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John's Blog - China Trips

China 2008 #7 - Beijing (October 27)

October 27th

The worst part of any trip to the other side of the world is getting there and getting back. China, in particular, doesn't offer much flexibility in that regard. For the most part, no matter where you are going in China, you need to fly into and out of Beijing. There are some flights into Shanghai and you could start at Hong Kong, but those are even longer flights, with even more connections from SMF. Since I have no desire to put up with more than 20 hours of flight and airport time in one shot, I always plan to spend the last night and most of a day in Beijing, try to catch up with friends and/or just walk around.

This worked out well since the last time Cody was here (2007) the Forbidden City was undergoing serious renovation in preparation for the Olympics. We had walked through, but most of the major buildings were covered with scaffolding and tarps. Even though he had been here, he'd never really SEEN it. For my own part, this would be my forth time through... one year I just circumnavigated it on foot.

I doubt that the Forbidden City has ever looked better. Renovation had the place sparkling. In addition to a paint job, and the shining and fixing of roof tiles, many of the buildings have had gold leaf re-applied to intricate patterns on the side eaves. There was so much gold that sometimes you couldn't look at it directly due to the reflection. Wait... reflection of what? Today was the single best day I had ever seen in Beijing. The sky was... BLUE?!? It may have been the first time I'd ever seen that here. All of Beijing was bathed in unfiltered, glorious sunlight.

Even though I've done the whole photo thing in the FC three times now, I couldn't resist snapping a few under such good conditions. You'll have to look at the photo comments from previous years if you want to know exactly what you're looking at though.

After Forbidden City, we taxied up to Yonghegong Lama Temple (Lama Temples are Tibetan Buddhist). I think this was my third trip here, Cody's first. Yonghegong is a beautiful place to visit with some impressive buildings, buddhas and history. It's usually overlooked by western tourists, but not by Buddhists worshippers and monks. It's a very peacefull stop sandwiched in a very busy section of city.

After the Lama Temple we returned to our hostel, Kelly's Courthouse, another converted hutong residence. My friend Jinghong met us there later to chat. Jinghong lived in Hangzhou last year but has since moved to Beijing to work. She had already eaten but she walked us to a hotpot place and helped us order, then went to visit another friend in the hutongs. By the time we had finished she had returned. Then she walked us to a Christian bookstore in the Beijing hutongs... a little unusual. She left us after that but Cody and I continued walking the hutings in the dark for a while, seeing what we could.

The next day we both left for home.

All The Photos from China 2008

China 2008 #6 - Xian (October 24 - 26)

October 24th and 25th

We spent most of the 24th getting to Xian. Almost as soon as we made it to town, we were on foot headed to the City Wall. We estimated that walking there from the Square Youth Hostel would be a quick hike. Wrong. We did make it, sometime after dark, and managed to see a lot of interesting stuff on the way.

I'd been to Xian in 2003 but it was rushed as there's quite a lot to see in Xian. Xian has a long and distinguished history as the first Chinese Capitol city and home to some of China's signature attractions (like the Terracotta Warriors). In 2003, it seemed like a pretty beat up, dusty and depressing city. It's still dusty (smoggy) but they have been building like mad in Xian since then. New office buildings and apartments have popped up everywhere. The average age of residents seems to be on the youngish side too, probably due to multiple colleges located in the city.

Traffic in the downtown area might be the worst I've seen in China. There is a constant crush of buses and taxis moving in and out of the central city, the area enclosed by the city wall. Quite the opposite of towns like Lijiang, Dali, & Pingyao... Xian decided to make its walled area the major commercial section of the city. There are only so many ways to get inside the City Wall (limited gates and single lanes each way), so... bam... everyone has to use the same entrances. It's a great place to see buses packed with probably three times their legal capacity, and then more buses lined up behind that one as far as the eye can see. At the wrong time, it's a nightmare to get in and out.

We walked all the way to the Bell Tower that night, arriving starved and parched from the dust and traffic exhaust. The Bell Tower is the center of the city, with major roads meeting for a big huge traffic circle (I hate those things). The only way to get to the Bell Tower is to walk underground. There are some great views from there at night... like the McDonalds on every corner, the KFC on every other corner, and a couple Haagen-Dazs stores scattered about.

On the 25th, we took a small organized tour to see some local, yet out of the way, attractions. Primarily, the Terracotta Warriors. This is a fairly efficient way to do things as the warriors are a good deal out of the city and you can learn a lot of unrelated information from English speaking Chinese guides.

The first stop today was the Banpo Museum, an archaeological site first discovered in 1953. It contains the remains of several well organized Neolithic settlements dating from approximately 4500 BC. The entire settlement was roughly sixty square kilometers and surrounded by a ditch, probably a defensive moat. The museum highlights some of the best preserved residences, a portion of the moat, and some recovered burial sites. Interesting stuff.

The second stop was the worst example of a 'manufactured tourist attraction' that I've seen in China.... The Quin Tomb. From my previous visit to Xian, and multiple Discovery Channel shows, I know that the tomb of the first emperor, Quin, has never been opened. I also know where it is, a squat wooded hill (eroded pyramid) that's roughly a mile from the Terracotta Warriors. I was curious to see what the hell was going on with this "Tomb". Turned out that it was nowhere near the real tomb but merely a dressed up office building in an unremarkable section of town. The bulk of the attraction is one room with four walls decked out like an oriental version of the "Small World" ride at Disneyland. The middle of the room has been lowered and they've slapped down a phony casket and wax corpse of Quin, sitting atop a relief model of China, to serve as the pièce de résistance of this bad opium trip. The place was ABSOLUTELY PACKED with Chinese tourists. It probably took 30 minutes just to shuffle in, walk the walls, and get the hell out.

Finally, we made it to the Terracotta Warriors. Well worth visiting twice, but if I recall correctly, in 2003 it was a liesurely stroll with plenty of photo opportunities throughout the humongous main hangar of Pit One. On this visit, we had to shuffle through it all, often pushed against the walls. Plenty of notes for this from the 2003 trip.

Returning to the Square Youth Hostel afterward was an unbearably long and contentious trip through Xian city traffic. By the time we returned it was dark and we decided to grab dinner at a place directly behind the hostel. The food ended up being great and, as a bonus, there was a table full of Chinese guys near us trying very hard to drink each other under the table. Good food and good entertainment!

October 26th

First item on the agenda today was visiting the Big Goose Pagoda. The Big Goose Pagoda was immediately across the street from the hostel. In fact, our hostel is one of the areas I remember being part of a dusty parking lot for tourist buses in 2003. Now the entire area is developed with new office buildings. The Big Goose Pagoda itself was originally built in 652, although the structure was rebuilt in 704 and its exterior brick facade renovated during the Ming Dynasty.

After Big Goose Pagoda, we went back to the City Wall. Xian is one of only three cities that still have their complete city wall (Pingyao and Nanjing being the other two). Most city walls were destroyed either during the warfare of the early 1900's or by command of Mao after the Communists came to power. Xian's wall is well maintained and they allow you to ride bikes around the entire 17km route... so we did. Without stopping, it would have taken about 45 minutes to ride the whole thing.

After the round trip of the City Wall we spent roughly an hour wandering streets in the SE section of the central city, looking for Wolong Temple. Even though we asked a half-dozen or so Chinese people for directions, I don't think we ever found it. Eventually we gave up and grabbed a taxi for the NW section of the central city, portions of which are often referred to as the Muslim Quarter.

The Muslim Quarter is one of the most interesting places to wander in Xian, with many ethnic foods and other interesting merchandise available. Within the Muslim Quarter is also the Great Mosque, first built in 685-762. It is an active center of worship for the city's Muslim and Hui minority. Even though it's well used, and a popular stop for wandering westerners, it's clear that few resources have been spent restoring the place. It looks very much in original condition. Also, unlike most tourist stops, very few Chinese tourists were here, mostly westerners and people using the Mosque (we were there during a call to prayer).Unlike most mosques, the Great Mosque of Xian is completely Chinese in its construction and architectural style, except for some Arabic lettering and decorations. It has no domes or traditional-style minarets.

At the south edge of the Muslim Quarter, and across the street from the Bell Tower, is the Drum Tower. We checked that out before deciding to get out of the central city, ahead of the evening traffic rush.

Our final activity in Xian was the "biggest water show in the world" (according to the Chinese). There is a roughly two football field long, and 100 feet wide, section of plaza just north of, and adjacent to, the Big Goose Pagoda that is riddled with water spouts and lights. During the day you can walk over it, but twice a night it turns into an impressive water show accompanied by classical music. Adding to the spectacle of the show itself, is that every 100 feet or so is a roughy 15 foot wide walkway where spectators can stand. This seems to work out pretty well, but in at least one case a particulalry strong waterjet experienced an entertaining drift pattern when it reached it's peak, shut off, and let the wind guide it back down. It quite rapidly cleared out half the walkway next to Cody and I and sent probably 50 people running for shelter. For the rest of the show we had to keep checking behind us to make sure we weren't next.

Tomorrow, back to Beijing.

All The Photos from China 2008

China 2008 #5 - Dali (October 22 - 23)

October 22nd and 23rd

The first couple of days in Dali we frequented a Café du Jack. It was comfortable, the food & service was good, and it had a great selection of beers. They also posted some local tours that they vouched for. On the 22nd we tried one of these out, assuming we were hiring a driver to see some local villages.

This began with a trip to a traditional minority residence in a nearby village. The residence had been all decked out to impress tourists, as efficiently as the Chinese know how. This, of course, meant that there were probably 50 people on staff dressed in minority ‘uniforms’ and herding people through as fast as possible. There was a little minority dance show, minority crafts and, naturally, stores to buy mass-produced minority knick-knacks. Not exactly the sort of thing we wanted to see so we cut it as short as possible.

The next stop was on Erhai Lake where some fishermen were doing their thing. We were there for some Cormorant fishing, not something we were looking forward to all that much, but we wanted to keep things simple by not changing the driver’s route. Cody and Gopsdragon had seen some Cormorant fishing last year in Yangshuo.

Fortunately, this was much different than Yangshuo. We dropped into an old rust-bucket of a fishing boat and took a few turns on Erhai Lake to watch a whole crew of Cormorants do their thing… which was to dive down, catch fish, bring them back up to the boat and then spit them out (thanks to a bamboo tie around their neck that kept them from swallowing).

That made us one-for-one on the day, but then the driver inexplicably turned back to Dali. We questioned him but the language barrier kept us from impressing on him that there was a long way to go. By 11am we were back in Dali, venting at the guy who arranged the driver, and getting most of our cash back.

That left us with a late start to salvage the day. We decided to head up Cangshan Mountain by the fastest means possible and then walk back down, or whatever, because we really had no idea what the lay of the land was.

It took roughly an hour and a half to find a chairlift and use it to get up the mountain. Once there, we questioned a merchant in broken English for some directions and decided to walk across the mountain range a bit to another cable car that would take us down to where we could get a taxi back. It was about 2pm and something near 12 kilometers to this cable car that probably closed around five or six.

Fortunately, it really doesn’t take that long to walk 12 kilometers. The views and weather were terrific and the path was level for most of the way. We even took a little side trip further up the mountain to Seven Dragon Maiden Pools, where I almost fell over a small waterfall.

At Seven Dragon Maiden Pools the water channels run randomly downhill depending on the season, making all the rocks very smooth. There are also quite a few places where one needs to hop across the stream. I tried jumping across one spot to another pathway which didn’t look that steep, but once there I was in a jam. I went horizontal immediately but the rocks were too slippery to hold onto, and I was gradually sliding towards a waterfall and into a pool. After failing to get any sort of traction, I made a hail-mary jump back to the other side. Half of me made it, the rest went into the stream… it was enough though to keep me from going over the waterfall.

Also on the path across the mountains, we kept hearing strange noises in the trees. After being convinced it wasn't some huge bird and investigating some more we found guys 50-75 feet up the trees harvesting pine cones. Pine cone nuts are a staple around here, and you can find them for sale in bulk at the markets.

Something to be cautious of around Dali… Our hostel was not in old town but across the street from it. To get to old town you’d walk a block down a new sidewalk, with trees to each side, cross the brand new eight lane highway (that rarely merited more than one lane in either direction)… and there you were… a couple blocks from any of more than a dozen bars and restaurants.

This night, around 10pm, I left the hostel to meet Cody for some drinks. No problem. We returned down the same route about midnight. It’s pretty quiet in Dali between 10pm and midnight, but there is one type of citizen that keeps busy then and that is the BIG FUCKING GREEN AND BLACK STRIPED SPIDERS!!! We’d seen these menaces all over the place but… so far… nowhere near the hostel. Anyhow, sometime between 10pm and midnight one of these terrors spun a web right across our sidewalk and I walked right into it. Holy crap! I had half my clothes off before Cody spotted that thing on the sidewalk. *shudder*

The next day, we did things right and hired a driver through the Jade Emu Hostel. Dave, the Emu manager, went over the details of where we wanted to go with the driver. Our plan was to circumnavigate Lake Erhai and check out as many villages as we could on the way.

This was completely doable but for one obstacle, Ewan, who was possibly my polar opposite. We allowed ourselves to be roped into sharing the costs of the driver with him, and he seemed to agree on the agenda, but I knew there were going to be issues. Ewan was a classic lightweight, 50ish year-old free loading Australian pot-smoking pensioner “musician” who was traveling China to wife-shop, injured himself and had been ‘stuck’ in Dali for weeks. The moment we were setting out he started in... instead of what we agreed on he wanted to go to some hot springs that were two hours out of the way so he could... soak his leg... then he didn't want to walk through villages, he wanted to see nature... then he complained about getting in and out of the van... then he complained about... you name it. Oy! He eventually settled down when he realized we were ignoring him and doing what we wanted anyway.

Over the rest of the day we successfully visited 4-5 villages and watched life go on as it probably always does around Dali with markets, fisherman, farmers and the like. I don’t recall seeing any other westerners once we left Dali proper. Most of the southeastern side of the lake was under construction, and pretty rough driving, but we persevered and made it back to Dali around 7ish.

We ate dinner at the Tibetan Lodge Restaurant on the 23rd.

Tomorrow, off for Xian.

All The Photos from China 2008

China 2008 #4 - Dali (October 20 - 21)

October 20th and 21st

On the 20th we were headed to Dali, in China’s Yunnan Province. Dali is a 40 minute flight from Kunming, and a roughly eight hour bus ride from Lijiang, both of which I visited in 2006. Yunnan is one of China’s most heavily minority populated provinces, and has significant representation from almost 30 different minority groups.

As such, it has a very diverse and complicated history. Dali itself is the ancient capital of both the Bai kingdom Nanzhao, which flourished in the area during the 8th and 9th centuries, and the Kingdom of Dali, which reigned from 937-1253. Dali was also the center of the Panthay Rebellion from 1856-1863.

Dali has an old town which used to be encompassed within city walls, but now only the gates remain. There is also a new town to the south, called Xiaguan. Both are sandwiched between the Cangshan Mountains and Erhai Lake, second largest highland lake in China (at 2000m above sea level).

It’s an incredibly scenic area and a popular spot for western tourists as it has many English speaking hostels, restaurants and other services.

On our first full day in Dali (the 21 st), we spent half the day just walking around to get the lay of the old town. Fortunately for us it was market day, and the market was roughly a block from our room at the Jade Emu Hostel, so we took a turn through there before even getting to the old town. The interesting activities going on there: (1) the pepper rush, there were probably a dozen stands stacked feet deep in peppers and each one had a dozen people fighting over and stuffing big plastic bags with peppers, (2) sidewalk dentists, (2) bong merchants.

One interesting thing about Dali, and other places in Yunnan, is that you will see a lot of old minority guys smoking bongs. Each area in Yunnan seems to have a special tobacco. In Dali, it’s the yellowish stuff you can see in the pictures with the bongs. In Dali, however, it’s not all that hard to get the sort of product Americans are more used to using in bongs. Apparently there is some leeway accorded to local ethnic minorities who… partake and/or distribute.

In fact, while walking through the streets of Dali you will be frequently approached by old ladies asking “smoke the ganja?” It’s entertaining, and while it is the real thing, word is that it’s on the weak side. However, if you hit some of the local establishments at night you would not be hard pressed to score some good stuff and/or see it being used. More could be said, but I’ll leave it at that.

After making our way to all the old city gates and everything in between, we made our way to Dali’s most obvious historic site, the Three Pagodas. The Three Pagodas have a unique design among Chinese pagodas and have also been one of China’s most resilient landmarks. Originally built around 900 A.D. they have survived numerous natural calamities. Most recently, in 1925 there was an earthquake where only one in one hundred buildings in Dali survived, but the Three Pagodas were undamaged. They do lean a bit though…

In the same area as the Pagodas (and covered by the same admission fee) is the Chongsheng Monastery. In fact, the Monastery and the main Pagoda form a straight-line axis radiating from the Erhai Lake. Chongsheng Monastery was originally built at the same time as the central Pagoda but has proved much less resistant of earthquakes and fires. The current monastery dates from 2005.

The pagoda/monastery grounds are quite impressive and are a decent cardio workout. I’d guess it’s a good couple mile roundtrip from the pagodas through the monastery grounds (all uphill) to the top temple. The view is worth it though. We barely made it back before the area closed. In fact, they sent someone after us to collect our little English tour recording machines, in case we didn’t make it.

Bonus... Arhat Hall in the Chongsheng Monastery. Dali makes the fourth 500 Arhat Hall I’ve been to (Chengdu, Hangzhou, Beijing, Dali). The sign in front of the Beijing Hall says there are only four total, but I think this is wrong because as far as I know there is one in Anhui & Chongqing too.

In the evening, we had another great Chinese dinner. We ate especially well on this whole trip. We just seemed to pick the right places and/or have good help ordering every time. Great stuff.

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All The Photos from China 2008

China 2008 #3 - Guangzhou (October 18 - 19)

October 18th

Today we rode bikes like mad all over the Liwan district north of the Pearl River.

First we boarded the ferry for a quick ride to the north side of the Pearl River, along with all the fishermen and such. The ferry dropped us at the fish market from which it was only a short bike ride to Shamian Island. Shamian Island was originally a concession granted to France and the United Kingdom by the Qing Dynasty government in the 19th century. More recently it's become the place to go for Chinese couples to get married and Western couples to seek adoption of Chinese babies, most of whom are orphaned and female. While bicycling we saw many western couples walking babies in strollers along with a Chinese matchmaker. Many places on the island offer stroller rentals. The other interesting thing about Shamian is the mostly old European architecture. It’s a very pleasant place to ride bikes.

While riding through central Shamian, I was stopped for an interview by a group of Chinese college students who asked what I thought of China and Guangzhou. Chinese in Guangzhou seem even friendlier than most places. The interview highlighted a difference noted many times in Guangzhou. Instead of asking “How do you like China?”, folks in Guangzhou ask “How do you like Guangzhou?”. They enjoy a distinct & proud identity here.

Guangzhou is the first city the Chinese designated as open to foreign trade, even before the Opium Wars. There has been a significant foreign presence here longer than anyplace else in China. It’s one of the most western influenced and liberal of big cities in China. They even respect a line here… mostly. At the airport, for example, they don’t mass at every boarding call... they actually line up… a rare phenomenon over here.

After Shamian we biked east along the Pearl River for a bit, then north on Renmin Road to a couple of the huge local parks in the area. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us in the parks on bikes but the ride up and back (on the next street over) was very interesting... miles and miles of solid people eating, shopping, working, grabbing the bus, etc… like a humongous ant hill that’s just been kicked. New York City does not even come close.

After 6-8 hours of bike riding in the sweltering Guangzhou weather we returned to the hostel to freshen up before heading out for a night cruise on the Pearl River, with LinJuan and Kelli in tow. Each side of the Pearl River is lined with skyscrapers, apartment buildings and other structures. In the evening, a good many of these are lit up in neon making for an interesting 1.5 hour boat ride. Later, we found an excellent Chinese restaurant that had an air conditioner on the third floor which they gladly placed the waiguoren in front of.

Later that night, Cody and I visited three of the night clubs on Beitan Bar Street (the same street where the hostel was located, right along the river).

The first club had a Philippine Band playing (just like the bar in Hangzhou last year) and at almost every table there patrons were playing dice. As the evening wore on, a few of the guys there started getting pretty hammered, dancing with each other and attempting to drag us into it, so we split before it got out of hand.

The second club had successive live acts on a central stage, including a female duet and a solo male singer. There were roughly a dozen girls working behind a square bar, whose job was not just to serve beers but to play dice with customers.

Using the bathroom there was an interesting experience. As I walked in to the black tiled facilities, a guy was projectile vomiting into the stand-up urinals on one wall. I used the opposite wall to afford him a little privacy. As soon as I started taking care of my business, some guy crept up behind me, slapped a warm towel across the back of my neck and gave me quick chiropractic adjustment... ummm... thanks... I guess. Would have made a good picture.

When it was Cody’s turn, and I was left alone at the bar, another Chinese guy challenged me to a beer chugging contest. Please… you’re kidding, right… needless to say I won. He ended up treating us to beers for the next hour. Displays of drinking prowess (or lack thereof) are fairly common at Chinese dinners and male get-togethers but there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that they are not as well equipped for it as Westerners.

This bar was a pretty good time, but as the guy who tested my drinking ability became increasingly drunk he also became a little too familiar… as in touching a lot. Before you draw the wrong conclusion, understand that men touching other men are not uncommon in China. You will often see male friends walking down the street with an arm draped around the shoulder, and at clubs they will not let the lack of female representation (sausage-fest) keep them from having a good time. They will form male dance circles, just like the gals in America, and do their thing.

It’s totally NOT gay. Let me offer a few observations, and understand that I’m making a rather broad generalization; 1) Although things are changing a lot in China, especially in the big cities, traditionally, good girls didn’t go to bars and clubs without male accompaniment. 2) There’s 30-40 million more single men in china than women and, with the increased upward mobility, Chinese women these days are not always in a hurry to settle down. 3) Chinese culture places an extremely high value on male friendships and loyalty. In fact, one of the most cherished of Chinese classics (Three Kingdoms) is about three warriors who swear brotherhood with each other, value that relationship greater than even their immediate family, and go on to found a new dynasty. 4) They don’t have the homosexual stereotype pounded into them relentlessly by western religious interests and television shows.

Cultural difference or not, and even though his girlfriend was also there, it’s still a little creepy to this big white guy. A venue change was in order.

The third club had a live singer but was so damn loud we left after the first beer and our ears were ringing like we had just been at an AC/DC concert for two hours.

October 19th

The idea today was to go into the places we drove by yesterday, but wouldn’t allow bikes, and that we’d taxi from place to place because it was so god-awful steamy.

The first stop was the Ancestral Temple of the Chen Family, or Chen Clan Academy. This is a very well preserved 19th century residence of a wealthy family. Its focus now is to display local crafts like ivory carving, embroidery, sculpture, colored glass & furniture making.

The second stop was the Nanyue Royal Tomb Museum. Nanyue was an ancient kingdom that consisted of parts of the modern Chinese provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan and much of modern northern Vietnam. The kingdom was established by the Han Chinese general Zhao Tuo around 200 BC. Its capitol was Panyu, in today’s Guangzhou. In June 1983, The tomb of Zhao Mo, the second king, was found here along with artifacts, etc, which are on display in the current museum.

After that we went to Yuexie Park to see the Statue of Five Rams, the symbol of Guangzhou. As such, you’d think it would be pretty easy to find... but you’d be wrong. We tramped around the hills for at least an hour following vague signs that allegedly pointed to the Statue but ended up taking us nowhere.

At the top of the hills, after developing a nice sweaty sheen from head to toes, we stumbled into the Guangzhou Municipal Museum which was housed in the Zhenhai Tower, a Ming Dynasty military structure situated at the peak of the old city walls. A great view and decent museum of city history.... but mainly we were hoping to cool off before marching on again. On the way down from the museum we finally found the Five Rams Statue, but didn't really give a damn by that time.

On our way back to the hostel from the Statue, we walked through blocks full of street peddlers selling everything you could think of.

In the evening, we met LinJuan at Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street for some bright lights, people watching and deep fried scorpion. It’s no surprise that western companies/governments are willing to sell their souls to do business here when you come to a place like Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street and see 2-3 level McDonalds on all four corners of the main square.

Tomorrow… off to Dali.

All The Photos from China 2008

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