A Travellerspoint blog

East meets West

Hong Kong - Monday, Oct 15th 2007


View So it begins at 34°S & 151°E on Laur456's travel map.

We didn't see much of Shenzhen, though the train station was nice. Customs was easy, once we found it, and when we walked across the border (which looked a lot like an airport terminal) we found ourselves surrounded by overpriced food stalls and book shops. Time to take out cash, which is always fun because you get to see a new currency. Hong Kong uses its own dollar, the HKD, which nearly equally exchanges with the Chinese Yuan, so we didn't have to adjust to a whole new exchange rate. What we did have to get used to right away was that everything is more expensive in Hong Kong, starting with the train ticket into Hong Kong proper. I repeated again that I only wanted a one way ticket, and the teller assured me that the price was indeed correct. Guess I'll have to take out a little more cash next time...

As we walked outside to the train platform, I felt the sun. Oooohh, the sun. The air still wasn't exactly clear here, but there was sun! We'll take it. Hong Kong is a different place altogether. Right away, you can see the difference in infrastructure. Our train actually appeared to have been built in the last decade. As the train hummed quietly, we gently rocked back and forth and I looked around. People were reading papers and magazines, or watching the TV screen mounted on the ceiling. No one stared at us. In fact, no one made eye contact with anyone else. The people were wearing clothes that were crisp, clean, and pressed. (perhaps this was a commuter train for work? It was Monday morning...) I suddenly realized that the dissonance of China was not here. The cacophony that had been our lives for three weeks did not cross with us through customs. The voices on the news show were not yelling at me, they were calmly speaking. It was almost soothing. Cantonese, I like you. I felt my anxiety start to deflate. As we made our way into town, the differences between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland were becoming more and more obvious. Was that some landscaping? Then our train ducked underground for the remainder of our ride.

We arrived at our destination, Kowloon Station, and disembarked. Once up the escalators, we were met with the challenge of finding the right exit. There were about 20. While sharing a dorm room in a hostel in Beijing, we received a recommendation to look for housing in the Mirador Mansions, and to stay away from it's neighbor, the Chunking Mansions. Not exactly sure what we were looking for, we were delighted to find a sign for these mansions down in the subway, directing us to the correct exit. After a bit of a hike, we emerged into Kowloon. You are immediately struck by the immensity of this place. Probably not unlike rising up into Times Square for the first time, except with a keen sense that you are somewhere more foreign. Kowloon is like China on steroids. The buildings here loom larger, climb higher, and bulge in the center, like overfed rodents. Their tails and appendages hang out over the street dripping with flashy billboards and neon signs. This part of Hong Kong appears to be the international hub for street vendors, shopping stalls, shopping malls, and everything else commercial. And it pulses and hums, like a circuit breaker on the verge of blowing a fuse. The tranquility of the commuter train was left behind.

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Speaking of fuses, we soon found that our were running short. After looking around, we finally found a shady, dirty, and ominous entrance to the Mirador: simply a walkway that led into the depths of one of these giant 20 story buildings that spans an entire block and looks as though it grudgingly agreed to stop spreading in order to allow a street to cut a path along side it. Tentatively, we entered, moving towards the belly of the beast. Amazingly, the inside of this building is like a run down labyrinthine shopping mall with even more shopping stalls than you could imagine, and at least three stairwalls within sight. Since we were each carrying 30+ pounds of luggage, we left one to guard our belongs, and two to go in search of housing.

I felt like Super Mario running through the dungeon world, up and down the stairs, seeing over the inside balcony where we wanted to go, but not being able to get there.

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There were several sets of elevators in the building, but not all elevators stopped at every floor. So if you were on the 10th floor, and my elevator only stops on 2, 6, and 10, to get to the 3rd floor, I need to walk up to 11, find the appropriate elevator, and take it down to 3. It made my brain hurt. And it was even more painful with luggage. Every floor had several hostels, which were composed of about 3-5 rooms each. So, we were trying to shop around, but soon found that you get a lot less for your money here. As we tried to negotiate, one owner looked at us and shrugged, "This is Hong Kong", he said. And all the rooms were the size of closets. At least we found one with three beds, those were hard to come by. So, we had a closet with three beds and a bathroom, though a better word would be "showinklet" or some other combination thereof, seeing as how I could have showered while sitting on the toilet and brushed my teeth at the same time. Compact and cell-like, but cute. Here's the 360:

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I took the above photo from my position below:

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And then here's the view from the outside:

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Kowloon is busting at the seams. After getting settled, and finding our way out again, we noticed there was a Holiday Inn across the street. Before we knew it, we were sitting in their restaurant having $5 cappuccinos. It was a splurge, but it felt good to rest our heads and weary bodies for a while. Admittedly, we lingered longer than necessary, but eventually made our way back.

Kowloon feels like a younger, spunkier offspring of the mainland, caught in the rebellious teen years. It still has the dirt and the grit, but it is slightly more concerned with keeping up appearances. There is certainly a more international flair here, with all kinds of food and all kinds of people. We didn't get stared at quite as frequently, only more hassled on the street to come into one shop or another to buy "beautiful jewelry" or "designer handbags". The same guy asked me at least 10 times, without any recognition that we had interacted before. He must ask a lot of people.

And so we were off again, exploring, walking, and taking the subway. We walked along the waterfront there called Causeway Bay (the bay between Kowloon and the Hong Kong downtown district) and admired the city skyline. We found our way to the popular Kowloon streets with all the shops and poked around for a while. We took our time, thankfully aware that we had a place to sleep and nowhere to ship off to the following day. The sun finally set, but the bustle did not.

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So many streets to explore, so little time ... we finally made our way back to the hostel, well fed and more relaxed.

Posted by Laur456 18:34 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Middle China

Wuhan and the Sleeper Trains that got us there


View So it begins at 34°S & 151°E on Laur456's travel map.

Deciding that we did not have enough time to make it all the way to Shanghai and then back to Hong Kong, we decided to go straight to Hong Kong. When we arrived in Wudang Shan we did not yet have our tickets to leave and so went to the train station to purchase them. Based on our own limited research, we thought we could get a train from Wudang Shan directly to Hong Kong, but once we got to the ticket window, we found this was not the case. Most likely because this was a such a small town, the ticket attendant did not speak English, and my Mandarin was so broken that it ended up being a long process sorting this out. I had my whole "speech" prepared, and words and phrases earmarked in my little dictionary, as I walked up to the window. As soon as I realized she was telling me we could not take a direct train everything fell apart and I didn't know what to do. As I began to flip through my book to find a new phrase to ask, other local patrons behind me in line began to step in front of me and wave their money through the ticket window.

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I had to laugh, and my friends laughed as I was quickly surpassed by eager ticket buyers. If you even THINK the word hesitation, someone else steps up and you're outta there! After several rounds of waiting to ask a question, and then having to step out to regroup and allow others to use the service, we got a ticket to go to Wuhan, and then from Wuhan to Shenzhen the next day. Shenzhen is the closest Chinese city to Hong Kong without actually being in Hong Kong.

We have been very impressed with the train system here in China. I believe it is entirely government funded and run, and is the most cost effective and efficient way to travel the country. The ticket offices have all the high-tech equipment and the computers are fast. In fact, this is the only place that caters to the locals where I have seen such advanced technology. Even the travel offices in the high end hotels, that we've snuck in to use, have had equipment that looked to have been born circa 1990.

While on our six hour train ride to Wuhan, we met a couple from Germany who had been traveling for over two years. Apparently, they sold everything they had and just left. Talk about feeling free. They had been everywhere, and still had new places to see and explore. Since we were only going to Wuhan last minute, we didn't know much about the city and were glad to have other travel companions who seemed to be much more travel savvy. Not only were they extremely nice, intelligent, and fun to talk to, but they basically saved us from mental brakedown upon arriving in Wuhan at about 10:00pm that night. We had no accomodation nor onward ticket booked at this point. Not only that, but the Wuhan train station was under construction and also happened to be about the size of Manhattan, so we were already exhausted by the time we found the exit. The roads outside were large, filled with feisty vehicles, and muddy. And there were no sidewalks or crosswalks as far as we could tell. My body and mind were starting to go numb at this point, so we just followed our new German friends, who seemed to have an idea where to go. They did. It was an eternal 15 minute walk, but we found the ticket booth and bought our tickets to Shenzhen to leave the following afternoon. After dangerously negotiating our way across the street, we found a hotel and haggled a price. This was not the optimal situation in which to haggle, as it was already late and we looked tired. They had us, but we got them to drop the price a little bit. The rooms were nice, and we had a full bathroom with a western toilet. This feeling of comfort was all negated, though, when I found a cockroach on my bed. Luckily it was a small one, but BLEH!!!!! Knowing that this was something we were going to have to deal with as we moved southward, we became more diligent about closing our bags tight and sleeping with the bathroom light on. This probably doesn't make any difference, but it made us feel better.

This is Wuhan the next morning, outside our hotel and right by the train station, and a light traffic moment:

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In the AM we met up with our new friends and went to get a bite to eat down the street. Breakfast was steamed buns and a thick mealy soup. Both were rather bland tasting, but filled us up. Then, we were off for our scheduled adventure: Walmart. Our friends had seen a sign as we were pulling into the train station the night before and wanted to go to buy provisions. We were kind of curious what a Chinese Walmart would be like, so we decided to join them. Easy, we thought, we'll just ask the person working at our hotel how to get there. Well, Wuhan is a large city (big surprise) and the Walmart was on the other side of the river. We had to take 2 buses to get there. She wrote down the numbers and pointed to the street outside when we asked where to catch the bus. This felt somewhat like someone pointing at the earth from an airplane and saying, "don't you see that tree?" But we politely smiled and thanked her and walked out to attempt to cross the road again. We found the bus stop, which was in the middle of road filled with many lanes, if you can call them lanes, and traffic that was not moving. This did not look promising. We watched at least fifty buses go by without the number we wanted, and finally asked someone next to us about our travel plans. This consisted of pointed to the general Walmart area on a map, then pointing at our bus directions, and then shrugging our shoulders. She knew a few phrases in English, and we were perplexed when she indicated that we did not have the correct directions. She then proceeded to walk us out of the chaotic bus stop and tried to find a taxi for us to take. Because we were five people, most did not want to drive us. Even though this girl had already gone completely out of her way, she started hailing minibuses that were driving by to ask them for help. We thanked her profusely and tried to tell her that she did not have to spend so much of her time to help us, but she insisted it was no problem. We eventually found a van to take us. It was a little costly, but we were pretty sure the bus was not coming any time soon, and this was much faster. In every city we've visited, I've been so wonderfully surprised by people's kindness and consideration.

And we were off to Walmart. It was everything we had hoped for and more. First of all, it was in the basement of some shopping mall, and it was huge. American style huge. We found everything there: socks, food, soap, travel mugs, toilet paper, candy, and the list goes on... At one point I was looking for face lotion, and then I stumbled upon the face lotion aisle (yeah, the whole aisle). I was browsing the different bottles, trying to decide what I wanted, when I realized that the lotions in this aisle were face whitening lotions. All of them. I know that lighter skin is culturally more desireable here, although the Chinese have such beautiful glowing skin that it saddens me that someone might try to alter it. I was also struck by the alternative scenerio in the USA, where everyone wants to darken their skin tone with a sun tan, and particularly by the popularity of skin tinting products and lotions. We each covet each others complexions.

After getting lost in the store for over an hour, we reconvened with our friends at the checkout and went to McDonalds for lunch. If the day was going to lean West, might as well go all the way. I actually didn't get anything to eat as I wasn't hungry at the time, but the layout and decor is the same, and so is the menu (and at western prices, too.) We somehow managed to take the bus back to the hotel just by getting on one going in the right direction. During our ride back, while standing in the crowded aisle, a girl who was seated next to us offered to hold Ellen's bag of groceries for her. She spoke English. I suppose it's possible that she was trying to steal our stuff, though it did not seem that way. Ellen politely declined, saying that we were getting off soon. A minute later the girl said again, "I want to hold your bag for you." Not sure what to do, Ellen thanked her, but again insisted we were getting off soon, and we did get off within a few minutes, but the whole exchange was a bit strange. While I'm sure she was well intentioned, it was odd to us because it was completely unsolicited, something we are not really used to at home. If someone offered to hold my bag on a bus in Chicago, my first response would be to hold it tighter and step away. I felt like this girl felt compelled to offer her services to us based on the status of our nationality (or skin color, I'm not sure which) not just because we were other patrons who happened to be standing on the bus juggling bags, and it was an uncomfortable feeling. This was a priviledge unearned. Perhaps, though, I was mistaken, it's hard to be sure.

It turned out to be unbelievably difficult to get around in Wuhan, though this was probably somewhat circumstantial. Regardless, while we were sitting around the lobby of our hotel, waiting to go catch our train, I just couldn't relax, and I suddenly realized that this past week of traveling had made me very anxious. We were moving around so much, and nothing was settled for us ahead of time. We were constantly unsure of what was waiting for us, or how we were going to deal with it, though this was also part of what has made this trip wonderfully exciting. But I was ready to go to Hong Kong for a respite. More specifically, I was ready to stay in one place for a few nights. I can't remember now how long our train ride was, but I think it was something like 18 hours. We left Wuhan around 5:00pm and arrived in Shenzhen around 11:00am. We made friends with our bunkmates by smiling and nodding. One woman offered us slices of pomelo (kind of a giant mild grapefruit) which we greatly enjoyed. She then proceeded to light up a cigarette under the No Smoking sign and we felt like we couldn't now ask her to move away after her recent gesture of kindness. Drrrr... We also met a nice young Chinese gentleman on our train, who was currently living in Boston and getting his PhD at Harvard in some subject I could hardly wrap my head around, much less repeat here. We talked for a while about his culture shock in Boston (which I'm sure was primarily related to the driving there ... only joking) vs. our culture shock. We couldn't believe how many people there were, he couldn't believe how many people there were outside running, for EXERCISE.

Several sleeping pills and many hours later, we pulled into Shenzhen. As thrilling as it was to see a new place, it was bittersweet to leave China. Technically, Hong Kong has been returned to China, but it's essentially a different country from the mainland in culture and feel. China was a fascinating place with so much energy and life. I am lucky to have seen it when I did because, being there, you can sense the change that is coming. It's in the air. The people have been wonderfully welcoming to me, have taught me more than they could know, and I am grateful. I am so lucky.

Hong Kong, here we come...

Posted by Laur456 12:08 Archived in China Comments (0)

Call me Tiger Dinosaur

Wudang Shan

rain
View So it begins at 34°S & 151°E on Laur456's travel map.

We met a guy from NYC earlier in our China travels who is teaching English to primary schoolers in Beijing. He shared some of his interesting stories with us. He was having trouble pronouncing some of his student's names during roll call, so they requested that they have English names in class, and he agreed. Some of the more entertaining names that were chosen included Nightclub (apparently this youngster frequents the nightclub scene), Mountain, and Tiger Dinosaur. Thinking this was great, Char, Ellen and I immediately adopted these names. Char had to be Nightclub since she does indeed go to a lot of clubs, Ellen had to be Mountain because she's the tall one, so that left me with Tiger Dinosaur, which isn't significant of anything but I quite like it. Since then we've come across other Chinese with reason to have an English name, mostly because they have a job in the tourist industry. For example, our tour guide in Xi'an was called Candy and another woman who gave us her business card, in case we wanted to book a tour though her, goes by Cinderella. Oh, pop culture.

We awoke Thursday morning in Yichang and hopped on a bus headed north to Wudang Shan. Shan means "mountain" in Mandarin, and Wudang Shan is one of the more famous mountains in China as it is the home to several Taoist temples built during the Ming Dynasty and is supposedly the birthplace of Tai Chi. It was actually the setting for part of the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, though I do not think the movie was actually filmed there (so I have been told). We planned to stay in a hotel part way up the mountain (to experience the mountain life!) and hike to the summit during our stay. It did take us 8 hours in a bus from Yichang to get to the town of Wudang Shan, however. It wasn't so bad, though, as I think you just get used to long periods of travel after a while. It was interesting to see the countryside: many rice paddies, suprisingly large homes, other crops (a lot of cabbage and corn) and water buffalo. We drove through a few smaller towns (actual small towns), which is good because we got a flat tire at one point so there was a place to go to get a new one.

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We stopped at some gas station/restaurant for lunch where we all bought a ticket and were served the same buffet meal. I was last in line and, thankfully, they ran out of the mystery meat by the time I got to the front. I got a peak at Nightclub and Mountain's trays, though, and I don't know what it was, but it still had hair on it. The driver of the bus walked by and rubbed his belly and made an "Mmmm" sound. We responded in kind, doing our best to look excited about our meals. We were the first to finish and get back on the bus.

We finally arrived at our destination, or so we were told, as the driver pulled over to the side of the road right after going through a toll booth, and gestured for us to get off. We knew that the town of Wudang Shan (at the base of the mountain) was a small town, but we were clearly still on the outskirts and not quite sure where to go to get to the train station (where we were meeting another traveler before heading up the mountain). Again, though, we were able to walk a short way and then solicit the help of someone nearby to help us by hailing a taxi. Phew, we made it. The town of Wudang Shan didn't seem to have too much to it. Just the usual food stalls on the street, people walking around, shops, haze. We did see someone driving a scooter with a dog draped across the back of it; a very dead dog. Dinner, most likely.

We found our way up the mountain to the hotel and restaurant stop, called Nunyan. This is as far as the buses go, and the start of the hike up to the summit. There are several hotels and restaurants, as well as souvenir shops all in the same little area. Before we even got off the bus, locals were pantomiming sleep (by putting both hands under one ear and leaning to the side with eyes closed) and shoving their business cards at us, trying to get us to stay at their accomodation. When we got off the bus, it got even worse, and we couldn't turn around without being harrassed. Finally, we ducked into the first hotel we saw just to get away, and we ended up staying there. We booked for two nights, thinking we'd hike the mountain the next day, and leave early the following morning. I'm not sure why, but I think we were the only people staying in the hotel that night, it was kind of eerie. Perhaps the weather had something to do with it. It was definitely cold, but luckily they had a heater in the room, otherwise we would have all frozen to death. In addition to being cold it was very foggy and rainy (though the air felt much more fresh and clean!). Not wanting to go out in the cold rain again, we ate a very satisfying and inexpensive meal at our hotel (again we were the only people) in their small kitchen. In fact, the wonderfully friendly staff at the hotel always seemed to anticipate when we'd want to eat as they'd be waiting nearby whenever we came down from our room, smiling and ushering us to the kitchen area. We went to bed early as there was nothing else around, but only after turing on our TV to find Arnold Schwartzenegger's Commando on, in English I might add, so we had to watch. A little taste of home. The room was nice, although a little cramped. Our bathroom was a little scary, but it had hot water. We called it "The Throne":

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Yes, that is the shower in the upper left hand corner.

The next morning it was still cold and rainy, so we decided to hang out for the morning and hope the rain cleared by the afternoon so we could hike to the summit. It did not. We watched Commando 1.5 more times, played 3 different card games, and finally decided to hop on the bus outside and see where else it could take us. I'm glad we did because we came across this temple farther down the mountain called The Purple Cloud Temple. It was so hazy, though, that when we got off the bus we could only see about 15 feet in front of us, and had no idea where the temple actually was. Some others waiting at the bus stop pointed us in the right direction, and we found the temple to be only about 50 feet away. The mist here is extremely thick and dynamic; ten minutes later, it had ebbed to the point where you could indeed see from the bus stop to the temple, though if you're not careful it will roll in just as quickly and envelop you.

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It was extremely peaceful there, and you immediately understand why it was chosen as a site to practice meditation.

Once we ascended back up to the hotel level, we thought we'd eat somewhere new for a change and popped into a few restaurants to check out the menus. Strangely, the first place we stopped had exactly the same menu as the one in our hotel, as did the next, and the next. The proprietor of each place was very eager to have us eat there, but none seemed as clean as our hotel, so we wandered back there instead, all of us trying to figure out the purpose of standardizing the menu for the whole town. I assume this was implemented as part of socialist law? Or was it a local community decision? None of us spoke enough Mandarin to ask.

We ended up having to wait until the next day to climb the mountain as it kept raining all through the night. I don't know the distance we hiked, but it certainly humbled me, especially since there were plenty of people more than twice my age hiking up on their own two feet, some even smoking along the way. Luckily, the entire path was paved and mostly consisted of stairs. There was clearly a lot of construction going on as we saw many workers carrying materials along the path, up and down the stairs.

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There were a lot of tents, or lean-tos, on the way up that sold various souvenirs. I got the impression that people actually lived in these dwellings, at least semi-permanently. I saw people carrying water in buckets that they had collected from a nearby waterfall, and many of the dwellings had a make-shift stove in it and, of course, many also had televisions, which was interesting since that meant there must be some source of electicity.

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Besides being completely winded and having sore knees, I was struck again by the mist, and watching it move in and away. Once we got close to the summit, though, it was consistently a thick cloud. This is a view looking over the edge, near the top of the mountain:

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The summit is called the "Golden Summit". Note the translation below:

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There were a lot of people climbing the mountain that day, and all came to burn incense and pray to the shrine at the summit. It makes you wonder what all the monks think of the crowds coming to pay homage at their temple(s), although they must have agreed because here we are, and it is no doubt a significant source of income. Here is a view I caught on our way back down the mountain, looking up a stairway we had just descended:

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All in all, it was nice to get away from the chaos of the rest of China and spend two nights in one place without needing to get up early to move onward. But, no rest for the weary. Next, we are heading to Hong Kong.

Posted by Laur456 13:16 Archived in China Comments (0)

Three Gorges

Chongqing to Yichang


View So it begins at 34°S & 151°E on Laur456's travel map.

We arrived in Chongqing early in the morning (after a sleeper train from Xi'an) and were lucky enough to find another traveling couple and some nice locals who helped us find (and negotiate) a minivan ride to our hostel. Chongqing is another one of those cities in China that you've probably never heard of, but has about 10,000,000 people in it. Apparently, in the summer, it is just a hot cloud of haze ... with 10 million people in it. It was definitely hazy while we were there (what a surprise), though not too hot. Here's a shot we got walking around that night while we were trolling for food. Finding this did not help.

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We knew we wanted to take a boat on the Yangtze the next day, or Yangzi as it is sometimes spelled, so we thought we see it and the Three Gorges Dam at the same time. Most of the tours in this section of the river are very posh, very expensive, and take four days. This was not what we were looking for, so we found out about the Hydrofoil boat through word of mouth, which is a very fast boat that covers the same distance in 1 day, on the same stretch of river. Our hostel offered to purchase tickets for us, though usually they charge a commission. So, feeling like we were weathered travelers now, we decided to head into town and find the ticket office ourselves to avoid the commission. Once again, though, the map in my guidebook was oversimplified, and we got hopelessly lost. No one spoke English, and the little phrase section in the back of my guidebook was not helping. Tired and starving, we opted for a food break instead. Chongqing is supposedly the home of the Hotpot, which is a style of serving food. You sit around a round table with a mini stove in the center that heats up a giant bowl inside of another bowl. Each are filled with some sort of oil/broth and one is spicey while the other is more mild. Then you order what you want cooked in it, they bring out the ingredients, you put it in, wait for it to cook, then fish it out and eat it. Once we figured out the process (as we went in knowing only the name Hotpot, not what it entailed), ordering was the next challenge. We went through our list of acceptable meats listed in my guidebook:
1. Chicken? She pointed to her feet. No, no chicken feet, thank you.
2. Beef? She shook her head.
3. Pork? Again she shook her head.
I am beginning to wonder what kinds of meat they DO offer, at which point she gestures to me to follow her to the back so she can show me. The first refridgerator she opens has trays of brains in it. They must have been sheep brains, because they were quite large! Again, I politely declined. We stuck to vegetables for that meal, and it was tasty, though nothing I have been craving since then.

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While walking around, we passed several men doing work on the sidewalk. They were each pounding on the cement with a big hammer and an even larger chisel and I realized they were breaking up the concrete blocks. These three men were doing the work of a jackhammer. Come to think of it, I had not yet seen a jackhammer anywhere we had been, and there was always construction going on. They had already demolished about 1.5 meters of sidewalk. It must have taken them days. Looking ahead at the sidewalk that disappeared into the crowded distance, I wondered how this would turn out for them. I doubt there is a reliable workman's compensation here for all the inevitable injuries. They are most likely just replaced with another able body.

Well fed, but still tired, we took the bus back to our hostel, and booked the darn hydrofoil ticket through our hostel, checked email, ate, and went to bed. The next morning we were up early to catch our boat, which brings me to my next observation about China. I've realized that nothing here is really all that efficient. Maybe if you pay thousands of USD and book an all inclusive tour things are different, but everything for us has been extremely, and unnecessarily, complicated. Let me elaborate: we bought a ticket for a one day trip down the Yangtze, from Chongqing to Yichang, or so we thought. We were told to be ready to leave at 6:00am, and the woman working at the hostel would take us there. We were in a taxi by 6:15, our "guide" with us, and arrived at a ticket office where she proceeded to purchase the tickets with the money we had given her the night before. Then she told us we were to wait around for our real guide. So we sat in this empty ticket office for 20 minutes while the sun came up. Then our guide arrived and smoked a cigarette for another 10 minutes; our hostel "guide" dismissed herself at this point. Then, all of a sudden, our new guide (who did not speak English) was gesturing frantically for us to get ready to leave. We gathered all our bags and I am wondering where we are going as there is no water in sight. We start walking down the road, our bags obviously slowing us down, which seemed to perplex our guide, and we walked for about 10 minutes until we reached a bus terminal. He ushered us through the entrance and out to a waiting platform where there was just an empty parking space waiting for us. And so we waited...and waited some more. 1 hour later, a bus pulled in, and we got on. Our guide waved goodbye from the platform. Four hours later, we pulled into a port somewhere further down the Yangtze and got on the hydrofoil. But we made it. I don't ask too many questions anymore. This is how we spent the bus ride (by the way, I had to bribe Ellen to use this photo, so please do not make fun of her):

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  • *I have another example of inefficiencies. In our hostel in Beijing, the bathrooms were downstairs and across the public courtyard from the dorm rooms. The toilet paper, however, was in the kitchen area, which was underneath the dorm rooms. So, you have to go to the kitchen to get TP, walk across the courtyard (say hello to the people hanging out there, feeling slightly awkward as there is only one thing you could be going to do with a big wad of TP in your hand), and then walk all the way back to the kitchen to wash your hands in the sink which was located next to the toilet paper dispenser. So, maybe they don't have room for the sink in the bathroom, but wouldn't it be better to put the TP dispenser in the bathroom?**

Anyway, back to the hydrofoil. Only the locals really take this boat as it isn't for sightseeing, but more for transport. However, there is a small "deck" (which is really only the space between the two seating areas and also serves as smoking deck and hawking deck) that is open to the air, and proved to be a decent viewing platform. Luckily, there is one on either side of the boat, so when the smokers emerged, I would just transfer to the other side. Here is a view of one of the gorges:

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The Three Gorges Dam was built in the 90s to provide hydroelectric power to the surrounding area, but it is a very controversial project for several reasons, including the eminent environmental sequelae as well as the displacement of the people living along the river. Of course, controversy in China is a relative term, as dissention is not really allowed, so it's more of a quiet passive controversy. The river was flooded about 10 years ago to a height of 150 meters, and it has something like 25 more to go. The other unfortunate aspect of this is that the Gorges, which supposedly used to be quite spectacular, are not so grand looking anymore. They were still beautiful to see, but I could imagine them being much more magnificent 150 meters deeper. Plus, the river itself is brownish, opaque, and full of debris from the submerged vegetation that has broken down. We passed an island (well, now it's an island) that had a temple on the right hand side... and a giant television on the left. Nothing like a temple thousands of years old next to a TV that is larger than my house.

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You can also pay to go see the Dam construction project in Yichang, though we did not.

We met some other people on the boat who were working for a western newspaper, and they were writing a story about the Dams in China (Three Gorges is the largest, but not the only controverisal Dam). One of them was a westerner, though had lived in China for several years, so it was interesting to get his perspective on the country. He did admit that the pollution has affected him. Apparently, about 750,000 people die prematurely each year in China from pollution related causes (per this man per World Bank study). Having not read the study, I cannot vouch for it, but the numbers don't surprise me.

We arrived in Yichang, with an address to a hostel that our previous hostel host had found for us. She had tried to call while we were in Chongqing, however was disconnected but assured us that it would be no problem to find a room once we got there. As an aside, we have been overwhelmed by the willingness of the Chinese people to help us when we are lost. One of the girls who worked for the bus transportation (that got us from the riverfront to downtown Yichang) actually took the time to walk us to the address because it was clear that we didn't know where we were going. The fact that we found it to be an old abandoned hotel once we got there is irrelevant. She could have just as easily pointed in the direction we should go and sent us on our way, but she didn't. And when we found the building to be out of service, she walked us across the street to a hotel and haggled a price for us. Everywhere we have been so far people have gone out of their way to help, and we are grateful, since half the time we are banking on luck to get us to the next place.

The hotel was nice, and we were exhausted. After a meal of noodles, tofu, and bok choy (our new favorite) we passed out. The plan was to catch a bus to Wudang Shan the next morning. Another day, another adventure.

Posted by Laur456 06:22 Archived in China Comments (1)

China Lights

Xi'an: Friday October 5 - Monday October 8, 2007.

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View So it begins at 34°S & 151°E on Laur456's travel map.

Because of the week-long national holiday, there were absolutely no trains available to go to Xi'an from Beijing, so we had to fly. Poor us, we had to do something convenient for once. It was a nice treat, but I'll be sure not to get used to it. We arrived in Xi'an Friday morning. Xi'an is a city that is about 5,000,000 strong, though much more well known than Datong. It served as the Chinese capitol for about 2,000 years, spanning several dynasties until 1000 AD, and is the beginning of the Silk Road. It is also a major hub on the backpacker/tourist track. Not unlike many other cities in China, Xi'an is a walled city. The first wall was originally built 3,000 years ago (according to our tour guide), though the most current structure was rebuilt about 600 years ago. It is 12 meters high and covers a distance of almost 14km. It is quite impressive, and really does provide a substantial barrier between inside and out (or downtown and the suburbs, as our tour guide referred to them).

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We spent one afternoon circling the city wall on bicycles, which was a lot harder than it looked a) because the bikes were not in top shape and b) because the top of the wall did not provide the smoothest ride and had many small "hills" to overtake. One of them looked more harmless than it actually was because I thought I could ride up it, then found myself sliding backwards, and then fell off my bike. I have the bruise to prove it, but hopefully only a temporary souvenir. Here is the view of the wall from one of the four towers, or gates, within the wall. There are only four entrances into the center of the city, through either the North, South, East or West gate.

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Walking around Xi'an, I was immediately surprised by how it seemed to be more posh and upscale than Beijing, though that may be just because I didn't see the really upscale parts of Beijing. There seems to be tons of shopping and the streets are lined with all the same designer stores you'd see in NYC, no doubt selling goods for equally exorbitant sums. There was a permanent haze here as well, and it rained 2 out of the 3 days we were there. At one point we were walking around and it wasn't raining, but it was hazy, and I could look directly at the sun because the haze was so thick. It just looked like a fuzzy bonnebell cheese ball (without the red wax cover), and there was no variation throughout the rest of the sky. It was also really cold, and I was wishing I hadn't shipped home my long underwear after leaving Australia. Luckily, we stayed in a nice, large, well-known hostel that catered to foreigners and Chinese alike. It had a large cafe in the back, which served some western comfort foods, and we were glad to have those on the rainy nights when it was too wet and cold to go our exploring. It was not the weekend to be staying in a cramped hostel with only chicken feet on the room service menu. We also met other travelers and made some friends. Some we hope to meet again later, and others we have already run into again. It's certainly true that you do see the same people over and over again, all over the world. Strange.

I am constantly impressed by the Chinese obsession with lights. Everything is lit up here at night. If they can adhere a bulb to it, they do. And if it blinks, spins, or flashes in multiple colors, even better. This is a very popular advertising tool, so I think each store feels that they must have MORE lights than the next. This is the South gate at night:

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Another popular thing here is blaring advertisements into the street via megaphone. Smog is not the only form of pollution in China. And the Mandarin language is not exactly easy on the ears either. You could walk down a street and each of the 20 stalls selling the same knick knacks and trinkets will have a megaphone recorder sitting out front with the same message on repeat... it's maddening. Maybe it actually does attract patronage, I don't know, though I haven't seen many foreigners (or locals, for that matter) racing to buy another plastic watch with Mao on it (although Ellen did buy one). And crossing the street here is just as perilous as anywhere else, as I'm sure I've previously indicated. Here's a video clip to give you an idea of what it felt like dodging traffic in Xi'an:

Yes, I survived.

We spent one night in Xi'an walking around the Muslim Quarter, a small neigborhood within the walls, where they have a night market with food and shopping stalls and, of course, lights. It's very cozy and easy to get lost in the maze. Here is a shot of some of our friends wandering around.

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We sampled foods. There are no shortage of sweets on the street (which is probably why I'm not losing any weight like I thought I would) and they heavily use cumin in their savory dishes in this area, which I found interesting as I associate cumin with latin cuisine.

Our sight seeing in Xi'an consisted of a tour to see the Terracotta Warriors, a site only recently discovered by a peasant farmer who happened to be digging in his land. He found a head of one of the warriors and then, because of local superstitions, was sent into exile. I believe this was in 1974. Once the full army was uncovered, though, and the significance was realized, he was brought back and probably lives a rather nice life now. The army was built by Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 246 BC, beginning his reign at age 13, and was to have the purpose of guarding his tomb after death. There are between 6,000 and 8,000 warriors (depending on the source), though only about 2,000 are currently on display for the public. The tombs, having only recently been discovered, are still being unearthed and renovated as they were raided and burned by another since their construction. That's a lot of soldiers. One other interesting fact is that each warrior is unique. I can vouch for this because some of them definitely looked a little odd. I think they were running out of faces/expressions/body types.

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Our tour guide was interesting to talk to, she wanted to ask questions about the USA and I wanted to ask questions about China. I tried to ask her about the healthcare here, and what she has access to, but the language barrier was too difficult. She did say that it is usually necessary to have gone to university in order to get a decent job here (decent meaning with the government), though there is very little government support for funding the education, and parents are expected to pay for it. I asked her about unemployment, and she guessed that about 50% of the population here has a job that can sustain them. What her definition of "sustain" is, I don't know. I also asked her if women are expected to perform the same jobs as men, and she said that they can and do, though it is very difficult and rare. When I asked her about the military, she said women can be involved for singing and dancing, but not to train for or engage in combat. Then she proceeded to ask me what cosmetic lines I thought were the best and what should she buy?

Posted by Laur456 04:41 Archived in China Comments (1)

I ate WHAT?!?!?

Datong and back to Beijing


View So it begins at 34°S & 151°E on Laur456's travel map.

On Monday night we took the sleeper train to Datong. We were wary of the conditions of the trains here, but as it is an efficient and relatively inexpensive way to get around, we decided to give it a shot. It was wonderful! We got what is called a Hard Sleeper, which is not hard at all, and is actually quite comfortable. The train car is divided into open "rooms" with six bunks per "room", three on each side. We had two middle deck and one upper (I got the upper). Our train left at nearly midnight so we were tired and basically passed out immediately, with our bags securely under our bunks. Six hours later we arrived in Datong. I think the train conductor was standing there calling out to us several times before we woke up (I had my earplugs in), but we made it without a hitch. Plus, we didn't have to pay for accommodation that night! We checked into our hotel, which looked like it was straight out of "The Shining", but the rooms were nice. The bathrooms were not, but you roll with it.

I don't know why I was expecting Datong to be small, perhaps that is the impression that my guide book gave, but Datong happens to be a small town of 3,000,000 people. I guess there aren't many small towns in China. Datong is very industrial, and there was a permanent haze that sat on the city during the 36 hours that I was there. From what I've heard, that is case all year round. It is a mining town that supplies 70% of China's coal. You can taste it in the air. I often wondered to myself how people can live there, but most probably don't know any different. Most have probably never seen stars. Sometimes you can't even see the sun, just a brightness in the sky.

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That morning we took a tour to see the Hanging Temple, which is a Buddhist temple literally built into a cliff side 50 meters above ground. It was originally 100 meters above ground, but has been sinking over the last 1400 years. It was built into the mountain because previous temples had been repeatedly washed away by flood. We had to wait a long time to get into the temple, as this is still the holiday week and there were a lot of tourists, but it was worth it. It was a little nerve wracking to know that you (and everyone else) were balancing on 1400 year old wooden beams that had been driven into the cliff to support the structure, and trying not to fall over 3ft high railings. China does not have the same liability issues that the USA does, for better or for worse.

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On that same tour we went to see the Yungang Caves, which were constructed in the 5th century AD by the then Emperor, and consist of 48 caves excavated to house carved Buddha statues, the largest of which is 17 meters high. The Buddhas were also carved from the mountain. Some of the caves are so intricately carved that there are several Buddhas in the center, which you can walk around, and the walls tell the pictograph story of Buddha himself. The original builders had to drill giant holes in the top part of the mountain and carve from top down, to take advantage of the sunlight hours, so each cave has two viewing holes, one at the top and one on the ground. And the view opposite the beautiful and peaceful Yungang Caves was, in fact, a giant coal factory with spewing smoke stacks.

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We met some other travelers on our bus, or in our hotel, and we all went out for dinner that night. We were feeling adventurous and decided to order something odd, so we settled on dog. It looked a little strange, like sliced sausage. Those brave enough in the group all got a piece, counted to three, and ate. Tasted quite like sausage as well. I only had one piece, though. There were some other dishes that had funny translated titles that we were too afraid to order, such as "Fried Chicken, Kidney, and Ox's Sex Organ in Bamboo Barrel", or "Depressing Blood Pressure Peanut." Here is a shot I took while walking around Datong that night:

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The next day our train did not leave to return to Beijing until the afternoon, so we walked around Datong. In Beijing, there was an occasional person who stared at us, but it was much moreso in Datong, as they get even fewer foreingers here, though plenty enough to think that they wouldn't need to stare at someone with blue eyes. People will often yell out "hello" without any intention of stopping or trying to have a conversation. I've decided that it is like what patrons of the zoo are trying to do when they walk up to a cage and make animal noises (I admit I have done this), just to see if you can get a reaction. There is no malintent, just curiosity. I don't mind; it is interesting to be the minority for a change. People have often taken pictures of us, too, without asking. They try to be subtle about it, as if they are taking a picture of something behind us, but it is often quite obvious. And again, I don't really mind, because I like taking pictures of the local people as well, so at least we're even. We explored some side streets, which were even more dilapidated and dirty that the side streets in Beijing, and we were definitely the ONLY foreigners walking around these streets. We stumbled across the street meat market soon enough, and were amazed by the animal parts and carcasses that were on display for sale. We saw goat heads roasting, full sets of intestines of some large four legged animal sitting in giant bowls (that looked like kiddie swimming pools), racks of half carcasses from which locals would point to a part and the butcher would just hack off the desired piece. The sanitation was, of course, questionable; there was no refrigeration and flies everywhere. Resisting the urge to buy a chunk of meat, we moved on and found a tea house where we had a round of some delicious floral tea, though I'm not sure what it was. The store owner picked it for us, steeped the tea, and poured for us while we all sat around a serving table together. She steeped small amounts at a time and filled our cups, which held no more than an ounce or two of tea, until we had had enough. It was extremely pleasant.

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That night, after returning to Beijing and checking into our hostel, we went to check out the famous street food market, which is renowned for its various foods-on-a-stick. We tried a few things, the most adventerous thing I ate was squid, but they served everything from tofu to giant scorpion, worm, centipede, slug, dog, snake, kidney and other organs. This was a very touristy stop, though, but fun to see. Someone bought the scorpion, though I did not actually see him eat it.

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The next day we decided to do as the locals do, and rented bikes to ride around the city. Not only was it really fun, but a very efficient way to get around. We covered much more distance than would have been possible on foot, and saw twice the sites. It was a little scary crossing traffic, especially the huge round-a-bouts and dodging the buses, but we survived. We saw Bei Hei park and the Lama Temple, which has the largest Buddha carved out of one piece of sandalwood, at 18 meters high (it holds a guinness world record). It was quite impressive. Then it started to rain when we were at the farthest point from our hostel. At first we thought we'd wait it out, but it didn't appear to be stopping, so we had to grin and bear it. We made it back about 40 minutes later, soaked the bone with no warm clothes to change into as we had dropped off a load of dirty laundry that morning. We only had shorts and tank tops, so that's what we wore, went to find someplace to eat dinner and the nice woman who ran the restaurant was gesturing to us, "where are your clothes?!?!" She was very nice, and served up a delicious pork-and-onion-wrapped-in-noodles dish. After getting our laundry and getting packed, it was early to bed for us as we were waking up early to catch a flight to Xi'an.

Posted by Laur456 01:49 Archived in China Comments (1)

Exploring Beijing

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One of the biggest things to adjust to here is the bargaining. The set price is apparently a Western way of life. Here, you must bargain for everything from goods on the street to food to hotel room prices. We did some souvenir shopping on Friday morning. That was an experience. The larger markets here are housed in multi-level shopping mall type buildings and consist of many little stalls that line the walls and fill the floor (i.e. no open spaces, only narrow walkways) and anywhere you walk people are calling out to you and waving goods in your face ("Hey Lady, you want Puma shoes! "Good watches, good watches" "You need phone!" Ellen got called "Sir", we thought that was quite amusing) But the main thing is going in prepared; emotionally prepared, that is. Once you start bargaining, the salesperson looks at with you with such shock and disgust that you want to shrivel up and die, as if they cannot believe the price you are suggesting. And the more you bargain, the more you feel like you are ripping their heart right out of their chest. It is SO difficult! It's all you can do not to just say, "Okay, I'll pay whatever you want!!!" But I think we did well (by our standards, not by Chinese standards, I'm sure). And when you leave, you're absolutely exhausted. I felt like I had just run a marathon.

After two days in our first hostel, we moved to another section of town to see something different. This new area is considered more western friendly. We could see why as we walked by several Ex-pat bars advertising rugby games and soccer on TV, etc. We stopped in one one night to watch one of the world cup rugby games, and it was filled with westerners and overpriced food and beer. We didn't go back after that. It has been slightly more difficult to find authentic eateries in this area, but we have done it. Last night we found a small place without English speaking staff or menus. We managed to order something (which, of course, wasn't what we were imagining, but had a go at it anyway), and it was some sort of noodle soup. It tasted okay, but afterwards my tongue and lips were tingling. (?) Luckily, it went away after about 15 minutes.

The more you spend walking around a city, the more you get a sense of the way things work. For example, Beijing is full of highways and four lane roads (and cars), and I'm sure there are rules of the road, but I couldn't tell you what they are, no one seems to follow them. Pedestrians definitely do NOT have the right of way here. In fact, they are ranked third after bicycles. The traffic is very bad here, and it's best to avoid taking a taxi or bus during rush hour. And the pollution has been more noticeable the past few days, I think we had an exceptionally clear day our first day here. It has been more hazy and smoggy since then. One thing this city does well, though, is cater to their bikers. Every street has a bike lane on either side of the road that is quite wide (not 2ft and discontinuous like in Chicago) and separate from the main road. Ellen read in her history of China book that it is not uncommon for people to commute to work 1 - 1.5 hours each way by bike. We have taken the bus many times, and it's an efficient way to get around the city. We rely, of course, on someone writing down our destination in Chinese characters (Usually the help desk at our hostel) and then showing it to the driver or other bus patrons who have all been very friendly and helpful. I now know how to say hello (Nihao) and thank you (xie xie). The language here is so tonally specific, though, that if I try to read the westernized version of a word to someone to try to explain where we are going, I do not pronouce it right and they do not understand (which is why we always ask someone to write it in Chinese for us). For example, we are staying at the Zhaolong hostel, and I tried to tell this to our taxi driver last night. I was essentially saying each letter, but the Chinese speak much more gutterally and swallow their "ong", and the emphasis is on the first syllable and it is almost yelled. So it sounds more like "SHA-loh". They sound very similar to my untrained ear, but worldly different to a local.

So, what else have we seen? We saw the Temple of Heaven, which has similar architecture to the Forbidden city, but is round.

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We went to the zoo to see the Giant Pandas. That was great, they are so fun to watch.

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And then yesterday, we took a trip to see the Great Wall! The Great Wall as we know it was built in the 3rd century BC by Emperor Qin Shi Huang by filling in the gaps between previously constructed sections of wall. It was built to prevent invasion from rival tribes. It endured periods of disrepair and reconstruction and regained significance and strength in the 14th century during the Ming dynasty. The wall presumably took millions of people to build, and many of these workers died during the construction. Of course, though a beautiful and magnificent feat of engineering, it did not serve its purpose and Genghis Khan's Mongolian army conquered much of China for a period of time, and established his capitol on what is now Beijing (Peking at the time). The length of wall currently stretches for thousands of miles, though is not continuous.

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Three hours on the bus to get to a slightly less touristy section of the wall called Jinshanling, where we entered the wall and hiked on it for four hours until the next section called Simatai, where our bus picked us up. This was a serious hike, extremely steep most of the time either climbing up or down, and much of the surface consisted of crumbled rock, not smooth surface.

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It was amazing, and rolled up and down the mountains as far as I could see. It seemed to go on forever, and we hiked 10km of it.

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The sun was strong, and I could not imagine doing it in summer, when most of the tourists go. Also, we were lucky in picking a day, as this week is a national holiday in China, celebrating the cultural revolution, and most of the tourists are in the cities for the first day (Oct 1st), so it was relatively uncrowded. We were, of course, exhausted afterwards, and slept soundly last night, thin/hard mattress or not!

Here are some pictures of a more locally patronized Hutong:
A market where we bought some fruit

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And some locals playing a game, right outside someone's residence

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Posted by Laur456 20:07 Archived in China Comments (1)

Me 'n Mao

Beijing

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View So it begins at 34°S & 151°E on Laur456's travel map.

Whelp, I'm in China! It was 11 hours on the plane from Sydney, but at least I had a direct flight. After arriving Wednesday night I braced myself for a long intensive rite of customs full of broken English and interrogation. I got through in about 10 minutes, and the lady BARELY glanced at my documents. That was easy. I waited around for Ellen as her flight got in a little later, had to fend off a few personal Taxi offers, and then we were on our way to our hostel. We arrived after midnight, and found Char already there waiting for us. Unfortunately Air Canada has lost Char's luggage, and we're hoping it arrives today, 2 days after arriving.

We awoke early on Thursday and began to wander around. Our hostel is right in the heart of the old city Hutong neigborhood. Hutong means something like "alley" and the streets around here are quite small, wind every which direction, and are filled with people, bicycles, food stalls, etc. I much prefer them to the big busy streets, of which Beijing appears to have no shortage. I had been warned about the pollution and smog here, though to be honest, it doesn't feel any worse than walking down Michigan Ave with all the buses going by. Not that it's clean, either, but I was expecting blackened sky 24 hours a day and having to wear a face mask to keep the soot away. So, either people exaggerate, I haven't seen the really bad part of the city, or this push to clean up before the Olympics is actually working. It's the smoking that bothers me more. EVERYBODY smokes. The ban has not quite reached China yet.

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We went to see the Forbidden City and surrouding sites as we are only a few blocks away. First, we waited in line to walk through Mao's Mausoleum. His body has been preserved (and is apparently kept in a giant refrigerator in the basement overnight) and on display everyday. The Chinese are extremely proud of their former Chairman, and there was a rather large line when we were there on a Thursday. They usher you through rather quickly, you can't bring anything in with you, and you cannot make noise while inside. I have a feeling that being a guard at this establishment is considered a pretty good gig. So, I was about 15 feet away from Mao. Embalming or not, he looks a little waxy.

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The Forbidden City is amazing, and a must see for anyone who visits. It was built in the early 15th century by the Emperor, who was considered a God by his subjects. The construction followed the laws of Fenq Shui and Ying/Yang (I may have butchered the spelling of those). Citizens were not allowed within, or even near, its walls. There are over 9,000 rooms in the city, and it is absolutely ginormous! We walked around for several hours and saw only a fraction of it. It's essentially a labyrinth, very easy to lose your sense of direction and get lost. But very peaceful and serene. Well, once you get past the entrance and first courtyard, anyway. The detailing and color in the City are phenomenal.

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As for culture shock, well, there is certainly some, though it's not too bad. There are other westerners around, though not too many. We are traveling on a budget, (translation: not paying for western luxuries) so you have to become accustomed to certain things, like squat toilets (AKA hole in the ground), no soap or toilet paper (hand sanitizer and bring your own), spitting in the streets (some of the women here can hawk their phlegm like you would not believe!), relaxed rules of the road and people and bicycles everywhere. At least they drive on the right-hand side of the road here. That's helpful.

We went to see the Beijing Opera last night, and that was fun. Lots of extravagant costumes and make up, and fun choreography and acrobatics. The music is very interesting. Instead of singing (or what I know as singing) it sounds like they are yelling or screaming in a very high-pitched range (men and women both), though not at all unpleasant. It's very rhythmic, and the "orchestra" is mostly percussion. It was put on in a very nice hotel, so of course we used the bathroom before leaving. NEVER give up the opportunity to use a nice bathroom when traveling in Asia. I've learned that lesson in less than 24 hours.

The food is great, so far, if you can avoid being horrendously overcharged. We've found our way to the back streets and more authentic restaurants. Some have menus, though if there are no pictures to point to, then you just have to gamble. Char was doing her best chicken dance today to try to communicate what we wanted to eat. Somehow, it worked. We stuffed ourselves for less than $1 each. How's that for budgeting.

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Posted by Laur456 01:05 Archived in China Comments (0)

Last Few Days in Sydney

Friday September 21 - Tuesday September 25, 2007

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View So it begins at 34°S & 151°E on Laur456's travel map.

Back to the comforts of home with Kylie and Tim (this is the good life, honestly, and I'm getting too used to it). We spent one day milling about Sydney and went to a local Rugby Union match, which was fun. Sydney dominated over the Gold Coast, of course.
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Monday morning, Ellen and I took a train ride west from Sydney out to Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains. We spent the afternoon hiking and saw the famous Three Sisters. Supposedly there are seven, but I don't know what happened to the other four. Maybe one stole the other's boyfriend and caused a family rift. No, really though, they are very signficant to the Aboriginal population. "The Aboriginal dream-time legend has it that three sisters, 'Meehni', 'Wimlah' and Gunnedoo' lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe. These beautiful young ladies had fallen in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe, yet tribal law forbade them to marry. The brothers were not happy to accept this law and so decided to use force to capture the three sisters causing a major tribal battle. As the lives of the three sisters were seriously in danger, a witchdoctor from the Katoomba tribe took it upon himself to turn the three sisters into stone to protect them from any harm. While he had intended to reverse the spell when the battle was over, the witchdoctor himself was killed. As only he could reverse the spell to return the ladies to their former beauty, the sisters remain in their magnificent rock formation as a reminder of this battle for generations to come." Bummer. Still don't know where the other four went... but they are each over 900 meters high.
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The hike took us over three hours total, and we didn't even do all of it, because my legs were jelly at that point. We did, however, descend the Giant Staircase, with 900 steps in it, basically straight down the side of the the Three Sisters. It was at this point that my legs became (and stayed) gelatinous.

Back in Sydney today (tuesday) and am taking the Schotts out to dinner as a thank you and farewell gesture. I owe them much and will miss them all terribly. I am extremely lucky to have such wonderful friends. I hope they will come back for a visit one day so I can extend the same hospitality that they have shown me.

Next stop: China! Goodbye comforts of home!

Posted by Laur456 23:17 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

Milford Sound

Wednesday September 19 - Friday September 21, 2007

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View So it begins at 34°S & 151°E on Laur456's travel map.

Wednesday morning we drove out to the coast to Milford Sound and took a boat cruise around the Sound and out to the Tasman Sea (the body of water between Australia and New Zealand). At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it was magnificent. Words cannot describe... here are some pictures:
The Sound (note the LARGE cruise boat and three kayaks in the picture to get an idea of the scale):
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A waterfall:
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Mitre Peak, at 1,692 meters, just over a mile high:
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We drove back to Queenstown that afternoon and then caught the Stray bus back to Christchurch on Thursday morning. We made a few stops along the way, one of which was Lake Pukaki. I've never seen such a blue lake before. In the distance you can see Mt. Cook. It's 3,754 meters high (13,316 feet) and the highest in the Southern Alps. Someone told me it was also Mt Doom from the Lord of the Rings, but I looked it up and it is not. Mt Doom is somewhere on the North Island. Darn. (picture to come, check back soon)

Since our flight back to Sydney did not leave until Friday afternoon, we went to check out the Christchurch museum and, of course, learned a few fun facts. Christchurch is one of five cities that are considered a launching site for Antarctica. New Zealand was, in fact, at one time part of the Antarctic continent, which is why you can find certain species of penguin here and not in Australia (or elsewhere for that matter). The country lies on the edge of the Indo-Australian and Pacific plates, which are moving towards each other, and have formed the NZ Alps range. Apparently, they are growing at a rate of about 0.5 inches per year (I think that's fast) and, if it wasn't for the high rate of erosion, would be higher than the Himalayas. I don't really know if that last part is true, I just heard it on a DVD playing while on one of our boat tours, but it sounds impressive, doesn't it?

New Zealand has several indigenous species of plant and animal, most famous being the Kiwi bird. I didn't see any wild Kiwis, but we found some stuffed ones at the museum. They are larger than I thought. IMG_3449.jpg

Here's a link to the rest of my photos: http://www.kodakgallery.com/ShareLandingSignin.jsp?Uc=8wl5x2t.6go9w58p&Uy=-82ag77&Upost_signin=Slideshow.jsp%3Fmode%3Dfromshare&Ux=0

Posted by Laur456 00:42 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

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