Sat 10 Jul 2010 - Wed 4 Aug 2010
Beijing – The first night, right after sending an email Toby and I just put our heads down for a little rest... and slept from 5:30 pm to 11:30 pm. Our roommates came in without knowing we were here! They were nice girls from Switzerland and Romania. We stayed up until 2 and got up at 7 am. It was overcast and rainy, so we ended up walking around Tiananmen Square in our rain coats with thousands of Chinese tourists. We found a lovely pedestrian area and bought some tea. We had lunch at a famous Peking duck restaurant... well, more accurately at its fast-food section. Then we went back to the hostel for.... another 7 hour nap! Boy, we couldn't avoid this jet-lag! Luckily Beijing is very safe so we went out again after it was dark. Our hostel was in this hutong area (narrow, winding streets) and we walked some more until settling on a small restaurant for dinner. Toby had beef noodle soup and I had veggie noodles. With two cokes it cost us $4. I think we'll be able to stay on budget!
On Sunday we went on a tour of the Great Wall of China. We went with our hostel, which treks along a more abandoned section of the wall. Not much of it has been restored, which means it is too challenging for your average tourist, and therefore we were the only group there. It was fantastic in terms of authenticity, but as nature would have it, the recent rain meant that we couldn't see too far ahead and those lovely photographs of the wall snaking along the mountains were just unobtainable. So.... we extended our stay in Beijing another day so that we can go to the touristy/better-to-photograph section later.
On Monday we saw the big sights in Beijing: The Forbidden City, several parks and the Temple of Heaven. On Tuesday we took the subway to the Summer Palace and then went to a street market. Both days were 12 hours of walking and we were just beat. The best temples seem to be on the top of a hill, which means lots of stairs. The positive side is that snacks and drinks were cheap so we indulged whenever we feel the need. The negative side is that the humidity was quite heavy and there were crowds wherever we go. The subway was the busiest we have ever been on, and you literally push your way through.
On Wednesday we went on our second tour of the Great Wall, as well as visiting the Ming Tombs. The tour was disappointing for several reasons. First, we were with a group of Korean students (teacher`s college students) who didn't start to talk to us until the very end. They weren't very confident with their English, but were sure to take a picture with us! Second, although it was just the Koreans and us, the time-line was so fixed that we waited at the bus for 40 minutes after lunch even though we were all ready to go to the next thing. Third, they took us to several places to get our business - jade factory (we did buy a small trinket of jade but then reminded ourselves that we can’t do that any more), craft store, Chinese medicine spa, and a tea house. Finally, the last reason we didn’t like our tour was because it clearly stated "Badaling Wall" but we were taken to another section that wasn’t as picturesque. This tour guide was the only one so far that asked for tips (generally people don’t tip in China) and he was the only one that didn’t deserve it. But he hopped out of the van before we had a chance to tell him why he wasn’t getting a tip.
We took a 6 hour bus to Datong on Thursday and got a basic hotel room for two nights. The city was nothing to write home about! On Friday we took a tour to nearby sites - a hanging (as in, hanging off the side of a mountain) temple and Yungang grottoes with large carvings of Buddhas inside. Both were remarkable to see and a real shame to have to endure the dingy city to get here.
On Saturday we took a 7 hour train to Pingyao, which is a cute, well preserved town. Well, I should say it WAS because once the powers-that-be realized it was such a tourist draw they converted everything to a hotel or a restaurant and souvenir stalls line the street. It was a nice mellow hang-out for us to relax in for a few days. One day we got on the wrong tour which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as they went to places that we thought were too expensive, but as we were sharing a car with another Canadian couple the cost was shared. We visited a large 88-courtyard castle (Wang Family Courtyard) and an ancient fortress with underground tunnels.
Next, we went to see the Terracotta warriors in Xi'an, which were built for the tomb of the first emperor of China so that he would have an army in the afterlife. There were over 8000 statues that were discovered in the 1970s by a farmer drilling a well (we saw him too). Interestingly, each statue has a unique face based on an actual person who had to be killed so that they could join the emperor in death. It was good to see, but, just like every where in China, it was packed with Chinese tourists. Xi'an was also interesting because it had a large Muslim population and we got to see the Chinese Muslims go to mosque during a call to prayer. We also went to Walmart in Xi'an! No, it's nothing like the Walmarts we have in Canada
The next day we decided to check out Hua Shan, which is a mountain near Xi'an. It is one of the five sacred Taoist mountains of China. To save some time (and effort) we took the cable car up to one of the peaks. We hiked to two of the other peaks, which were actually very tiring, but rewarding as there were great views and some temples along the way.
Next stop was Luoyang to see the Longmen Grottoes and the Shaolin Temple. The Longmen Grottoes were similar to the Buddhist grottoes we saw in Datong, but they were spread over a larger area and they were not as well preserved as the Datong grottoes. However, it was still interesting to see. The Shaolin Temple was cool, but not as cool as it sounds because all the tourists (including us) took the zen out of it. We saw a kungfu demonstration that was awesome. Toby especially liked the monkey style. The temple itself was okay. It seems like if you've seem one Chinese temple, you've seen them all. There was an interesting area outside of the temples that is full of pagodas that act as tombs for monks. This day was really rainy, so we were soaked several times and our ride back way delayed because of flooding. Our driver dropped us off at a hotel far from our hostel with our non-English speaking guide who called a friend to pick us up - all the taxis were busy in the rain.
Qufu – This is the birthplace of Confucius. To get here, we had to first take a train from Luoyang to Zhengzhou (2 hours), and then another train at 11:33 pm to Yanzhou (5 hours), and then a bus to Qufu bus station (30 minutes), and then a taxi to our hostel. Unfortunately, we couldn't get a sleeper for the night train and it was BRUTAL! It was hot, sticky, smoky, and we had the "brilliant" idea of purchasing 4 seats that face each other, so that we would have more room, but we didn't realize that they sold standing-room-only seats. The aisles were packed with people eying our empty seats. To avoid looking like the rich westerners that took two seats while others stood, we offered our seats to people. Needless to say, we got no sleep and will opt for busses whenever possible.
Qufu was one of my favourite places because it was so mellow and quaint and a relaxing break from the chaos of big cities. We visited the Confucius Temple, Confucius Mansions and Confucius Forest. Did I mention that it is the birthplace of Confucius? Funny story from this town; they had horse-drawn carriages to take tourists to the sights, and one day while Toby and I were walking along the road a Chinese family stopped their carriage to get out and take a picture with us! Once finished they got back in the carriage and waved goodbye!
Next we went to Tai'an, the city at the base of Tai Shan Mountain, the most sacred mountain in Taoism. I mentioned before in our blog that it wasn't quite what we expected, because the city itself was huge (I guess we were picturing a little more like The Sound of Music) and the mountain is such a tourist draw that there were vendors, restaurants etc. all the way up to the summit. For this mountain we took a bus to the half-way mark, then climbed steps to the summit, explored the summit (like a little town up there!) took the cable car back to half-way and walked the rest of the way down to our hostel. It was a long day on the mountain. People who walk the whole way often do it over night to avoid the heat and to catch the sunrise.
Next step was Qingdao, the German town (not according to the German travellers we met there with churches, cathedrals, German architecture and naturally, a brewery! It is a popular weekend getaway because it has beaches, but not the clean and sandy ones we were hoping for. Here we went on a Tsingtao brewery tour, visited a German mansion, and a church bell tower. In the bell tower I just had time to say, "Does it chime on the half hour?" plug my ears and BONG.
Next we flew to Shanghai, a hip metropolis that appealed to us because it is so clean, has a good feel to it and lovely modern architecture to look at. We did a lot of touring via metro and walking. We explored the old areas, a garden, a park, the business district with an 88 story observation deck and caught an acrobat show. We could have stayed a lot longer, but with Expo currently going on the prices were inflated out of our budget (no, we didn't go to Expo, which is one of our regrets).
Our travel day on Aug. 4th was a nightmare. We got bad advice at the hostel that trains run from Shanghai to Suzhou every 30 minutes so just go over and get a ticket (Like the GO train in Toronto, we imagined). When we got to the train station, we learned that trains were sold out until 9 at night. Right that instant it started to pour! We had our full packs on, already sweating from 38 degree heat, and we had to find our way to the long-distance bus terminal in the rain. We got soaked, especially our shoes and socks. We got a bus, no problem, and then sat in our wet clothes for an hour. Once in Suzhou, we knew our hostel was away from roads that taxis could use, so we got a taxi to a nearby park and walked the rest. Pretty soon we were lost. We had to stop several people to ask for help and it took us an hour to find our hostel. The hostel was in a restored ancient building and was rustic (i.e. no a/c in common areas!) Even though the staff helped us immensely with our visa situation, we had to change hostels to one with a restaurant/lounge area with a/c as we had to stay in Suzhou for a week while we waited for our visa extension.
Even with bad travel days like the 4th, we are still eager to keep travelling, but have discovered that our "30 year old" tastes require frequent taxis, air conditioning and private rooms. As long as we can still keep within our budget (so far so good) we'll adjust our priorities and keep going. There is so much to see in China and we are eager to pick up our visas on the 11th and start round 2!