Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Here's the final edited version of our trip to mainland China. I accidentally posted this entry while still writing it offline. In China you cannot easily access Blogger but you can email your blog which is what I was testing out. I thought I had it set to save an email to the blog in draft status instead of posting it automatically . I was looking for a way to save drafts without back it up to my USB drive every time I made a change. If you read the first posting you probably have read 60% of it. I cleaned up some areas and added other cities we visited after the first posting. Anyway, below is my entry for our 3 weeks in China......

Wow, what a country. I decided to wait until we were at least a week into the country before starting to write my China entry. China is probably the most foreign country that I've been to. I think my brother Doug summed it up pretty good in an email when he described China as a wild ride. I'll write here for a little bit about the experience of visiting China for the first time then list some of the highlights, observations, and my daily log.

I am not exactly sure where to start. China is somewhat of a different beast than other countries I've been. For me China was kind of difficult at first and probably only moderated slightly throughout our time here. I was expecting to have issues with the food or water or some type of serious language barrier problems but actually what bothered me was just the daily life in China. To start with the people were pushy. People will jump in front of you in lines or seemingly try to walk through you on the street. It is by no means personal. It is just part of their culture. Old women will run into you and I saw them cut people off in wheelchairs. You learn pretty quickly that you cannot be timid. You will do better if you are aggressive at all times. Within a couple days I was running into people and somewhat looking forward to the daily combat of walking in the streets but it does wear on you after a while. It just gets kind of tiring pushing people aside as you walk through crowds when you aren't used to it. If people in China walked around cities in the US like they do here, especially in the south, there would be some serious confrontations.

Now that I described walking down a street in China. The next thing to discuss is crossing the street. In China the fact that you have a green light to cross the street only means you are maybe less likely to get hit by cars and bicycles. It does not necessarily mean that you have the right of way. I remember the first time I was in the Netherlands I was amazed that bicyclers with a green light would zoom through an intersection without looking because they knew cars would stop and they were right about 99% of the time. In China you wouldn't last a day doing that. Needless to say at this point I learned quickly to always be very diligent when crossing the street. I don't recall us being the first ones to cross and I intentionally wanted someone between me and oncoming traffic so they could take some of the blow if a vehicle didn't stop. In Beijing it was kind of bad. In Shanghai it was better. Cars actually slowed down and even stopped at busy intersections for the most part. I did notice that cars were a little more timid if police/military were present at intersections.

Another common thing you will experience in China are the smells. We're in to our second week and pretty much every day you'll run into some type of sewer smell or a decaying roasted meat smell that is quite nauseous. It not often over powering but it is common even in nice areas of the large cities. It was even present at the Shanghai Expo which is a major event that China is putting on to showcase itself on the world stage. I don't think I need to go into much detail on this one but trust me it could be unpleasant at times.

On top of the daily grind type challenges another thing that wears on you a little bit is that if ones stray a little bit from beaten path you'll see some not so pleasant living quarters. You will see very small apartments which are really rooms with a bed and sink. In Beijing we stayed in a older Hutong area. It was quite common for there not to be a toilet in an apartment so there would be shared community bathrooms. I saw this a couple times in Shanghai but we were in a nicer area and didn't get too far into a place were ordinary Chinese live. You'll also see that pretty much anything goes. We'd be walking down a street in Beijing and all of sudden you would come across someone welding something on the street despite kids or other people walking by. Around the corner you could see someone roasting chestnuts in conditions that didn't look to be that sanitary.

After a little while I pretty much got used to these unpleasant day to day experiences. I pretty much decided that there isn't much you can do to change the environment you just have to adapt to it even if you don't like it. China hasn't been all bad. There has been some nice people who have been helpful either at the airport or helping us order at restaurants. The places we have stayed at so far have been pretty good and we have also we have had some pretty good food.

Now that I have vented for a little bit I can go over some of the highlights of the places we visited starting with Beijing. Beijing was our first stop in China. We spent 5 nights there. The first full day we were there we walked to a park called the Temple of Heaven. I had never heard of it before Alethea pointed it out on a map. It was a pretty big area. The central part is the Prayer for Good Harvest building. It may have actually been called a temple. This building is pretty important to the Chinese and has been for quite some time. The next day in Beijing Alethea talked me into renting bicycles for our trip to the Forbidden City and Tianamen Square. Our hotel was only a couple of miles from these areas but we walked quite a bit the previous day and these area themselves are quite big. I'll probably never forget this experience. It was something else. The whole day we had to constantly dodge people, other bicycles, cars, and buses. I almost was taken out on a couple of occasions. I have sky dived twice before and that was by far safer than riding a bike in Beijing. The Forbidden City was really neat though. It is massive to say the least. There are numerous gates, halls, and areas to explore. It took us a good 2-3 hours we didn't explore multiple sections. After the Forbidden City we made our way around to Tianamen Square which is the largest square in the world per the Chinese. I haven't independently verified this but I'll take them at their word on this one. The square is obviously very big and open. It is surround by some government buildings, museums, and the mausoleum of the former ruler of China, Mao Zedong. I read later on Wikipedia that Mao was rated one of the worst leaders of the 20the century but is apparently still admired in China despite all the people he killed via purges and famines. I think over 40 million died in the 1960s due to famine alone as a result of his agriculture policies. After Tianamen Square we drove around for a little bit before heading back to our hotel. Some of the streets we drove on weren't always that bike friendly so naturally I had some more opportunities to cheat death. Once we got back to our hotel we calmed down with a couple of big beers from across the street. The good news is that they were only the equivalent of 45 cents US a piece. We also stopped in and got haircuts. It had been a little over a month since our last haircuts in Melbourne and we were due for a trimming. The haircuts were a little over $5.25 a piece. I actually saw them cheaper elsewhere in China.

The next day was another highlight for me. We went on a day trip to the Great Wall of China. The most interesting part of the trip may have been the drive up there. I felt like instead of being on defense we were now on offense since we were in a passenger car versus being on foot or on a bicycle. We booked our trip through our hotel and quickly found out when our driver met us at 6:30 am that we were the only people going. We also found out we would be in a car versus a touring bus. The drive to the section of the wall that we toured was about 1 hour 40 minutes north of Beijing. During the trip up our driver provided a lot of excitement. He constantly weaved in and out of traffic. He crossed several lanes of traffic in front of cars and buses to get off the interstate. On some of the more rural roads we would pass cars and buses with little room to spare plus come dangerously close to hitting pedestrians either crossing the street or walking alongside the street. It didn't matter if the pedestrians were old, young, male or female. He didn't discriminate. Anyway, we eventually made it up the wall on a beautiful sunny day. We took a cable car up to the top and spent a hour hiking to the west and about a hour and a half hiking back to the east. We actually hiked as far as we could to the east. The part of the wall we were at has been refurbished. We could see sections that were in disrepair and were overgrown with shrubbery. It is kind of sad but the wall is thousands of kilometers long and over a thousand years old. It was would cost a fortunate to maintain the entire thing and there is other things the government needs to spend money like the military or their space program :-). From what I read it appears there are only three main sections around Beijing that you can visit and one of those is currently closed. The scenery from on top where we hike was pretty. It was actually a steep hike in certain parts. I am glad we went and were able to see it in person. The drive back was not as adventurous as the trip up. It wasn't exactly smooth though either. It was mid day on a Sunday and there was more traffic which limited our driver's ability to effectively pass several cars at once and to take out pedestrians that happened to be in our path.

I'll briefly touch on the next city we traveled too. The next stop was Shanghai. We never really planned on going to Shanghai but when trying to book rail tickets out of Beijing we ran into a problem since it was the annual Chinese National Republic 7 day holiday. We weren't aware of the magnitude of the holiday before we left the US. We were aware of that there was something around the 1st of October but not that it was a week long and that a lot of Chinese travel during it. Since all trains leaving Beijing were booked for the next 5 days we decided to fly to Shanghai. We ended having a delay of over 6 hours at the Beijing airport but also ended up getting compensated 400 yuan per person in cash for our delay. In Shanghai the highlight was that we spent one day at the Shanghai Expo which is what world's fairs are now called. We spent the day touring different pavilions for different countries and cities including the US pavilion which in my opinion was pretty good or at least the part we saw was.

The next stop after our 4 nights in Shanghai was the city of Suzhou. Suzhou is a small city west of Shanghai. I am somewhat kidding by calling it a small city. Suzhou actually isn't that small. It has around 6 million people. It is known as the Venice of China because of all the canals in the city. To get to Suzhou we took a train that topped out around 170 mph to make the 30 minute journey. I think it is sad that China along with most other countries I've visited has a better passenger rail system than the US. Wonder if that would be the case if Boeing made trains instead of airplanes. I digress. In Suzhou we essentially spent a couple days strolling around the canals and different parts of the city. We actually stopped in a watch repair shop and had a link taken out of my watch for no charge. My watch was feeling a little loose since I've now lost about 45 pounds over the last 18 months. It feels perfect now.

After Suzhou the next stop was the city of Guilin. We ended up taking a 21 hour overnight train from Shanghai to Suzhou for around I believe $80 USD. It wasn't necessarily easy but wasn't too bad either. We stayed in the city of Guilin which only has a population of just over 600,000 making it similar in size to Nashville and to date was the smallest city in China we had been in. We were only there for two nights. On our first and really only full day in the city we decided to book a day trip to the Longji terraced rice fields. I almost decided to skip this activity because it didn't appeal to me at first plus I was tired from the overnight train. I'm glad I went though. We drove for 2.5 hours to get up to the terraces and ended up hiking for around 4 hours. We hiked up and saw numerous fields and went through little small villages. Also, on our trip was a French couple who are living in Shanghai for a year named Pierre and Georgine. They were staying at our hostel and booked the same trip as us. Pierre is a PHD student doing a year abroad and Georgine is his wife. They are from Marseille, France. It was a pretty good hike and adventure overall. Our driver who we hired for the day did a decent job too. Don't get me wrong he constantly passed other vehicles around blind curves and honked at people the whole way as the Chinese do but he was a little more conservative than our Beijing driver. I even started to fall asleep on the way back.

Next stop for us was our boat trip and subsequent tour of Yangshuo. Yangshuo is the smallest town that we traveled to in China. It has a population of 100,000 but is a popular tourist destination and receives 15 million visitors a year. In order to get to the town of Yangsho we decided to book a boat trip from our hostel versus taking the bus. We were picked up at our hostel by one mini bus then transferred over to a big bus. After our 45 minutes of bus riding we departed on our boat trip down the Li River. The trip down was peaceful and contained some pretty scenery of the limestone mountains that the area is known for. The boat trip took a little over 4 hours and included a buffet lunch. We also signed up after for a tour of rural Yangshuo after we arrived. We went to a rural village about 20 minutes outside of town and saw how people live in a small village. We saw the Dragon Bridge which is a small stone bridge in a small village but it is almost 600 years old. We then rode on bamboo rafts for a little over a hour. At the beginning of the ride we got to see a cormorant fishing demonstration. The cormorant birds are trained to catch fish which obviously comes naturally to them. They are kept from swallowing the fish by a wire that they have around their necks. The birds then are gathered by the fisherman who takes the fish out of their mouths. The birds are allowed to eat some of the fish to keep them motivated. After our two hour rural tour we headed back into town and then to our hotel the Li River Retreat. Our hotel was about 2 km outside of the town along the Li River that we had traveled on earlier in the day.

We pretty much spent the next two days at our hotel. We did a lot of planning for Turkey and walked around our general area one day. On our last day in Yangshuo we actually signed up for a cooking class. It was only about $24 USD and included them picking us up from our hotel, going to a market to buy the groceries, the class itself in which we ate what we cooked, and a ride back into town. It was pretty interesting. In the market we saw some unpleasant sights. There was a section in the back where there were some dead dogs. There were also dogs in cages waiting to be slaughtered. It was Ok for us to walk over there and check it out but I didn't have the stomach to do so. I could see enough from a distance of about 25 meters or so. After our class and lunch we roamed around Yanghshuo and killed some time at the Buffalo Bar before taking a hour long bus back to Guilin. In Guilin we took an overnight train to Ghuangzhou. It was a shorter ride than our previous trip. The train left at around 9:20 pm and arrived at 8:30 am the next morning. I actually slept pretty good on the train. When we arrived in Ghuangzhou we transferred over to the East Station via the subway to where the Hong Kong bound trains depart from. We actually ended up purchasing the last two tickets for the 9:50 am train. There were plenty of seats available but they stop selling tickets 20 minutes before the train departs. The ride to Hong Kong lasted about 2 hours. One interesting thing is that before we boarded we had to go through immigration. Even though Hong Kong has belonged to China for the last 13 years it is still treated as an independent special district and will be for another 37 years so you have to be cleared to travel there. We received a departing stamp in a our passports for leaving China and received another stamp when we entered Hong Kong.

This pretty much wraps up our China trip or at least the mainland China portion. Since the Chinese still treat Hong Kong as pretty much a different country, I will too for blogging purposes. Hong Kong even has its own currency still. China was defiantly an interesting experience. I think I was little shocked to begin with but gradually sort of adapted. I realize the first part of the blog was probably a little negative but it wasn't all bad. There were a lot of nice helpful Chinese people who were curious about us and really helped us along on our journey. It is definitely a place I'll remember for some time and am glad we came. I think I was a little worried at first because I knew I wasn't reacting all that well and that I knew we were traveling to places that will be worse but that is all part of the experience. Visiting China isn't easy but I think it is worth it. There is nothing like visiting a place in person no matter what it is like versus reading about it. We'll spend 5 nights in Hong Kong before traveling over to Turkey to start the Middle East and Africa portions of our trip. That's all for now. I'm looking forward to Turkey especially since we've been doing planning for it over the last few days.

Links to China photo albums:

Social websites are blocked: Facebook, Twitter, Blogspot, Picasa Web Albums
Smoking is more common including indoors.
English not that prevalent but a few understand a couple words.
Frequent sewer smell.
Roasted meat smell that smells like the sewer too.
Riding a bicycle is an experience. Potentially dangerous.
Cars will drive through crosswalks even if you have the light. It was better in Shanghai than in Beijing.
Street vendors, rick shaw, and taxi drivers trying to sell you items or a service is quite common.
People are aggressive and pushy in any type of situation involving a line or queue.
Shanghai is a little bit more modern. Cars don't automatically drive through crosswalks. People are still pushy and if you get a few blocks away from downtown then the areas are not too good and smell nasty
China cities seem to lack bars just to sit down and have a beer. Lot of walk away or small places to eat.
Frequently have to have your bags scanner & walk through a metal detector at subway and train stations but the people manning these area are quite often not even looking at the screens.
In Beijing they rate some of their public toilets in tourist area on a 1 to 5 star system.
China has one time zone for the whole country.
China is pretty much a cash society with few places taking Visa\Mastercard
Hong Kong is still pretty much treated like a separate country despite the fact that it was turned back over to the Chinese 13 years ago. You have to go through immigration to get to it and they still have their own currency. I knew about the 1 country 2 systems policy but I thought it would be more integrated than what it is today.

Daily Log

Friday 9/24/10 - Beijing
Temple of Heaven
Haircut (35 yen per person)
Booked tour to Great Wall for Sunday (cost 310 yuan per person)

Saturday 9/25/10 - Beijing (Forbidden City, Tianamen Square)
Rented bicycle (400 yuan deposit plus 20 yuan for 2 people). It was scary. Cars would turn into crosswalks. Had to constantly watch out for cars and keep from being hit. Almost was taken out by double bus.
Forbidden City or Palace Museum as the Chinese call it. Took hours to explore
Walked around Tianamen Square after going through a security checkpoint.
Got a haircut. Barber understood a little English and understood that I wanted a 1 blade. Cost was 35 yuan or $5.22 USD

Sunday 9/26/10 - Beijing
Great Wall of China @ the Mutianyu section – took 1 hr 40 minutes to drive there, spent 3.5 hours hiking the wall. The drive up there was exciting and dangerous. Driver constantly passing people, nearly hit people in the road, cut people off in traffic regularly.
Actually saw blue skies and the sun shine in Beijing

Monday 9/27/10 – Beijing
All day travel planning day. No train tickets available for 5 days due to 7 day national holiday week in China.. Had to purchase air tickets from Beijing to Shanghai. Will stay down there for two nights before moving on (we extended it to 4 days).
Did a lot of research on Turkey. Not going to be pretty since the sights we want to see are spread out.
Dinner was at a Chinese restaurant that has been in business since 1785. We had a hot pot which is similar to eating at a Melting Pot restaurant back in the US. We even chatted briefly with some Chinese men next to us who asked us where we were from. One man gave me a shot of his rice liquor. It was quite strong.

Tuesday 9/28/10 – Beijing to Shanghai
Made it airport relatively easy by walking to subway and taking it to the airport express. Rode airport express train to terminal 3.
Fight was supposed to leave @ 1:55. There was an announcement about a flight delay to technical reasons but no other details given. Alethea went to Air China lounge while I walked around the airport for 30 minutes. She then called me on her cell phone to come to the lounge because she was trying to get us on another flight since there was no communication regarding our flight. I sneaked in to the lounge because of all the confusion with passengers trying to re-book at the front desk. We stayed in the lounge until our flight boarded @ 8:00 pm. We had sandwiches, dumplings, noodles, beer, water, and orange juice over the next 6 hours. We almost considered going to the hotel they were going to put us up in or fly to another city but eventually took our flight.
Right before we boarded a Chinese gentleman asked us we got our money from the airlines due to the delay. We ended up getting 400 yuan per person for our troubles which is about $120 USD.
We sat on the ground for another 40 minutes after we boarded. People in front of us immediately put their seats back and the guy behind crunched up in a ball and put his knees directly into my back. When we got in the air I reclined my seat all the way back forcefully to knock his knees down.
Took taxi from airport. Cost 220 yuan. Had to call hostel on my cell phone and hand to driver to guide us for the final little bit of our journey.
Made it to hostel a little after midnight. Took showers and went to bed around 1:10 am.

Wednesday 9/29/10 – Shanghai
Slept in
Discussed travel options for trains and flights
Toiletry shopped @ Watsons
Ate dinner @ a Burger King
Walked around People's Square
Bought beer and breakfast noodles
Came back to hostel to do laundry
Spent hours trying to plan our itinerary for the rest of China.
Extended our stay by another night

Thursday 9/30/10 – Shanghai
Shanghai Expo – It is what used to be called the World's Fair. It is massive. Two tickets costs $47. We walked around and saw pavilions for the Iran, Netherlands, and USA. We also saw city exhibits of Ningbo, Osaka, and Alsace (region). Saw a 30 minute Kung Fu demonstration. USA exhibit was pretty good or at least better than I thought it was going to be. Wanted to go to others but the lines were very long. Could have taken a couple hours to get into the Italy, France, or England.

Friday 10/1/10 – Shanghai
Walked to the Bund area
Purchased train tickets for Suzhou and then to Guilin
Walked too far to find old section of Shanghai.
Walked through some not so good parts of town trying to find our way back to old section of Shanghai that we had missed. It wasn't pretty and smelled nasty.
Old city area of Shanghai was absolutely packed. We walked through it and made the long walk back to our place.
A lot of walking among very crowded streets today. A lot of the walking was unnecessary and could have been avoided. I was drained by the end of the day.

Saturday 10/2 – Suzhou
Took high speed train from Shanghai to Suzhou. Train reached top speed of 282 km/h or 175 mph. Took less than 30 minutes to get there.
Waited in Taxi line to take to hostel. Taxi dropped us off before hostel. Had to walk rest of way to hostel down by a canal. Only a couple hundred meters.
Checked into Ming Town Hostel Suzhou. Only costs 450 yuan for 3 nights or $22.43 USD per night. Room is the smallest that we've had on our whole trip but in the old part of town next to canal.
Walked around for a little bit but it was raining. Fell into Southern Cross where they had happy hour from 1200 – 1900. Ate Mexican dinner from there with beers. Total 234 yuan or $34.98.

Sunday 10/3 – Suzhou
Walked around Suzhou for a few hours
Got one link removed from watch @ watch repair shop. Person didn't charge me.
Tried to buy train tickets but couldn't buy any from Guilin to Ghaunshouz (sp). You pretty much have to buy a ticket in the city you are departing from and not book ahead. We've ran into this here and in Beijing but were able to do it in Shanghai.
Ate dinner @ a good traditional style restaurant. Costs only 61 RMB or a little over $9 USD.

Monday 10/4 – Suzhou
Roamed around city streets for a couple hours
Stopped at grocery store and bought breakfast noodles and some toothpaste
Stopped at pharmacy because my athlete's foot is not getting better and it looking worse. Described situation to a worker at the pharmacy who showed us one type of medication then took my shoe and sock off to show it to her and she immediately switched to something else. I'll need to spray it with something a little stronger for the next two weeks.
Came back to hostel and drank a couple beers and ate snacks while we did laundry.

Tuesday 10/5 – Overnight train
Checked out of hostel @ noon
Took taxi to Suzhou train station
Took train from Suzhou to Shanghai – fastest train speed was 332 km/h
Took Shanghai Subway from Shanghai train station to Shanghai South Train Station which is the brand new large station. My backpack got caught in the bag scanning equipment.
Boarded train from Shanghai to Guilin – 21 hour train, traveled over 1500 km or ~900 miles. Had trouble sleeping for a while. We shared our soft sleeper cabin with another man and a brother/sister who shared one of the top bunks.

Wednesday 10/6 – Guilin
Arrived in Guilin little after 2 pm.
Walked about a half mile to our hostel.
Walked around mall across the street. Ate dinner at hostel and made arrangement to go on a day trip to the rice terraces tomorrow with a french couple from Marseille named Pierre and Georgine (sp).

Thursday 10/7 – Guilin
Took a day drip to the rice terraces of Longji. Started @ 7 am. Returned back to hostel around 4 pm.
Spent most of the day hiking with a French couple we met the night before. Pierre and Georgine. We got a little lost but made up to the Golden Buddha Point we were aiming for.

Friday 10/8/10 – Yangshuo
Took boat from Guilin to Yangshuo: Took 2 buses for 45 minutes to boat, took 4.5 hour boat ride to Yangshuo, Signed up for Yanghuo tour after boat trip – consisted of touring an old village and going to the Dragon Bridge which was built in 1412, took bamboo ride and saw birds (cormorant) that are trained to fish along with going down three small “rapids” which took a hour.
Will spend three nights at the Li River Retreat. Rooms are the nicest we've had in all of China from first glance.

Saturday 10/9/10 – Yangshuo
Spent the day relaxing at our hotel.
Did Turkey related research most of the day.
Scrubbed Teva's and washed money belt since they were dirty.
Hotel did the laundry

Sunday 10/10/10 – Yangshuo
Worked on Turkey planning activities.
Booked some hostels & intra-Turkey flights.
Walked around hotel area. Saw some buildings under construction, water buffalo, chicken, & dogs

Monday 10/11/10 – Overnight train to Ghuangzhou
Yangshuo Cooking School – went to market in Yangshuo then cooking school. There dead dogs and alive dogs waiting to be butchered.
Walked around Yangshuo.

Tuesday 10/12/10 – Hong Kong
Arrived in Guangzhou around 8:30 am. Slept real good on train
Took Guangzhou Metro to East Train Station
Purchases last two tickets for the Hong Kong train @ 9:50 am. There were plenty of seats but they quit selling tickets 20 minutes before the train departs.
Train to HK took almost 2 hours
Found hotel, walked around HK a little bit, relaxed with a couple of beers overlooking the HK skyline.
Ate dinner at good Indian restaurant.

Blog entry covered from 9/23 to 10/12.