Travelling to Western China

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Travel Map.

After weighing my options I had decided to fly to Urumqi, in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang, from Hong Kong, then take the train from there to the Kazakh border. It is possible to go by train all the way from Hong Kong to Urumqi, but it involves stops in intermediary cities to swap trains and would take 3 days. As the price for the flight (HK$1700) and the train (¥1500) was around US$217, I decided to go for the faster option.

It was my first time flying with Shandong Airlines, a domestic Chinese carrier. The flight came with a one day stopover in the Shandong Province city of Yantai. I had never been there before and was looking forward to seeing a new city. On the 3 hour flight to Yantai no meals were served, only snacks. That seemed a bit weird, but they do things differently in China!

Yantai Transit
Yantai is a northeastern port city on the Yellow Sea about 750km southeast of Beijing. Even though it’s close to Beijing, it’s like a whole different world. For starters, the airport was shaped like a uterus and had potted plants everywhere in the arrival area.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai Airport Map K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai Airport Pot Plants

The thing that really struck me about this place, is that besides the grunty security guard, everyone was really friendly. Like approach-you-and-start-chatting-to-you kind of friendly. In all my years of travelling to other cities in China, I’d never really encountered that before.

After purchasing my ¥20 (US$3) bus ticket to the city centre, I realised that a young boy was intensely staring at my hair. When I asked what he was looking at, he excitedly commented that my hair was very red and that he liked red. I asked if he liked purple too, then showed him the purple section underneath. He was totally enamoured. We ended up talking for 10 minutes about my bright hair and his favourite toys. I guess that’s how conversations with 6 year olds go in any language.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai Airport Bus Ticket

The bus ride was quite smooth, due to what looked like a shiny new highway into the city. It was a fairly empty highway, which is also not something I’d seen too often in other Chinese cities. Another thing I’d noticed at the airport and in the town, was a lot of directional signs in Korean. It must be a popular destination with Korean tourists.

When I arrived streets were fairly empty and eerily quiet. I put this down to the late hour, but the next morning things were quite similar. It seems that this town does things a little more quietly and slowly than other places, which was quite refreshing. It was a nice, clean city to walk around.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai, Empty Street
Empty street

While walking around, I noticed they were going for an early 20th century feel with some of the street lights. There were also quite a few dockless bikes around, but I didn’t see many people riding them.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai, Street Lamps K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai, Dockless Bike

Possibly the best part of this city was the mountains surrounding it. One of them, Yantai Hill can be easily reached on a self-guided hike from the Zhifu District, near the city centre.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai, City With Mountains

Like many Chinese cities, there were huge malls everywhere, but one thing that was different was that some of them didn’t have bathrooms. I only found this out when I drank too much tea at a cafe and had to walk a block to find somewhere to relieve myself. While in that cafe, I’d also had problems accessing the WiFi, so one of the lovely staff took time off her duties to help me figure it out.

Something that seemed to be unique to this city was moving repair shops. Some entrepreneurial souls had decided to put all their fix-it tools and know-how into vans and drive around town finding people that needed things fixed. If they found a place where they were doing particularly well, they would set up there for a while.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai, Travelling Fix-it Van

As I walked to the bus station to make my way back to the airport, some young guys approached me to try to sell me some miracle cleaning liquid. I was quite surprised by this, as normally locals wouldn’t approach foreigners in this way because they’d be afraid of the language barrier. I suspect they knew that I wasn’t going to buy, but it was an excuse for them to talk to me. It was kind of cute.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Yantai, Corner Market
Corner Market

So I hadn’t really done much in Yantai besides walk around and chat to some locals, but it was lovely all the same. I’d definitely look into taking a longer break there at some point in the future. Back at the airport, I noticed many people carrying foam boxes full of cherries. It turns out Yantai is famous around China for its cherries and when people visit, they take as many boxes as they can back to their families.

The next leg of the flight was only 1 hour, but in that time a meal was served, even though only crackers were offered on the first and longer flight leg. One of the hostesses felt bad that I couldn’t eat the meal they served and came back with some dried fruit and crackers for me. The Shandong Airlines staff were quite lovely, but their English was either terrible or non-existent. I could understand them better when they spoke Mandarin!

Shijiazhuang Transit
The short flight was due to a technical stop in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei. I can’t say that I know what a technical stop is, but we all had to leave the plane and re-board an hour later. We were even given a special card by the Shijiazhuang Airport to present to get back on the plane.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Shijiazhuang Boarding Cards

I can tell you that the Shijiazhuang airport is very nice. It’s also very spread out and there isn’t much there besides gimmicky souvenir shops and designer stores. During the 1 hour stop there I walked around to see if I could find some food. I did, but the cook was out and they said it would be a half an hour wait. With the plane re-boarding in 40 minutes and a 10 minute walk to the gate, that would be cutting it a bit fine. Maybe a ‘fresh’ coconut from a dispensing machine would suffice?

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Shijiazhuang Coconut vending Machine

Check out my next post for the trials and tribulations of crossing into Kazakhstan via Western China

Couchsurfing Like a Pro

K in Motion Travel Blog. Couchsurfing Like a Pro

So you’ve registered on Couchsurfing, because you’ve heard it’s a great way to meet locals when travelling. It absolutely is, but it can be a bit daunting working out the CS system. I’m here to help you navigate this strange new world and get you Couchsurfing like a pro in no time!

Verified; To Be Or Not To Be?

In short, paying for verification will not help you get hosts or surfers in the beginning. The Couchsurfing site would like you to think that verification is the key to finding hosts and surfers, but that’s not always the case. I’ve had verified members tell me that they’ve messaged several people and being ignored or rejected every time. On the other hand, I receive a ridiculous amount of couch requests and never have problems finding hosts as a non-verified member. There are definitely other factors at play.

What will help you to start couchsurfing like a pro are references. Admittedly, it can be easier for hosts to pick up their first surfer, especially if they live in an area that doesn’t have many other couchsurfing hosts. If you host a verified couchsurfer and get a positive reference from them, you will earn a temporary verification, which can be extended by hosting more verified couchsurfers.

So you’re not ready to host yet, but want to find a couch for an upcoming trip? No problems! There is still hope. Keep reading to find out how to maximise your chances.

Couchsurfing like a Pro – Make a Kick-Ass Profile

When you’re starting out, your profile is your most important commodity, so treat it as such! Make sure that you’ve included at least one picture, but 3 to 5 is better. It’s vital to fill out every section, as this is what people will use to gauge if you’re the kind of person they want in their space. It’s where you need to let your awesomeness shine through!

In the ‘Countries I’ve Visited’ section, list all the countries that you’ve been to and update the list as you go. If you’ve been to a variety of countries, people are more likely to want to meet you. If you’ve been to a country off the tourist radar, hosts will sometimes want to meet you to hear your fabulous stories and ask you for advice about it. It’s also a commonly held belief in the Couchsurfing community that well-travelled people make better surfers, as they’re more aware of how to carry themselves in many different situations.
K in Motion Travel Blog. Couchsurfing Like a Pro

Getting References Before You Surf/Host

If your profile is your greatest commodity in the Couchsurfing world, then references are the currency. This is one of the major hurdles you need to overcome as a new member, because without references your chances of finding hosts are significantly lower. Luckily, Couchsurfing has two kinds of references; hosting/surfing references and personal references.

Any member on Couchsurfing can leave a reference for another member. So if you have friends using the platform, ask them to leave you a character reference. What if you don’t have any friends on the platform? Get yourself to a Couchsurfing event, either at home or abroad. These are held regularly in cities around the world and will show up on the website. If you hit it off with another Couchsurfing member, ask them to give you a personal reference on the platform. These are not as good as surfing or hosting references, but they can increase your chances of finding surfers or hosts.

Finding Your First Host

You’ve poured your heart into your profile and gotten some personal references, now it’s time to find a host. I have to be honest with you at this point and advice you that some hosts will flat out refuse to host some surfers. I think this is ridiculous in the 21st century, but I guess they have their reasons. If you are male, female hosts may refuse to host you, due to ‘safety concerns’. I’d strongly suggest that, unless you can see a history of references from both males and females on a prospective host’s profile, don’t send them a request.

Through the app or the website, you can do a host search by location. You can also use filters, such as date, languages, age, etc., to narrow down your search. It’s always best to search for the exact dates that you need, to make sure that only hosts that are available on your dates will come up in the search.

Couchsurfing Like a Pro – Requesting a Couch

Once you find someone you’d like to host you, you can send a couch request by pressing the ‘Request to Stay’ button. This will send you to a screen where you can type your introduction message. You need to sell yourself here. Don’t cut and paste from your profile. Pick something specific in that person’s profile that makes you think you might get on well. Maybe you both love science fiction, or you have both been to Bangladesh. Whatever it is, find some common ground.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Couchsurfing Like a Pro K in Motion Travel Blog. Couchsurfing Like a Pro

Also, let them know what you can offer them. Can you teach them a language? Can you cook some traditional food for them? Can you tell them crazy travel stories? Can you bring them a unique souvenir from your country? Can you provide them with experiences they have mentioned in their profile?

One thing to keep in mind is that you can only send 10 couch requests a month. If you don’t travel much, that’s fine, but if you’re on a bigger trip, you might be better off messaging someone first so as not to waste your requests. If the person you’re talking to agrees to host you, you can easily send the couch request through later.

Offering a Couch

This is a fairly similar concept to the one above, but this time, sell the wonders of your local area as well as yourself. Are there traditional temples in your area? Nature parks? Something different and quirky? Does it have awesome transport links? Great nightlife? Think about what amenities you would love to have in an area and how your area can provide them. Again, don’t cut and paste from your profile and try to focus on something your prospective surfer has mentioned that they like in their profile.

Couchsurfing Like a Pro – Public Trips

Another useful feature on the site is the ability to create a public trip. Your public trip can be seen by hosts in and visitors to your target area. This means that, aside from helping you find a host, this function could also help you find a travel buddy who’ll be in the same place at the same time as you! I’ve used public trips for most places that I’ve travelled to and have had unforgettable times with wonderful people.

When hosts see these public trips, they can send an ‘offer to host’ if they like your introduction and think that you’d be a great surfer. There is no limit on the number of offers someone can make to host people, so often you can end up with many offers using this function.

Final Thoughts

Couchsurfing is an amazing platform for connecting like-minded people all around the world. The knowledge of a local is invaluable and can take your trip from great to super awesome. I’ve used Couchsurfing for years and some of my most fabulous experiences, from the South Pacific to Africa and everywhere in between, have been a direct result of it.

I cannot recommend it enough! Even if it seems difficult to begin with, just stick with it! It will enrich your life in ways you never would’ve imagined. When you join up, you can find me here

Jakarta

As it was New Year’s Eve, this leg of the trip started with a lovely serenade of Auld Lang Sine by airport staff, just before the gate was open for boarding.

In order to get back home in time for the first work day of the year, I had to opt for a one night stop over in Jakarta. Knowing this, I had gotten in contact with some locals beforehand and one of them had generously volunteered to pick me up from the airport and show me around.

Jakarta was certainly a lot different to the cruisy little Indonesian island I’d just left. For a start, the roads were much bigger and had a lot more traffic on them! I guess that makes sense when you realise that Indonesia’s capital city has a population that is more than 5 times bigger than the population of the whole of West Timor. The traffic seemed to get more intense the closer we got to the city. When I commented about this, my friend advised that it wasn’t normally that bad at that time of night. Apparently, everyone comes out of hiding on New Year’s Eve!

That, of course, meant that the place was bustling. Every time we stopped at a set of traffic lights, someone would walk in between the lines of stopped cars trying to sell all kinds of things, from fireworks, to hats and scarves, to glow in the dark stuff and newspapers. Again my friend assured me that this was just a sign of the season and not an indication of how things normally are in Jakarta.

The festive mood also meant that copious amounts of food stalls, that would normally close earlier, were still super crowded, even at 1am! These roadside food stalls were quite simple. Many had only been constructed with tarpaulins, ropes and metal poles. I guess that means they can move to an area with more people if business is slow. They also only offered a small variety of foods, but still proved to be a blessing for all the hungry people roaming around before, and after, celebrating the start of the new year.

Party Like It’ll Be 2019!
Eventually, after an epic mission to find parking, we found our way to a rooftop party at a hotel in central Jakarta.

Rooftop party

I spent the last few hours of the year talking to many interesting strangers from around the world while watching drunk people dance hilariously. Seeing as it was the middle of the wet season, there was also a bit of rain lurking. At the beginning of the night, every shower sent people scattering inside, or to the limited amount of shelter outside. As the night went on, however, people seemed to have given up on trying to dodge the rain and just kept doing what they were doing.

Things went on like this until just before midnight, when everyone realised that it was almost time for the countdown to the new year. Things went silent for a short while, until everyone started shouting excitedly. Despite the shouting and general mayhem, the sound of fireworks exploding all over the city could be heard. It seems that many people, including some of the attendees of our party, had bought fireworks from a set of traffic lights. So as you can imagine, it got loud!

Happy New Year!