China: Beijing to Hanoi, Vietnam

Posted Posted in Asia, China, Round The World Trip, Vietnam

We woke up at 4:45 to catch a 5:30 taxi to the airport.  Our flight to Hong Kong was due to leave at 6:20.  We got through check-in OK, despite the fact that our backpacks are over 20 kilos.  When we packed last night, we had taken our bath kits out and put them in our carry-ons in anticipation of the “overage fee”, but Dragon Air decided to overlook our heavy bags.  So we went to the gate and ate our bread and cheese breakfast before boarding began.  (We were so excited because the grocery store in Beijing had Brie!)

Our first leg was from Beijing to Hong Kong via Dragon Air.  Even though we couldn’t get an Exit Row, we did the Aisle-and-Window seating gamble which we won because no one sat in between us so we had the whole row to ourselves.  The four hour flight was uneventful, if you don’t count the fact that I had to go to the bathroom at least 3 times.  Jon loves that because he has to get up from his seat each time.  Grumble… grumble…

Do I Look Emaciated?  A Random Act of Kindness….

In Hong Kong, we had a 3 hour layover until our flight left for Hanoi.  So we went to gate 33 and sat down in the empty waiting area to have the lunch we packed – drinks, bread and cheese (this time, Gouda.  Also from the Beijing grocery store!).  So we set up a little lunch with food and drinks on the chair in between us.

Out of nowhere, an official-looking man with a walkie-talkie came up to us and said, “Are you going to Hanoi?”.  We said Yes and he looked at our little picnic and said, “Are you hungry?  I’ll bring you some beer and snacks.”  Then he put his finger over his lips to tell us to keep it secret and he winked and walked away.  Jon and I were dumb-founded.  We must have looked like starving backpackers, which is sort of what we are although I’m hardly waif-like.  (I could be anorexic and I STILL wouldn’t be waif-like)  But why would this man come up to us and offer to do this nice deed?  It’s not that we were suspicious, it’s just been so long since we’ve experienced such blatant kindness.  We were astounded.  10 minutes later, he came out from the plane gangway with two airplane bags – one had two beers and the other had warm garlic bread (probably from first class).  We thanked him profusely and I hope he knows how much we appreciated it.  He disappeared for a while but showed up while the crew was boarding the plane.  So we got to thank him again and then got on the plane.

Now you should all go out and perform a random act of kindness for a stranger.

Flight to Hanoi

The flight was uneventful.  We had a row to ourselves, which of course we love.  The flight wasn’t very long, although we did go backwards one hour in time.  In Hanoi, the airport has a ridiculously small airport for such a major city.  It had two baggage claims, and it took forever for them to bring out the luggage trucks.  Of course our bags were the last off the plane, but that’s par for the course of us this trip.   (see July 28).   We had no problem getting a taxi to the Victory Hotel which Grant booked for us (God bless him!).  On the way into town, we passed another taxi which had run  out of gas.  We assumed we were stopping to pick up the passengers who we recognized from our flight, but instead the driver hopped in with us and left his passengers with the car.  We dropped him off a few minutes later at a gas station where I assume he would get a ride back.

The traffic in Hanoi is insane beyond comparison!  India was bad because cars drove wherever they felt like.  Hanoi is crazy because there are motorbikes EVERYWHERE!  Our taxi driver said that there are 1 million in Hanoi alone, to which Jon replied, “And they’re all on the street right now!”.  The shrill little motorbike horns were honking constantly, and the bikes were like ants – all around us!  Each time we tried to turn, we had to wait for a break in the motorbikes which had swarmed around us in every different direction.  Finding a break was next to impossible, so the driver just used his horn and inched ahead bit by bit.  But no one seems to get angry – this is all in a day’s commute for them.

Victory Hotel

The Victory Hotel where Grant set us up is a cute little hotel on a side street in Hanoi.  They put us on the top floor, which was accessible by 5 flights of stairs.  But the room is very sweet and clean, and we have a balcony which looks out onto the rooftops of neighboring buildings.  Although the hotel is on a side street, it’s still very loud.  But Grant warned us about this when he said, “You’re going to think that I put you in the loudest hotel ever, but I swear the whole city is like this.”  He wasn’t kidding.

Quest For Dinner

We have no Lonely Planet, so we wanted to go to a restaurant which Grant recommended to us called Koto’s.  The front desk at the Victory had a photocopied map, and the guy at the desk marked where Koto’s was which was right across from the Temple of Literature 2 blocks away. We walked to the mark on the map but couldn’t find it, so then we walked around the entire temple to see if it was on another street but still no luck.  Then we walked back to the mark on the map and looked again.  This time, we found it but realized we’d missed it because it was closed!

So we wandered up and down the side streets looking for a potential restaurant.  There really aren’t any restaurants near here.  Instead, people put little (teeny tiny) plastic tables and chairs out on the sidewalk and serve whatever people ask for from their kitchens.  After wandering around for a while, we decided to go back to the Victory and ask if they had any recommendations.

The Victory Hotel is one of Intrepid Travel’s office hotels, so the hotel actually had a back room with a wealth of information about the city – all of it designed for Intrepid passengers.  So we sat and read through their restaurant recommendations and set out again – this time in a different direction.

Indochine

We found our way to Indochine, which was a veritable oasis after walking around for an hour.  We didn’t have a reservation in the trendy little place (reservation?  In Vietnam?) but they kindly found room for us.  The restaurant had green tablecloths, the waiters wore traditional clothing, and the menus were in the shape of fans.  It was precious!  And the food was absolutely delicious.  On our way out, we discovered that they had another restaurant with a different menu across town.  We liked Indochine so much that we decided to go to Le Tonkin tomorrow night.

We walked back to the Victory hotel and enjoyed the sights and sounds along the way.  This place is LOUD!!!  Horns, honking, motorbikes – there’s a constant noise level here.  I can’t wait to find a Lonely Planet tomorrow so we can explore.

China: Beijing

Posted Posted in China, Round The World Trip

Errand day!  We had a list of sight-seeing that we wanted to do, but there were so many little things to take care of that we just didn’t have time.  Because we leave for Vietnam early tomorrow morning, our “To Do” list is a mile long.  Here’s a small sample:

  • Confirm tomorrow’s flights
  • Go to market for food for tomorrow
  • Update journal entries
  • Email to various people about NY sub-lease
  • File online insurance claim for camera
  • Research on the Internet – Vietnam, new camera (?), Heidi’s drivers license renewal

So this is what we did today, among other stuff.  Not very exciting, I know. And sort of a waste of a great city.  But there was no other way than to spend a day getting all these (and other things) done.

We went to the lobby at noon to say good-bye to Ken, Mel, Anne, Ted, and Ivy.  It’s going to be a bit strange being without these people who we’ve been with for the last month.  But to be quite honest, Jon and I are excited to venture back out on our own again.  The silly things that happen to us on our own make the best journal entries.

We did do something today: we went to dinner at the Pizza Factory and actually had pizza this time.  It was very good!  We even had olives on it, which is unusual for us, and it was still yummy.  Then we went around the corner to McD’s for a shake and an ice cream.  But then we had to go back to the hotel to pack and get to sleep for tomorrow’s early flight.

Hornet Sting Update

My hornet sting, by the way, has swelled up to a ridiculous size and itches like crazy.  (See Sept 28) I think I brought it on myself when I thought (shortly after being stung):  “Hey.  This isn’t so bad.  I think I’d prefer this over mosquito bites ANY DAY!”.  Now I’m cursed.  I can see where the stinger went in, and there’s an ugly circle of bumps around it about 3 inches in radius where the venom spread.  It itches so badly that it woke me up last night and I immediately spread Calamine Lotion all over.  Jon is horrified every time he looks at it.  Oh well.  It’ll go away eventually.  But for now it looks like I have a horrific disease on the side of my knee. 

Wahaha Water

I’m going to use this spare space to kvetch about a Chinese advertising campaign that’s been haunting us since Tibet: Wahaha Water.  This is a nationally distributed brand of bottled water, and it’s pretty good except for one thing: the Wahaha Man.  This actor/singer/dancer/performer named Lee Hom has a promotion contract with Wahaha and as a result his picture appears on all bottles of Wahaha water.  This wouldn’t be a problem for us if it weren’t for the armpit picture.

Our first impression of him was in Tibet, where the “armpit picture” appears on all the 1-liter bottles.  This picture is of him with his right arm draped over his head with a bottle of Wahaha dangling from his hand.  (Imagine a triceps stretch with a bottle of water.)  Who does that?!?!?  It’s quite troubling.  The entire time we were in Tibet Jon made a point of turning the armpit picture away from him, but there was really no way to escape it.

Well, imagine our surprise when we got to China proper and found out that the armpit picture was just one of a SERIES of Lee Hom pictures!  The entire group enjoyed discovering new and exciting Wahaha Man pictures.  There was a white-shirt series (of the armpit fame) and the orange-shirt series.  One of the latter included Lee Hom sitting and balancing a bottle of Wahaha on his knee.  There’s also a behind-the-back Wahaha shot.  This became such a favorite pastime for us that we resorted to collecting the labels and trading them amongst ourselves.  So when Jon and I finally put together a scrap book for this trip, at least 3 pages will be devoted to the Wahaha man.

China: Beijing

Posted Posted in China, Round The World Trip

This morning, we had planned to sleep in but we’re used to getting 6- 6.5 hours of sleep so we were both up pretty early.  

Hanging Out with Grant

At 10:00, we met with Grant to get his recommendations for Vietnam and Thailand.  He lived in Thailand for years and has been a tour leader through both countries for some time.  So he gave us the low-down on where to go and what to do, and will even hook us up with some of his connections along the way.  He is our own personal Lonely Planet.  We hope to meet him in Ko Tao in the end of October, where he’ll be for his holiday.  We’re supposed to go to Bali on November 3, but we’re trying to get out of it since Indonesia isn’t a great place for Americans to be right now.  Hopefully it will work out because we’re excited about spending a month in Thailand.  We’ll see!

After mooching 2 hours of Grant’s time, we took him to lunch at Schlotsky’s as a thank-you.  Then we went to Dairy Queen for Blizzards.  And then we went to Henderson Hall to get his film developed.  He had two disposable cameras: one on which I had taken pictures and another from yesterday’s trip to Simatai.  While we waited for the film to be developed, Jon and I got haircuts for 36 Yuan (about $4.00 each).  Mine is shorter on the sides than it’s ever been before, but I’m happy with it.

Knock-Off Market

After our haircuts, Jon and I went to the “knock-off” market near Temple of Heaven to get me a new fleece (mine is 7 years old and is very, very small on me).  The knock-off market is filled with brand-name shoes, North Face, Columbia, Kate Spade, Prada, and all sorts of other names who have production factories in China.  So maybe they aren’t knock-offs, but they’re definitely cheap!  We found a Columbia Gore-Tex jacket that I liked, but the woman was asking too much money for it.  So I tried on a less expensive North Face but it didn’t fit as well.  In the end, we wouldn’t budge on our price and she wouldn’t budge on hers, so we said Thank You and got ready to walk away.  She was obviously unhappy with us because she threw her calculator away and said something sharp in Chinese.  Well forget it.  We’re definitely not doing business after THAT.  Later, we found a simple fleece for a good price which is what I was looking for anyway so we were happy.

We continued to walk around and look at the booths of stuff.  Jon is still looking for hiking shoes, but everyone he asked about some Adidas shoes laughed at him because his feet are much bigger than the Chinese.

Copyright-Schmopyright

At the hotel was a guy who was selling copied CDs and DVDs at great prices.  He had an incredible selection and Jon and I went to town.  We need some new music to download to our MP3 players, so we welcome the new CD selection!  And, at $.75 a pop, why not?  We also bought a bunch of DVDs.  The irony here, of course, is that Jon and I don’t even OWN a DVD player!  Most of the DVDs have Chinese subtitles, but as with any subtitled movie after a while you forget about the words at the bottom.  In the end, we bought about 15 CDs and 18 DVDs, including the Godfather Trilogy and the Star Wars Trilogy.  Hope we get a DVD player soon!

Li Qun Duck 

At 7:00, we met the group for dinner and went back to Li Qun Duck where we went the other night.  This time, Grant pre-ordered FOUR DUCKS and we chowed down.  Today is our last day together, and much of the group flies out tomorrow.  So this is the LAST SUPPER.  Dinner was absolutely delicious and we were a very cheery group, despite this being our last night.  Everyone went for a walk through Tienamen Square to walk back to the hotel, but Jon and I made a quick bee-line to an Internet Cafe to confirm our flight for Oct 1.

The Last Mah Jong Game

Later that evening, Mel, Ken, Jon and I played Mah Jong in the bar area of the hotel with Mel and Ken’s new tile set.  We played until 12:00 midnight, and the night watchmen were happy to help our game strategies.  Each of us won at least one game so it was a great end to our Mah Jong experiences.  Tomorrow, Jon and I have to ship our set home.

China: Beijing

Posted Posted in China, Round The World Trip

We left very, very early this morning – 7:45! – to get a head start on the Great Wall.  Two hours later we arrived in Jinshanling, which is the starting point for a fabulous walk on the Great Wall.

Walking on The Great Wall: Jinshanling to Simatai

Not everyone wanted to go walking on the wall because it’s a tough walk and was estimated to take 4 hours.  So Anne, Laurel, Mel, and Chris stayed behind and would meet us in Simatai at the end of our walk.  Grant had to stay behind with them.  The rest of us set out for the walk: Jon, Me, John, Robby, Anne, Ken, Ted, and Ivy.

The Touts

Jinshanling isn’t a big tourist spot, and we were heading in the opposite direction of most other tourists.  Despite this, there were about 15 touts at the beginning of the path who wanted us to buy postcards and books.  Oddly enough, when we started walking they actually followed us up to the wall!  We figured that they would leave us alone once we started trekking, but that turned out not to be true either.  They quietly walked next to us for a while.  We finally discovered the secret: they had paired one person per couple and would probably hit us up for money in a few hours.  We figured they were definitely in for the long haul.  So Jon and I firmly told our tout that we didn’t want anything and we wanted her to “go away”.  She finally did.

When we caught up to the rest of the group, we told their touts the same thing.  But their touts refused to leave until they heard it from the people they were paired with.  So once everyone said, “No!” all the touts went back and we were left alone to walk the wall in peace.

The Wall

It’s beautiful – what can I say?  The Wall is over 2000 years old and runs along the tops of the hilltops so that parts of it are incredibly steep.  Today was a gorgeous day – barely a cloud in the sky – and it seemed like the 8 of us were the only people in the world.  We didn’t see another soul for at least an hour and a half.

I’ve decided that these journals are quite boring without the pictures, so I made a little picture for today.  It took a lot of time, so no wisecracks about my artistic abilities (or lack thereof):

Jon and me on the Great Wall

Parts of the wall were crumbling and so this was an pretty difficult climb.  I say “climb” because this wasn’t a walk.  We had to scamper on all fours in many places in order to get up some very steep and loose steps.  More than once, we found spots where the walkway was gone and all that was left was the side wall surrounded by a 10 foot drop.  So we had to balance ourselves to walk across this side part.  But the views were incredible and we were all energized by the fact that we were walking on the Great Wall.

The Hall of No Return

The wall is split up into many different “towers”, some of which are in great shape, and others which barely have walls remaining.  After an hour and half we reached a tower whose entrance was about 4 feet above the wall but the steps to the door had long gone.  So Jon built some “steps” out of loose rocks and we all scampered up to get through the tower and onto the rest of the Wall.  When we walked through the tower and reached the exit door, we found the same problem on the other side – but this time it was a five foot drop down and the wall declined sharply thereafter.  No way were we going to jump, but there appeared to be a side dirt path if we went back the way we came.  So we stood around for a few seconds trying to decide what to do.  I went to a side window to see if we could get to the ledge of the wall from there.  As I leaned out the window, I felt a terrible pain in my right knee and shouted “OW!!!!!!!!”.  I turned to find a HUGE hornet fall to the ground which Jon – rushing to my rescue – promptly squashed with his foot.  He looked around and said, “They’re all over this place – let’s get out of here!”

So we all rushed to the entry door and scampered out to the safety of the wall below.  Everyone was concerned for my sting, so we looked to make sure the stinger was out and I put some “After-Bite” on it to take the sting away.  It REALLY stung!!  But I guess that’s what hornets do – they sting.  This one did it really well.  I’m not kidding when I say this hornet was huge.  It was at least 3 inches long!

So we found our way to the dirt path and walked around the Hall from Hell and continued down the wall.  My knee throbbed, but the walking actually took my mind off it so I learned to ignore it after a while.  But it swelled considerably after about an hour.

We passed through another tower that had some Chinese people in it, some of whom were apparently setting up a catered lunch  for another group.  They had a table, wine glasses, and a nice big cooler.  It looked quite nice and we were sad it wasn’t for us.  But this meant that we should be meeting some fellow tourists coming from Simatai soon – the usual tourist route.  We were sad to have to share the peace of the Wall, but I think we were lucky to have it all to ourselves for this much time.  Unfortunately, some of the Chinese people on the tower weren’t helping with the catering – they were touts.  And like the touts at the beginning of the walk, they started to walk with us up the wall.  We had to do the same as before, and everyone in our group had to say “No!” firmly to get them to go back.  At one point, John (from England) stood on a narrow pathway and politely blocked the last one so she couldn’t follow.  He was very nice about it, and the woman left with a smile on her face and we continued our trek.

Random Ticket Agents

After two hours, we reached a tower with two men standing in the doorway.  They wanted 30 Yuan for tickets to continue further on the Wall.  We refused to pay, showing them the tickets we already had.  But they shook their heads saying, “Simatai” which is where we were going.  We were very ticked off about this and weren’t quite sure what to do.

When Jon and I were on the Red Sea in July, we met a couple who had just finished a trip to Beijing.  They told us that, when they had walked the Great Wall, they ran into some guys in a tower who wanted to charge them for climbing the tower.  They ended up paying them, but found out later that it was a scam.  So we used this as a basis for doubting these two guys, who had “badges” which looked like something we use at business conferences.  We also figured that – if there was another charge – Grant would have told us to expect it.  Either way, we didn’t like any of it.

To make a long story short, things got a bit nasty and we tried to force our way through.  Jon ended up in a shoving match with one of them and yelled, “You want some of this?!?!” which would be an ongoing group joke for the rest of the day.  Anyway, we made our way through the tower but they blocked the exit so we couldn’t get out.  Not wanting to get nasty again, we stood around and debated paying them just to get out of there.  But this only propagates the scam.  We then tried to convince them that we had no Yuan, that it was all in the bus and we would pay them when we got to Simatai.  They still wouldn’t budge.  The problem was finally solved when Robby pretended to use his cell phone –  which couldn’t get a signal at all – to “call Grant”.  His conversation to no one sounded like this:

“Hi Grant!  Hey – we’re in this tower and these guys are saying that we have to pay 30 Yuan to get to Simatai.  What should we do?…. You’ll pay them at the bottom?  Great, thanks.  Cheers!”

So Robby told the guys that our leader would pay in Simatai and – after talking amongst themselves – they finally let us through.  We were quite impressed with ourselves for overcoming the scam.  Then we looked back at the tower and saw that one of the guys (Jon’s shoving friend) had collected 8 tickets and was going to walk with us to the bottom.  So we started to wonder if this was a legit operation after all, but figured we’d find out in Simatai.

Simatai

Most of the rest of the walk was downhill with stunning scenery.  Over one of the last uphill climbs we could see the touristy Simatai in the distance about 30 minutes away.  Our ticket buddy was walking a ways in front of us, so at least we knew were going the right way.  Before reaching Simatai, we got to a part where the Wall stopped at a river ravine and the only way across was on a suspended bridge which cost 5 Yuan per person.  So we didn’t quite know what to do since we’d told the ticket guy we had no money.  But he had already crossed the bridge so we each paid the toll clerk and walked across the bridge.  The rest of the wall was up some really steep steps until we got to the path to Simatai.  Out ticket friend stayed at the bottom and took a boat down the river to Simatai.  But we wanted to walk and wondered if he would find us again.

Then we left the wall and walked the 20 minutes into “town”.  On the way down, we passed a HUGE group of tourists from Scotland.  Some of them were walking up in their kilts, and one guy had a kilt and a huge blue wig on.  Crazy Scots!

On the bottom of the hill, we ran into Anne who told us to keep going around the corner and we would end up in the touristy bit.  She also told us that Grant had to buy special Simatai tickets for them to get in.  Hmmmm…..  We rounded a corner and up popped our ticket buddy with a cheerful, “Hello!”.  We said “Hello!” back and we all continued on to Simatai.  He was surprisingly pleasant considering we put him through a shoving match and an unnecessary 1.5 hour walk down the wall.  When we got to the gate at Simatai, the guards were selling the identical tickets and greeting our friend.  He looked at us and said, “30 Yuan please” but we felt that we should continue with the story that our money was on the bus since we made him walk the whole way down with us.  So we got to the bus, had the driver let us in and we all pretended to get money which we really pulled out of our pockets.  We paid him and he smiled and said good-bye.  I offered him an Oreo but he smiled and said no and it all ended pleasantly.  Ooops.

Lunch in Simatai

Simatai is really a strip mall of tourist-trap stores and restaurants.  We had lunch at a restaurant at a place on the end of the mall which our bus driver recommended.  Because of his referral we got 50% off all food, but we waited for the rest of the group (Grant, Mel, Anne, Laurel, and Chris) who had taken a cable car up to the top of the wall opposite to where we came from.  Our Jinshanling to Simatai climb took us 3.25 hours which was great time so they weren’t expecting us back quite this soon.

Lunch was good, and we got to re-live our stories to the rest of the group – the climb, the hornets, the ticket guys – and we laughed about everything.  My hornet sting wasn’t hurting as much anymore, and I was very surprised that it wasn’t so bad.

Bus Ride to Beijing and the Deadly Bathroom Break

At 3:00, we climbed on the bus to go back to Beijing.  We were all quite pooped and many people napped.  Jon and I sat in the back and listened to our MP3 players and tried to sleep.  About 45 minutes outside of Beijing I asked for a bathroom break and the driver pulled into a gas station at which we’d actually stopped on the way to Chengde.  I hopped out of the bus and walked quickly to the bathrooms in a side wall near some grass.  I didn’t quite realize until it was too late that there were two guard dogs resting in the grass.

The HUGE German Shepard immediately jumped up and started growling and barking at me.  I was completely relieved to see that he was chained.  But the other dog wasn’t.  I don’t know what kind he was but he was as big at the German Shepard.  He bounded up to me and bared his teeth and barked like crazy.  I stopped walking and stayed in one place.  I’ve never been afraid of dogs but this was a bit scary.  Slowly, I extended my hand so he could smell it when I realized that he was going to attack.  So I quickly pulled my hand back in, froze, and closed my eyes.  All I could think was, “OK.  He’s going to hurt me, and I don’t want to watch.”  Luckily, one of the gas station attendants was sprinting over and yelling to call him off.  When I opened my eyes again, he had him by the collar and – although the dog was still trying to lunge at me – he was being led away.

Maybe because I was overtired, maybe because the day was so incredibly intense – I don’t know.  But I walked to the bathroom and burst out in tears.  I cleaned myself up in time to get back to the bus and tried to put on a good face when everyone asked if I was OK.  But I was pretty shaken up by the whole thing.

Traffic was terrible into Beijing, and we didn’t arrive at the hotel until 6:30.  This was problematic because most of us had bought tickets to the opera and were supposed to leave at 7:00 so – after getting checked in – we wouldn’t have time to shower.

Chinese Opera

Jon and I raced through the shower and met the group downstairs.  We shared a bus with another Intrepid Group that had just began another tour last night.  On our way out of the hotel driveway Jon and I realized that we’d forgotten the camera.  When we asked if we could stop to get it – I’m not kidding – half the bus whined.  Our guide had arranged for us to get their early to watch the actors put their makeup on, and no one wanted to be late.  So we went to the opera with no camera and a little pissed off.  It was a fitting end to a day with unbelievable ups and downs.  Ironically, the group watched the make-up process for about five minutes, and then spent the remaining 20 minutes sitting around in their seats.  So it’s a good thing that we didn’t spend the 3 minutes it would have taken for us to get our camera, right?  Bygones.

The Opera was amazing, though.  It was a small establishment with tables and chairs for about 50 people.  We were kind of worried that it would be a lot of high-pitched screeching (remembering similar events in Zanzibar, India, and Shanghai) , but it was far from it.  There were acrobatics, juggling, a small Chinese orchestra, and incredible costumes.  Instead of performing one opera – which is what we expected – they performed 3 different “plays” of famous Chinese stories.  Even though it was all in Chinese, we caught the gist of the 3 different acts they did.

Name of the Opera The Gist Of It“The Fight At Night at the Inn at the Crossroads” This was a story about a warrior that had been sent to an inn to protect a man traveling through there.  The owner of the inn, who also wanted to protect the traveler, thought the warrior was here to harm him.  So – in “the dark” – the two fumbled around the hotel room trying to fight each other.  The two actors really made you think that they were fighting each other in the dark, and it was quite a funny choreographed fight.  “A Stroll in the Garden (Youyuan)” This is the same thing we saw at the Master of the Nets in Suzhuo.  But this time, the lady and the maid were better singers and had amazing costumes.  It was lovely, but not nearly as entertaining as the previous act.

“The Monkey King Causes Havoc in the Dragon King’s Palace (Noa Longgong)”

This was the best of all of them.  The strong and mighty Monkey King went to visit the evil Dragon King to find a weapon worthy of his might.  The Dragon King gave him many different choices, most of which the Monkey King played with by juggling, twirling, and tossing the weapons to show how inconsequential they were.  When he finally found the weapon of his choice, the Dragon King fought him to get it back.  But the Monkey King was too clever, crafty, and strong for the Dragon King.

So it was a busy day for us.  When we got back to the hotel, I was exhausted and just wanted to go to sleep.  Jon went to Pizza Factory with Mel and Ken for dinner and brought me a meatball sub.

China: Chengde

Posted Posted in China, Round The World Trip

We woke up early for a four-hour bus trip to Chengde.  We each packed a day bag with some stuff for tonight and we left our backpacks at the hotel.  When we got to Chengde, we checked into the hotel and Jon went out to walk around.  I decided to take a nap because I didn’t sleep on the bus and was really tired.  When Jon came back, he had bought some veggie dumplings from a little food street around the corner.  They were pretty good and incredibly cheap!

In the afternoon, we met the group to do a tour of some of the temples around Chengde.

Temple Potaraka Doctrine

Chengde was once a major Chinese city, however now it has just a few temples to see.  The Emperor who made Chengde a major city was a devout Buddhist and surrounded the city with beautiful temples.  One was the Temple Potaraka Doctrine, which is a copy of Tibet’s Potala at 1/3 the size.  We only had an hour to see it, so Jon and I bolted up the stairs so we could get to the top in time.

Jon – if you remember – didn’t get to see the real Potala because he was so sick for 2 days in Lhasa (See Aug 17).  So I did whatever I could to describe what the real Potala was like.  Despite the fact that this is a replica, it really isn’t the same at all.  The Potala is a maze of dark little rooms, hallways, and stairways packed with statues, candles, and treasures.  So packed, in fact, that we could barely see some of the little Buddha statues because they were almost hidden by other artifacts.  It was as if there are so many treasures in the Potala that the monks just put them wherever they found space.  If we hadn’t been guided, I would have certainly gotten lost there.

Here, the layout of the temple was symmetrical and square.  It was very easy to get around and the few artifacts they had were advantageously displayed.  The view from the rooftop, however was lovely and we could see the town of Chenge from above.  I really didn’t feel like I was in the Potala, though, because there were no prostrating pilgrims.  They are really what made Tibet for me.

We saw a group of Chinese people playing Mah Jong with special cards, and we stood and watched them for a few minutes.  They play much, MUCH faster than we do but they weren’t betting which surprised me.  I’d thought Mah Jong is to the Chinese what poker is to us: why play if there’s no money on the table?  But they seemed to be playing for fun, just like we do!  Mel and Ken joined us in watching the game and Mel is now on a mission to find the cards.  They are obviously more portable and much lighter than the tile sets.

Puning Temple

After the “little Potala”, we went to the Puning Temple.  We were all pretty tired from the early morning start and long bus ride, and we were definitely lacking in enthusiasm.  But as soon as we walked into the main temple it all went away.  Inside was a 22 meter wooden statue of Avalokitesvara, of whom the current Dalai Lama is said to be a reincarnation.    It was incredible.  Jon and I stood there for a good 10 minutes looking up at it, until we had terrible cricks in our necks.  The statue has 42 arms and 44 eyes, which are supposed to be symbolic of helping people and seeing those that need help.  The detail in the woodwork was so beautiful, and I can’t imagine how it was made or even brought into the temple.  It rises up 3 stories all the way to the roof.  We left the temple and walked around, and then went back in to look at it again.

The Puning Temple also had a very bizarre display of “Buddhist Hell” in a separate little building.  In it were some plaster statues of people being punished by demons in various ways.  It was almost comical.  One woman was being boiled alive, another was kneeling on a bed of sharp spikes.  There was also a man who was hung upside down and was being sawed in half – beginning with between the legs.  But all these statues were painted in bright colors and the presentation was sort of Disney-like (if you can imagine that).  At any rate, I guess this is what happens if one has bad karma.

Back at the hotel, Jon and I walked around looking for bananas but couldn’t find any.  So we found a guy who was roasting corn-on-the-cob and we got two of them.

Dinner With the Group

Down the road from the hotel was a restaurant with bright neon lights outside.  They gave us our own room and an English menu so we ordered the usual assortment of dishes.  The staff was incredibly attentive and very, very nice.  In fact, there was one girl who was only assigned to our room so she was literally at our beck and call.  After dinner, we tried to give her a tip but she refused saying, “Tips not allowed.”. Hmm.

On our way back to the hotel we passed a bunch of construction on the street corner.  Apparently there was a water main break and our hotel has no water now.  No worries – as long as we have some by tomorrow morning!

Mah Jong – the Card Version

Mel found her Mah Jong cards in a store near the hotel, so we went back to their room and played a few rounds.  After playing with the cards, we all agreed that playing with the tiles is much more fun.  But of course we played anyway.  The funny thing about this game is that Grant – for once – had a string of luck and consistently won every game.  Since we have five people but Mah Jong is only for four, we play “Elimination Mah Jong” so that whoever sits to the left of the winner has to leave the game and the fifth person comes in.  Because of the elimination rules and Grant’s winning streak, we made him switch seats after each game so the same person wouldn’t have to leave the game again.

While we played, we would occasionally get up to check the status of the water.  At about 11:00, it came back on so we called it a night and retired to our rooms to shower and sleep.

China: Beijing

Posted Posted in China, Round The World Trip

New Summer Palace

We met at 8:30 for a tour of the New Summer Palace with Grant, Ted and Ivy and guide named Lucy.  Grant had arranged for the guide yesterday, but last night people began to back out of the trip one by one.  I’m happy with this because I like the smaller tours.

We took the subway to the end of the line, and then caught taxis the rest of the way.  The Summer Palace is a huge estate built around a large lake.  It’s very picturesque with weeping willows, arched bridges, and pagodas.  But Lucy – cute as she was – was a bit hard to understand.  So this is what we got as the gist of the palace: it was built for the Empresses Cixi who was particularly powerful and revered.  One of the pagodas on a tall hill was built for her 70th birthday.  Much of the Palace was destroyed by fire in the 1850s, but re-built again.  There was something about her not baring a son but one of the concubines did, but I never quite got the relevance of it.

The palace is not a large one-building palace like we’re used to seeing in Europe.  Instead, it’s a complex of halls, pagodas, and temples separated by gardens and water.  There is a covered walkway along the side of the river that leads from the main halls to the ladies’ halls.  It is 700+ meters long and has 8000 paintings on the ceiling that are a variety of landscapes, deities, and people.  It was beautiful to walk down.

We didn’t have time to see then entire Palace (that would take all day), but we ended our tour at the Marble Boat.  This is a large marble structure on the water that was designed to look just like a large paddle-wheel boat.  Of course, it didn’t move because it was marble and would sink.  Here, the Empress hosted many dinners and parties.  We didn’t get to go in, of course, but it was lovely to look at.

Silk Market

We shared a taxi with Ted and Ivy to the silk market that Stanley recommended to us yesterday.  It was just outside the Temple of Heaven and had four floors of different silk products.  We bought some scarves and some pieces of material for Mom’s quilt.  (Sorry Mom, I know you said we should get cotton but we just can’t resist!).  Between myself, Jon, Ivy, and Ted we spent enough to get the “free gift” which were a pair of embroidered cotton hand towels.  I gave them to Ivy because what in the world am I going to do with hand towels?  We only have one bathroom and the towel rack holds bath towels.  Besides, what good is only one hand towel?  I think it would look rather silly without its mate. 

Oriental Mall

The four of us took a taxi back to hotel, but we were hungry so we had the taxi drop us off at the Oriental Mall instead.  This is a looooooonnnngg building built by a real estate mogul in Hong Kong.  He wanted to build the “tallest building in China” but couldn’t because of height limitations.  So he instead built the “longest building in China”, which really doesn’t matter to us except that there’s a mall in the basement which has a Schlotsky’s deli.  I’ve never been to Schlotsky’s before, and may not even consider it a good deli by New York standards.  But it was SO GOOD to us because we’ve been eating oily Chinese food for a month.  I had the warm roast beef sandwich on sourdough and Jon had the turkey and ham on wheat.  Delicious!

After lunch, Ted and Ivy went back to the hotel and Jon and I went to walk around the mall.  He’s looking for some hiking shoes to replace both his hiking boots and running shoes.  But of course no place in China is going to have his size.  Most store employees look at his feet and laugh.  So we walked around some more and found the Dairy Queen where we enjoyed Blizzards.  There was also an interesting photo exhibit in the middle of the mall with photos from different countries.  Some of the pictures were extraordinary, but others looked like they were blow-up snapshots from someone’s vacation.  Either way, it was fun to look at.

Post Office Internet Cafe

The post office was handily right across the street from our hotel.  Inside there was a very nice Internet Cafe with great terminals.  So we went in to check email for a little while.  

We’ve discovered that – somehow – a specific CD of random western music has been widely distributed around China.  I don’t know what the CD is, nor do I know why these particular song were put together into one compilation or how everyone has it.  But I do know that we seem to hear it everywhere.  The CD includes Lionel Richie “Say You, Say Me”, Righteous Brothers “Unchained Melody”, Bryan Adams “Everything I Do”, among other songs.  The first time was in Huangshan in the Internet Cafe where we spent many hours, and one of the kids sang along to Lionel Richie: “Say Me, Say Me”.  Jon swears the CD also has “Happy Birthday” on it because we seem to hear that everywhere we go too.

Anyway, the Post Office is no different.  Although “Say You, Say Me” (or Say Me, Say Me) was sung by someone else.  Who knows?  Maybe some sort of government-approved music or something.

Mah Jong at the Irish Pub

The Post Office closed at 7:00, so Jon and I went to a pizza place around the corner for dinner.  “The Pizza Factory” was apparently established in 1979 in America and has expanded to Beijing.  On the walls around the little restaurant were framed photos of the other Pizza Factories: Colorado, Washington, Idaho, California.  Pretty funny, but the meatball subs were definitely good.  And the guy making pizzas definitely enjoyed his job – he was tossing pizza crusts up in the air with a huge grin on his face.

We’d arranged to meet Mel and Ken at the Irish Pub down the street at 8:30 so we went there afterwards.  We ordered some beers and sat out on the little terrace watching people walk by.  This pub was very nice, although very deserted as I suppose the Chinese don’t have much interest in Irish Pubs.  It’s clearly here for the westerners.  But the owners tried to make it as genuine as possible, and the Chinese waiters were even wearing kilts!!

Ken and Mel came with Grant (they had gone to Schlotsky’s for dinner) and we broke out the Mah Jong set.  The table we were at had slits in it, so it was a bit hard to “shuffle” the tiles but we made due.  The waitress came to watch us play and eventually brought us a newspaper to put beneath the tiles.  This made it much easier to shuffle.

We didn’t stay out for too long as we have an early drive tomorrow morning, but we were there long enough to each have a drink and win a game or two.

China: Beijing

Posted Posted in China, Round The World Trip

Our train arrived in Beijing at 7:30ish AM.  While we’re getting used to sleeping on trains, it just doesn’t feel like we ever get a full night’s sleep.  We checked into the Harmony Hotel in Beijing which is a nice hotel and relatively new.  This is good, because it means we can carelessly walk around the carpet with no shoes on.

Tienamen Square

At 10:00, we met our guide Stanley for a tour of the Tienamen Square and the Forbidden City.  We hopped on the subway and went 3 stops to Tienamen Square.  Tienamen is really a large concrete rectangle with buildings strewn about it.  In the middle of the Square is a building which houses Chairman Mao’s body (which is available for viewing, providing it isn’t in Russia for preservation).  On the west side of the Square is the People’s Congress, to the East is the Beijing Museum of History, and to the North is the Forbidden City.  Stanley gave us 15 minutes to wander about the Square, and said we would meet at the gate to the Forbidden City just beneath the infamous portrait of Chairman Mao.

It was a glorious day and the square was packed with people taking pictures, walking around, and flying kites.  China’s “National Day” is on Monday, October 1 so Beijing will be even more crowded as the week goes on as all of China has the week of Oct 1-7 off.

I think I’ve neglected to mention this country’s excitement for the Olympics in 2008.  While it was just announced last month that Beijing would be the host city, China had already launched its internal publicity campaign.  As soon as we got to China – in Guilin in early September – we saw Olympic signs, t-shirts, and statues.  I wonder what would have happened if Toronto had been granted host city status?  What would China have done with all the neon signs and statues?  Beijing of course has even more than the rest of the country.  All of the taxicabs in Beijing have a decal in the back window that reads “Build New Beijing.  Hold Great Olympics”.  In Tienamen Square there are HUGE floral monuments erected to celebrate the Olympics.  I think that – if I lived here – I would get really sick of it by 2008.

Forbidden City

We met the group at the gate of the Forbidden City beneath the huge portrait of Chairman Mao in front of which every Chinese person poses for pictures.  We walked inside and waited for Stanley to get us tickets and were bombarded by the usual throng of touts.  They were selling “Forbidden City” books and memorabilia in all different languages, and we teased them to get them to go away.  One women wanted to sell Laurel a book in her language so Laurel said, “I speak Australian, don’t you have that?”.  The woman looked terribly confused.  Another one asked me how much I would pay for his book and I said, “One Jiao”, which is about $.01.  He didn’t think that was as funny as I did.

Finally, we got into the city and started our tour.  The Forbidden City was fantastic.  I didn’t realize that the movie “The Last Emperor” was filmed here, but you can tell the moment you walk into the main area.  (If you haven’t seen that movie, you really should rent it this weekend.)

The official Chinese name of the estate is “Palace Museum”, but everyone knows it as The Forbidden City.  It was Forbidden because no one but the emperor’s eunuchs, wives, and concubines could enter the palace, despite the fact that it’s a small city.  One ancient emperor (in the Qing Dynasty, I think) had 3000 concubines living here.  3000!  That’s a busy emperor!  One has to wonder how he had any time to eat.

There are no trees in the Forbidden City except the back garden for three reasons:

  1. Trees make it easy for assassins to hide, and almost all emperors were obsessed with anti-assassin precautions.  So trees would be bad.
  2. In the Chinese culture, the symbol of wood in a rectangle is bad luck.  Therefore, if any trees were in the courtyard then there would be wood in the rectangular shape of the courtyard and that would be very bad.
  3. Finally, no structure or person was allowed to be higher than the Emperor.  If trees were permitted to grow in the courtyards than they would probably grow very tall.  This would be super bad.

We walked through most of the city, looking in the different halls and battling the crowds of Chinese tourists (as always).  The garden in the back was very lovely as well.  There were many large rocks from the bottom of oceans/lakes/rivers situated around the gardens.  Supposedly, the larger and more porous the rock, the better the luck for the owner.  So most of the rocks were large and holey.  The garden also had many trees, some of which were 300+ years old.  So lovely!

It was pretty late in the afternoon when we finished, around 2:00.  We were starving for lunch so Stanley took around the corner to yummy Cantonese restaurant.  Then we went back to the Forbidden City to catch a city bus back to the hotel.

Beijing City Bus Ride

The bus ride back to hotel was quite an experience.  When bus #103 stopped for us it was already incredibly crowded.  But for whatever reason, the bus driver was determined to get us all on.  We could see her urging the passengers to sardine themselves further into the bus and – little by little – we could squeeze ourselves on.  Jon, Mel and I got in the front of the bus and (we thought) Ken, Laurel, and Stanley got into the back.  I say “we thought” because we couldn’t actually see them on the bus, but we didn’t see them running after it either.

After about 15 minutes and a few more stops, the bus began to empty out and we reunited with the rest of the group.  We decided that there were probably about 175 people on the bus when we got on and were amazed that Chinese law would allow it.  After all, we were standing on the wrong side of the all-important “Yellow Line” in the front of the bus for most of the ride.  Bus drivers in Manhattan would NEVER stand for this type of infraction.  Actually, they would never let the bus get that crowded to begin with and would avoid the problem by just bypassing bus stops.  I guess this is yet another example of how the Chinese get by with all these people in one place.

Traffic was pretty bad and we were running a bit late.  This wasn’t a problem for us, but poor Stanley had to catch the 5:10 overnight train to Xi’an to meet another tour group tomorrow.  We didn’t get to our stop until 4:10 and his train station was on the other side of town.  But he was such a dutiful guide that he speed-walked us to our corner and – as he was running to catch another bus – made sure we knew where we were going.  

So we went back to the hotel to rest for a while and Jon went to the grocery store in Henderson Hall to get some snacks and water.  

Jon Goes for a Run Along Tienamen Square (special appearance by Jon:  run #6)

So it’s been about a week or so since I last went for a run.  Eight days to be exact; so much for my grand plan for running two or three times a week!  I decided that it was time for me to get out and see the city a bit from a runner’s point of view so I headed out toward Tienamen Square.  The nice thing about being in a city is that running is relatively common so you can run on the sidewalk and not attract the stares one gets in the small towns.  

The major event for this run (there has to be something for me to write about, doesn’t there?) was the lowering of the Chinese flag on Tienamen Square directly opposite the big Chairman Mao portrait on the gate to the Forbidden City.  It seems that the raising and lowering of the flag is quite an event to see, with people staking out their spot to watch the event at least an hour beforehand.  People are lined up three and four deep to see the lowering of the flag and I see the crowds and all of the police (nobody wants to tangle with the Chinese police) and start to wonder whether I should reconsider my course a bit.  Then I realize I’m in the bike lane and as long as I keep moving I should be alright.  So I just kept running right past the whole honorguard and police and crowds and everything with one of the best views of the whole spectacle from right up close–the only people closer were the flag-bearers themselves!  I continued along my merry way, went around the People’s Congress and went right past the flag lowering again with the policemen waving at me as I went.  It was like having my own parade!

Dinner at Li Qun Restaurant

For dinner, Grant made reservations for us at a good place that serves the infamous “Peking Duck”.  But we can’t call it “Peking Duck” because Peking is now Beijing so they are now called “Beijing Duck”.  It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, but we’ll make due.

We took the subway to Tienamen Square and walked 10 minutes to the hutongs (small, narrow alleyways that we might call “the slums”) where the restaurant was located.  The route was a bit circuitous and the streets were dark and somewhat sketchy.  We would never found it on our own and were glad that Grant had found the way this afternoon.  

Finally, we made it to Li Qun Restaurant which is a serious dive but was packed with westerners and locals.  Jon and I knew right away that it would be good – dive restaurants always have the best food so we were excited.  They led our party to a separate room in the back that was separated by thin walls and a doorway with love-beads.  Grant had pre-ordered 3 ducks and we also chose some other things from the menu.  This was probably the best food we’ve had in China.  It was so good!

The ducks were served one by one and brought into our room and carved in front of us.  It’s eaten fajita style with thin, white pancakes.  We each had a small dish of scallions and dark, thick sauce to spread on the pancake with the duck.  Then we wrapped the duck and scallions up in the pancake and ate it.  So good!  The restaurant had a little pamphlet with information about the correct duck-preparation procedures.  I’ve typed it up here – grammatical errors included!

We also had some fabulous sweet and sour chicken with huge pieces of white meat.  I’d forgotten what white chicken meat was like!  The vegetables were so good and the broccoli was amazing.  I seem to be craving broccoli and vegetables lately.  Grant and I have a running joke about who eats more broccoli – him or me.  So whenever it’s served and the plate is almost finished, I tease him that he’ll have to fight me for the last piece.  But of course he’s the selfless group leader so he always says he doesn’t want anymore.

Walk through Beijing

By the end of dinner, we could barely walk out of the restaurant.  So we decided that we should walk off the big dinner and most of the group headed back to Tienamen Square.  It was a lovely night and the Square was packed.  We all bought little plastic flags – some Chinese flags, and some “Beijing 2008” flags.  After the loss of the digital camera, Grant gave me his disposable camera again, because he forgets to use it.  This is good because Grant says his Mom complains that he doesn’t send enough pictures of himself.  Grant wanted a picture of himself with the flags in front of a Chinese guard, but the guard was having none of that.  Jon and Grant schemed for a few minutes to see if they could maneuver a sneaky photo, but gave up.  So we continued on our walk.

I find it interesting that so many countries have city arrangements like NY and DC.  What I mean is that there exists a distinct separation between the “financial city” and the “political city” within the country.  In India, for example, Mumbai was the financial city and Delhi was the political city.  Here in China, it’s Shanghai and Beijing.  Shanghai had the skyscrapers, western brand names, and fast paced lifestyle.  Beijing has the government, memorials, and monuments.  Beijing is also similar to DC in that the buildings are not allowed to be taller than a certain height.  In DC, the limit is less than the Capitol (I believe).  Here, the limit is less than the Forbidden City.  The result is that – at night – the main street through Beijing looks much like Connecticut Avenue.

The walk took about 30 minutes to the hotel, but it was a very nice walk.  And I think we felt a bit better after having burned some calories.

China: Xi’an

Posted Posted in China, Round The World Trip

Xi’an History Museum

We woke up this morning with grand plans of seeing the Xi’an Museum, which is supposed to be fantastic.  So we looked at the map to see where the museum was.  It looked like a long walk – probably 30 minutes – but it was a nice day and we decided that it would be good for us.  So we set out and walked down the main road to the museum.

An hour and a half later, we got there.

We were so tired that we weren’t even talking to each other.  It took too much energy to think of the words.  When we finally arrived there, we just sat for about 10 minutes and rested.  It was 11:00 by this time (even though we’d had an early-ish start), and we weren’t in the mood to do much more walking.  Of course, that’s all one does in a museum.  But we weren’t going to bag after putting in so much energy to get there.  So we walked around each of the exhibits.

The layout was in chronological order, beginning from the prehistoric eras and continuing through each of the dynasties.  I tried to pay attention to which dynasty was which, and why each was so significant, but I just can’t seem to retain it.  The exhibits were interesting, though.  They had bronze artifacts, jewelry, stamps, molds – all sorts of things.  There were two more buildings to see outside the main hall, but we just didn’t feel like it.  So we caught a cab and went to the Big Goose Pagoda.

Big Goose Pagoda

The Big Goose Pagoda is a large tower-like structure with 7 floors and beautiful views of Xi’an.  Much to our chagrin, it cost  30 Yuan to get into the park, and an additional 10 Yuan to walk up the Pagoda.  But we didn’t really care by this point, and our entire mission was to get to the top of the pagoda and then get some food.  So we bolted up 7 flights of stairs because we wanted to beat a large group of tourists, and didn’t stop until we got to the top.  We were exhausted by the time we got up, but we did our thing, took in the sights, and took pictures in each of the four directions.  They were beautiful views.  Unfortunately there’s only so much you can do at the top of a Pagoda so we headed back downstairs after 10 minutes.  By this time it was 2:00 and we were starving, so we didn’t spend much time in the courtyards but caught a cab to the Drum Tower for lunch.

Lunch

We were thrilled to get to the restaurant, which was the same one to which Ken and Mel led the group last night.  We wanted to get some food to go for dinner tonight, so we decided to make it easy on ourselves and get lunch there too.  For lunch we had the sweet and sour beef and the beef skewers.  We liked the sweet and sour beef so much that we ordered it to go along with some yummy vegetables.  As we were sitting in the window on the first floor, quite a few people stopped to watch us eat but we didn’t really mind.  Jon was entertained by the family-run store across the street.  They were roasting chestnuts, and the daughter had been stirring them in a large tub the entire time we were in the restaurant.  All the while, her father was asleep in a chair out front.  Every once in a while, she would switch stirring utensils between a broom and a large spatula, but the old man never moved.  It wasn’t even that interesting to watch, but we were quite impressed with the dutiful daughter.

Day Room

After lunch, we took our dinner back to the hotel where we showered and finished packing.  Our room was one of the “day rooms” in which everyone put their bags after they checked out of their own rooms.  We walked into our room to find Grant asleep on the bed because he hasn’t been feeling well but had to check out of his room.  (He drank some local water and it’s wreaking havoc on his stomach).  But he says he’s feeling better.  Ivy, Ted, Ken, and Mel also had their bags in our room and so we all ended up hanging out until it was time to leave for our train to Beijing.

Terracotta Warriors Song

Ken has written a song for our visit to the Terracotta Warriors.  As I mentioned yesterday, the farmer who discovered the warriors in 1974 (he was digging a well when the hole ran into one of the chambers) was at the site signing souvenir books.  So here is Ken’s song – to be sung to the tune of “Beverly Hillbillies”

Let me tell ya a story ’bout a man named Yung

Spent his whole life pulling weeds and spreading dung.

Then one day he was digging up some food

Up from the ground came a Terracotta dude.

 

– Warrior, that is.  Tourist Trap.  Souvenirs

 

Next thing ya know old Yung’s a millionaire,

Folks said “Yung ya oughta move away from there.

Southern California is the place you oughta be.”

But he stayed in Xi’an and he signed a book for me.

 

Now that’s my story and it’s just about done,

Terracotta warriors were sure a lotta fun.

The last remaining remnants of the Qing Dynasty,

If you ever go to China it’s a sight you oughta see.

Overnight Train to Beijing

Our overnight train was a hard sleeper, which is the open cabin six-sleeper model.  Tonight most of the other passengers were Chinese, so we were quite the anomaly.   In one “cabin” was me, Jon, John, Chris, Robert, Anne.  Grant, Mel and Ken shared another with 3 Chinese men.  And Anne, Laurel, Ted, and Ivy were in another with 2 Chinese people.  There were probably 8-10 cabins per car, so that’s a lot of people in one car.

Women with carts would wheel through the cars with noodles, chicken, toys, etc.  At one point, a fruit cart rolled by and the underside of the cart looked like a cage although it only had fruit.  As the cart was stopped in front of us, we joked to each other that this is probably where they store the live animals before they become dinner.  So Robert, who does an excellent imitation of a little dog, let out a high-pitched “BARK!” which clearly upset the lady with the cart.  She said something in Chinese that we imagine was, “Hey – you’re not supposed to have dogs in here!” and she stooped to look under the bunk for the dog.  Seeing nothing, she stood up and looked at her friend in the hallway for support.  As she looked away, Robert barked again and she looked back and said something else in Chinese – this time very sharply.  All this was exacerbated by John, who bent over the bottom of the bunk and waved his hand as if shushing a pet.  The woman got even more upset, Robert kept barking, John kept shushing, and we couldn’t stop laughing.  After a few minutes, I think she must have caught on because she shot us a look and rolled her cart away.

Quest for a Mah Jong-Sized Table

I have decided that China falls into one of two categories: Places With Mah Jong-Sized Tables, and Those Without.  After much searching, we realized that this train unfortunately falls into the latter.

Ken, Mel, Jon and I were on a mission to find a table on the train on which we could play Mah Jong.  We haven’t played in a while and we feel our skills are getting rusty.  So we headed off to where we thought the dining car was (and where we swear Grant told us it was).  After walking through 5-6 cars, bumping into people and dealing with stares from the Chinese passengers, we reached a hard sleeper car that had no electricity.  It was here that one of the train attendants said to us through the dark, “Where are you going?”.  We told her that we wanted to go to the dining  car and she pointed back the way we came.  Clearly we had walked the wrong  way.  So we headed back again through 5-6 cars, bumping into people and dealing with the stares from the Chinese passengers.  This time, however, I had a vise-like hold onto Jon’s belt so he could pave a path for me.  It was much nicer than bumping into people on my own.  That is, until Jon decided to speed walk and zig-zag through the cars to see if he could break my hold.  We must have looked really funny because I was laughing so hard.

When we passed though our own car #12, we all mumbled smart-ass comments to Grant about his making stuff up and being full of smelly excrement.  He, of course, denied ever saying anything about where the dining car is, but we’re onto him by now.  But we kept going until we finally found the dining car 5 cars away.  It was PACKED!  And no one looked like they were going anywhere any time soon.  So we took our dejected selves back to car #12 to mope and wish we this train were a Place With Mah Jong-Sized Tables.

As with our first Hard Sleeper train in the beginning of the trip, the lights went out at 10:00.  Jon and I had our Maglights out to read for a while, and we went to sleep around 11:00.

China: Xi’an

Posted Posted in China, Round The World Trip

Terracotta Warriors

Today we went to the Terracotta Warriors.  They were absolutely amazing and I think I could have stayed there for days.

The Terracotta Warriors were built 2000 years ago for Qin Shihuang, who wanted the warriors to “guard” his tomb. After the construction was complete, roofs were built over each corridor of warriors and earth was used to cover them up and hide them from thieves.  In 1974, part of a corridor was discovered by 4 farmers trying to dig a well.  Can you imagine being one of these farmers?  Or maybe the first archeologist called to the scene?  He probably thought he was going to find a few pieces of pottery, but then unearthed the “greatest find of the 20th century”.  It truly is fantastic.

Our guide (who never told us his name) was a very energetic and smiley guy.  He kept bouncing at the completion of each sentence, which was fine because we couldn’t understand everything he was saying anyway.  And most of it was the party-line crap – full of measurements and statistics – so what’s the point?

Regardless, China has done a pretty good job of presenting the warriors in a tourist-friendly format.  Huge museum-like buildings have been constructed over each of the 3 pits to provide us with quality vantage points at discreet distances.  This was especially nice for us because today was extremely foggy and rainy, and we would have been devastated if they had been outside because we couldn’t see very far through the fog.  These buildings also allow for the archeologists to continue digging, which is still going on 30 years later.  Indeed, many of the corridors have yet to be uncovered – although they do know what’s inside.

First we went to a museum which houses two bronze carriage statues that were unearthed in 1980.  They were crushed when their corridor roofs collapsed at some point, but archeologists painstakingly pieced them back together again and put them into large glass display cases.  One was a chariot with a general and four horses, and the other was the Emperor’s carriage and driver – also with four horses.  Both were incredible in their detail.  It’s amazing to think of the time it would take to make these by hand.

The chariots were lovely, but we were anxious to see the real thing.  So we went to Pit #1 – which is the largest and most extraordinary.  This is the pit with 6000 standing warriors, and each seems to have a different face and expression.  It’s almost as if each was specially modeled after a specific person.  But we’ll never know because there is no ancient documentation about the warriors, only documentation about Qin Shihuang’s tomb – probably to keep the warriors secret from would-be robbers.

The building around Pit #1 is as large as a football stadium with the same domed rooftop.  On each of the four sides of the warrior pit was a walkway for the hundreds of tour groups that were there.  So we could walk around the perimeter of the pit, looking down into the warrior corridors.  The detail of these statues was incredible, and our guide whats-his-name told us it probably took 50 years to complete the entire army.  We walked around to the other end of the pit, taking pictures regardless of the “No Pictures” sign because everyone else was snapping photos.  And really – we came all the way around the world to see this.  How can they expect us NOT to take pictures?

Then we went to Pit #2, which has the standing archers, middle archers, cavalry, and generals.  This pit is obviously still a work-in-progress from an archeological perspective, because most of the corridors were still covered by their petrified wooden roofs.  Bright single bulbs hung from the ceilings and there was a huge treadmill which took the dirt out of the building.  However, no one was working today and whats-his-name told us that they work during the evenings when there are no tourist disruptions.

While there were many less statues to see in this pit, it was much smaller so the observation platforms were closer to the actual pits.  We could see the damage that was done when the wooden roofs collapsed over 2000 years and water damage molded one warrior into the next.  I have a great deal of respect for the archeologist who sift through this grain by grain.  We could see faint colors on some of the statues, giving an idea of how brilliant they must have been.

Pit #3 is the smallest of the three, and is supposedly the “command post” for the army.  There are generals and weapons and a chariot.  All in all, it was quite incredible to see.

Archeologists believe that there are more warrior armies around Qin Shihuang’s tomb, but it will take years and years to locate them.

Whats-his-name took us to the souvenir shop, where one of the original farmers was signing souvenir books.  So some people of the group bought books about the warriors and had him sign them.  Anne bought a replica of a warrior for her yard.

Our Quest for Lunch

When we got back to our hotel, the group had a “free sight-seeing day” and everyone went their separate ways.  Jon and I were starving so we looked in Lonely Planet for a place to a few places to eat nearby.  We found something a few blocks away and walked to where it appeared to be on the map.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t locate any of them, and assumed that they are probably no longer in business.

We did find the food market though, and walked through a long alleyway filled with meat, fish, crabs, snakes, squid, frogs, snails, slugs, and many other unrecognizable things.  But we were the main attraction for the people there, and most everyone stopped and stared at us as we walked through.

We finally wandered into a random place for lunch a few blocks away from the market.  This place had a cafeteria-like setup.  We bought a “debit card” at the cashier, grabbed a tray, and walked along the counters pointing to dishes that looked interesting.  Each time a dish was put on our tray, the person swiped our debit card through a card reader to reduce our balance.  We got 3 dishes and 2 Sprites for 23 Yuan (around $3.00).  The food wasn’t bad, but I swear I can feel my arteries clogging from all this oil.  I don’t know why we don’t see any obese Chinese.  It must be the morning Thai Chi.

Gu Lou – The Drum Tower

After lunch, we walked across the Bell Tower traffic circle to Gu Lou – the Drum Tower.  We bought tickets and climbed up the many steps, just ducking in when it began to rain a bit.  The tower marks the beginning of the Muslim quarter of Xi’an, and has a furniture exhibit on the top floor.  But it wasn’t the furniture that amazed us, but the ceiling.  The artwork on the lattices was amazing and had so many beautiful colors.  We just walked around with our necks cricked backwards the entire time.  We did walk around the outside of the tower, but it wasn’t very high so the view wasn’t spectacular.

Daqingzhen Si – The Great Mosque

We walked through an arched tunnel under the Drum Tower to get to the Muslim Quarter and followed the signs to the Great Mosque.  We had to walk through a long narrow alleyway filled with vendors selling all sorts of great Chinese stuff: stamps, fans, Buddhas, chopsticks, Terracotta warriors, purses, and other nick-knacks to clutter our shelves.  It seemed strange to us that China has Islamic culture this far east, but there seems to be a sort of “arc” of Islam that has spread from the Arab countries all the way to Indonesia and Australia.  Regardless, this mosque was nothing like what we’ve seen in other countries.  Daqingzhen Si is very Chinese, with many courtyards and Chinese architecture.  Each time we left one courtyard, we entered another more beautiful one, and had to pass through at least 4 gardens before we got to the actual Mosque.

They had the evening Call To Prayer while we were there, and by the time we were got to the Mosque the prayer was just ending.  As non-Muslims cannot enter the Mosque, we stood outside and watched the end of the prayer session.  I must admit, it was nice to see this again.  It’s easy to get caught up in the events of the past week and to question the intent of a religion that spawns such horrific terrorism.  But the men we saw today – these are men who are just expressing their devotion to a God they whole-heartedly believe in.  They are religious and devout, but they are also quiet and peaceful.  Osama bin Laden does not represent these people, and they should not be held responsible for his heinous ways.  It’s sad to read in the IHT that many Americans are giving grief to American Muslims.  As if we’ve digressed back to the 1940s when we put German-Americans and Japanese-Americans into internment camps.

Sorry.  My soapbox again.

The Mosque was beautiful and we were very glad we went there.  On our way out, it began to rain heavily, so we used the opportunity to buy some gifts from a little man we met on the way to the Mosque.  We liked the prices he gave us before, so we went back to him and bought some other little things.  He had a little boy with him who was about 3 years old and he was so sweet.  We went back to the hotel to nap for about an hour until it was time for dinner

Dinner in Muslim Quarter

Last night’s dinner trauma did produce one good thing: when the group split up, Ken and Mel stumbled onto a great restaurant and they decided they would take us back there tonight.  Although it was pouring rain, we set out for the walk to the Muslim Quarter.  Most of the group had umbrellas, but Jon and I broke out the bright blue ponchos and we are quite happy with them.  The restaurant had an English menu, but we ended up Ordering by Pointing anyway, which we seem to do very well.  Ken and Mel spoke highly of the beef kebabs so Ken ordered an obscene amount of kebabs which we inhaled in record time.  We also had a delicious Gung Bao Chicken and some fabulous vegetables.  Jon and I decided that we would come back here to order take-out for our train ride tomorrow night.

When we left the restaurant it was still pouring rain.  Some people went into the Mosque alleyway to buy some gifts, and Jon and I went into a bakery to get a loaf of bread for PB&J.  We had to wait for the nice lady to slice it for us, but it didn’t take very long and at least we were out of the rain.  When we left the bakery and began to walk back to the hotel, Anne and Laurel passed by in a taxi cab.  So we ran to catch up with them and hopped into the back seat with Laurel.  Much better than walking in the rain!

China: Luoyang to Xi’an

Posted Posted in China, Round The World Trip

Jon and I had a buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant (if you ever have the option between a ‘traditional Chinese breakfast’ and a ‘Western breakfast’, opt for the Western breakfast; unfortunately we didn’t have that choice so we were stuck with the Chinese breakfast) and then met the group in the lobby at 8:30.  We put our bags on the bus and went to the Folkway Museum.

Folkway Museum

The museum was filled with local cultural artifacts such as embroidered shawls, little shoes for bound feet, and various other traditional items.  One section displayed a traditional Chinese wedding, where the bride was completely covered by a red veil until after the ceremony.  The boy and the girl would be engaged when they were 3 or 4 years old, and then married 10 years later.  She could not show her face until after the wedding, so the only thing he could see of her was her feet.  This is why the feet binding tradition was so important.  It was said that people with big feet had ugly faces.  So of course every girl wanted to keep her feet as small as possible.  The government put an official end to this in 1911, but it didn’t end in the rural areas until the 1950s.

I wonder what they would have thought of my dainty size-11 shoes.

We completed our tour of the museum at a shadow puppet show.  The puppets are the same as those we admired in the Shanghai Art Museum on Sept 17.  Although they weren’t made of leather, it was so interesting to see a real puppet show and to go behind the case to see how the woman worked the puppets.  There were two puppets – one a monk and the other a beautiful woman.  They were each about one foot tall and had three sticks connected to each of their hands and head.  At the end of the puppet show, she had them dancing a funny little Cha-Cha that was so cute.

Cave Houses

We also went to a little village that still had some of the rare “cave houses”.  From the name, you would think that these were caves in the side of a mountain, but instead what we found were deep rectangular pits with rooms carved into them.  From the dirt road, we could look down about two stories into the courtyard where the matriarch was setting up benches to receive us.  The stairs to access the dwelling were 20 meters away and connected to the courtyard through a cave.

The woman was 90 years old and had lived in the caves practically her whole life.  She had 6 sons, three of whom we met and lived with her.  She seemed incredibly happy and very mobile, which surprised me but I don’t know many 90-year olds so what would I know?  She also had the tiniest feet I’ve ever seen.  George told us that, when she was younger, she got a police ticket for having bound feet.  But I guess by that age it didn’t matter to her anymore.   She had a very slight limp when she walked, much like the way I walk when my feet hurt after a day in heels.  I imagine that – although they are no longer bound – they are still painful after all these years.

I just had an ironic thought.  Here we are shaking our heads at the tragedy of the feet-binding tradition, but how is that really different from high heels?  They both affect the growth of your feet, and they both affect the line of your spine, and they both are done out of a desire to be beautiful.  But one is acceptable in today’s society and the other is not.  I wonder if there will ever be a time when governments ban high heels because they are considered cruel.  After all, there are stories of teenagers in Japan falling in their excessively high platforms and cracking their skulls.  Sorry – just a random thought.  I suppose if this law was ever passed that I would have to get rid of my favorite black Kenneth Cole boots with 3″ heels.  I think I would mourn them for a few years, at least.

Train to Xi’an

On our way to the Luoyang Train Station, we stopped by a grocery store and picked up some snacks for the 5 hour train ride to Xi’an.  Jon and I got our PB&J supplies, and were thrilled to find some Skippy Chunky Peanut Butter as our jar from Kathmandu is almost finished.  At the train station, we waited in the “soft car” lounge for our 1:00 train to arrive.  Grant had 13 tickets, but two of them were in a separate car and Jon and I offered to take them so no one else would have to split from the group.  (And because we honestly don’t mind the 5 hours alone.)

We shared a four-seater with 2 women from Austria who were on the train with their tour group.  You could tell from the way they were dressed and their luggage that they were on a COMPLETELY different type of tour than we were.  No shared bathrooms for these folks!  But our two train friends were very nice and we really enjoyed talking to them.  They were excessively amused when we pulled our Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich makings.  I don’t think they had ever had peanut butter before, as they asked to try some and were surprised when it wasn’t sweet.  It seems that PB&J is truly an American thing.  Grant (from Australia) and Anne and Robert (from Ireland) are politely disgusted by the thought of mixing PB with J, and Grant says that PB tastes like “someone chewed up peanuts and spit them into a jar”.

Later, when Jon fell asleep, I went to find the rest of the group in the other car.  There was a man/boy making the rounds of the cars to sell a bunch of socks and he was in their car.  This sounds a bit odd, but he had an official badge for the train and had a gig that was absolutely hysterical.  We tried to ignore him when he came through our car, but even that was difficult.  His English was a bit broken, but it didn’t matter because his enthusiasm was addictive.  By the end of the “show”, everyone thought that these socks were the greatest things in the world.  We watched him tear through them with a knife, light a lighter through them, and play tug-of-war with them with another passenger on the train.  Kind of like an Infomercial but not on TV.  You couldn’t help but get caught up with it.  In the car where the rest of the group was sitting, he had obviously found his dream audience – they were practically drooling over the socks and at least 1/2 the group (including  me!) bought a pair.  We’re such suckers.

Xi’an

We arrived in Xi’an around 7:00PM or so, and left the train station to find our Intrepid bus.  The train station wasn’t far from our hotel, but the traffic was incredibly bad!  Just like New York at rush hour: bumper to bumper, horns honking, and people cutting each other off.  We did get to see some of the sights from the bus, though. Xi’an city center is surrounded by a huge, thick wall which has entrances on the north, south, east and west.  So of course traffic is going to be snarled, with everyone and their dog trying to get into/out of the city during prime time on a Saturday night.

Our hotel – the Sheng Grand Hotel – is right on the main street that runs north to south through the city center.  The lobby was lovely, but we’ve learned not to get our hopes up about the rooms based on the lobbies.  Of course, this hotel was no different.  Our rooms faced the busy street, the windows didn’t seal so the noise was quite loud, we could hear our Chinese neighbors were yelling through the walls, and the carpets hadn’t been vacuumed.  EVER.  But no problem.  We’ll wear earplugs at night and never walk around barefoot.  It’s just nice to be in one place for more than one night.

Dinner in the Muslim Quarter

We met the group for dinner at 8:00-ish, and we walked to the Muslim Quarter to find a place to eat.  Unfortunately, the entrance into the Muslim area was under construction (in fact, the entire park had completely disappeared) and we couldn’t get to the street we wanted.  We found little booths along a side street serving food, but they were very sketchy so we all turned around to walk the few blocks to the other entrance to the Muslim Quarter.

But Jon and I were starving and were getting a bit frustrated with the “group dinner trauma”.  (i.e. large group of people wandering aimlessly without any reaching any consensus as to where to eat.)  So we told Grant we were heading off on our own and crossed the busy intersection to Xi’an’s newest addition: McDonald’s.

Yes, we do seem to be eating this more often than not.  But there are two reasons for this.  One is that we often want something quick and easy, where we don’t have to pull out the phrase book to order.  The other reason is a bit more unbelievable – McDonalds actually has less oil in the food than Chinese food.  I’m not kidding.  This food is SO OILY that my face looks like I’m going through puberty all over again.  And I haven’t broken out in YEARS so this is especially traumatizing for me.

Anyway, as I said McDonalds is a brand new addition to Xi’an – which is a very large city.  Jon read an article in the China Daily which said it’s so popular that the lines to get in can last for hours.  So we thought we’d see what it was like. Sure enough, outside the front door were queue barricades much like what we see at amusement parks.  So we snaked our way around the rows of barricades to stand in what was actually a pretty short line (compared to the many feet of barricades).  There were McD’s employees who were taking orders on a piece of paper that looked like the cash register/computer they use at the front counter.  The  boy who wrote our order had a picture card of the menu so we could point to what we wanted.  He tore our order off the pad of paper and gave it to Jon to take to the front.  So we waited for the McDonald’s Bouncer to let us in the front door.  Once he did, it was a free-for-all rush to the front counters, where there were already people lined up from the last rush of people.

Remember that pushing and line cutting is perfectly acceptable here in China.  You really can’t live with 1 billion other people and not push your way to the front.  Jon has now mastered this and has learned to use his height and heavier build to his advantage.  He was a champ!  He scooted his way up and thrust the order sheet right at a cashier who was just looking up to help the “next person in line”.

Meanwhile, I was scoping out the seats to try to find a table.  Yeah – me and 20 other people.  I saw a group that looked like they were finishing up, and I tried to stand a discreet distance away (like, 3 feet) so they could finish their dinner in peace but I could still swoop in when they got up.  Silly me.  I should know by now that there is no “discreet distance” in China.  These two children saw the table and actually went right up and sat in the extra seat, looking at the family until they were done eating.  So I really had no choice but to look elsewhere.  I did manage to get a table upstairs eventually, though.

And yes, it was good.  But we’ve decided that this would be the last McDonald’s trip for a long time.