Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Old Soldiers

Again, apologies for being so slow with these! I didn't finish writing this one while in China. Will try to get everything up here soon.

Our main goal today was the Terracotta Warriors, which are a way out of Xi'an. I started out trying the hotel breakfast, which was pretty poor (apparently "bacon" means "fried sliced spam"), but that is to be expected in hotels in China, even the good ones. We headed out for a decent breakfast (or early lunch, I guess) at a well-known place for yang rou pao mo (Chinese bread in lamb soup). You may have noticed all the places we have been to eat in Xi'an are famous - Jing did her research on this.

Yang rou pao mo is a dish you partially prepare yourself. You start out with two mo, which are round, flat pieces of bread (the same mo as in rou jia mo). You have to break these up into your bowl, the smaller the better, then send the bowls back to be filled with soup. The ideal result is a soup full of bready bits which have soaked up soup all through them, but my bready bits were too big so they were still bready in the middle. Still very nice and highly recommended as a Xi'an specialty.

We took another taxi to the train station, to catch a bus, which makes more sense once you actually do it. The bus to the Terracotta Warriors is a public tourist route, one of those rare occasions in China where something cheap and reliable is provided for the benefit of tourists. However, fakes are not rare in China, and there are plenty of "fake" buses out there. They look nothing like the actual bus, and charge slightly more, but your average tourist isn't going to know that. If you want to find the real one, it is marked as the 306 (Tourist route 5) and perhaps most importantly, the driver and conductor wear official-looking uniforms. Stick to them hard, as the drivers for the other buses will literally follow you until you get in, trying to get you to take their bus instead. Once on board, everything is nice, it is a modern air-conditioned coach which makes a few stops on the way to the Terracotta warriors.

The real bus!

We got off at one of those few halfway stops, the Huaqing springs. There are natural hot springs here, which like most in China, have been plumbed and diverted for centuries. They once fed into the baths of Tang emperors (from 7th century AD), but now feed fountains you can wash your hands in for good luck. The park around the springs is large and covers a couple of historical sites, so we took one of the touristy stretch golf cart vehicles around. The driver knew the history of the place and explained it well, but I didn't test his English. The Tang baths were the first stop, and are now just stone pits in the ground with pavilions built around them in Tang style. Some are very large, some are small, and some have been filled with water so you can see what they might have looked like (but most haven't, as they are still significant archaeological finds). Signs explain the construction and role of each bath (which emperor or consort they were built for).

We headed on to a more recent site, the Huanyuan gardens, a hideaway for the later Qing emperors (in particular Cixi) from the mid-19th century. The scenery here is very nice and it's not hard to see why so many emperors chose this area to relax. More interesting to me though, was that the gardens were taken over by Chiang Kai-Shek during the 1930s and used as his command centre for a time. Most of the rooms are kept as they probably would have looked at the time, with fancy desks and Nationalist flags adorning the walls. During this time, the Xi'an Incident happened, in which some officers rebelled against Chiang. They failed, but are depicted as heroes here (they fought for an alliance with the Communists against Japan). So much so that bullet holes and broken windows from the Incident were protected in glass cases.

After wandering around a bit more, we got back on the bus, onwards to the Terracotta Warriors. Of course, being China, this was only the start of the journey. We had to walk a way from the bus stop to buy tickets, and once we got through the first gate, there was a much longer walk through some markets, selling all sorts of trinkets, from postcards up to full-size hand-carved replicas of the warriors. After this, another gate, then a walk, then the final gate, with the obligatory airport-style security. Either the metal detector was broken, or couldn't cope with the number of people, so they were frisking people as they stood in the arch of the detector.

Finally, we got into the park proper. It's hard to say whether it should be called a park or a museum - large grassy squares separate enormous concrete cubes housing the dig sites. We headed for the first building, which was like a large, old aircraft hangar. Once we pushed through the crowds, we got an impressive sight.

The buildings house active archaeological sites, so in the pits you can see archaeologists hard at work, apparently cataloguing their finds. There are also a few police in the pits, presumably in case someone decides to jump the railing. Some of the pits apparently have yet to be excavated, but it might be a while before the archaeologists get started on them.

There are 3 of these halls here. The smaller two are smaller and newer, presumably more recent finds. Less excavation seems to have been done here, and some tunnels seem to have collapsed. The warriors were placed in trenches, which had wooden frames built over them, then were buried, so that the trenches became tunnels. What is impressive here is what a large area the finds cover - it's clear the intent was to reproduce a massive ancient military formation. One pit has been identified as a "command centre" with higher-ranking officers. Makes one wonder what else is still hidden here.

Apart from this, there was a separate museum, but we were tired, so skipped it and headed home, the way we came, through the three gates and the markets, and on the bus back to the train station. Once we got back, we couldn't get a taxi - it was peak hour, and the few taxis which stopped for us decided we weren't going far enough to be worth it. So, we walked back, through the streets of Xi'an. It did feel more peaceful than some other Chinese cities, despite the guy selling swords on the street. We got back to the drum tower around sunset, and fortunately still had the energy to go to Muslim Street for dinner. We had Xinjiang-style food, but I was assured, not as good as what I'd get the next day.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Western Peace

Sorry about the delay in getting these up - still have writing to do!

Some fun facts to start this post - why do I type Xi'an rather than Xian? This is not really a pronunciation guide, just part of Pinyin (the standard romanization system for Mandarin Chinese in the mainland). Xian would be pronounced as one syllable, so the apostrophe is required to indicate two separate characters. "Xi" means west, and "an" means peace. It is in the Shaanxi province, which is not correct pinyin. The correct pinyin is Shanxi, but there is another province called Shanxi (the tones are different), so this one gets an extra a.

Getting to Xi'an in itself was an interesting experience. We took a taxi from the hotel after forcing ourselves up after about an hour of sleep. There was one already waiting for us, and Jing found out we were his first fare of the day after sleeping only a bit more than we did. Beijing taxi drivers are on duty for 24 hours at a time, and when in the car, time sleeping is time that could be used to make money. The traffic was normal Beijing, even before 6, but the haphazard lane changes freaked Jing out a bit (who hadn't been to China for almost 3 years). Once we got to the airport the driver was tired enough to have trouble working out our change.

The airport was just as confidence-inspiring. We had to run around for a bit to find which counter to check in at, which in hindsight should have been obvious from the throng of people swarming in front of it. Once we got there, we made the mistake of asking for our bags to be marked as fragile. We were told to take our bags away and put them through the oversize luggage section, so they could be "screened for dangerous goods", which I guess is somehow not the normal way bags are handled. The bags were then thrown in a precarious stack on a cart, so it seems the fragile sticker means nothing. Strangely, this doesn't happen at other airports in China (at least, Xi'an), only at their giant capital airport designed to impress us foreigners. Things got better once we got on the plane (by bus, as usual). Air China domestic service seems a lot better than international.

Special plane for the Horticultural Expo.

China loves big expos and cute mascots. As we discovered in Xi'an airport, the big expo going on at the moment is a horticultural expo in Xi'an, and the whole city is full of images and statues of the mascot, which we dubbed Tomato Head. We saw a lot of this on the bus into the city. Once we arrived, it was only a short walk from the bus stop to our hotel, which was just as nice as the one in Beijing (but with free internet in the room, and breakfast included).

Central Xi'an is not a large area to cover, and has a lot to see. Our first stop was Hui Min Jie (Muslim street). As Xi'an was traditionally the last stop on the silk road for traders coming to China, Xi'an has seen a lot of influence from the west. So, the traders brought Muslim culture with them, and a number of Chinese converted to Islam because of this. These people are called Hui, and are spread all over China, which is why you can find Muslim restaurants in almost every city in China. The street is a busy market full of exotic foods and trinkets, much like it might have been back when the Silk Road was used (and Xi'an was the capital of China, then called Chang'an). We had some baozi (dumplings), lamb sticks (not as good as in Xinjiang I'm assured), and liangpi (cold noodles with sauce, Jing's favourite) at a well-known restaurant here.

Muslim Street.

We headed back towards the drum tower, which is on one end of the muslim street. The drum tower is, surprisingly, full of drums, and was used in the past for communicating with the townspeople. It is a traditional Chinese pagoda-style building, on top of a tall brick foundation with a tunnel through it. Around the outside, there are drums marked with old-style lettering corresponding to seasonal cycles (24 of them), and some really big drums. Inside there is a museum of Chinese drums (like "fighting drum" and "elephant foot drum"), and a stage where they give a drum performance every hour. The show was pretty cool, but I was already a fan of this sort of drumming, and there are better drum shows around.

Xi'an also has a bell tower, which is similar, but with bells. These days, the bell tower is in the middle of a busy roundabout, and the only way to access it is through a pedestrian tunnel which winds under the road (this is a common way to cross roads in China, and Xi'an in particular seems to have a lot of them). There was a bit less to look at here, but we had a rest for a bit on the balcony and stayed for a bell performance.

The Bell Tower, as seen from the Drum Tower.

To wrap up our tour of old Xi'an buildings for the day, we headed south, towards the south gate of the city wall. Xi'an has a very nicely preserved city wall, which has been maintained until today and locals still divide the city into chengnei (inside the wall) and chengwai (outside the wall). Every road in or out goes through a gateway in the wall, some of which have been added as recently as the 1950s. So, it's impossible to miss on a visit. On top of the wall, many watch towers have been preserved, and those which haven't have signs explaining why (one mysteriously burned down to its foundations). The wall is very wide, and bikes are available for hire (or touristy golf cart things if you're lazy). We decided to walk for a bit, and hopefully come down closer to Dayanta, our next destination. This turned out to be a very long walk, and it took a while to find a way down once we'd gone far enough. We did though, and took a taxi onwards.

Xi'an's very nice wall.

We headed towards Dayanta, a tower with a big square around it, but stopped nearby the square for some rou jia mo, which are most easily described as Chinese burgers. Meat between 2 halves of a flat piece of doughy Chinese bread. It is a Xi'an specialty, and the particular place we went to was famous for it. Much better than what I've had in Beijing. We then crossed the road to the square, which supposedly features the largest water fountain in Asia set to music. A grid of jets shoot water out from a pool, and spotlights shine through the mist to make for a pretty cool display. The crowds were a bit much, though, and we left halfway through.

It took some searching, but we finally managed to catch a taxi back to Hui Min Jie. We found some interesting trinkets to take back, and I discovered suan mei tang (sour berry soup), which is actually just mixed berry juice served cold, but quite nice and ubiquitous here. We walked home after a very long day to rest our feet and get ready for the next one.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Temples and Buns

After a good rest, we headed to Wangfujing for a late breakfast. On the way we went past St. Joseph's Cathedral, a genuine cathedral founded in 1655 (but rebuilt a couple of times since then). It is now a popular place to take wedding photos and we haven't been past it yet without seeing a few couples with photographers in the front courtyard. Once on the Wangfujing mall we headed to Goubuli baozi (a well-known chain) for breakfast, but decided it was too expensive and went further off the main drag for baozi (steamed buns) at a hole in the wall. Afterwards we couldn't think of anything to do, so went back to the hotel to check the internet (at least, what was accessible) and write up the last entry.

St Joseph's Cathedral in Beijing

Fully recuperated now, we headed out again, via lunch at a food court in Wangfujing, to Yonghegong (Lama Temple). After a year, surprisingly, my Beijing public transport card still worked and had some money on it, so apart from the usual crowding there weren't any problems getting there. The temple is very close to one of the exits of its eponymous subway station, but we came out the wrong one and had to weave across a busy road to get to the entrance. Once we got in, though, it was quite nice. Not too expensive for a Beijing attraction (Y25), and the ticket came with a VCD about the temple. The temple is pretty big, and is much like other Buddhist temples I've been to. One interesting feature is a 28-metre statue of Buddha inside a tower. No photos of course. It was hot and smoky from the incense burning outside, so we headed home for a rest.

Later we headed out for dinner with more friends in Beijing. We had yum cha style food (they would call it dianxin here, I think) then headed out for karaoke via the subway. On the way we met up with one of my classmates from last time in Beijing, who is now teaching Japanese there. We had to wait a bit for the karaoke place to open, which gave us a chance to catch up. Once we got in some more friends joined us, and we all had a good night.

The only problem was, we got home well after 2am, and had to leave before 6am to catch our flight to Xi'an. Somehow, we managed.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Return to Beijing

Canberra has an airport, but its international status is only maintained by the occasional diplomatic flight. So to avoid an expensive transfer flight, the first leg of the journey was a 3 hour bus ride to Sydney airport. A good chance to soak up Australiana like dead wallabies and wombats on the road. Everything went according to plan, and we got to the airport well on time, and killed it by having some meat pies as an early dinner.

We took Air China for the first time internationally, and I found out I've been really spoiled flying with Singapore all these times. Service, food and entertainment were pretty ordinary. The seat was uncomfortable but I did manage to get a bit of sleep in before landing in Beijing after 12 hours at 6am local time. Enough, at least, to enact the next part of my master plan, taking the airport train into the city and a taxi from the stop, to hopefully save a bit of money and not have to bother with the "black cars" (dodgy unlicensed taxis with persistent drivers). Of course this didn't entirely work out right, as when we got to Dongzhimen (the stop in the city) the taxis immediately out the front picked us out as tourists and wouldn't give us a decent price. We found a good one around the corner, but he didn't know our hotel, and dropped us at the wrong end of the road it was on. So, we had to carry all our luggage all the way up Wangfujing, the main pedestrian mall in Beijing.

We eventually reached our hotel, and despite its outside appearance, it was quite nice. We went for a five star hotel, something I've never done before in China, and while it's probably not up to Australian five star standard, it's still a nice luxury at a reasonable price for us foreigners. After cleaning ourselves up we headed back to Wangfujing to try some snacks. There is a street just off Wangfujing famous for having all the weird snacks like scorpions and starfish on sticks. We stuck with ordinary things like jianbing (like a burrito with an omelette instead of tortilla) and roujiamo (spicy meat in bread).

After snacks, our friends Li Wei and Gao Yang, who are already married but having their ceremony soon, met us at the hotel. We gave them a present (wine from South Australia, the real wedding gift comes later and is cash, as is usual in China) and Jing had to try on her bridesmaid's dress, then we went out for lunch. Despite Gao Yang leading the way, we made it to Xiabu Xiabu, a chain hotpot restaurant, something I've been missing since last time.

During lunch, they were called away - something to do with the apartment they're renovating. We went with them to have a look. Even a small apartment like this costs a huge amount in Beijing, but at least it's bigger than my shipping container at home. Not much to look at as renovations are going on, and the exterior is a standard Communist-style apartment block (looks 50 years old despite being built in the 90s).

The view from their window.

I missed out on a couple of things last time I was in Beijing, and one of them was the 798 art district. Named after the work unit area it now inhabits (originally containing a factory and living quarters for workers) it is now where many of China's modern artists live and work. There is a lot of sculpture on the streets, and all the graffiti since the factory was closed has been preserved, which gives an interesting feeling of history, from Maoist slogans to vague modern social commentary. Any social commentary, of course, has to be vague, since this is China, and there is a feeling that artists are restricting themselves to certain topics (the evils of capitalism is a big one), but it is still edgy and interesting. Most sculptures, of course, have no inherent message and are just weird.

Chinese political art.

We met Gao Yang again for dinner at a restaurant on Gui Jie (ghost street). We had to take a number and the street was filled with groups waiting for a table, but they gave us free ice cream for waiting. Once we finally got in, I got to try some new things, like "little lobsters" (I think they are what we call yabbies) and spicy bullfrog soup. Another soup had sea snakes in it. So that's my weird food for the day. I had trouble with the little lobsters, you have to put gloves on and rip them apart, and I decided for the amount of meat you end up with it wasn't worth the effort. The frog was better.

Despite earlier experience of Gao Yang's navigation skills we took his advice and walked back towards Wangfujing. We got there but it took the better part of an hour. Had a look around, had some ice cream cones at KFC, and went home. Got into bed after midnight, after being up for more than 20 hours.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Going Again

So after about a year, it's time to dust off the blog again and get ready for another trip to China. That's one a year for 4 years. Not getting sick of this yet, though one of these days I will have to find somewhere else to go.

However, it's important to remember that China is larger than Europe (and has more than twice as many people, depending on how you count it), and there's no shortage of variety in things to see. So, I can probably keep this up for a while and continue to see new things.

Anyway, I should clarify my plans. The main point of this trip is to visit Xinjiang, meet my girlfriend's family, and attend a friend's wedding. We will go via Beijing and Xi'an, and spend a couple of weeks seeing Xinjiang. I am still a student, but less poor than last time, so we will be flying around and staying in nice hotels. The fastest train from Xi'an to Urumqi is around 28 hours, so flying will be nice.

Beijing is of course familiar territory. We will see the friends who are getting married (they both work in Beijing), hopefully catch up with some friends from last time, and maybe find something new to do. We only have a couple of days, but since we are staying centrally and have already seen all the big sights, it should be enough.

Xi'an is new. I had hoped to get over there during my last trip, but ended up going to the North Korean border instead (worth it!). It was one of the ancient capitals of China, and considered the eastern end of the Silk Road, the trade route linking China with Europe through central Asia. It is near where the terracotta army is buried (and being excavated), and retains a lot of old buildings and walls through the city. I'm looking forward to seeing it, as a historical city, and also as my first northwestern city. Different regions feel different, and the only feel for the northwest I have so far is the food (which is good).

More than that, I'm looking forward to seeing Xinjiang. Xinjiang is the province taking up most of China's northwest, and is China's largest. Much of the province is desert and mountains, with some steppe and grassland closer to the Russian border. It also borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and has passed through many hands over the centuries (the name Xinjiang literally means "new frontier"). National borders don't reflect cultural ones in this part of the world, and so there are sizable communities of Kazakhs, Tajiks, Mongolians and others, but the native people of the land are mostly Uyghur. If this sounds familiar, they were in the news around the world for rioting in 2009, and there have been many cases of political unrest and violence before and since in the province.

I'll be spending most of my time in Urumqi, the capital of the province. It is the closest major city to the Eurasian pole of inaccessibility (the furthest point in Asia, and the world, from the ocean) but I'll be closer to it if we go to Kanas Lake further north. From what I gather, Urumqi is not particularly historic, but hopefully we can spend some time in Turpan, which is surrounded by ancient ruins and desert. Unfortunately it looks like we won't be going to Kashgar, as it's a bit dodgy, but this may change (rest assured, if I were going on my own, I'd go there).

This is the plan, anyhow. It looks like I won't be able to post regular updates while I'm there. I'll be staying with locals, and Xinjiang being unstable as it is, the authorities will probably be keeping a closer eye on internet access. I expect bored cops to be more of a problem than terrorists, so I'll avoid causing that sort of trouble (more for my hosts than me). I'll be writing while over there, and in the worst case scenario, I'll post everything up when I get back.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The First Time

Since my last post, I've been at home in Adelaide, working and getting my future sorted out. If I go anywhere interesting I will use this blog again, but for now it's idling.

But back to China for a moment. Back in May, I was filmed, which in itself was an interesting adventure. If you missed my post about that, it's here. Well, they did get around to using me, and I'm now in the credits for this show, on at 7am on CCTV2. They sent me the video too, and I've put it up on Facebook and Tudou (Chinese Youtube, plus ads). My bit starts at about 1:10.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

I Have Returned

After finishing at the Expo, I spent the morning repacking for my flight back to Beijing. Thanks to Shanghai's pathetic excuse for public transport, I missed my flight again, but at least didn't have to spend four hours in the airport (though the flight I ended up taking was delayed by an hour). Returning to Beijing, the air was thick with smog. It was at least cooler than it had been.

The rest of my time in Beijing was spent packing and saying goodbye. I made a lot of friends there and spent each lunch and dinner I had left with them, but unfortunately I still missed a lot of good friends before I left. Packing kept me busy the rest of the time, and without internet in my room, I made occasional trips to the Hope Cafe to keep in touch with home.

On the morning I left, I finally said my goodbyes to my neighbours on the 13th floor. A great bunch of people. Hopefully I'll get a chance to go to Spain, Chile, Brazil or the US soon. I shared around some Tim Tams (Australian chocolate biscuits) which were really popular.

This is just after waking everyone up at the crack of 10.

Permanent reminder of the awesome people on the 13th in the first half of 2010.

I had to get going, so I left all the things not worth taking with these guys, checked out and got my deposits back (room key and air conditioner remote, Y100 total). Then I took a cab to the airport, and nothing unusual happened from then until I got home (almost didn't get on the flight because it was overbooked, had very little time to transfer in Singapore, and spent a bit too much time getting through Customs, but none of this really mattered as I got home as planned).

Very glad to be home. The differences between China and Australia are clear - the air and ground are clean here, everything feels more open since the buildings are all shorter, and things are greener here. Adelaide could never be considered crowded by Chinese standards, and things are safer here, with pedestrians having right of way and sane road rules being followed. I saw someone crossing the road in a wheelchair on the way home from the airport, which is something you'd never see in China - ramps and smooth surfaces are uncommon, a severe impediment even without considering the motorbikes and vans speeding through what would in Australia be exclusively pedestrian areas.

In all, I had a great time in China. I spent long enough there to discover many great places and things, from the desert in Inner Mongolia, to the ice festival in Harbin, to the historical sites in Shenyang, to the street food around the south gate of my school in Beijing. I also spent long enough there to see many of China's flaws as well, many of which I've already written about, but I suppose can be vastly oversimplified and summed up as: Despite pervasive first-world technology, and rapidly improving incomes and standards of living, the culture, habits and ways of doing business in China are lagging behind. I can take some of the fastest trains in the world, but there's no way of getting a ticket without physically being at the station, and if they are sold out, I can bargain with scalpers. Many things in China are much harder than they really should be, thanks to pervasive, overcomplicated and overstaffed (and most of all, lazy) bureaucracy. All this, I suppose, makes it an interesting place to visit. There is enough variety in the amazing things you will find and people you will meet to make it worth dealing with all the "monkeys in tall hats".

So, to all the people who have been following my adventures, if you thought it was interesting - go there yourself! My only regrets from this trip are that I didn't go out and see more of China. For Westerners, it is accessible, cheap, safe (just use your common sense!) and probably as foreign a place as one can find. People all over China are friendly and welcoming, and interested to find out about where you are from and how it's different from China. There is a sense of optimism you just don't see much of in the west - whatever happens, things will improve.

I don't know when or how, but I'll definitely go back. And despite all my cynicism and frustrations while I was there this time, some of that optimism must have rubbed off on me, because I know when I go back, it will in some small way be better. But I think I'll need a new camera first.