Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Badaling Great Wall

Today I was thinking I would see a different section of The Great Wall. I decided to go see the really popular section near Badaling, mostly because I wanted to see the Ming Tombs, final resting places of China's Ming dynasty emperors. My trip was nothing like I expected.

I went to an area where I thought I could catch public buses, but only tour buses were available. I was hesitant to book a tour, but after seeing a whole bunch of other foreigners, I paid for a trip that included both The Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. When I got on the bus, the group of foreigners left and I found myself on a Chinese tour, all in Mandarin. It wasn't a big deal, I was more interested in the pictures anyway.

When we got to the Badaling, the guide wrote down the time I had to meet them at the bus and I went to do my thing. This section of the wall pales in comparison to what I did before, but it was nice to see it among cherry blossoms. It even snowed a bit while I walked around.

When I was done taking photos, I walked over to the bus and asked if the Ming Tombs were next. The guide said "No Ming Tombs!" I was surprised, because I confirmed a number of times with the ticket office and even after I showed her my ticket, she just kept saying "No Ming Tombs!" I showed it to the driver and got the same response. Then I tried to get a partial refund. After much argument, hand gestures and numbers on a calculator, I managed to get my money back. But then they didn't want to let me back on the bus. I just ignored them and went back on.

From one of the passengers, I found out that the bus was going for lunch (included in the tour) then to the Olympic Birds Nest stadium, where I figured I could catch the subway back to my hostel. However, when we got to the lunch place, we first had to go through a jade factory/store. The bus driver and guide get comission for bringing tourists to these stores. These are extremely annoying, they try really hard to sell you trinkets for real high prices. The Chinese tourists seemed to be loving it and many were buying things.

I went outside and waited for everyone to come out, when I was approached by a girl who worked at this place. She spoke very good English and I soon found out the bus was intending to go to two more factories and would not be back in Beijing until late in the evening. I asked her if there was any other way to get back to Beijing and she pointed me in the direction of a local bus. I left the tour and was soon on my way back. What a day.

On the bright side, I met some really nice and helpful people while trying to find my way back to the city. On the bus I even met a guy who walked me over to the subway and bought me a bottle of water on the way. That's the neat thing about traveling on my own, people are more likely to approach. I've met so many good people on this trip.

This is my final day of sightseeing. Tomorrow I'll be doing some shopping then it's off to the airport and back home. It's been quite a trip. China is nothing like I expected. It's much more modern. Unfortunately historical areas getting replaced with new. The natural scenery is stunning and though there is pollution, it's not as bad as I expected. The country seems to be changing so fast.

The Great Wall at Badaling:

Monday, April 26, 2010

Xi'an to Beijing

After spending much of the previous day seeing the Terracotta Army, I didn't actually have much time left in Xi'an. The city is pretty big and there are a number of sights recommended by the guidebook. I only had an hour to explore before heading to the airport.

Conveniently, the hostel I stayed at was right in the centre of everything. I quickly walked over to the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. Both are pretty interesting in that they were once used to used to mark the sunrise (with a giant bell) and sunset (with drums).

The only other stop was the Muslim quarter and the Great Mosque of Xi'an. The mosque was somewhat interesting in that it was built like a Chinese temple. If it weren't for the Arabic script, one would have a hard time telling the difference. I find it so fascinating that the religion was able to spread to so many places through China, so long ago. Much of it was through traders that had come via the Silk Road.

It would have been nice to have spent more time in Xi'an, but I did look forward to flying back to Beijing. On the flight I ran into a Chinese man who actually helped me randomly on the streets of Xi'an the day before. It was a funny coincidence and he actually helped me in Beijing too, allowing me to take his taxi to the nearest subway station. I missed using the Beijing subway, it's so easy to get around!

Once I was all settled into the hostel, I had very little daylight left. I actually got in touch with the Australian couple who I met in Guilin and met them and some other travelers for dinner and drinks. It was quite nice to have some company and exchange some stories.

Bell Tower:

Drum Tower:

Great Mosque:

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Terracotta Army, the final piece of my China trip puzzle. It was quite exciting to see it and there weren’t even as many tourists as I thought there would be. I was amazed by the size of the place and how much of it is still underground. Really, only a fraction has been unearthed.

The place is divided up in three pits and the first contains most of the terracotta warriors. I was with three other people and an English speaking guide. As we made our way around the pits, I heard little of the guides explanations while I ran around taking photos from various angles. But I’ve actually read quite a bit about it beforehand and didn’t feel like I was missing much.

Near the unearthed army is the supposed tomb of the Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who built the army to continue his reign in the afterlife. I have watched a documentary on him and very little is actually known about his tomb. All of it is buried and the claim is that it’s too dangerous to excavate it because the high concentrations of mercury. The emperor believed it would help preserve his body.

Close by is a recreation of the tomb that tourists can explore. This was included in my tour and I went along, but really didn’t get much from the experience as the recreation is very much based on speculation and I think much of it was exaggerated. The actual tomb may be much different and may not be unearthed for years to come.

I had hoped to do some more sight seeing today, but when I got back to my hostel I got a little distracted chatting with some other travelers. One conversation was particularly funny as a man from Kenya was convinced that I was half black and tried to convince me of this too. Either he’s been in China for too long or I’m getting quite a tan.

Terracotta Army:

Unrestored soldiers:

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Two hours in Hefei

Most of today was spent on the bus and plane, but I did have a couple of hours walking around Hefei, the Anhui province capital. In my guidebook there is very little information about this place and I didn’t have much of an itinerary. The bus dropped me off fairly close to downtown and that’s where I decided to explore.

I walked through a few parks and found them quite nice, but the best of the walk was visiting the Mingjiao Temple. When I got there, there was some kind of ritual being performed. Monks were sitting down and reading from texts while a voice over a loudspeaker recited the words. I found it kind of peaceful.

From the looks I was receiving on the street, I got the impression that this city doesn’t see many foreigners. I had a lot of people stare and some say “hello” or “how are you” followed by laughter or giggling. It seems to be a mostly younger people. Two people I spoke with on the bus were university students and I wonder if much of the province’s young attend university here.

One of many Communist style city statues:

Mingjiao Temple:

Friday, April 23, 2010

Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain)

China’s natural landscape continues to impress me. I mentioned before that I didn’t think I’d be doing so much hiking in China, but I’m very glad I am. I just got back from hiking Huang Shan and even with the hoards of tourists, it was quite nice.

To get to the top, my guidebook said it would take two and a half hours using the shorter but steeper eastern slope. I was able to do it in one. The mountain, unlike the ones back home, has a giant summit with many sub peaks. Once I was at the top, I started exploring all the different areas. Many have interesting names like “Begin-to-Believe Peak” or “Cloud-Dispelling Pavillion.” The latter was quite interesting as clouds/fog really did disappear after reaching this point. The scenery is just fantastic, with little spruce trees jutting out of the most peculiar places!

The plan after was to head back down a different and longer way, the western steps. However, as I headed in that direction, I got into an unbelievable crowd of people. I have never experienced anything like it. Imagine Johnston Canyon times a hundred, maybe more. I could only move as the crowd moved. I got increasingly frustrated and soon abandoned my plans to see the rest of the mountain and just wanted to get back down.

I took the gondola down, where I had an interesting experience. I shared it with five others, all domestic tourists and they all wanted to get a picture of me. I’m not sure what it was, maybe the shaved head and my beard. In the past, traveling through southeast Asia, people have been fascinated by my beard. Most Asian people are unable to grow one.

On the bus back to Tunxi I had a really pleasant conversation with a guy from Singapore. He helped me find the right bus, then we talked about other places we traveled to. He has been to the Canadian Rockies and even had a drawing on him of Mount Rundle. It made for an enjoyable bus ride.

More Photos from Huang Shan:

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tunxi, aka Huangshan Shi

The train ride was not too bad. It was a little small for me, but I’m a bit taller than the average Chinese person. Still, even with my backpack, I managed to get comfortable enough to get a pretty good sleep. Did I mention it was a fifteen hour train ride?

I got to my destination, Tunxi, but my plans didn't exactly pan out. Tunxi, also known as Huangshan Shi is place most stop at before going on to hike Yellow Mountain (Huang Shan). I had hoped to hop on a bus, hike up the mountain and stay overnight at one of the summit hotels. However, when I tried calling, none of them had available rooms. Ah well, I figured I could spend a day in Tunxi then get an early start on the mountain tomorrow and do it all in one go.

Walking around Tunxi, I made an interesting observation. Back home if I were to walk through a dark alley or under a bridge, I would most likely see some shady people; drug users perhaps. In China instead of shady people, you see Mahjong players. As I walked around Tunxi, I got a little nervous when I passed by a gathering of people in a secluded area under a bridge, but as I got closer, I realized they were all playing Mahjong, Xianqi and cards.

Walking around Tunxi: