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


misadventure said...

Ah.. the Great (Fire)Wall of China.. keeps out the barbarian bloggers.

Stacy said...

please don't type less :-)