For those of you that have internet connections at home (and bother checking messages today), I wish you a very Merry Christmas!!! For those who receive this later, I hope that you had a great holidays, and wish you all the best for the coming year!
Hitomi and I are now in southern India (Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu) where we are enjoying a bit of luxury in a fancy hotel with swimming pool and masseurs as we treat ourselves for the holidays. We will be in India until the 7th of January when we will be flying from Chennai (Madras) to Singapore.
However, as I am far behind in my trip report writing, I will continue from when I last wrote, when we had just finished an overnight train from the Mongolian capital to the Chinese border (the beginning of September).
We were trying to figure out how to get to Beijing, and from what we read in our guidebooks and heard from other travellers, there were three options.
The first option was to continue by train. Unfortunately, there were no direct trains to Beijing, and you would have to take a train to the next major city and transfer from there. Since the Chinese trains are heavily used, there would be no guarantee that you would even be able to get a seat for the 18 hour journey. In fact, given that it was the summer holidays, chances were very slim at being able to get on the train at all.
The second choice was to take a direct sleeper bus. A Chinese sleeper bus actually has cramped completely horizontal beds in it that are reasonably comfortable at night, although during the day you are forced to stay in the horizontal position. As these buses also take about 18 hours to reach Beijing, we weren't thrilled with this option either.
The final choice was to hire your own mini-bus. As these mini-buses drive direct and don't stop nearly as often, they are supposed to be much faster. We were told it would only take 8 hours which would get us there that same evening. Other travellers had told me they tried this option and it took them 10 hours. There were a lot of other tourists that were interested in the least painful way to Beijing, so a group of us decided to see what we would be able to negotiate.
The fare for the public sleeper bus was 120 yuan (about $15 US), and we were able to negotiate the mini-bus down to a reasonable 170 yuan (about $20 US). Our negotiations were aided by an American and a Brit who lived in Beijing teaching english, and were able to do the negotiations in Chinese.
Since we had just crossed the border, most of us had no Chinese money. We were shuttled into our mini-bus and taken to a group of money-changes since we were promised that the banks were closed for lunch. The money-changers were very slimy and initial exchange rates were not very good, although we were able to eventually negotiate a reasonable exchange rate. Some group members needed to change Euros, and the money-changers weren't willing to accept the new notes. We were furious when our drivers suddenly "remembered" that the banks were indeed open with much better exchange rates.
After the money changing fiasco, we were told that we should have lunch now. We were brought to a cafeteria style Chinese restaurant that was surprisingly cheap and tasty, and the local staff seemed very curious and friendly towards the group of foreigners that invaded. While we dined on a plate of stir-fried eggplant, the group of Chinese we negotiated with sat outside discussing who would get how much money, and who would be the drivers for the trip. When we finished, we were told to sit in the vans and wait for the negotiations to end. As we waited and waited and started to get impatient about further delays, the negotiations suddenly ended and they decided it was time for them to have lunch as well. They weren't quick, and we began to get more and more upset. As it was, we would be arriving in Beijing late at night by their estimates which were almost certain to be optimistic.
Just when we thought that we were actually going to leave, complications again ensued when they told us that they needed to shoe-horn another person into our already full van. Since it was going to be such a long ride, comfort was important to us and we initially refused, but eventually agreed, starting to regret our decision to do things the "easy way".
Finally, we were actually on the road driving along barren grasslands with the occasional horse, herd of goats, and Mongolian tent dotted along the horizon. Our mini-vans were part of a convoy of three that included two vans for us foreigners, and a third van that contained a group of Mongolians also headed to Beijing. The rest of the trip was a comedy of errors, with drivers stopping several times to rotate tires (they said the alignment was off which didn't make us feel too good), changing flat tires, lounging around over hour and a half dinners, and taking short naps by the side of the road (when a driver from one van wanted a rest, we all had to stop).
The "sticking together" didn't last when we started to get close to Beijing in the middle of the night as we ran into a traffic jam. We never figured out what initially caused the traffic jam, but it was pretty clear what kept things clogged up. Typical third world mentality meant that drivers would try to squeeze into whatever hole possible on either side of the road. Large cargo trucks were by far the majority, and our little van tried to dodge between the much larger trucks and even went off-road a few times. Of course, people going the other direction were attempting the same thing, and we seemed to spend most of our time in deadlock where the drivers would start arguing with each other about who should be the one to back up. At one point we had some additional excitement when our driver went off-road and ran over a hose that was filling one of the truck's water tanks. The owner of the hose yelled, and our driver rolled down the window and said sorry and continued driving. About 30 seconds later we heard a huge bang as something slammed into the side of the van. The owner of the hose came up to the drivers window and a heated exchange took place. As our driver prepared to drive off again, he was grabbed by the collar and only a quick offer of a "peace cigarette" prevented a fight. At this point, our driver got out of the van, and it was 15 minutes and an exchange of money before we were back on the road.
We finally arrived in Beijing at 8am, very exhausted as we had slept very little in our crowded van with no head rests. We had to wait for two hours for the other vans to ride since all of the luggage was in our van, and we needed to watch over it for the other group of travellers. After such a gruelling trip (it ended up taking 18 hours - the same as the public bus), tempers were a little short and the other travellers wanted to pay less than the 170 yuan we had promised. I ended up convincing them to pay the full amount since they did do everything they promised, and we had no right to withold money because of their incompetence or because we didn't like them.
We hopped in a Beijing taxi from the drop-off point, and were soon at our chosen hotel. Our check-in was delayed by the receptionist's insistence on knowing Hitomi's Chinese name. The Chinese expect Japanese to have Chinese characters for their names, which most Japanese do. However, Hitomi's last name is "Miller" which is written in a Japanese phonetic alphabet. Hitomi wrote this in the space for her Chinese name, but the receptionist didn't like it. We argued for a while trying to explain why Hitomi's last name didn't have Chinese characters, and eventually she let us check in. However, as we went up to our room and laid down for a short nap, we were woken up by a phone call with the receptionist again asking for Hitomi's Chinese name.
Upon checking into our room, we realized that in addition to all of the headaches in the mini-vans, their rough handling of Hitomi's pack ripped an important seam, and if we didn't do anything, there was a danger of the main hip belt coming undone. We were not pleased, but figured that one of the many local shoe repairmen should be able to help. We asked at the hotel where to find one, and were directed off into the small alleyways behind our hotel. It didn't take long before we found an elderly gentleman with a small cap and a long wispy beard busy working on a pair of shoes. He mostly ignored us, but someone who I assume was his daughter eagerly asked what she could do for us. We showed the broken seam to her, and she asked her father's opinion. We asked in Chinese how much to have it fixed, and the old man looked at it for a second and spouted out "yi quai" (about $0.13). The daughter screamed at this point, put her hand over her father's mouth, and pulled him aside to explain how rich foreigners are, and how it should be possible to charge much more money than that. After their brief conversation, they walked back over to us and we again asked the elderly man how much. He looked at his daughter, looked at us again, then held up one finger and again said "yi quai". This time the daughter screamed even louder, and decided it was time that she took over the negotiations. She said "wu quai" (5 RMB or $0.65), and was insistant on us paying that much. We didn't have the energy to argue with her, and her father soon expertly repaired Hitomi's pack with a sewing machine specially designed to work on shoes.
We were staying in a different hotel than I had stayed on my previous two visits to Beijing, but it was less than 1km away. It was actually in an area that was rather seedy before and I remember having to dodge homeless people as I tried to find my way to a nearby Beijing duck restaurant on previous visits. I'm not sure if it is because Beijing is becoming more prosperous, or if it is because of cleaning up for the Olympic bid, but the area has become a lot trendier with bars, Korean restaurants, and a next-door Chinese restaurant that really seemed to welcome foreigners.
It was a very hot and humid welcome for us in Beijing, and after the coolness of the Mongolian plateau, the weather was almost a little oppressive. To make things worse, the thick air seemed to trap the smog and it was hard to even see across the street.
We decided to visit our English teacher friends at their nearby youth hostel, and we were told that we would be able to tell when we were near by the smell of the local "river". The smell was intense, and it became clear that Beijing needs to do a bit of cleaning up beyond its homeless. The river resembled an open sewer ditch.
While this wasn't a very nice welcome to China, Beijing does really seem to be progressing and has become a very pleasant place to visit. I had heard about clean-up efforts by the Beijing government, but there was another way that Beijing had changed that I didn't expect. The people seemed to be a lot friendlier. On my previous two visits to China, the people seemed very unfriendly to me with the exception of the fake smiles from the people hoping to make money off of me. This time, I felt genuinely welcome, and it was a feeling that I felt consistently from arrival in Beijing through our trip in Tibet.
Hitomi, on the other hand, got a different reaction. Everyone assumed that she was either my Chinese girlfriend or else a local guide. They would start talking to her in Chinese and they never seemed to understand her when she would say in Chinese that she is Japanese. Even when they would finally realize that Hitomi was not Chinese, they seemed to figure that Japanese are Asians, so they must speak be able to understand a little. They would speak rather harshly to her, telling her to tell me to buy their goods or come into their restaurant.
On one occasion, we were visiting a famous temple when Hitomi noticed a group of Japanese elderly women trying to find someone to take their photo. Hitomi went up to them and asked them in Japanese if she could help. After Hitomi took their photo, they thanked her and congratulated her on learning Japanese so well. She was not pleased.
After the past couple of months of eating expensive and bland Scandanavian food and rather dull Russian food, China was paradise for our tastebuds. Our first meal was ironically Korean food as we dined on a spicy and tasty bibimbap (rice, vegetables, and spcies served in a sizzling hot stone bowl). Korean food has become very popular in Beijing - especially with the young people.
On the next evening, we dined on the Chinese capital's famous Beijing Duck. Beijing duck is made from specially fattened ducks that are pumped full of air before cooking, and their fatty skin is roasted until crispy. The duck is carved up in front of you, and you wrap thin slices of the duck skin and meat in a thin pancake along with onions and sauces, and eat it like a mini burrito. While you are eating the meat, the bones and head are stewed in a pot, and you finish your meal with bowls full of duck soup.
Hitomi's language skills also proved useful in China. While she understands as much spoken Chinese as I do, written Chinese and Japanese share many of the same characters, and Hitomi could read about 75% of the menus. This helped us be a little more adventurous than I had been on previous trips, although being able to read didn't always helped with dishes that have names like "emperor's special treasure", or "fish taste vegetables" (contains no fish).
I had seen most of the sights around Beijing before, but enjoyed going along with Hitomi to see them again. We visited the Forbidden City which is the vast complex of buildings that was once home to the Emporers of China. We were rather surprised to see a Starbucks inside. In front of the Forbidden City is the massive Tianamen Square. In the past, the square was home to countless touts trying to peddle their kites, drinks, and waving Mao watches. However, as a part of the clean-up they have all been chased away, leaving the square almost eerily empty. In the middle of the square is Mao's tomb where Hitomi decided to take a visit and pay her respects to China's "Great Helmsman".
Further out of town is the Summer Palace - a former retreat of the Emporers set around a large lake and blessed with many temples. Even further out of town is the Great Wall, and we decided to do a repeat of my last trip to the wall. We hired a mini-bus to take us and four other tourists to one spot on the wall from where we would hike 10km along the wall to another spot where we would be picked up. It was a hot and hazy day, but it was an incredible experience to be in the middle of wilderness scaling the forested mountains as the wall snaked up the steepest parts of the peaks, sometimes at gradients that were difficult to even walk up.
After a very enjoyable week in Beijing, we took a night train to the city that was the original capital of China and once rivaled Rome in size and prosperity ... Xian. It has been so long since Xian was the capital of China that little remains of its former glory ... at least until the discovery of the terracotta warriors some 30 years ago. The terracotta warriors were built according to the orders of China's first emporer more than 2200 years ago. The emporer wanted an army to guard his grave, and had orders to build a replica of his existing army to guard his tomb and the treasures hidden within. Apparently, everyone who had a part in building the tomb and placing the soldiers were later killed to make sure that no living person actually knew where the tomb was located.
This kept the tomb hidden until it was discovered by a farmer in the 1970s. Several pits filled with armed soldiers have since been uncovered, and are on display with the soldiers on location largely as they would have been when they were placed there thousands of years ago. The first glimpse of the warriors is breath taking, as you look down into a pit filled with thousands of life-sized warriors in military formation, seemingly ready to march into battle. The artistic work alone is superb, but combined with the scale of the project, it is one of the most amazing sights that I have ever seen. The soldiers are all unique with different facial features and expressions, and it is rumoured that they were modeled after the emperor's existing army. In addition to the foot soldiers which at one point held real weapons in their hands, the soldiers were overlooked by captains and generals, and there were units of archers, chariots, and calvary all located in formation as they would have been in a real battle.
The train ride to Xian was my first sleeper train in China, and we had booked berths in a "hard sleeper" car. The sleeping berths were three high which was something that I was used to. However, I wasn't used to the height of the sleepers as the top bunk was about 3 meters above the ground (well above my head). I became a bit acrophobic as I climbed up onto our upper berth beds, and a little concerned about the lack of seat belts. However, the bed was comfortable enough, and our 14 hour journey went by surprisingly quickly. After our trans-Siberian trains, 14 hours even seemed kind of short.
On arrival in Xian, however, we were greeted by a big, noisy, crowded, polluted city, and of course before we even got off the train we were discovered by a tout. I kept the tout at a distance, but was willing to at least hear what he had to say. He told us about a hotel that sounded better than what was described in our guidebook, and it was only a few hundred meters from the train station (in the center of town). The room turned out to be very nice and good value, so we accepted his offer. He also told us that he could help us buy train tickets, although his fees seemed high. We told him that we would think about it and accepted his business card and mobile number.
Since we were going to be staying for four days in Xian, we thought we had lots of time to get the train tickets ourselves. We had trouble locating the ticket office, but when we finally did, they told us we had come to the wrong place and had to go to a different ticket booth several hundred meters away. That booth took another 20 minutes to track down (we only found it with the help of some friendly businessmen), but were told that there were no sleeper seats available on the train we wanted.
We were a little frustrated, although it wasn't totally unexpected. We were still a little reluctant to pay the tout's fees, so we tried to visit a few travel agencies to see what their fees were. However, when we told them what we were looking for, the travel agencies lost interest in helping us and told us that it wasn't possible to get tickets. We started to get a little worried as we were going to be meeting a friend in Chengdu and we needed to get there somehow.
Somewhat dejected, we gave our tout friend a call, and he said that he could find us seats no problem. He quoted us the price for the tickets, and we gave him an advance. He told us he would get the tickets within a couple of days, although we were nervous about waiting that long, and still didn't completely trust him. Buses were not really an option, and we didn't want to fly. However, our friend came through several hours later as he came back with two tickets in hand. They weren't exactly what we wanted as the two tickets were in different cabins on the same car of the train, and one ticket was for Chongqing which was PAST Chengdu and an extra 80 RMB (about $10 US). He agreed to cut his comissions down considerably for the more expensive ticket, and since we were desperate, we accepted, glad to have tickets in our hands. I don't really understand why it was possible to get a ticket for beyond Chengdu, but not to Chengdu, but then I don't know where the tickets came from or how he got them, and didn't want to ask.
Our tout friend also organized a tour to see the historical sites around Xian. The tour was a busy day and would visit a number of places we wanted to see, and a number that we weren't interested in. However, we figured that it would be easier than trying to book our own transport, and we could simply skip seeing the places that didn't interest us. When we got up the next morning and got ready to go on our tour, the tour leader demanded that we pay for all of the admissions up front. When we told them that we only wanted to pay for some of the attractions, they refused but were willing to give us our money back.
Instead, we decided that all we really needed to see was the warriors, and that it would be nicer to see them on our own timetable anyways. We headed to the bus station and began to search out bus number 306 which went straight to the warriors. Again, a tout found us first, and pointed to where the bus left from. We paid our money and got on the mini-bus which was indeed labeled 306. The bus departed shortly afterwards, and drove around town past bus stations hollering to passengers to encourage them to get on their bus. The Chinese seemed reluctant to get on the bus, and the ticket collector was doing the best he could to try and convince them. It wasn't until we returned from the warriors that we realized it was a fake "bus 306", and that the real bus was indeed a normal sized bus with large comfortable seats.
During our long train journeys, Hitomi and I had both read a book called "Red Dust" by Ma Xian which was a very interesting story of a disillusioned artist in the post-Cultural Revolution years who spent three years travelling around China. We read about how he had visited the terracotta warriors in 1982, and how the domestic tourists were conned into paying money to enter what appeard to be the warriors, but was instead just a gallery with a few photos and lots of souvenir vendors. We were amused to see that this misleading exhibit is still there as we walked past it on our way to the real warriors.
Besides our tour to the terracotta warriors, Xian was an enjoyable city to wander around with its markets, street vendors, intact city walls, and a strong Islamic influence (Xian is far west of Beijing and close the the Islamic part of China in central Asia). Xian seems to be famous for its various types of dumplings, and I think I ate more dumplings in four days than I had in the previous 10 years combined.
We also surfed the internet for $0.25 per hour, although I began to get frustrated that my Yahoo mail account kept getting messed up. It had been happening in Beijing as well, and didn't happen to Hitomi ... only to me. My account would work fine, but after reading and responding to a few messages, my computer would soon refuse access to yahoo (other sites would work), and the account would remain locked out for about 10 minutes or so. I soon figured out that it must be the special "Internet Police" software that the Orwellian Chinese government had installed on the computers to monitor internet traffic and block suspicious messages. I figured that it must be the many messages about Tibet that I was sending as I was trying to organize the itinerary for our Tibet trip with a friend who is a travel agent in Lhasa.
I started refering to Tibet as "West China" (that was a bit painful as I don't agree with China's claim to Tibet), although that didn't seem to help. I eventually realized that it was my parent's email address which contained the domain "freenet". Apparently freenet is on the list of subversive words in China, and by using it, my computer would be punished by being blocked for ten minutes. I verified without a doubt that this was the word that caused the problems, and my parents ended up changing their email address so we could continue to exchange email.
After our four days in Xian, we checked out of our room, ate a last plate full of dumplings, and then headed to the train station. Chinese train stations are interesting in that access to the platforms are denied until the train is ready to leave. Everyone waits in a large waiting hall until their train is called, at which point it is a mad and chaotic pushing match to try and get through a single small gate which provides access to the platforms. Your tickets are checked at this point, and you then rush to the train to try and find your seat and a place to store your luggage. During this mad scramble, I had my first item stolen during all my years of travel. We had a half full 1.5 liter bottle of mineral water for the trip stored in the side of my backpack, and when we got on the train I realized it was gone. I wasn't sure why anyone would even want a half empty water bottle, but we easily replaced it from one of the vendors on the platform.
Despite the fact that our journey was much shorter in distance, it actually took a few hours longer than our previous express train (17 hours in total). However, this time we had splurged on "soft sleepers" which meant that we would be in cabins of just four bunks each and with doors that you can lock. The berths were exactly the same as our second class trans-Siberian trains were. We still had the problem that we were in different cabins, although one of our cabins also had a foreign tourist who was willing to change with us.
The trip again went very smoothly, although we wondered where the term "soft sleeper" came from as our more luxurious car still had very hard sleeping berths. I had heard that the Chinese government didn't like the term first and second class (sounds too elitist for the Communist ideology).
Chengdu is the capital of China's Sichuan (Szechuan) provence in south-west China and at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau. It is famous for its very spicy food, and in fact most Chinese restaurants abroad serve Sichuan cuisine. One of our first meals in Chengdu consisted of a Sichuan sampler with about 20 or 30 small bowls spread out on the table in front of us, in addition to a hot pot with a pile of raw fish, eels, and various organs that could be dipped into a bubbling pot of very spicy oil to cook yourself.
One of the first tourist attractions that we visited was the panda breeding research center where pandas roam about large enclosures and are encouraged to breed. On my previous visit in 1999, they had not yet been successful at breading. This time, however, things had changed drastically as we saw a mother playing with her two babies, as well as four small blind pink babies staggering around in small aquariums where they were being looked after. Apparently, in the wild a mother will only look after one of her two babies since she is unable to provide proper care to both at once while they are small. The biologists, however, are able to look after the second pup until it has grown sufficiently, at which point it is reunited with its mother.
While we were in Chengdu, we were able to meet up with my university friend Oliver (who now lives in Hong Kong). He had scheduled a trip around Sichuan to coincide with our trip, and we arranged to meet in Chengdu. It was great fun being able to meet a good friend on the road, and we headed out together on a day trip to see the giant Buddha of nearby Leshan. I had also seen this before, and it was one of my favourite sights in China, but I wanted to show it to Hitomi in addition to seeing it again myself. The Buddha was carved out of the side of a mountain 1300 years ago, partly to honour the Buddha, but also to help overlook a spot where three rivers merged which was often the location of shipwrecks and other disasters.
We took a boat to sail in front of the Buddha for our first look, but I was shocked when we were able to see it. Between 1999 and now, the Chinese had "restored" the Buddha by removing layers from its head, hands, and feet, and replacing these with plaster or concrete which was painted shiny new and already was cracking. Oliver explained that the Chinese don't like things that look old ... even historical sites, and this was similar to a story another traveller had told me of cave paintings that had been "re-painted" by local authorities.
Back in Chengdu, Oliver took us to several Sichuan restaurants where we had a couple of amazing dinners of food that was nothing like any Chinese food I had tasted before. Its too bad that all of the Chinese restaurants abroad seem to follow a "cookie cutter" approach of providing food that is proven successful in foreign markets. There is so much more to Chinese food than what you can find at your local Chinese take out joint.
From Chengdu, our journeys would take us west and into Tibet. The first half of the trip to Lhasa would go through land that is no longer considered "Tibet" by the Chinese authorities, and therefore you don't need permits to enter. That meant that we could do that part by bus rather than the expensive guide and jeep combination that you needed to travel within the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Our first leg of the trip was supposed to be a simple 8 hour bus ride to the Tibetan frontier town of Kangding, although of course it couldn't be that simple. When Oliver helped us buy our tickets, we were informed that busses only left every other day, and that the journey would be 12 hours. This was due to construction on the roads. Even this proved to be optimistic as the journey ended up taking 16 hours (8am until midnight), but I will write more about that in my next trip report as I describe our experiences in Tibet. I need to sign off now as Hitomi and I head out for our Christmas present to ourselves ... an Ayurvedic massage.
I hope that all is well with all of you, and wish you the best for the holiday season and for 2003!
Ron & Hitomi
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