening we all went out to dinner in the Muslim Quarter where there is a night market. Food stalls offering a wide range of meats, snacks and desserts are plentiful. A few drinks back at the hostel led to a spontaneous trip to the street bars and I finally found my karaoke bar. Every person got up to sing individually or in groups, generally paired with another member from the same country or in the case of Alberto with a girl from Portugal. We christened them team Iberia. And of course they sang the Macarena. We generally called each other by our country name, and in the case of multiples from the same country, you were Australia number three or America number two. After a lot of drinking, and singing we got to bed just after 4am. That evening was probably the highlight of our trip to Xi’an.

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We booked ourselves onto another tour for Wednesday, this time to see the tomb of Emperor Jingdu (regarded as a benevolent ruler who lived during 188 BC – 141 BC). Most of the group from the previous night were also going. We had good craic in the van but unfortunately the tour was a waste of money. There was very little to see and the only saving grace is that we were probably too hungover to appreciate anything really good, so we didn’t have to feel guilty due to our lack of interest.

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[There wasn't a pic worth showing from this tour, so a group selfie in the rain will have to do]

That evening we all met up again for dinner, and went to see a light and water show down at the Goose Pagoda. It took quite some time to get out to see it. Taxi drivers will pull up but as soon as they realise you’re a foreigner they’ll speed away as quickly as they can. We ended up taking a tuk tuk, Alberto’s first experience and I don’t think he’s overly keen. This one was a deluxe model with a proper enclosed carriage to get into so you didn’t get wet, but unfortunately we had to deal with a strong smell of fumes for the journey. We caught the tail end of the show. It was pretty good, and it’s on every evening for free.

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At the end of the night we exchanged some contacts for possible future meet-ups and said our goodbyes. Overall our experience of Xi’an was pretty positive. The constant rain for the last four days didn’t help, but hanging out with a large group of backpackers for a couple of days was really fun, and we hope to do more of that. Aside from the Terra Cotta Warriors though, there isn’t a lot else on offer. We stayed four nights, but would only recommend two to three (in comparison four in Beijing was perfect). Next stop, Shanghai.

Lost in Translation:

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Posted by mattld 03:13 Archived in China Comments (4)

Welcome to Beijing

sunny 28 °C

Ni-hao! We’ve been in China for five days now but it feels a lot longer (and in a good way, we’re not missing Western life just yet). A few well known facts about Beijing to get you started:

• It’s the Capital of China
• There are approximately 15 millions inhabitants
• It was the host of the Olympic Games in 2008
• Beijing is home to the Great Wall and Forbidden City

First impressions of Beijing are of an almost inhuman vastness, conveyed by the sprawl of apartment buildings, in which most of the city’s population are housed, and the eight-lane motorways that slice it up. The currency is the Yuan (pronounced ‘Whan’). It’s roughly 8 Yuan to 1 Euro. Culturally, we’ve observed more than just a few differences in the past few days. The list below is not intended to insult! In fact, these differences are part of the attraction of China (even if just to observe them, if nothing else):

• Spitting – the Chinese think nothing of hacking up a massive spit, deep from the back of their throat (even during mid conversation). It’s not very pleasant and unfortunately there’s no escaping it. Expect to hear this at least a handful of times in one day, if not more.
• Smoking – even in restaurants where it says ‘no smoking’, the Chinese will ignore and puff away. It’s everywhere. The rumour that smoking ‘might’ be bad for you is like a little secret nobody has let them in on yet.
• Fashion – a good few men walk around with their t-shirt tucked up. It's obviously understandable with the heat.

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• Food – most animal parts are up for grabs (hooves, tongue, the head etc.). Spiders, lizards, seahorses, cochroaches etc. are all available at low prices. We got to try some fresh deep fat fried scorpion on Thursday. It was delicious.

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• Dining – I’m a big fan of traditional Chinese music, so I was disappointed that none of the restaurants had any music at all. It leaves the atmosphere somewhat flat. Coupled with the constant noise of chairs being dragged in and out of tables on the marble floor, dining is more a case of ‘refuel and get out’ rather than a sensual experience. Table etiquette… we’ve seen diners dumping tissues, rubbish and even cigarette butts on the ground after they’re finished. Indoors…
• Toilet – stories of having to squat in a public toilet without any privacy or toilet paper are not completely unfounded. Bring toilet paper with you everywhere you go. I don’t know about you, but I just want to be able to go to the toilet with some dignity so I was very happy that the toilet in our apartment allowed you to sit down. Unfortunately it’s not designed to take any tissue, so that must go in a bin and anything larger than a small marble requires multiple flushes and a toilet brush to help it on its way to sewer heaven. Apologies if you’re eating…
• Staring – the visa card you sign when landing refers to us as ‘aliens’ and sometimes you feel like one. One surprise in Beijing is the lack of Western people. You can generally count the amount of Caucasian people on two hands at any one specific area, even popular tourist spots like the Great Wall. The Chinese don’t consider it rude to stare. We’ve had our pictures taken a couple of times which was funny. I’d have appreciated it a lot more had I been drunk at the time.
• Language – as expected it can be very difficult to get around due to a lack of English (and to be fair our lack of Chinese). They rely, naturally of course on the Chinese calligraphy, and not the Roman alphabet. With some planning however you can get by. A Chinese/English translation phrase book is very useful, and we would recommend having a local contact you can use for help when you need it (in our case it was our Air Bn’B host who was fantastic). I must add that the underground rail is fast, very cheap (only 25 cents for a trip), efficient and easy to use. The only downside is it’s packed most of the time.

Tuesday was a long, long day. Due to delays with both flights, our total travel time from leaving the house (thank you Barry for the lift at 7am) to arrival was just over 20 hours. We flew with Ethihad via Abu Dhabi. For both of us it was our first time to fly with them. Overall the service was fine, but nothing spectacular (it was no Virgin or Qantas). We arrived into Beijing just after 10am local time, Wednesday morning. We thought our bags had gotten lost as they took more than twenty minutes to appear, but thankfully they arrived. We booked an apartment via Air Bn’B and took a metered taxi out (our host told us in advance it was only 100 Yuan for an hour long drive, which is roughly €12.50). We decided to stay at a hutong, which is a traditional block of three to five apartments with a very small courtyard providing a common area. We would highly recommend it, and in particular booking with a local Chinese host. She helped us get from A to B and even booked two internal flights for us. You cannot book a flight using a foreign credit card unless you send a scanned copy of your passports and the visa card itself within two hours of booking. We didn’t feel comfortable sending copies of the visa, so thankfully our host booked instead and we paid her in cash. That afternoon, we had a sleep, shower and change of clothes before heading out to get acquainted with our surroundings. If you’re visiting Beijing (and I suspect a lot of China), bring a torch! A lot of areas away from the city are not well lit. We had a really nice meal for €5 including two drinks. We haven’t had it as cheap since mind you but there are bargains out there. We also got some free drama with this meal when a local refused to pay his bill. He shouted at the top of his lungs for a few minutes before eventually throwing his drink on the ground and storming out. Afterwards we took a walk around the shops before heading home for an early night. Beijing is at its best at night time. There are coloured lights dotted throughout most streets offering a Christmas feel. The little side streets and hot food stalls are really enjoyable to walk through.

We spent Thursday morning at the Forbidden City. During the five centuries of its operation, there were 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Ordinary Chinese were forbidden from even approaching the walls of the palace, hence the name. It’s one giant history museum and we really enjoyed the architecture, designs and side rooms filled with ornaments and relics. We only spent just over half a day here, but you could spend a lot more than that exploring the thousands of rooms.

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[Not gonna lie, we stole this cool pose from two Chinese girls]

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On Friday as we ventured out to one of the largest shopping areas in China, just by the Wangfujing station. We’d really recommend it, you’ve got a massive shopping mall with all the designer names including a BMW store (not that we spent a penny in the mall with our budget). The outdoor street section is a little like something you’d see in central London or New York. There is also ‘China Town’ style section filled with traditional cuisines and the previously mentioned insect dishes.

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That afternoon we visited the Summer Palace. It’s a vast public park filled with traditional Chinese garden landscaping in addition to a number of temples.

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Saturday was a 6am start, as we headed off to the Great Wall. There are three main sections you can visit. We avoided the most visited section, known as Badaling (too crowded, too many sales people and most of the wall here has been rebuilt in recent times taking away the authenticity of your visit). Instead we went to Mutianyu, a little further out, but much quieter and with most of its original structure still in tact. We took a cable car ride up (recommended given the steep ascent). With the heat and humidity, it’s challenging to walk even a small segment, but equally rewarding when you’ve climbed a good height. It’s impossible not to admire how spectacular the whole thing is, especially when you consider it was built in the 5th century BC. However it’s worth noting the thousands of poor Chinese people who died during the building process.

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That night we ventured out to celebrate Alberto’s birthday (he turned 33 on Sunday). Our host recommended the Shicha Lake Area (aka Houhai). A wide range of bars and restaurants surround the lake, all lit up by coloured lights at night. There’s plenty of variety in terms of live bands playing e.g. Jazz, Rock, Pop etc. We failed to find a karaoke bar but a nice meal, a few mojitos and dancing with the locals = a great night had by all.

Overall and unsurprisingly, Beijing is a must visit. The pollution is obvious at times, but not enough to put you off. The Great Wall and Forbidden City have to be seen in person as pictures don’t do them justice. Despite the huge population, many locals we encountered were a friendly and welcoming bunch. One lady walked with us for almost ten minutes in order to show us to a book store we were looking for. ‘Welcome to China!’ at the end she told us. Love it. Another walked with us to a range of restaurants when we got stuck one evening. More than a few also know Ireland. It’s the ‘home of Westlife, and Riverdancing’, which is very cute.

There’s always downtime when you travel, and it’s important to relax as well. Alberto downloaded a few TV series and movies before we left. One show we have to recommend is called ‘The Strain’, which just recently launched on Fox TV in America. You can watch the episodes on the official website or download. It’s a cross between the Walking Dead, Salem’s Lot, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the videogame Resident Evil 4. If you like any of them, watch it now. Advertisement over (but do tell me if you watch it and what you think)! Today we decided to take it easy as we fly to Xi’an, our second destination. Originally we had planned to get the train down, but given that the price is roughly the same and you’re saving at least ten hours in transportation time, a flight was a no brainer. We’ll also fly to Shanghai but following that we’ll take a train south to Guilin finishing up in Hong Kong and Macau. So far so good, loving it China!

Lost in Translation:

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Posted by mattld 10:08 Archived in China Comments (3)

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