Monthly Archive for June, 2006

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China day 17

We slept late today. Sabrina later than me, while I caught up with important things like Slashdot, Dilbert, User-Friendly, and my blog posts. So absorbed was I that didn’t notice that it was 12:30pm already, past the checkout deadline.

We completed the fastest hotel checkout in world history. We had a few hours before we needed to leave for the airport, so we left our bags in the care of the hotel, and we set out for some Peking Duck. You can’t come to Beijing and not have Peking Duck.

Peking, btw, is the same as Beijing, but written in an older Romanization system, the Wade-Giles system. In Wade-Giles, ‘P’ and ‘B’ are both written as ‘P’. This is because they use the same mouth shape, but one of them (B) is voiced, and the other (P) is unvoiced. Wade-Giles indicates the voiced sound using an accent mark. Unfortunately, the accent marks were often omitted. And then, people pronounce it using English pronunciation rules, which is just all wrong. So, Peking Duck is really Beijing Duck. And Peking Man is really Beijing Man.

Anyway, Peking Duck (I’ll call it that, because that’s what everyone calls it) consists of pieces of roasted duck meat, chopped onion, and a flat bread sort of like a tortilla. You roll up duck and onion in a piece of the flat bread, dip it in sauce, and enjoy. It really is yummy. Sometimes the skin of the duck is served as a separate course. But not here. Had a glass of another local beer, dark and malty, very good.

We walked back to the hotel, by way of Tiananmen Square. A misty day again, no good for photos. But took a couple shots of Sabrina in front of the Monument to the Peoples’ Heroes, and the Pickled Mao Mausoleum.

Collected our bags at the hotel, caught a taxi, and realized that it would take 50min to get the airport, putting us in danger of missing our flight. We got there 30mins before departure time. Managed to get checked in and clear security pretty quick, got to gate in comfortable time. After we got seated, the flight was delayed for some considerable time. Hainan Airlines seems to encounter a lot of delays. Or maybe it’s just the Beijing Central Airport that is the problem.

We’re in the air now, even as I write this. Pretty choppy flight. But it should be short, only an hour or so.

Arrived in XiAn without incident. Outside the airport, a taxi driver accosted us, but he seemed fishy (both figuratively and literally… he smelled funny). We didn’t trust him. Instead caught a shuttle bus to Xian centre. The bus was cheaper any, and dropped us a block from our hotel.

On the bus-ride, Sabrina arranged for a tour for us for the next day.

Xian looked pretty typical, until we got to the old city wall. Many old Chinese cities were walled cities, but most of them are gone now. Beijing’s old wall remains only in a few places. But Xian’s wall remains complete, and very well-maintained.

Inside the wall, it comes to life, all bright lights.

Bus attendant told us that our planned hotel, the Bell Tower Hotel, actually had very small rooms. We’re planning to go check them out, but may select another hotel after all.

Checked into Bell Tower Hotel, the room is small, but acceptable. An ever more sophisticated bed-side control console here, why don’t Canadian hotels have these?

After settling in, we set out to find some late-night food. We intended to go to a dim-sum restaurant, because Xian is known for its own special brand of dim-sum. But it was closed, so instead we made our way to a near by street food street. My first experience with street food in China. It seemed very typically Chinese: hot and noisy.

Xian cuisine includes a lot of lamb. Walking down the street, my nostrils were taken hostage by a wonderful spicy aromatic smoke. The smell was heavily armed with some spice common in Indian food, but whose name eludes me. But I can say that it also features prominently in President’s Choice Memories of Kashmir sauce. Cumin, maybe. The aromas that had captured my nose presented their demands: find me and eat me! We had no choice but to comply.

The smell originated from a grill spewing smoke by the road side, and laden with some marinated lamb bits on skewers. The ransom was ¥1 per skewer, a bargain indeed. A quick late meal concluded, we returned to the hotel to sleep.

The journey back to the hotel was made treacherous by the fact that the pedestrian underpasses get locked up at midnight. Most inconvenient. The roadways generally have fences to prevent pedestrians from crossing just anywhere. But with the underpass locked, and no viable alternative provided, what are we to do? Ask for directions: how do we cross this street? Answer: the fence ends about a block up the street in the wrong direction. We go there, and do a little Frogger across the busy road. Then back to hotel to sleep.

Tomorrow we get up early (groan) for the tour of the tombs here (yay!)

China day 16

Yesterday, Sabrina arranged with one of our taxi drivers to take us to the Great Wall today, and possibly one of the Ming dynasty imperial tombs as well. We woke up at 7am this morning for the trip. We had no time for breakfast, just ate a couple rolls that we had saved from dinner the night before.

There are a number of segments of the Great Wall around Beijing that can be visited by tourists. Other sections can be in a terrible state of decay, and are not safe.

The site we chose was at Mutianyu. This section is less visited than the site at Badaling, and also much less commercialized. It’s quite a long drive from the centre of Beijing, along some twisty mountain roads.

Upon arriving, we walked the gauntlet of very enthusiastic hawkers, selling Great Wall T-shirts, and lots of the other generic tourist crap that these people all have. Fake jade jewellery, those crystal blocks with tiny bubbles forming 3-D images inside, fans, water pipes (for some reason), silk shirts, the same stuff we see everywhere. That said, I’d say the tourist crap in China is generally cooler than the tourist crap in Canadian sites like Niagara Falls.

We bought tickets for the Great Wall, and for a separate price, tickets for a return-trip to the wall via cable-car. I consider the cable-car strictly necessary, unless you have the endurance and heart-and-lung capacity of an Olympic athlete. The climb up to the wall is a long one, and very steep.

Upon reaching the top by cable car, we got out, past a handful more hawkers, and got our first good look at the Wall. It is indeed great, snaking off into the distance along the mountain tops, punctuated occasionally by guard towers.

A small flight of stairs took us up onto the top of the wall. The masonry here is in good shape, this section having been repaired with the help of some German company. It appears to have been restored only to it’s original condition, with few modern additions. No added safety rails, or anything like that. There are many places here where you could fall and get injured.

The cable car meets the wall at a point about 1/3 of the way along the restored section. The restored section is quite long. We decided to walk out to the end of 1/3 side and back, and then, if we had strength left, then tackle the 2/3 side. We could see to the end of the 1/3 side, and there was a very steep and long set of stair steps at end, up to the last guard tower.

We set out, and took many photographs along the way. Weather today was sunny and blue, so the opportunities for decent photos were many. And not so many tourists here, so with a bit of patience, we could often get shots with nobody in them.

The guard towers along the way provided welcome rest stops, and cool shade. The walk was sometimes quite steep, and the stair steps rather decayed in places, so contant attention was necessary.

Eventually we reached the foot of the stairs that led up to the last guard tower. It was a daunting climb, we were tired, and hungry (having still not eaten yet) but we steeled our resolve and set to it. Taking a rest every 100 steps, we made it to the top about 450 steps later. The last 10 steps were especially steep, almost requiring both hands to be stable. I’ve read that at some other Great Wall sites, the slope can reach 70•. Definitely not ready to tackle that.

On the top, we drank our last few drops of water, rested, looked around, and took photos. The Great Wall continued further up from here, but in a state of ruin, guarded by an old man in a chair.

After we had recovered sufficiently, we headed back down. The trip back was easier, but going downstairs is also tiring in its own way. Different muscle groups get worked this way. Took more photos in this direction. All my photos on the way up had been looking ahead, never behind, and I missed a few nice views.

When we made it back to the cable car terminal, we knew we were not up to the task of walking the other 2/3 and back again. We bought some snacks, water, and iced green tea from an old man there, and headed back down to meet our taxi.

The hawker gauntlet on the way out was even more intense than coming in. A popular catch line to use on Westerners was “Hello, I remember you” which was pretty weird since I’m pretty sure they did not remember me at all. I wonder if ‘I remember you’ was actually some kind of mangled translation of the word ‘souvenir’ or something. I said ‘Hey, I remember you’ to another Western guy on the path, and we had a chuckle.

Met our taxi driver, and set out for the Ming dynasty tomb at Ding Ling. Another Western couple followed behind us in another taxi.

There are a number of tombs of Ming dynasty emperors branching from a common road through the country. But they’re all pretty far apart, so we could only visit one. Sabrina chose the Ding Ling tomb, not the biggest tomb, but the only one with an underground crypt that has been excavated and opened to tourists.

The drive to Ding Ling was long, through more country villages and twisty mountain roads. I tried to write a couple days of these diary pages on the way, but it was slow because of the need to avoid getting motion-sickness. The drive was made longer when the taxi driver got lost. We stopped, and a local villager joined us in the car to guide us to our destination.

Upon arrival, we got tickets and set on our way to the tomb.

This tomb is not as extravagent from the outside as the tombs of emperors that I saw in Vietnam. But the Vietnamese emperors also used their tombs in life as a sort of imperial retreat, so they had to be lavish and comfortable. The Ming tombs were mostly just tombs, and they had the Summer Palace for relaxation.

Most of the buildings at Ding Ling have been destroyed by war or fire, and are only recognizable by their foundations.

The main part of the Ding Ling compound is a large perfectly-round mound at the back of the area, surrounded by a stone retaining wall. At the front edge of the mound, a building sits atop a large stone wall. This building is intact, and houses a massive stone stele.

The tomb itself is deep underground. It was discovered when a section of the retaining wall collapsed off to the left of the large centre building, revealing an opening. The government decided to do some experimental excavations.

When they were done, they had found the main burial chambers. A new entrance to the chambers has been built to allow tourist access. It’s a stairway at the back of the tombs, which goes down to a surpising depth. The tombs themselves are in remarkable good condition. The stone work is great, cuts perfectly smooth, and the blocks fit together with perfect seams and no mortar.

The caskets and treasures originally in the tomb have been removed. The caskets were replaced with modern reproductions to show the tomb as it was built, before centuries of decay. Some of the original treasures, gold coins and such, are on display in a museum.

We perused the museums for a short while, then left to go home. Still having eaten only snack foods, we were weak and tired.

Taxi ride home was much quicker, using straight highways. Sabrina made some phone calls, found that we would likely be able to eat at the revolving restaurant atop a TV tower in Beijing. The taxi took us there.

The restaurant was basically just a buffet setup. The food was ok, but not great. Still, ate it with enthusiasm, and washed down with a couple of the big 650ml bottles of local beer.

This particular revolving restaurant has a bit of a lurchy movement. It’s barely perceptible, but it gave us both a tiny bit of motion-sickness by the time we were done. I should go on a quest to eat at every revolving restaurant in the world, and grade them all. So far, there’s been only two: CN Tower and this one. CN Tower is far better.

At this point, we really needed to get back to the hotel, and our big comfortable non-noisy and solvent-free hotel room and sleep. So we did. Tomorrow, we check out and leave for XiAn.

Back on the air

I’ve been out of touch for a few days in Xi’An. No GPRS wireless coverage there, only GSM voice.

But I’m back in Shanghai now, so here comes another pile of trip diary posts.