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John's Blog

Japan 2008: Kyoto (June 18)

Three planes and a shuttle ride later... Man, it was tough getting plane tickets to come to Kyoto. First off, Kyoto doesn't have an airport. How many cities of 1.5 million people don't have an airport? Anyhow, Osaka has two. So... Sacramento to Los Angeles to Tokyo to Osaka and then a 1+ hour shuttle to Kyoto. Secondly, I couldn't find two roundtrips for less than $2000 a person. That wasn't going to happen. However, I could find two roundtrips and a hotel for $1600 a person. I don't know how that works, but it's good enough for me.

The Hotel Monterey Kyoto is a pretty snazzy hotel too, at least all the public areas. There's even a full reproduction of a Christian Chapel inside for weddings. Apparently, it's all the rage for Japanese to get married in a church, whether they are Christian or not. The rooms were also very nice and very clean, but very small. I think that's just how it goes here.

Kyoto became the Imperial Capitol in 794. It remained the capital until the transfer of the government to Edo (Tokyo) in 1868, at the time of the Imperial Restoration. Some believe that it is still a legal capital and was for a short time known as Saikyo meaning "Western Capital" (Tokyo means "Eastern Capitol"). It was also one major city that was purposely left off the bombing list during World War II, due to it's historical legacy. Thanks to that, the bulk of it's older buildings and historical structures remain intact.

We didn't get out and about until the next day, Wednesday the 17th. For that day, we planned to take the infamous Johnnie Hillwalker walking tour of Kyoto. Johnnie, real name Hajime Hirooka, has been leading tours of Kyoto for 30 years. Three days a week, nine months out of the year, rain or shine, Johnnie meets people near the train station and takes them on a five hour walk from central Kyoto to the Eastern edge of town.

First thing we did though was get there a little early to check out Kyoto's huge and modern JR Train & Bus station. I have no idea how many floors this thing has but there's at least six up and four down, and anything not related to the trains and buses is slammed with shopping and restaurants. The shopping center is called The Cube. After familiarizing ourselves with train routes and such (so we knew what to do the next two days), we went to meet Johnnie.

Johnnie's first stop was Higashi-Honganji Temple. H-H was originally built on orders of shogun Tokugawa leyasu in 1602. The main building here is one of the largest wooden structures in the world. Unfortunately it is undergoing repairs, as it was starting to collapse under its own weight. Currently, it is completely covered by a second building being used to help in the repair process and is closed to the public. There was another hall there being used as a temple in the meantime (Amida Hall).

Johnnie spent a lot of time here describing the main sect of Japanese Buddhism and comparing it to Buddhism in other countries. As you may know, Buddhism started in India but then moved to China and Korea, and then to Japan. Along the way, it was changed rather significantly by each, and affected by other beliefs. Chinese and Japanese Buddhism are much different, as are the temples. Chinese temples always seem to be filled with tons of things & relics and are really obvious, whereas Japanese temples are usually austere and designed to fit in with or enhance natural surroundings. You could walk right by a some Japanese Buddhist Temples and not notice them. Many of them include elaborate gardens and all of them are painfully well kept.

In Japan, the main path of Buddhism is Amidist. Amidists' main concern with Buddhism relates to death and the afterlife. Johnnie would say that Amida (the Buddha they venerate most) does not care about you until you die. Buddhist priests are mostly occupied with conducting services on the anniversary of family deaths. This is often done in the home, and not at a temple, so Japanese Temples are usually pretty quiet places.

However, most Japanese (in Japan) have two religions. They also practice Shintoism, a much older animist religion that recognizes spirits of all sorts as having sway over areas of life. For funerals you'd go to the Buddhist Temple, for weddings & asking favors you'd go to a Shinto Shrine. At least, that was Johnnie's take on it.

After that we walked through several home businesses. Kyoto's special stature is enhanced by holding near monopolies on certain hand crafts, including fans. These items are not made by major factories but by entire neighborhoods of private family residences, each home specializing in a certain part of the process (painting the fan, assembling the fan, making the sticks, whatever). Many families can point to how many generations have been involved in their specific part of the process.

We visited a couple Shinto shrines, but I'll get more into that in Saturday's part of the trip. We saw the biggest cast-iron bell in japan. We saw the original Nintendo Building, used back when all they did was make playing cards. We visited a candy maker and a baker.

We also visited a Buddhist cemetery. Cremation is mandatory in Japan, and I believe that for the most part they use family plots, above ground. The remains are slid into the bottom of fairly simple three level concrete graves. Three elements you will almost always see on the graves are a place to put water, a place to burn incense, and a place to put plants. You will also see wood staves with writing that commemorates the visit of a family member or of an annual ceremony to recognize ancestors.

After Johnnie dropped us off in Eastern Kyoto, we went to Kiyomizu Temple, established in 778. A UNESCO World heritage sight, the Kiyomizu Temple has beautiful grounds and an awesome view of Kyoto city. From here you can get a good perspective of Kyoto's size and how it is surrounded on all three sides by hills. It is one of the must sees in Kyoto, and the walk up is very entertaining, lined with interesting knick-knack stores.

We walked around a bit more after that but we were pretty tuckered out thanks to the 99% humidity (rainy season in Japan). We went back to the hotel, cleaned up and went to dinner at a place close to the Hotel. It wasn't a particularly special place, but the food was decent and the help was friendly.

More to come...

All The Photos from Japan 2008

Bressler.org Conversation Thread

China 2007 #7 - Yangshuo (October 23-26)

On the third day in Yangshuo we hit the bikes again, cruising through random villages and farming areas. Lots of stuff growing out here... rice, sweet potatoes, chestnuts, taro root, sesame seeds, chili peppers, mint, mandarin oranges, pomelo, bamboo (for food and construction), tea, eggplant, and more. Gops brought along and lit of a string of 1000 firecrackers in a pleasant little valley and immediately afterward caught a flat and had his handlebars come loose... how's that for karma? Fortunately, there was a small village less than a kilometer away and in this area it's all too easy to find someone to repair a flat as bikes are the number one mode of transportation.

We walked the last kilometer into the village and had some lunch along the river while we waited for the tire to be fixed. It almost seemed to planned, as if the flat tire was a conspiracy. In fact, after the fireworks, we ran into some gal on a bike who started riding alongside us and talking to Marcel, then GOPS had his flat, then this gal ends up being the owner of the place we ended up having lunch. Coincidence? Don't ask Marcel... cause he's not talking. Once we sat down for lunch she tried hard to convince us to try the snake... an expensive delicacy in the area, but much cheaper here than in Yangshuo where it could easily run you $30 US. Whatever we ordered they'd come back with, "Pork & Snake?", "No", "Beef & Snake?", "No", etc. Finally we managed to settle on duck, bamboo and beers... no snake. Pictured here is the duck... before, during and after lunch preparation. There's no such thing as fast food in this neck of the woods, you order it, they kill it, and serve it whole. BTW, the duck was excellent!!

By this time in the trip Cody was getting progressively sick (by the last day of the trip he could hardly talk) and Marcel was trying to convince him to get an oil rub. He insisted it would make him feel a lot better. They don't take a lot of medicine out here, mainly using herbal or other natural remedies. He was so insistent that he finally grabbed a bowl and some oil out of the kitchen and just started giving Cody one himself, to Cody's chagrin. The marks from an oil rub last several days, by the way. Cody had some great tread marks leftover... and I don't think he felt that much better as a result.

We also dropped in on the local school while we were here too. Didn't look like there was much going on except for a few kids hanging out by the entrance... like this little gal. We biked around a little bit more after that and then headed back into town to play pool for a couple hours before dinner..

Earlier I had asked Lin Juan to pick out a good local place for us to eat that night... something spicy... someplace outside of the tourist area. First thing she asked is if I liked dog... eh, no thanks, not now, not ever. Apparently my request got back to the hotel manager, Frances, who offered to make some dishes for us that were local in her home province... Sichuan. While I suspect this had something to do with keeping our money at the Morning Sun, I have to admit it was the best and spiciest meal we had on the trip and it was only around $20 for the three of us, including beers.

After dinner GOPS and Cody went Cormorant fishing (a night activity). Cormorant fishing is a traditional occupation in these parts where the Cormorant dives underwater, catches the fish, and brings it back up to the fisherman/trainer. Before the Cormorant dives the fisherman ties a string around its neck so that it can't swallow the fish (probably not something you'd get away with in the U.S.). While this used to be a widespread practice, it's a dieing one now. The main thing keeping these guys in business these days is tourism... giving demonstrations, letting folks take pictures with the birds, etc. I decided not to go and caught up on some writing instead, but there are some pictures from their fishing trip in the gallery.

By the last day in Yangshuo we were tired, bodies wracked with various aches, and congested (Cody was speaking in whispers). It was our intention to just hang loose, drink and play pool... but Marcel had other plans. Don't get me wrong, Marcel is an awesome guide. If I went back, I'd hire him again without question. In fact, as I alluded to in the Ping Yao journal, Marcel went way beyond the call of duty for reasons that fall outside the scope of this account. I told him as much on our last night and hit him up with a sizable 'tip' because I thought he had more than earned it. However, with regard to today's trip, we suffered from that often unreconcileable cultural difference where Westerners always want to know what the 'bottom line' is and Chinese prefer to focus on the path taken to get there. So... the next step on the path is usually all the information you'll receive unless you're painfully direct.

Before that adventure though, I woke up at my usual early hour to do my thing (coffee & email) before Gops and Cody woke up. After a bit of that I ran into Lin Juan ("LJ") in the lobby. When we first made it to the Morning Sun, I thought LJ was the manager... she just seemed like she was running the show. Turned out she was just one of the staff, a 20 year old girl who didn't finish high school, but instead took a year of "English College", and quickly moved to full-time employment. She no longer attends classes, but whenever she has free time, you'll catch her studying from an English textbook. English skills are often a key requirement for Chinese women to find reasonable employment. LJ's oral english is very good and she is as smart as they come. Up to the time I left Yangshuo, she'd never been outside the area but had given Morning Sun notice that she was quitting in ten days. She had no other job lined up but big plans to go... somewhere else. Note that with most of these types of jobs, in rural areas, there is no 9-5 and then going home. Most of the gals that work at the Morning Sun, also live at the Morning Sun. They wake up, they're at work. In LJ's case, and I don't want to give an exact number, she made less than $100 U.S. a month. She had mentioned that she needed to come up with an English resume and cover letter, so I helped her with that as I've done for a couple of Chinese friends. Despite the odds, I have a lot of confidence that she'll do well.

On this morning, she was stuck with babysitting Frances's little girl for a couple of hours, and planned to take her to Yangshuo Park... a mixed bag for LJ as she's part of a rapidly growing segment of Chinese women who have no interest in getting married, having kids, and thereby being tied down with the traditional role of a woman in China... but it was a break from the hotel. She asked if I wanted to come along, so I did. The Yangshuo park was the usual scene for a Chinese park, people playing cards or mahjong, sword dancing, tai chi, calisthenics and what have you. There were also little amusement park rides for kids which is where we spent most of our time, watching Frances's kid bounce around from ride to ride.

A couple of interesting things came up in our conversation that I would note. First off, when LJ was in the school it was mandatory for all students to run two laps around the park and climb Xilang hill every morning... imagine doing that in our schools... so much for that whole overweight thing. :p Also, each summer (when it's around 100 degrees and 80% humidity), all students had to take part in day long mandatory "military training" where they ran laps around the park and rode bikes to the nearby village of Xingping and back.

Once back to the Hotel, I found Marcel, Gops and Cody ready to go. After vigorous questioning, it seemed that Marcel was guaranteeing us a fairly pain free bus ride out to a place called the 'stone village' where they didn't use mortar. We thought we had him pinned down... quite the opposite. There was a quick trip to a village.... then a jarring 30 minute trip up a rock path on a three-wheeled motorcycle with passenger cart installed (we were caked with sweat and dust just from this part of the trip)... another village.... then an hour hike up a steep hill... then another hike around some villages... then a hike almost all the way back down to the first village (the cart broke down on the other side). This would have been fine if we were prepared but, based on our morning Q&A, Cody and Gops were both wearing long pants and Cody was wearing a long sleeve rugby shirt. Once enroute we kept asking 'how much farther', and Marcel would just keep saying 'almost there'. Haha... laughs on us... but it was still worthwhile.

The village at the top was hidden between a couple of small mountains. It once served as a training and hiding place for the army in the early 1900's. There were four passes in & out of the area, each guarded by a stone gate. Back in the day, going through these heavily guarded gates was the only way in or out of the valley. It felt like something out of LOTR. Currently there was some kind of road in, although it was definitely not something I'd want to travel daily.

At the top, we stopped for some refreshment. Some locals hooked us up with fresh Pomelo. After one of them played a little joke on Gops, we found that they were bewing their own rice wine up here (see the old sprite bottle on the ground) which is pretty much pure alcohol (like everclear) flavored with mint, pomelo or whatever else they had on hand. Even though it was for their own use, Gops decided to bargain for some of their stash to use later that night. It tasted pretty good and we were really getting tired of Chinese beer.

As I mentioned, our transportation went bust on the way down, so we hoofed it most of the way back to the bus stop and then made it back to Yangshuo around 3PM. Just in time to start drinking the shine and playing some pool.

Our final activity in Yangshuo was to show up at an 'English Corner'. In many of the major cities through China, you can find one or more of these every week, where dozens of folks will get together on a regular basis to stand around and talk English with whatever native speakers they can find (teachers, exchange students, and whatever tourists get dragged in). I'd been to one of these in Kunming before. In this case, one of Yangshuo's local English colleges was sponsoring it and since Yangshuo was not all that big of a city and probably didn't have any exchange students, they worked extra hard at recruiting tourists... by offering free beer. Worked for us. So we all went, were surrounded by students and allowed ourselves to be pelted with questions for an hour.

The next morning, we were off early for the airport and then back to Beijing to stay for one more night before heading back home... and I'll end it there.

Bressler.org discussion thread for this part of the trip is here.

Gallery of all the Yangshuo photos, about 200, are here.

China 2007 #6 - Yangshuo (October 20-22)

Once arriving at Guilin Airport we still had another 90+ minute ride to Yangshuo. The Guilin area (Jianxi Province) is known for being scenic and relatively free of air pollution (mostly agricultural). Unfortunately we ran into some bad timing as it was smack dab in the middle of the rice harvest and every farmer was burning off leftover straw. This produced a semi-transparent white haze over the whole region. The Sacramento area used to experience this same issue every year, but it's been significantly regulated over the last 10 years.

My initial impression of Yangshuo itself was that it wasn't all that charming, compared to say... Lijiang, but it is practical and convenient. The main street here is called Western Street. Western Street and the adjacent streets form a little tourist mecca with dozens of small stores, hotels, hostels, restaurants and bars. It's a bit more expensive to eat here than what we had been doing so far, but still not much compared to western standards. Especially when 750ml (?) of beer runs you roughly $1.25. Also, you can leave the Western Street area to find the cheap stuff.

Our hotel, the Morning Sun, was impressive. It lists itself as a hostel and I wasn't expecting much for $13 a night. I was surprised to find traditional style architecture, marble floors throughout, newer wood floors in the rooms, BIG rooms, air conditioners in the room, a nice big bathroom whose shower DIDN'T share space with the toilet, no funny smells, big beds, two usable pillows per bed, a balcony, a place to hang clothes, EXCELLENT laundry service, and... TOWEL SERVICE!!! Yeah, towel service... most hostels don't provide towels, and if they do, they sure as hell don't clean them until you leave. Morning Sun gave us fresh towels every day. We had a little confusion settling Cody in as there were no reservations for him in Yangshuo and we were a day early. Due to the unusual circumstances, they offered to plop down another bed for him in the same room. He ended up staying there the whole five nights. For the record... to assuage the folks that think my yearly trip to China is funding anti-satellite weaponry and lead-based pacifiers... the hotel was owned by a Dutch guy. So.. uhh.. half the cost of my trip went to a Canadian airline... much of the rest of it to hotels owned by white guys... check... western civilization destroyed... mission accomplished.

I could tell right away that I had packed way to warmly for this area, which was 80-some degrees and incredibly humid. On the first night I walked less than a block from the hotel to buy two short-sleeve Ralph Lauren Polos, at one of probably a dozen places selling them, for about $8 each. This was nearly my entire wardrobe in Yangshuo. Since anything you wore during the day was going to be a disgusting mess within an hour, I rotated out the two shirts, having one cleaned every day, and hand-washed my pair of REI Slickrock shorts every night... by morning they were completely dry.

The real charm of the Yangshuo area is the natural surroundings and our priority was to head out to the country and the Li River... which we did in big fashion on the first day. We found a local guide (Marcel) that we hired for 150 yuan a day (about $20). Marcel turned out to be a great investment. Not only did he have the Yangshuo area memorized, but he seemed to know everyone in pretty much every village we went to. He also had great tips for things to do and suggestions to save us money. It was more like being shown around by a friend as he seemed to have our interests at heart. Hopefully we didn't offend him too much as navigating the cultural differences between American guys and Chinese guys can be a challenge.

That day, Marcel took us bike riding for roughly eight hours on brutal rock (or worse) paths and directed us to another two hours of climbing around a cave (of which there are many here). This was self-inflicted abuse by the way, as Marcel regularly provided options to shorten our ride, etc. In the cave, Don and Cody also went mud-bathing.

By day's end we were sore, exhausted and the grimiest I've ever been. Mud, sweat and who knows what else...  absolutely gross. Physically we did great though and had a lot of fun until Cody ran into a streak of bad luck during the last 10km run home. First, he caught a flat tire on pretty much the only section of paved road we traveled on and had to take a bus back to Yangshuo. Second, on making it back to Yangshuo he was pick-pocketed for about 700 yuan. Finally, when he told the hotel manager about it, she insisted on calling the police (as if they care about a tourist losing 700 yuan), and they grilled him for 30 minutes on it. Quite the experience for him.

Once recovered, we went to an Aussie expat bar for beers and billiards, which became the norm whenever there was a lull.

One thing the Morning Sun did not have was broadband access, which in my opinion is a real oversight on any hotel's part. It's so simple and cheap to do, why would you not offer it and lose business from those people who need it. I tried to explain this to them... for example, my routine for the five mornings we were there was to wake up early and walk a few doors down to the 7th Heaven which offered free access to customers. I'd go there, do my business, order a couple cups of coffee and breakfast (a higher margin of profit than rooms I'd guess). That's money Morning Sun missed out on. How many breakfasts alone would it take to pay for a wireless access point? Not many. Anyhow...

The day after our bike riding marathon we headed to Xingping village to catch a bamboo boat which took us about an hour down the river to see scenery which is so famous that it's used on the currency. On the way down river, we ran into quite a few folks doing their usual bit, harvesting whatever is growing at the bottom of the river, fishing, crabbing, washing clothes, taking the water buffalo for a walk, etc.

After that we caught a bus to the market in Fuli. Fuli seems to be a central location for farmers and all sorts of merchants to bring their goods and ply their wares, including dentists. There are some interesting pictures from the Fuli market in the gallery. There was also a 'restaurant row' ... so to speak, and we stopped there for lunch. From Fuli, we caught another boat back into Yangshuo where we hung out for the late afternoon.

One tourist attraction they have in Yangshuo is some fancy schmancy light show that's supposed to be pretty good. It's right next to the river and we passed the stage on the way back to Yangshuo on the boat. Only problem is that it costs something like 120 yuan. Chump change right? Surely it is, but after a couple weeks in China you start being very protective of that yuan. You start enjoying bargaining on everything and start treating that stuff like it's dollars. 120 yuan!!! You gotta be kidding me?

Marcel suggested we hike down to the other side of the river at night and watch it for free. The sounded like a reasonably shady adventure that could go all kinds of China bad, so naturally we went for it. We talked little Lin Juan from the hotel into going with us too, but I'll talk about her later.

By the light of the moon we hiked maybe a mile and a half down old streets and climbed down the river bank to finally find seats on the rocks across the river from the stage. Apparently a good deal of the 'entertainers' were hidden over here too as we could barely make out a few dozen bamboo boats and hear a bunch of them chatting. There were also some folks about 20 feet above us, on the edge of a village by the river bank. After a few minutes, some guy appeared out of the dark and started chatting with Marcel in Chinese. After a bit of that Marcel starts doing the half laugh... THE LAUGH... you know something's up when a chinese guy does the half laugh... it's like a western guy saying 'uh oh'. Trust me... it's not a reaction to humor.

Now, we didn't know if we were looking at trouble or what, and Marcel's not talking... typical... better to not say anything than to create a potentially face losing scenario. The guy comes down a second time and finally we're able to drag it out of Lin Juan that he's looking for a little scratch... predictable. Apparently, the village above claimed dominion over that section of the river bank and was responsible for keeping it clean and whatnot. According to them, anyone who wanted to watch the show here had to hit them up with 10 yuan and come up to sit on their partially destroyed cement balcony. Fine... whatever... the view was actually a little better there, and they had little chairs for us, but they didn't have any beer or ice cream. :/ ... opportuntiy for profit missed on their part.

The show itself took place mostly on the water, involving several dozen bamboo boats sometimes forming themselves into temporary platforms to aid whatever scene is playing out. There were bright lights reflecting dramatically off the local landscape, and the usual nod to whatever ethnic group is prominent in the area. Good stuff, but I'm sure it looked much better from the good seats. :p

Bressler.org discussion thread for this part of the trip is here.

Photo gallery for the Yangshuo part of the trip, about 200 photos, is here.

China 2007 #5 - Hangzhou (October 17-20)

October 17th was mostly a travel day, packing up, etc. I did a little catching up on the site while Cody and Don made a last round through the old city, etc. At about 10:30am we were off to the airport to catch a flight to Hangzhou (about 1600km south). The pollution on the way to the Taiyuan airport was even worse today than when we first arrived.

Hangzhou is one of many 'former capitol' cities, a distinction shared by over a dozen Chinese cities. It's also the city that Marco Polo called the most beautiful city in the world. It's located about 2 hours SW of Shanghai and its most well known feature is West Lake, a big and very scenic lake that the city has grown around. It's a very modern Chinese city, much along the lines of Shanghai.

The first thing to notice coming into Hangzhou is the dramatic change in weather. Suddenly it's a bit warmer than Ping Yao (the taxi driver poked a fun at me for wearing long sleeves) and a great deal more humid. It's also obvious that it's a good deal more upscale here compared to most of the China I've seen... more nice cars, nice clothes, etc. The pollution is significantly less, but still present. Finally, there is real interesting zoning going on here. You can see it very clearly on the plane, and it's obvious on the way into town, but for miles there are stripes of well kept but densely populated residential streets that are separated by lush, green, football field sized agricultural plots.

Our hostel was a stone's throw away from West Lake, which is good, but one problem was that all the eating and drinking opportunities near there were a bit pricey. Since we were doing our best to eat like natives, the first night there was a search for cheap food. After walking about a mile, we found one of those typical Chinese garage-diners where the kitchen is open to the world and the dishes are probably being washed in buckets ten feet away from you. We ate noodles while sitting in the street and did our best to communicate what we wanted to the owner. We didn't receive exactly what we ordered, but what we had was really good, and really cheap.

West Lake itself is a humongous urban park where you can spend days exploring. There are probably over 100 scenic and historic sites within the area, as well as dozens of pedestrian walkways and smaller parks. There's the Su Causeway, a large wooded sidewalk that runs right down the middle and all the way across the lake (3KM long). There are several islands. The lake is also surrounded by trendy, expensive and sometimes unusual bars, restaurants and stores... a favorite playground for the newly rich in China. There's even a Massarati (sic) dealer. It's like Green Lake in Kunming, times twenty.

Our time in Hangzhou was the pretty standard tourist gig. It was just too big and we had too little time to do it justice or see much of the city. We also ran into some delays replenishing our cash and ended up being rushed out of town (see below).

On the first morning, Cody and I set out for Lingyin Temple, one of the largest and wealthiest Buddhist Temples in China. Lingyin has been in existence since roughly 328AD and peaked in influence around 978AD. Although most 'artifacts' within have been rebuilt and restored many times since, there are still some original structures. There are also 350 cave carvings in the Feilai  Feng Peak grottos that run right along the hill next to the Temple. Lingyin was a very impressive place with an active community of monks, some impressive Buddhas and that sort of thing.

After that we started walking randomly abound West Lake. We stopped at a memorial to General Yue Fie, who is considered a model of loyalty in China. He successfully protected the Song Dynasty against Manchurian invasion, and for his pains was executed by a corrupt Imperial court. We cruised through some remarkable "fields" of Lotus plants growing sometimes six feet out of the lake. We stopped at Guo Villa, a famous residence and garden in Hangzhou.

By late afternoon we made it down to Lei Feng Pagoda. Lei Feng Pagoda is a structure of significant historical importance but it's almost entirely new with high-tech elevators and all that jazz. Regardless, it is probably the best view of Hangzhou and West Lake that there is. I posted quite a few pictures from there and made one panorama shot that covers one of the southern skylines.

Underneath the new pagoda, you can see (beyond plexiglas barriers) what's left of the original walls of the Pagoda. These are mostly crumbling and covered with money. What.. covered with money? Anything the Chinese feel is even remotely lucky, they  throw money at. A small pond of water near a buddha statue... lucky.. throw money. A statue of an eagle on top of a cave... lucky.. throw money and try to land it on top of eagle's head. A crumbling wall under a pagoda... lucky.. throw money. What's left of the original pagoda is nearly coated in silver due to all the coins people have thrown over the plexiglas at it. The sand around the bottom is also littered with bills, because if you don't have any coins...

Gops did his own thing today, but we met up with him again for the evening. I had contacted an online friend of mine, Lily, who was meeting us for a trip to Wu Square (or Qinghefeng Street). Lily is a broadcasting student at a university about an hour away from town. Her and a friend took an hour long bus just to show a few bumbling foreigners around.

Wu Square is a pedestrian street of stores that is constructed in Song Dynasty architectural style. For the most part, it is completely inauthentic but it's still a good time. It also has a great food market with much more appetizing choices than what you'll find on Wangfujing Street in Beijing. Howver, do not eat the Camel! We all tried it and it tastes ok, but it smells like absolute crap. Get some on your fingers... then you smell like crap. Don't do it!

Somewhere along the line, an older Australian guy (Robert) from the hostel also attached to our group. He came with us to Qinghefeng and, after Lily left (9PM), the four of us continued on to sample some nearby bars, hoping find something other than the usual Chinese ales. Our first stop was the "Reggae Bar" which seemed like a decent place to stop, but nothing was really going on, and the beer selection was typical (they did have Newcastle). I also saw the first black person here that I had seen on the whole trip. I saw another in Yangshuo a few days later. Two total.

After one beer, we moved on to try the next place over which was "Shanghai Inn". This place had some live entertainment but seemed a bit too fancy for guys who had been walking around all day. Three of us stayed anyway to have a beer and play dice for a few minutes. Robert couldn't abide it though and decided to keep moving. About 15 minutes later, he came back and tipped us to where we should head next, "Travelers".

"Travelers" had good beers, live entertainment, pool tables, and people. Win-win. The live entertainment was a Philippino-Californian girl with an eclectic song selection that included the Evita theme song. Strange. The lack of encouragement she was receiving from the audience prompted Cody to go absolutely apeshit in cheering her on. Go California!!! We also played some pool and Cody ended up attracting the attention of a local barfly who had him dancing, and bumping into complete strangers who were trying to play pool, but not much else. She was either incredibly drunk, incredibly silly, or thought she was "on the job".

On day two in Hangzhou, we took off for a ride to see something else the area is famous for... tea, by many accounts the best in China. The area's specialty is Longjing tea and an entire tourist element has built up around it. You can drive out to any number of tea villages and waste the day sipping tea, eating, seeing the fields, etc.

Gops had a particular interest in this so we grabbed a taxi to Dragon Well Village and walked around the hills a while everyone and their great-grandmother tried to sell us their tea. When we first arrived, an elderly lady offered to show us around for a nominal fee ($1.25). This was fine because we had no idea where we were, but we also knew it would eventually end in her trying to sell us tea... which it did. Still, she showed us where the main village was and from there we took our leave. Honest to God, 10% of the population of China must be involved in selling tea. Not just in this area, but every tourist site, airport, and store of whatever stripe, seems to have a vendor selling tea.

For lunch we found another great place where no one spoke English. As I started pointing at dishes on other tables that we wanted to order, I ran into an Indonesian businessman who spoke English and helped us out. He ordered us up some prawns, a big bowl of chicken noodle soup and other goodies. He hung out with us a bit too.

After the tea village we headed to Liuhe (Six Harmonies) Pagoda, another historically significant pagoda, but one which remains in a fairly original state. It was first built around the 5th Century, completely destroyed in 1121, then reconstructed during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. No fancy elevators here. It also has a great view, but much different than Lei Feng Pagoda, as it's southwest and over a hill from there. Its main view is toward the south and the Qiantang River where there is yet another Hangzhou skyline rivaling the one along the lake.

After Liuhe we could not hire a taxi. Maybe there was some rule about picking up white guys between 5pm and 6pm... I don't know. We must have asked seven or so drivers and none would take us (although hey did take chinese fares when we walked away). We started walking and asking, still none would take us. Finally, about half a mile down, we found someone to take us back to the hostel. Jeez.

In the evening, we went back to the food market in Qinghefeng for appetizers... and then, made a visit to a Hooters in China. There are four of them in China now. They do it right here. The help is embarrassingly attentive... one trainee stood by our table most of the time we were there. The only downside was the occasional high-pitch sound of a bunch of Chinese girls cheering, but I think some guys like that.

Hooters was also one of very few restaurants in China that actually exhibits the same level of service (or better) as we see in almost every American restaurant. For some reason, Chinese restaurants and bars have never dialed into the truth that folks like to be waited on and have service with a smile. Even though there is usually twice as much staff on hand than is necessary, you generally have to find someone to take your order, refill your drink, etc. This is the downside of a system that frowns on tips.

The next morning was the clusterf*** that was bound to happen. Two days earlier I had asked the hostel staff to buy us train tickets for an overnight, 24-hour trip to Guilin (part of the China experience). No problem!!

On this last day in Hangzhou we were planning on a nearly full day of touring and then catching the train at 3pm or so. I woke up early and was taking care of some business, like posting, in full view of the staff. Once done I asked when they wanted me to pay for the tickets. ... sorry, we weren't able to do that... train full. OH, AND YOU DECIDED TO WAIT UNTIL NOW TO SHARE THAT INFORMATION!!! They could have tried another train, different types of seats, but no, they just didn't buy any and didn't tell us. Naturally, they had no space for us to stay an extra night either.

So, I scrambled to buy us some domestic flights (a pain). We had just barely enough time to book the tickets, grab our gear, check out, take a taxi to a place where no one spoke english to pick up & pay for the tickets, and then grab another taxi to the airport. Fortunately, there was a special, and the airfare was not much more expensive than rail. End result, one extra night and full day day in Yangshuo, a small town by Guilin, one of the most scenic areas of China.

Bressler.org discussion thread for this part of the trip is here.

Photo gallery for the Hangzhou part of the trip, about 200 photos, is here.

China 2007 #4 - Pingyao (October 15-17)

October 15th mostly involved travel to Ping Yao. October 16th was all Ping Yao.

Ping Yao is in Shanxi province, west of Beijing, and part of the Chinese rust belt which produces the huge dust and pollution clouds that float all the way over the Pacific to our neck of the woods. Shanxi lives up to the reputation. For the first twenty miles out of Taiyuan there is a brown haze that clings to the bottom 100 feet of airspace. A smoky "ick" fills the rest. There are coal-burning smokestacks all across the horizon. We saw something that looked like nuclear towers too. About 40 miles out, you actually start seeing some clouds.

Ping Yao is a UNESCO heritage site, meaning that (like Lijiang) it's required to maintain a certain degree of authenticity. A newer city has been built around it, but the area within the ancient city walls remains mostly the same in appearance as a hundred years ago, except that the functionality of structures has changed (e.g., what once was a Ming era family home might now be a hostel). Ping Yao is the site of the first bank in China, and was the financial capitol of China in the 19th and 20th centuries until Shanghai replaced it.

The most prominent feature in Ping Yao is the complete city wall, one of only three left in all of China (Xian & Nanjing being the others). Most city walls were destroyed either during the warlord era of the early 1900's or after the communists gained power (Mao didn't like people being able to hide behind city walls). There are 40,000 people living within the wall's 6km circumference.

On first glance, Ping Yao can be a rather depressing place... dirty, poor, and collapsing. On further examination, however, it does have a good deal of charm and a people whose spirit seems to be unaffected by any deficiencies in their surroundings.

We had a little trouble finding our Hostel, spending 20 minutes or so walking around an inner city area that ended up being a big outdoor museum of the original government center. Nope, no hostel here. Turns out that the hostel was about... oh... 20 feet to the east of where we entered. Swift.

We stayed at the Yamen Hostel, which was originally built in 1591 as a place to host the Emperor on an impending visit to Ping Yao. The Emperor never showed up. However, minus the western toilets, water heaters, a small hotel lobby, and other amenities, the courtyard residence is still maintained to look pretty much as it would have then (although I'm sure it's had a couple facelifts). It also has the traditional interiors with big (and hard) Chinese beds.

On the first night in town we picked a direction and walked, eventually trekking outside the walls, and wandering aimlessly through a little section of the new city which was packed to capacity, just like any other chinese city, with hundreds of bicycles and various vendors catering to the after-work rush.

A little after dusk we found our way back to the old city and stopped at a local place for dinner. I doubt they had too many western customers before as they were very excited to be hosting us (seeing dollar signs maybe). We tried two of the local specialties, Ping Yao Beef and Wantouze noodle (pictured). The noodle was great. The Ping Yao Beef? Not bad... Cody's comment was that it tasted like spam... possibly a function of how it was prepared.

The next morning we picked a different direction, without any agenda except to find a way to the top of the wall. We could have asked but it's not like we were dealing with miles, just blocks, right? About an hour later, while still looking, we bumbed into an old fellow walking alone by the wall who spoke good English and asked us if we wanted a guide. It seemed like a random encounter, but lookign back, I would not be surprised if he had been following us since we left the hostel.

He quickly whipped out a bundle of hand-written notes from westerners praising his skills as a guide and offered to show us around for 250 yuan. I offered to give him 100. He came down to 150... but I wasn't budging. We parted ways but after that he did his best to stay just out of site and "coincidentally" show up every 15 minutes or so, say "hi" and see if we had reconsidered.

After that we changed track and started visiting Ping Yao's numerous museums, demoting the Wall to an afternoon quest. There are roughly twenty UNESCO world heritage museums in Ping Yao. A single admission ticket (good for two days) allows you into all of them. We started walking the streets and hitting each one we saw.

Remember that Ping Yao was the banking center of China for some time. In addition to being fine examples of old school Chinese architecture, most of the museums were former banks, businesses, and martial arts/bodyguard centers. Why the focus on martial arts and bodyguards? As the financial capital of the country, a good deal of the country's business went on here, and before guns there was only one way to protect that money... hire a lot of really tough chinese ass-kickers to watch over it. Banking and ass-kicking went hand in hand before the time when any slouch could blow a hole in someone.

Around 10am or so, Cody and I lost track of Don. It was bound to happen as the four of us frequently had to track him down during the city tour in Beijing, an easily predictable pitfall of traveling in a group... and not having cell phones. While we were trying to find him our tour guide 'suitor' showed up yet again, aware that we were one short and mentioning how he had been looking for him too. :p After he dragged along behind us through a couple more museums that were next on our the list before we lost Don, he finally relented, accepting 100 yuan for the assignment. We gave up on Don and headed out on "Mr. Zhang's Mystery Tour" of Ping Yao.

Zhang proceeded to take us through some pretty obscure parts of town. We stumbled through many seemingly abandoned residences (not really, they just looked that way), climbed onto roofs and walls, walked through several construction sites (every street had a residence being converted into a hotel), some people's kitchens, etc. It was weird. Zhang seemed to have the run of the town as no one objected to his trampling through their homes and businesses with two westerners in tow.

One stop was an elementary school where we had a translated conversation with one of the teachers. He talked about the big Communist Party Congress that started in Beijing on the 15th and which is held only once every five years. The talk was of President Hu sweeping out corrupt officials. I didn't say it, but that's pretty much how every Communist Congress goes. The Congresses are the best chance for a Chinese leader to publicly remake his team, and peaceful resignations are not how they do things in the Communist Party. Mao used to call folks Capitalist Roaders and throw them in prison, now you call them corrupt, put them up for a mock trial, and then throw them into prison. Same difference. Being Hu's first Congress as supreme leader, no doubt "change was in the air".

We also talked about the United States and received the standard comments you'll receive from Chinese natives... the USA is a great country!!! We think having multiple parties and democracy is the way to go!!! We hate George Bush!!!

Later, Zhang took us to a tiny local place to be stared at while we ate some great noodles. ;) Four yuan each (50 cents).

After the mystery tour, Zhang took quickly took us through a couple of the temples and standard tourist sites we hadn't been to yet. This was interesting because he was able to tell us what was original and what had been rebuilt. A good deal of the statuary, structures, etc, in Ping Yao had been destroyed or damaged during Mao's Cultural Revolution. A lot of rebuilding/restoring has gone on and continues to go on. For example, at one point Zhang stopped to show us some traditional lions outside the doorway of one place and told us how they had buried them in the ground to protect them from Red Guards. Fascinating stuff.

Eventually, he dropped us off back at the hostel. His job was not over yet though. In my experience throughout China, a business relationship like the one between us and Zhang always results in an obligation on their part to continue helping (often far beyond what I would consider reasonable, as I had seen before, and would witness later in Yangshuo). It's a natural friendliness and a point of honor, I think. With native Chinese, I've never ran into the attitude... "it's five o'clock, job done, see ya"... or "sorry, I don't do windows". We continued to run into Zhang in the evening, he continued to offer suggestions and even arranged our transportation out of Ping Yao the next morning, showing up bright and early at the hostel. Maybe he made a little cut of everything, maybe not, but the numbers we're talking about here are insignificant by our standards.

One more interesting thing about Zhang was that he's Catholic. There is a Catholic church in old Ping Yao (see pictures). It was burned down in the 80's but has been rebuilt. According to Zhang, there are 2,000 Catholics and 20,000 Protestants in Ping Yao (old and new cities). He says that there has been some difficulty with being Catholic in Ping Yao, but declined to elaborate. I do know that every couple of months you'll find a news item about a group of Catholics being rounded up and... who knows. I think the key distinction with any religion here is to not place anybody/anything above the state. Hence, if you recognize the Pope as a higher authority than the state, you're going to have problems.

Once at the hostel, we rejoined Donald and started out for the wall again (this time knowing where the stairs were that went to the top). We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the wall all the way around the old city, spying down its streets and alleys, and peeking at the city outside the walls. It was a pretty nice walk and for the whole 6km we only ran into a half-dozen or so other tourists.

A couple items of interest seen from the wall, many of which you can see in the photos... Seemingly every household in Ping Yao runs on coal and has a stack of it somewhere nearby. The relatively well to do folk & hotels in Ping Yao have solar powered water heaters on their roofs. There is a prison and police station in old Ping Yao. The wall's sunny side frontage streets are a popular place to process beans... they lay them out so people can drive over them, crushing the outer pods and chaff, then they use a little air power to separate the beans from the chaff. Chinese guys like to pee against the wall. There's an ice cream stand on the wall... of course. Cards and mahjong... everywhere.

Later that night we had a couple beers while talking to some shop girls Don met earlier. After we tired of playing 'dodge the boss' the three of us settled for dinner at a place that wasn't all that special, but good enough. Again we ran into Zhang who hooked us up for some full body massages for 30 yuan. My massage was pretty good but the ambiance was a little... primitive. Hehe. Cody and Don didn't seem to appreciate theirs... they said I had the 'cute one'.

The next morning... off for Hangzhou.

Bressler.org discussion thread for this part of the trip is here.

Photo gallery for the Ping Yao part of the trip, about 200 photos, is here.

P.S. Although the rooms were nice enough for the money, they were a little dark and cold as I hadn't figured out the heater on the first night. On the first morning while trying to adjust, I grabbed my beard trimmer but didn't check that the attachment was on... it wasn't. Zzzzzt.. there went a third of my mustache. The only thing to do at that point was shave the whole beard off. This really sucked as beards attract a lot of attention over here. Anyhow, for the rest of the trip I went beardless for the first time in probably 10+ years, which you'll notice in pictures from here on. It's grown back now though. :D

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