China (中國, 中国, Zhong1 Guo2, The Central Kingdom)

September-October 2003

We arrived at Shanghai's new airport at 7:30 in the morning and successfully navigated our way by bus into town. We were particularly proud since no one spoke any English. Next we went by the great metro system to our hotel. Well, the metro is great other than the fact that none of the maps were in English, so it was really hard to figure out how much we would need to pay. But it all worked out in the end. Finally checked into the foreigners' dorm at the music college, we headed downtown to eat. Tired of trying to make sense of the Chinese script, we went to the first place with an English menu... for Japanese food. Oh well.

We wandered the shopping district for a while, the Bund, and rode the psychedelic subway across to the other side of Shanghai harbor. I even got my picture taken with a couple of Chinese tourists. I tried to move out of the way for their picture... but found out they had been slyly trying to get me into the shot. So then I agreed to stand in the middle of them while they got their photos taken. It seemed just a bit strange. What are they going to do with vacation photos that contain a random white guy? Oh well, welcome to China.

The crazy Bund tunnel

Over a couple of days we visited the Shanghai museum (it's a pretty nice one), the Yu Yuan Chinese Garden, and other tourist sites. It was good, but all in all we weren't all that smitten with Shanghai. So we headed off to Beijing by the night train.

We weren't quite sure what to expect with the "hard sleeper" train, but it turned out to be quite nice. Every so often someone would say hello and attempt to practice a bit of english. It's hard to get too much sleep on a train, but it was better than we had feared.

Yu Yuan Chinese Garden Qin vase at the Shanghai Museum

Once in Beijing, we attacked the tourist sites immediately: first the Forbidden City, Jingshan (Coal Hill) Park, and the Temple of Heaven. We booked bus tickets to the Great Wall, theater tickets to see some Chinese acrobats, and tickets out of Beijing. That's not because we wanted to leave immediately, mind you, that's because train tickets are very reasonably priced and therefore they all sell out quick. They wouldn't sell the tickets the first time I went, because the train I wanted was five days away--they only sell them up to four days ahead. So I showed up at 6:15 the next morning... and they were already sold out of "hard sleeper" tickets. I had to go for the more expensive, but nicer, "soft sleeper" tickets.

Forbidden City front gate seen from Tiananmen Square Inside the Forbidden City The Emperor's Turtle Still inside the Forbidden City Arial of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park Moat around the Forbidden City Inside the Temple of Heaven compound Most famous view of the Temple of Heaven Another building in the Temple of Heaven

After that flurry of action the first day or two, we were more leisurely for the rest of our time in Beijing. The day at the Great Wall was excellent. We chose to go to Simatai because it was a less touristy section than parts that are closer to the city. The wall itself impressive, and the landscape is amazing as well. It looks just like the pictures. Really. But it doesn't quite feel the same when you're standing on it compared with looking at the photo.

Love that Chinglish Looking up at the Great Wall at Simitai More of the wall View of the wall from the wall Matt too tired to climb a steeper section of the wall

The acrobats were impressive. I mean they did stuff that people just shouldn't be able to do. Contorted and twisted, balancing on people who were balancing on people who were balancing on balls. All went well until Angela dropped the lens cap to her camera. We looked around under the seats as best we could, but we couldn't find it. It was a bit of nuisance... until the folks in front of us found out what happened. They were Japanese. All of a sudden what we had thought of as a nuisance turned into something much bigger. They all got up and looked under their seats. When that failed to find the lens cap, they made the row in front of them get up. Next, they made the row behind us get up, just in case it had rolled uphill to land there. Afterwards, they apologized for not finding it. We tried to point out that it wasn't that big of a deal--and that they had already looked harder for it than we had--but they still felt like they had somehow let us down.

Balancing acrobat lions Jumping over, under, and through Pretty difficult and mighty dangerous Just a few girls on the bike And the rest join them

Next up: National Day. October first is National Day in China, and do you know what they all do? They travel to Beijing. We tried to go to Tiananmen Square to see what was going on, but a few other folks had the same idea. My personal estimate was that there were 12 million people in and around the square, but official figures haven't been released. The only problem is that once they get there, they don't do anything. No military parade like the French on Bastille Day. No BBQs like in the US on July 4th. Just people milling around taking pictures of each other. And whatever gringos they find, of course.

Trying the unusual candied grapes and tomatoes

The next day we headed to the Summer Palace, and we were reminded how good it was that we had done most of our site-seeing before National Day. It was packed with tourists because everyone has the week off. Even so it was nice to see, and its enormous size helped offset the huge crowds a bit.

Roof detail View down from the Summer Palace View up towards the Summer Palace Beijing night market More of the night market

From there we headed down to Datong in our luxurious "soft sleeper" train. It's nice because there are only four people in a room instead row after row of bunks stacked three high in the hard sleeper. In Datong we saw the Cloud Ridge Caves (Yungan Shiku) and the Hanging Temple (Xuankong Si). It used to be hanging a lot higher off the floor of the canyon, but the river has been steadily depositing debris and raising the level of the bottom of the canyon. The caves were filled with lots and lots of buddha statues. Some big, some gigantic, and some enormous. Of course there were also small, medium, and tiny sized buddhas. There was even a buddha sitting on another buddha's leg holding his arm up. Once again, hordes of Chinese tourists happily took pictures of all the buddhas. And us.

Colorful Buddha with friends Giant Buddha with little Buddha helper From left to right: Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha Angela with super-colossal Buddha Posing with yet another Chinese tourist Hanging Temple Still hanging on Detail of Dali's very impressive Dragon Wall All nine dragons in the wall Chinese chess is a favorite pasttime Another dragon from another temple

Next we arrived in Pingyao--a great little town. The ancient walls (from the Ming and Qing Dynasties) around the city have been restored, so you can walk all the way around. We mostly walked around, checked out the dozens of little museums and temples, and talked with folks that wanted to practice their english.

Outside the Pingyao walls An old (restored) Pingyao building The central bell tower Taoist temples are really creepy Working out at one of the martial arts museums More of the old Pingyao wall No tossing?

From there the cultural lessons continued in Xi'an. It's the site of the world famous Terracotta Warriors. Eighth Wonder of the world. Well, according to them anyway. I hadn't even heard of it, and Angela only had a vague idea about it, but it turned out to be great. Thousands of soldiers formed out of terracotta pottery were buried with Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who founded the Qin Dynasty in 221 B.C. They were all made by hand, and each has a unique expression. Well, with 6,000 of them there are a lot of similar expressions, but they aren't just copies of each other. They were only rediscovered in 1974 while some farmers were digging a well, and the reconstruction of all the (broken) soldiers is still going on.

A couple of not-yet-restored warrior 100s of soldiers 1000s of Terracotta Warriors The surprisingly ugly Big Goose Pagoda The less-surprisingly ugly Little Goose Pagoda

By then we had had about enough of culture and history lessons, so we headed for some of the more natural beauty sites. The definite highlight in Chengdu was the pandas. It's got the biggest panda reserve in the world, and we spent all day there watching them--from tiny babies to playful sub-adults to lazy adults. Even the less known red pandas were great, though I can't help calling them Chinese racoons.

Mother and cub cuddling Sub-adult climbing (nearly) Chewing on a stolen broom Young pandas amusing themselves Old pandas amusing themselves Contemplative giant panda Adult panda pausing to check us out Little red panda Posing red panda

Next we took a side trip to Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve. At first I was annoyed that there was no overnight bus to get us there. Twelve hours is a long time to spend on a bus. But later we learned that night busses had been suspended because too many crashed; apparently killing the tourists is bad for the tourism business. All day on a bus sounded far better than tumbling into a canyon.

And our patience was well rewarded. The reserve, despite all of the current attempts to ruin it, was great. We walked for hours and hours finding all of the waterfalls, bright autumn leaves, and outrageously blue lakes. It was always obvious when we got near a major site it because we run into piles of Chinese tourists getting on or off their tour bus. They love tour groups. They seem to get wildly agoraphobicly nervous at the prospect of vacationing alone or in small groups, so they're always packed into tour busses together. These tour groups combined with lots and lots of construction going on detracted a fair bit from the park. But even so, it was great. We couldn't stop taking pictures each time we came around another corner.

After the stunning scenery at Jiuzhaigou, our final stops in China couldn't quite measure up. But they were nice. We stayed a few days in Dali followed by a few days in Yangshou. Both are common stops on backpacker itineraries. I much preferred Yangshou even though it was Dali that was able to provide me with my first taste of the fabled mangosteen fruit. Mmmm. We bicycled around the countryside outside of both towns to see the beautiful landscapes (and meet a few kids!) and then relaxed in touristy restaurants and cafes in the evenings.

24 km out of Dali Rice fields outside Dali Angela showing off a fresh mangosteen Dragon bridge outside Yangshou across the Yulong River Karst scenery along the Yulong River near Yangshou Some of the kids we met during our bike ride Karst scenery from the Li River near Yangshou

The final stop was a whirlwind 30 hour stop in Hong Kong. We wandered Hong Kong island and saw what sites we could, but it wasn't a lot of time. Oh well, one month in China just isn't enough to see everything. Next time though...

Daylight skyline seen from Hong Kong Island Evening skyline and sampan boats Night skyline from Kowloon

Last modified: 7 December 2003