Wednesday, April 25, 2007

From Xi'an back to Beijing.

Beijing, China - We're back!!! least for a few days. However, before I go into that, let's go back to Xi'an.

We got into Xi'an on Friday night and celebrated with a hot shower and a fancy dinner out at Pizza Hut. Little did we know that we should have made reservations, as there was a 50 minute wait to get a table. To their credit it was pretty fancy, although the salad bar was seriously lacking.

Saturday was our first full day in Xi'an. We used up most of the day trying to figure out how to get out of Xi'an. Not because we didn't like it there, but rather because in our short time here, we have learned that if we want to depart on the date of our choice, we need to plan ahead a little. Our goal was to book a train to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. So, we made a list of places to ask including the advanced booking office, youth hostels, the train station, CITS offices, etc. We decided to walk from place to place in order to see more of Xi'an and to work out the intense stiffness in our calves left over from the climb up Hua Shan.

To sum up the day...the advanced booking office had been replaced by a construction site, both youth hostels suggested we try the train station window #10 or #4 as those window offered English serivices. Windows #10 and #4 had lines extending into the plaza outside the station. The CITS office only booked plane tickets and tours. At the end of the day our legs were even more sore, but did learn that we needed to return to Beijing in order to book the ticket to Mongolia. So next task, book a train ticket to Beijing. Our hostel advised us that the best way to do so was to go to the train station early in the morning before the masses arrive, which suited us fine as there was no way we were going to trek across town one more time.

Sunday, I got to the train station early and was happy to see window #10 flashing the message "foreigner ticket line. Xi'an welcomes you." I wasn't so happy when 20 minutes later I was rudely waved off by a non-English speaking ticket seller who indicated that I should go to window #3. I was even less happy to see that window #3 was closed. 10 minutes later I found out from the ticket seller at window #2 that window #3 would open at 7:00 am.... another 20 minute wait. In the end I learned that windows #3 to #6 sell tickets in advance whereas the other 20 or so windows only book one day ahead. Everyday, a new lesson! In the end, I was happy and we had two soft sleepers to Beijing for Tuesday night. The rest of Sunday was a rest day. We did, however, meet up with Pat, a friend from Colorado, for dinner.

Monday, we joined a tour in order to see the Army of Terracotta Warriors. But first... on the way out of town, our guide gave us a long and not very interesting speech about the many fine products Xi'an had to offer. We learned about the quality, properties and many uses of Xi'an's wonderful silk. We learned, that if you place your fine jade bracelet in a bowl of water overnight and wash your face with that water the next morning, your skin will love you and grant you a beautiful and youthful appearance. The guide breezed through a bit about the last two of Xi'an's contributions, paper manufacturing and printing, in almost a single breath. I don't mean to be harsh. She did have some interesting information about the Silk Road and Xi'an -- but we knew what was coming next....

Our first stop was an unscheduled visit to a silk factory where we were once again educated on how wonderful the silk in Xi'an was. We were also given the opportunity to buy silk comforters, silk sheets, silk clothes, etc.

Learning how to make a silk comforter - Silk Factory - Xi'an

Next stop was the Bampo Neolithic Village (actually on the itinerary). This place was kind of cool and dull at the same time. Cool because this village dates back to 6000 years ago (according to the plaques there) and was discoved just 9km outside of Xi'an in the mid 70's. How it wasn't mowed over by the 14 dynasties that had subsequently set up shop there over the last 6 millienna is a mystery to me. However, there it was... an archaelogist's wet dream. Dull, however, because I'm not an archelogist and to me it just looked like a pile of dried mud. There were some skeletal remains sticking out of the mud that were interesting enough to point the camera at.

Skeletons at Bampo Neolithic Village
Ok.. we're off to see the Terracotta Warriors! Ahhh...not quite yet...first we have one more unscheduled stop. The Terracotta Warrior factory. First we were given a half hearted, hurried and fully uninspired "tour" of the factory where we got to see just how easily the Chinese are now able to mass produce replicas of the terracotta warriors. Secondly, we were given the opportunity to buy the mass produced replica terracotta warriors, some fine Xi'an jade, More silk comforters, newly fabricated genuine antique furniture, and a whole lot of other stuff.

The Terracotta Warrior Factory
It was about 1pm when we finally made it the Terracotta Warrior Museum. We were impressed by the 1/2 mile or so of future storefronts lining the entire way to what our guide thought was the entrance of the museum; it turned out to be the new exit. The buildings were almost complete and just needed to be filled with jade, silk and fake terracotta warriors in time for the 2008 Olympics.

A great example of Chinglish - Just in case you don't have the resolution to read this, the sign states "Terra cotta warriors international plaza, according to configuration all kind of cermocial items linked with new creative industries, become a modern public culture - tour pooling place, froming pure culture and history visiting enpand to Assembly travel service, showing, shoping, consuming and so on this whole industries chain and connect international morden practice travel industries item." One sentence without much sense.

That all said... like most major tourist attractions, the terracotta warriors were a pretty awseome site to see. I even enjoyed the circle vision movie (It was made in the mid 80's and has been playing on continuous repeat for over two decades...and it shows. I felt like I was watching something produced by the Darma initative.) After viewing all the warriors in the 3 main pits, our guide turns to us and asks, "So, do you like the terracotta warriors?" We had to admit honestly that we did like them. She replied, "I know. Everyone like the terracotta warriors."

The Terracotta Warriors

Tuesday, we managed to destroy the hard drive in our photo disk before hopping on a sweet luxury train to Beijing... I'm talking sweet! The bathrooms even had toilet paper and toilet seats that didn't need to be held together with wire and metal plates.

Yesterday, after a slow start we got tons done in Beijing. The slow start involved a prolonged search for an English speaking ticket agent in the Beijing West train station while hauling all our worldly possesions on our backs. The things accomplished: 1) finding out that the train stations in Beijing do not sell international train tickets but that the CITS office in the Beijing International Hotel did, 2) buying our tickets to Mongolia from said CITS office, 3) finding the Foreign Languages Bookstore (yes, that is what it is called) and buying the Mongolia Lonely Planet and a Manderin phrasebook, 4) finding Beijing's "Silicon Valley" (actually more like Beijing's Fry's) and figuring out a way to replace the hard drive in our photo disk, and 5) finally, booking a room for two more nights at a huge hostel near the train station in order to wait for our Saturday departure.

The Silicon Valley of Beijing at Rush Hour
Next time... Mongolia.

Here is the link to a few more photos, slideshow and comments:

Xi'an to Beijing, China

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Moving South and Up

Xi'an, Shaanxi, China -- We're in Xi'an. Central, central China. Very green with wide avenues lined with green trees; modern and cleaner than any city here in China that we have visited so far. This is how modern they are...there's a Starbucks on every other corner (though the first 2 we went to were still under construction and the 3rd had a broken water filter so no coffee...not that I was looking for coffee that is :)). Anyways, this is Suwei and this will be my first real blog attempt. I hope that I don't bore you too much!


The last time Karl posted we were relaxing in Pingyao. The Pingyao hostel that we were staying in as Karl mentioned was quite nice. The owners had obviously traveled abroad and knew what westerners expected and wanted -- traditional Chinese courtyards and decor but with all the modern conveniences of home like espresso from a real espresso machine, ultra-clean and new bathrooms, 24-hour hot water, and banana pancakes and bacon for breakfast. The contrast of Pingyao from Datong and even Wu Tai Shan in these western comforts had me enthralled -- at least for the first day or maybe even two. What we discovered quickly was that Pingyao was like a little Chinese Disneyland. Pretty on the surface but not much underneath:

Before we took off on an overnight train to Xi'an, we rented bikes and rode out to a temple outside the old Ming city walls. In the first mile we had the usual chaotic roads full of pedestrains, mopeds, tuk-tuks, bicycles, cars, trucks and anything else that could be pushed, pulled or prodded. But then the road let up with only a few trucks passing by and we made a left down a very, very pleasant tree-lined road to a temple. I write, a temple, because I don't remember the name, because it was a truly typical temple, and because we rode out there to just get out and enjoy the countryside.

For the return trip, Karl decided a different route was in order. This included riding on narrow dirt paths, through village alleys full of school children just out of school for the day, through fields of cut bamboo and corn, under an expressway, etc. For most of the ride back I was totally lost...could not even tell you which direction was north let alone where Pingyao was. But, as usual, Karl's internal compass got us home safe and sound.

Hua Shan

So while idling my time away in Pingyao while Karl was busy blogging, I noticed in the Lonely Planet a description of Hua Shan. It is one of 5 sacred mountains here in China. Words like granite, hiking, sunrise, mist, etc. popped out of the page and I was hooked. At first, of course, I thought we could still go to Louyang and see the Longman Caves but Karl reminded me that we can't plan things here in increments of a day (let alone my usual fifteen minute increments) we punted the caves for the mountains.

To get to Hua Shan we took a little of a circuitous route: an overnight train from Pingyao to Xi'an arriving at what was suppose to be 6:30am but in reality 8am (nothing is on time in this country, but in this case I did not mind the extra sleep), a minibus ride to the Xi'an hostel we were going to stay at in 2 days time (so that we could drop off stuff we did not want to lug up the mountain), a minibus ride to the bus station, and then a bus to Hua Shan. Circuitous because our train passed by Hua Shan sometime early in the morning (not stopping at Hua Shan but in a nearby town about 15km away) but we were told it was easier to stay on the train to Xi'an and catch a bus back.

The bus to Hua Shan took 4 hours to make the 120km journey because it made many stops to pickup and dropoff passengers along the way. At one lengthy stop I just had to hit the little ladies room. Having experienced bus station/stop restrooms during the ride to Wutai Shan, I set my expectations accordingly. Hmmm...ok, don't expect a toilet seat, running water, toiliet paper, voilins, perfumed hand towels, spritzers...oh sorry, I was just daydreaming of the bathrooms at Vail. Yep, the alley with a concrete floor and a series of rectangular holes spaced 4 feet apart of about a foot long and a half a foot wide with a shallow pit dug underneath. The dirtiness, the smell, the lack of get the idea. I won't describe anymore in case you are eating, have just eaten or plan to eat in the near future. After bathrooms in China, I will never complain about dirty, smelly gas station bathrooms in the middle of Nevada again!

Ok, Hua Shan. Incredible. Just stepping off the bus you could feel huge warm tan granite peaks spotted with green foliage towering over you. I can't seem to find the elevation of the town of Hua Shan but these mountains definitely rose sharply from the town. So our original plan was to arrive in the town of Hua Shan, to immediately start the hike to East Peak, and to stay at the hostel there. However, by the time we arrived in Hua Shan, the time was after 3pm. So we decided to take it easy...after all this is a vacation, right? We found one of the nicer hotels on this side of Hua Shan, splurged a little, and relaxed for the day.

Bright and early the next day...for me that was 7am...we headed out, got breakfast and started the hike. We were told by some Irish guy we met in Pingyao that the first 4km are easy and then it gets hard. Well, the first 4 kms were not what I expected. Though not bad overall, it still climbed at a steady pace. Made me reset my scale...if this is easy, then hard is going to be...really hard. So while we're huffying and puffying our way up, we see these locals porting goods up the mountain...I won't describe it because in this case a picture tells it all:

Later in the middle of the hard 2km, I hear a beautiful Chinese melody being played in the distance. Hmmm, I of these shops along the way must have turned on the radio or is playing some tape. Taking a break, I looked back and what do I see? Up the steep steps comes an elderly Chinese man carrying goods attached to both ends of a stick balanced on one shoulder and playing the flute.

What also amazed us was just the sheer effort put into the construction of this trail. I always think of the volunteer trail folks that maintain the trails in the national parks and forests in the US and think how hard that work is...but the making of this trail is in a totally different dimension...a dimension where you ask how many people died building this. The trail is made either by: cut granite from nearby rocks/walls, steps cut into the mountain itself, or concrete.

At one point when we reached North Peak, you could see the Green Dragon Ridge trail up to the other peaks and we just stood and stared. For a couple of reasons: this trail ran along a narrow ridge with sheer cliffs on either side, steps were cut into the granite the entire way and the incredible amounts of people on the trail. The latter reminded me of the ant trail up Half Dome on a weekend day:

Speaking of Half Dome, this place was like a mini-Yo...West Peak was like a mini-El Capitan:

There was even a mini-Half Dome looking rock formation.

After a stop for an early lunch at 10am on the North Peak, we made it to East Peak around noon and called it a day. We wanted to see the sunrise the next morning and since the sun rises in the east, the East it was. We checked into the only hostel on East Peak, packed books, a journal and a deck of cards, and headed to a small pavilion just beyond East Peak for some quiet and relaxation (and hopefully, to crush Karl at a game of gin rummy):

(And though I won several initial battles I ended up losing the war:


The next morning we got up early to catch the sunrise. 5am. Unfortunately, high clouds had moved in overnight and hid the sunrise. It was still beautiful. Mystical. During a breakfast of ramen noodles, we did see what a Hua Shan sunrise was suppose to look like:

I remember some time last year someone sent out a pic of a hike in China where Asian tourists are walking along planks hanging on the side of a vertical wall high up...especially remember that the females were dressed in nice dress clothes and wearing high-healed shoes. Well, I don't remember if this was the exact place but it was close enough. And though in the picture I remember, there were no harnesses, this section, thank god, required it:

It was cool, albeit a bit cheesy.

So we made a loop to South, then West and back to North Peak before heading down the Soldier's trail underneath the cable car. This was steep. Steps the entire way. One section was more than vertical and required the the aide of steps and chains to descend. Karl and I breathed a sigh of relief as we took our last steps down off the mountain.

So to get to back to Xi'an we managed to catch a bus just pulling out of the Hua Shan bus station. Sweet! No waiting and the bus had air conditioning! But then the excitement faded as we found out there were no seats left. Ahhh...I guess we'll get the next one. But no, Karl said let's stay on...they'll work it out. Working it out was sitting in the aisle on a 6-inch high plastic stool. I don't know how Karl managed. I got through it by pulling out the iPod and Karl's noise cancelling earbuds, cranking Green Day as loud as I could, and moving my numb ass to the beat of American Idiot.

We are now in Xi'an planning our next adventure. First we're going to meet up with Pat (a friend from Colorado on a whirlwind tour of China with a group of dermotologists) tonight for dinner so, jeez, we are already late...must get moving! Catch up with you in the next entry!

For more photos, slideshow and comments hit the link below.

Pingyao to Hua Shan, China

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Censorship, Cocabeer, Coal, Chicken Bits, Caves, Cliffs, Congestion, & a Nice Climb

Pingyao, China - So we have made it to Pingyao, a well preserved Ming walled city with a hawker to tourist ratio of about 4 to 1. We've got a nice place to stay and our room is warm, so we're very happily taking a break and trying to work out the kinks in our plan to keep a blog.


Our photo disk is now working. It turns out the USB ports at the last hostel just didn't work. The next problem is the blocking of Blogspot which we are still working on. I can edit my posts in blogger, but I can't view what I've written unless I go to a proxy for blogspot (don't ask me to explain further, all I know comes from Suwei). We still haven't found a proxy that works very well. So, when we view it some things are a bit scrambled. We are still looking for a better proxy. Yet another bit of trouble is that although we are able to upload photos to Picasa Web (what we are using to do the slideshows), we are still not able to view the photos. So, they are there in the albums, but we have not added comments as we can't see what we are commenting on. The communist censors are not making it easy on us. Suwei is at this moment trying to solve the issue.


But lets back up a bit. If everything was working correctly this is where I would stick a few photos of the Great Wall. They wouldn't quite do it justice, but they would do a better job than I can in text. Here, I'll try. was...uhhh... GREAT! How's that? Pretty much sums it up. It's a great freaking wall. We decided to hire a tour to Jinshanling. This allows you to do a 10 km hike from Jinshanling to Simatai. The Jinshanling portion of the wall is less restored and crumbly. The Simatai portion is better restored and steeper. Both are pretty damn great in their own way. Along the way, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the call of the local peoples "T-shirt, Postcard, Coca-beer!!!". 24 guard towers from Jinshanling to Simatai and every one of them well stocked with all the Coca Cola and beer you could drink. T-shirts start at 90 Yuan and drop to 15 Yuan by the time you hit the zip line. I kid you not, you can zip line off the wall at Simatai. All in all, it was still...great!

The Great Wall - Hiking from Jinshanling to Simatai


After the wall we booked a soft sleeper to Datong. Soft sleeper is the cushiest of the Chinese train classes. You have hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, and soft sleeper. Although the train left in the morning and was only supposed to be a 5 1/2 hour journey, we booked a soft sleeper because there were no soft seats on this train. By looking at the hard seat section we were glad we did. Anyway... soft sleeper is pretty cush and more so in this case as we had the whole cabin to ourselves.

Datong is a somewhat small town of just 2.6 million people. The main industry here is coal. 70% of China's coal comes from this region and it shows. Well before we arrived in Datong the sky darkened. Clouds, yes... but dark, grey, not so good smelling clouds. Much of what we have seen of China runs on coal. They burn coal to heat their homes, to cook their food, and for industrial purposes. Currently the Chinese government is investing a lot of money to turn coal into a clean burning liquid fuel. Everywhere you look you see stacks spewing dark smoke and the smell is almost impossible to avoid. With that in mind, we decided to go and grab some dinner.

The Train Station in Datong.
Chicken Bits

Judith and Marco, a couple from Holland that we had met on the Great Wall tour and who had taken the same train to Datong, joined us in our search for food. After finding the only ATM in town we pretty much picked the first decent looking place on the way back to the hotel. As we walked through the front door much of the staff had a pained, worried look on their faces which seemed to say "how the hell are we going to deal with this?" We were seated upstairs and we immediately saw that we may have a bit of a problem.

Up to this point, Suwei and I have been selecting resturants that have had either pictures of their food in the menu, an English menu, or enough people eating enough things that we can point to and order what looks good. This place had none of that. This was hot pot. Basically you order a whole bunch of stuff and they dump it into a bowl heated by a gas flame in the middle of the table. Once it sunk in that Suwei did not understand Manderin and that we had no idea what we were ordering (except for beer), our waitress made a few helpful suggestions by pointing to a few different spots on the menu. Sure... whatever, we'll have to trust you. Suwei is still madly flipping through the Lonely Planet glossary for the word "chicken".

A few minutes later the girl comes back and dumps a bucket full of meat into the bowl. At first glance we are all thinking "great, chicken, just what we wanted." Then on closer inspection we noticed that what was in the bowl was not exactly what we would consider the prime parts of the chicken. In fact, it was difficult to spot any actual meat in the bowl. Skin, gristle, bone, & fat...there was plenty. Necks, backs and wings that looked more like scraps you would be afraid to feed your dog for fear of it choking to death. So all these bits start to sizzle and boil in the bowl and we're thinking "Is that it?" Then the waitress returns with a bowl of broth, lettuce, tofu, and some green leafy things. She instructs us to take out our chopsticks and adds a ladle of broth to the bowl. No, it just looks like necks and backs and wings floating in water, still not inspiring us to eat.

This is when we start taking turns getting up, faking a stretch and peering over at the other patrons for a clue on what to do next. The only answer this seems to provide is that we should light up a cigarette and talk loudly. The girl comes back, looks at us as if we were extremely stupid and adds another spoonful of broth. That's when we figure...hell with it, we're hungry! So we threw everthing into the bowl, let it boil while we finished another beer and then dug in. In the end all our worry was for not...the necks, backs, and wings ended up making a very, very tasty broth and we ate the whole damn thing (granted Suwei and Marco did eat most of the "meat").

Caves & Cliffs

The reason we came to Datong was to see the Yungang Cave and the Hanging Monestary. Again this would be a great place to insert pictures rather than blathering on. I'm counting on the fact that we'll figure it out and I won't have to type so much. The caves are just outside of town and are chock full of about 50,000 Buddhas, but many are not in the greatest shape due to the coal mine just across the street.

The next stop on our tour was the Hanging Monastery which although also very touristy, was quite impressive. These mad monks built this thing 100 meters up from the valley floor in order to avoid flooding. Why they felt the need to stick it on the side of a wall is still a mystery. It is absolutely crazy to see and scary to visit. Although after 1400 years of floods and the layering of silt, it is now only 50 meters up...still precariously placed on the cliff face. What they did was drill holes into the cliff face and inserted wood beams. That combined with the very creative use of natural ledges and wooden posts supposedly supports this thing. In the states you wouldn't be allowed to get close to the cliff for fear of the whole thing coming down on someone's head. In China they have hundered's of tourist a day clamouring all over it. It's not until you get up on it that you notice how absolutely sketch the whole thing is. You've really got to see the pictures. Anyway... really cool, but man were we glad to get off of it.

The Yungang Caves

The Hanging Monastery


Ok, I'm going to try to keep this short, but I will apologize up front that this story may get away from me. We had our first somewhat epic bus journey. This was last Wednesday and we were looking to get to Wutai Shan (or the five terrace mountain). It all started at 7:00 am sharp when someone from the bus company met us in our hotel lobby to make sure we found the bus station and caught the right bus. The ground was wet from a heavy rain the night before and the air was slightly less oily tasting. We were seated and our bags were stacked in a minibus with about 16 to 20 seats. Before we left the station there was a lot of confusion about who got seats and who didn't. Those who were left without seats were eventually asked to leave the bus and we got moving.

Once we made it through the maze of bicycles, taxis, and people that make up Datong, we pulled over to a gas station for what seemed like a bathroom break. It wasn't until everyone finished their business and piled back onto the bus that we realized we were waiting for something. Eventually, a smaller grey mini-bus and a red car pulled into the gas station and all those people that were kicked off the bus at the start, got out and piled back on to our bus with all their stuff. Now we're stuffed to the gills. To make it all the more pleasant the Chinese tend to chain smoke and play music just loud enough to distort the bus speakers.

About 1/2 hour later all the non-seated people were again removed from the bus. They get out and pile back into the grey minivan and the red car both of which have been following us all along. 10 minutes later our sag wagons are back, this time with the original crew plus a few more people who fill up the last few spare spaces of breathing room, light thier cigarettes, and ignore the blaring music. Suwei and I traded theories, but really we had no idea what was going on.

This being a coal producing region there tends to be a lot of coal trucks on the road. I'm talking 100s of coal trucks. Coal trucks hauling coal in both directions. Add to the coal trucks 100s of other trucks hauling every other imaginable thing from sand, dirt & rock to metal bits, construction materials, hay, you name it. My point is there are a lot of trucks, and the trucks drive really, really slow... especially uphill. The trucks are so loaded down that I think the general rule for going up hill is that you leave it in first (or down hill for that matter). This means the trucks are traveling slightly faster than someone with a bad ankle could limp over a mountain. Anyway...this can cause a bit of congestion as we noted on this particular trip.

As roads head up into the mountains, they tend to get a bit narrower. As the road narrows the driver of the bus must swerve further into the oncoming traffic to get around slow trucks (this is done whether or not you can see the on coming traffic). If the road narrows too much the oncoming traffic no longer has enough room to swerve out of the way of the bus passing the slow truck in their lane. Therefore, the bus driver has two options: 1) slam on the brakes and swerve back into his own lane or 2) slam on the breaks, stop the bus in place and hope the oncoming traffic also chooses to stop. Please note that not passing on a blind curve is not an option. Collision is an unfortunate alternative to option number 2, but not good for the driver's career.

What we learned while winding our way up the mountian to Wutai Shan is that if a driver does choose option number 2, mass congestion follows. We came upon what looked like an endless line of trucks winding their way up the mountian pass. The only problem with using the word "winding" is that it infers movement. This was not the case. None of these trucks were moving. So our driver does the only logical thing, and swerves into the other lane to pass. After passing 50 or so trucks we had the unfortunate luck of meeting another vehicle traveling in the opposite direction. Because the trucks in our lane were not moving, option #2 was our only choice.

I warned you this was going to get away from me.

So, what to do? Luckily this same thing seems to have happened on this pass before, because to the left of the road was another smaller, muddier road about 30 feet to the left. We were able to back up and get on to this road to pass another 50 or so trucks. Then things got ugly. The smaller, muddier road started getting steeper and our driver stopped for a bit to decide if he want to continue using it or re-join the line of trucks. He chose the steep, muddy road. That is until it started to get rougher. Steep, muddy and rough seemed a bit much for this bus. Plus you could see that some of the trucks on the main road had begun to move. So he turned the bus around and re-joined the now moving line of trucks. That is until he decided that they were too slow and swerved out in the other lane to pass. Well... the whole thing repeats. Traffic coming the other direction has to stop, we have to stop. Then the smaller cars and motorcycles swerve around us until they encounter other smaller cars and motorcycles traveling in the opposite directions until no one can move anywhere. And they all just stop and stare at each other wondering what happens next. We sit there for about 45 minutes, never backing up mind you. Just waiting for enough space to move forward again. Eventually an opening appears, the driver folds in the bus mirrors so we can squeeze through and we're moving again. Anyway, hard to describe, but we encountered the same thing two more times on this journey. One caused by a 5 mile line of trucks waiting to turn left and another caused by a line of trucks about 10 miles long waiting at an inspection station or a toll booth of some sort.

Congestion at the Pass

After stopping to fix a flat tire, we turned left and headed up another steep mountain pass (the last before our destination and noticeably void of trucks). At the bottom of the pass we stopped so that our bus driver could chat with a bus driver passing in the opposite direction. While they chatted a female monk in the other bus leaned out the window to pray for our bus. We didn't know whether to feel good about that or not. It was about 1/2 up the pass that it started to snow. Really snow. Our driver was now driving very fast. I think he was trying to make it to the pass before the snow piled up too much. As we continued up, it seemed a very real fear as drifts of snow blowing off the mountain blocked our lane (luckily there was the other lane and not much oncoming traffic). Anyway, we made it over the pass, the driver slowed down, and we arrived in Wutai Shan safe and sound with a story that's way too long. Thank you for indulging me.

As for our nice climb the next day, I'll keep it short. In Wutai Shan the sun came out. The mountains in the distance had a nice dusting of snow. It was cold in the morning and there was ice on the ground. We spent the morning visiting temples located in direct sunshine. Once it warmed up enough we grabbed the day packs and climbed up a serious set of steps to Dailuo Temple. Not satisfied with that we actually kept going and followed a small ravine all the way up to Dailuo Peak for a great view of the town and the next valley over. Beautiful place with lots of clean air!

Wutai Shan & Taihuai

And that's it for this entry. We will try again with the pictures. Maybe that will help me type less.

Here is the link to more photos, slideshow, & Comments.

The Great Wall, Datong, & Wutai Shan, China

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Arrival in Beijing

Beijing, China - So, this is our first entry "in country" and as I type this we have been unable to figure out how to get the pictures up. It seems that our device is not recognized by their USB ports. Add to the fact that everything on the computer is in Chinese adds to the difficulty. Then on top of that... as I've just heard, any website with "blogspot" in it is blocked by the Chinese government. So, this may not be as easy as we thought. We'll keep working on it.

Speaking of challenges... I seriously think Suwei was testing me, as we had a few challenges on arrival to Beijing.

About an hour before we were due to land Suwei and I were filling out the required documentation (health card, customs card, & border control card). I was debating about checking "settle down" instead of "Outing/In leisure." Where as Suwei, with her cold, was mulling over the need to check "cough", "sore throat", and "snivil". At that time we figured we pull out the detailed directions on how to get to the hotel that we printed out before leaving home. Well, not so much. Luckily we still had the address and phone number, but alas no directions. Not to worry its only 2:30 pm when we land, we'll have time to figure it out. There's got to be an info center or something.

So with that we step off the plane and head towards the health inspection. As people flow past the "Please wait at the yellow line" sign 6, 8, 10 at a time, we pass through unabated despite our snivil. Then on to border control. At border control there are 42 lines, 2/3 of them are for Chinese and the rest for foreigners. We pick number 42, the furthest down the hall and the shortest line, with only 40 to 50 people in front of us. That's when Suwei notices that she no longer has her passport in her hands. She's holding on to the custom's form, the entry card, her WHO card, & the plastic baggy she was keeping the passport in, but no passport. Panic? Not yet, lets look in our carry ons. Nope not there. Panic? No, lets go back and look for it, you probably dropped it when pulling out the health form. We look back across the room of 42 lines quickly filling up to 60 or 70 people per line. Ok, this may be a good time to panic. We work our way against the mass flow of humanity, back to health inspection. Nothing. We ask if we can go back towards the gate and look. No problem, but no passport there either. A US passport laying on the ground in a foreign airport, or any airport for that matter, is not going to lay on the ground for long. Suwei is not looking happy at this point and I'm thinking about the afternoon cushion to find the hotel rapidly disappearing, about the hours we'll spend explaining this to the border officials, about replacement visas, and replacement passports.

At that point we figured it was time to talk to airport security. The color of Suwei's face and the tears welling up in her eyes told the gentleman that we were pretty serious. After a few minutes shouting into the radio he smiles and reports thats that security has a lost passport. We are sent to line number 2 where one of the officer's gives us a little tisk, tisk and a shake of the head as he checks the photo and hands over Suwei's passport. To say Suwei's face lit up would be an understatement. We were quite happy to be on our way.

The rest of the afternoon although tricky in spots was a relative breeze. We figured out what but we needed. No. 11 takes one to the central train station. From there we were told it would be easy to get a taxi. Well... when we got there, there were indeed plenty of taxis. What we saw was a taxi rank that was probably 6 or 7 cars in width and 10 to 15 cars deep all funneling down to a single red taxi ready to be loaded and an attendant standing next to it ready to load it. Great this is going to be easy! Umm, not so much.

So, here I'm going to write a bit about Pinyin. Pinyin is system of romanization of Chinese characters that provides a way for non Chinese readers to pronounce (or in my case.. grossly mis-pronounce) Chinese words. So, the address we have for the hotel is written in Pinyin, not in Chinese script. The problem with that is many Chinese don't read Pinyin. So neither the taxi driver, nor the taxi stand attendant could help us out. Luckily one of the hundred's of drivers stuck behind this one red taxi did know how to read Pinyin. Even more lucky, he said he could get us there. What wasn't so lucky was that his taxi was stuck somewhere in the middle of this mass of taxis.

He indicates that we should not worry, he'll take care of it. So in go our bags, Suwei climbs in back, I take shotgun, the driver climbs in and takes one more look at the directions, then starts to backup. He backs up all of about 1 foot before needing to stop. You see we still have about 30 cars behind us. So he honks his horn and the car behind him backs up about 1 foot before encountering the other 29 cars behind him. I'm thinking this could take some time.

Our driver hops out starts shouting at the drivers within earshot. Then starts walking towards the end of the queue to get this party started. Meanwhile our car starts slowly rolling forward. It seems he has forgotten to set the parking break. I manage to reach over with my left foot and step on the break before we smack the taxi in front of us. By this time the mass of cars behind us is starting to move, all this happening as more taxis as more taxis are continuously flowing into the taxi stand. We finally get to a point where our driver is able to swing the car around and drive into the on coming flow of cars. We pop over a curb, dodge a few pedestrians, swerve around the steel posts embedded in concrete that form the entrance to the taxi stand, whip a 180 so that we are now flowing with traffic rather than against it. Breath again... and we're off.

Of course driving in Beijing at what was now rush hour is still no easy task, as one must dodge all manner of bicycles, carts, mopeds, tuk tuks, buses, people, trucks, and you name it... all moving in every direction regardless of whether it happens to be in the road, in a bike lane, or on the sidewalks. I think it made us a bit nervous at first but then the exhaustion took over and we both took turns nodding off.

Ok, a little long winded but there you go. Day 1. Since then things have gotten easier.. our only challenge being getting over the jet lag. We've spent our time so far being good tourists. On Thursday we walked from our hotel past Quinhai Lake, through Beihai Park, and Jingshin Park (the only hill downtown in this very, very flat city. It was formed with the excavated dirt from the Forbidden City's moat). Then we had breakfast. Next it was on to the Forbidden City where we worked our way past the Hall of Preserving Harmony, the Hall of Middle Harmony, and the scaffolding engulfed Hall of Supreme Harmony. It seems that half of Beijing is under construction and the forbidden city is no exception. Many of the buildings are undergoing extensive restoration in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Next it was a quick stop at a four star rated toilet which I dubbed the Hall of Personal Harmony. Since we started at the rear of the city in the gardens and personal quarters and moved slowly towards the front, the courtyards and parade grounds kept getting wider and the succession of gates kept getting larger and grander. Topping the whole experience off with a giant painting of Chairman Mao and a wander through Tiananmen Square.

The Forbidden City

Tianamen Square

Friday, the sun came out in force and we rented what looked like two world war two surplus bicycles to ride out to the Summer Palace. Before I even made it to the craziness of the Beijing streets I knew my butt was going to be mince meat. But preserved and after 12 km of swerving around all the obstacles listed above in the taxi story, we were rewarded with a very peaceful walk around a beautiful lake hand dug in the 18th century.

The Summer Palace

Saturday, more wandering around town including a visit to the Dongyue Temple. Dongyue is Taoist temple downtown surrounded with glass and steel skyscrapers. A little more interesting because it's central courtyard is surrounded by rooms full of freakish statues depicting many different "offices" of Taoist doctrine including the likes of The Department of Happiness, The Department of Longevity, The Department of Reducing Longevity, and The Department of Life and Death. As you followed the rooms around the courtyard however things got weirder and the statues freakier. There was the Department of Wandering Ghosts, The Department of Hell, and The Department for Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death. I've got photos. I'll share them when I get this thing working. We also managed to wander down to the Temple of Heaven Park and caught an evening performance of Chinese Acrobats at the Wan Sheng Theater.

Dongyue Temple

The Chinese Acrobats Show

Today, we rested. Actually, we wandered around a big Sunday market for most of the morning, got some lunch then rested, but it still felt pretty mellow.

Tomorrow we hit the wall.

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Beijing, China