Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors

16 04 2010

We arrived on time at 8.25am and even had an English speaking staff member come around with 10 minutes to go to tell us to get our luggage ready. We came out of the station and there was a large crowd of waiting people. We found our hostel waiting point and got a lift to the Han Tang hostel. The rooms were updated with big beds and clean bathrooms (although, like all of China so far, the shower is over the toilet and TP goes in a bin, not flushed). The staff were friendly and the common areas nice to relax in, although I wish I could have patted the cute rabbits out in the pool table room.

We were fortunate enough to take the last 2 seats on the Terracotta warrior tour that morning, leaving about half and hour later. First stop at reproduction factory that creates statues using the same Li mountain clay as the real warriors. It included the obligatory tour shopping – do I look like I can afford a 2m high terracotta warrior for my garden, and no I don’t care if the price includes shipping and insurance!?

From there to the Terracotta Warrior museum. Pit 2 was almost original- many rows still covered with dirt, and the rows that had been uncovered were filled with destroyed pieces of clay. An army sacked the tomb and stole all the real weapons and destroyed the terracotta warriors. So, later when farmers discovered the pits everything was in ruin. All warriors that people see today have been painstakingly pieced together by archeologists.

Pit 3 was a smaller pit, the control centre and Pit 1 was the one you see photos of- rows and rows of standing warriors, although only about 1000 of the 8000 original warriors have been put back together. Apparently life size, I think they are actually larger than life, especially Chinese life.The tallest is 1.98m (shortest 1.78) and range from 100-300 kg. That’s much bigger than me! The warriors used to be coloured, but have since lost their colour. Although there are thousands, there are actually only 5 types, a soldier, archer, general, officer and horse rider.

Dumpling party at the hostel at night, but we already know how to make gyoza so we just asked the hostel kitchen for rice and vegetables. So many of the vegan restaurants serve predominantly mockmeats that it’s nice to eat some fresh veg now and then.

Temple of Heaven

15 04 2010

Our last day in Bejing. After our afternoon yesterday we were a little tired of the place- the spitting, the dirt, the crowds and the hassling people. Mao’s Mausoleum had a line of tour groups doubled around it so we didn’t worry about visiting it. We walked from our hostel to the Temple of Heaven. It seems like the whole place- all the buildings and gardens- were all built just for animal sacrifice rituals to heaven. The ‘whispering wall’ might have been fun if there weren’t so many other people yelling at the wall…

We took the subway out to a northern district, with the plan on visiting the Summer Palace and having lunch at place in the area. As it was, the restaurant was about a 1km walk from the nearest subway exit (the blocks were really big) and they had minimal English. We finally figured out that it was buffet for 39 yuan each. We took small plates each and helped ourselves to some dishes, but then the staff took it upon themselves to bring over more plates to our table. Obviously, if we can’t speak Chinese, we can’t help ourselves to a buffet! So they put little burners with a stock and tomatoes on our table, then 3 big plates of greens, fungus and tofu to put in the boiling water until it cooks (cook yourself then eat). Then they brought over a plate of 5 cakes for our dessert, followed by a big plate of fruit. We were so stuffed by the end of it!

We felt too full and tired to continue walking all around the Summer Palace so decided to go straight back to the hostel. We collected luggage and washing then headed off again for dinner at Loving Hut. There was meant to another branch close by so we tried to find it but couldn’t and ending up eating at the same place as 2 days ago. They seemed to be happy to have us back and even gave us a take away bag of extra food for our journey, telling us to come back if we are in Beijing again.

Another crowded subway ride and a walk to the West Beijing station to where the overnight train to Xi’an departed. We found our waiting room and boarded our soft sleeper carriage. Fortunately the other passengers above us when straight to sleep and weren’t noisy at all.

So far our idea of China has been dirty, noisy, crowded and pushy with lots of spitting and smoking. On the upside, its cheap and the food is tasty.

Beijing tea scam (welcome to China)

15 04 2010

Yesterday we unfortunately got duped into the Beijing tea scam (you can check a search engine for more info, or simply read on).

We had spent the afternoon walking around the forbidden city and Jingshan park on the hill behind. Upon our return to Tiananmen square, we were greeted in English by a young Chinese couple. In China, when people greet you in English, it’s usually followed by a flurry of Chinese, or an invitation to buy or look at something – we ignore all such people. These guys seemed like they just wanted to chat, and we talked about the culture and language of Australia, Japan, Korea and China. Soon enough they suggested we go and get some tea. Since it was only about 5pm, and the restaurant we had decided to go to for dinner was only a few minutes walk away, we thought, “why not?”

First we had to go to the bank to get some cash, so they waited patiently and then off we headed to an area we had already seen a day or two ago. There the man pointed out a tea shop, which of course Benno could read the character for tea, and up we went to a quaint little tea house. In the centre of the room was a large carved wooden table reminiscent of the one downstairs at Thea, with an image of Buddha carved into it. We chose two types of tea, and then were offered to try a smattering, which we did. The tea was offered in a quasi-ceremonial style, with the benefits of each type of tea explained. Also provided were some cherry tomatoes and crackers. At the end of the process, the bill came out, which included a per-person charge (not what we’d assumed was a per-pot charge) for each of the 8 types of tea we’d tried. It was slightly painful to fork up our share, but didn’t seem completely out of the question.
The couple then followed us most of the way to our dinner destination, before bidding us farewell and good luck. When we were alone again, we couldn’t help but wonder if the couple had been in cahoots with the tea house. We discussed the likelihood of being scammed, and when we got back to our hostel, our fears were confirmed by a quick internet search.

Things that should have set off alarm bells (perhaps if we weren’t both so tired at the time):
1. Being approached in English – we should have known that everyone is trying to sell something
2. Being guided to a tea shop by a couple who said that they themselves were tourists in Beijing
3. Walking through the shop beneath the tea house and not being harrassed by anyone trying to sell to us
4. Being somehow convinced to try 8 teas instead of only two
5. Seeing a fat wad of yuan in the hands of the con artists

Still, the cost of the tea, if it was per pot and not per person, was not implausible. We’d seen more expensive teas in legitimate restaurants earlier, and know that some Taiwanese tea can fetch something like $1,000/kg.

At the end of the day, we didn’t really lose that much money – especially compared to some others we read about online who were duped $300 up to $1000. Given that the scam took about 2 hours to pull off and involved at least 3 people, they would be able to make more money doing legitimate jobs in a western country. So we’re not really that concerned about the money, moreso just the fact that we were duped.

If you’re reading this and headed to China soon, Caveat emptor!
If you fell victim to a similar scam, our commiserations are with you.

PS we had to post this via a text-only browser on a remote server, since our blog (along with other blogs, facebook, youtube, some parts of wikipedia and other things) is blocked by the great firewall of China.

Forbidden City and Lama Temple

14 04 2010

Benno’s birthday- we were planning on walking the wall on Benno’s birthday, but the tour was only available the day before, so we did some tourist sites around Beijing instead.

First up: the Lama Temple. The air was thick with incense- it was a busy day of worshipping at the Lama Temple. The fires were tall and people lit at least 3 incense sticks at a time and bowed in front of every building and statue, leaving huge piles of incense behind when they finished. People would walk around with huge shopping bags of incense sticks- hopefully the gods were listening or that was a lot of incense to waste… There was a huge buddha inside one of the buildings- maybe 20 m or more tall. I took a photo, but perhaps I wasn’t meant to, oops.

On the subway exit sign it pointed to a vegetarian restaurant. We thought it was interesting that a veg restaurant should be so popular that it would feature on a subway and street sign so we went there for lunch. It was busy and we had to wait for a table before having a HUGE buffet lunch. There were heaps and heaps of options with mostly vegan options.

From there we continued the tourist trek by visiting Tianamen square. The square itself is not very interesting and we walked through without looking at much.

Past the gates into the Forbidden city/Palace Museum (Palace Museum is written everywhere and had us confused for a while before we worked out that the museum IS the forbidden city). Lots of tour groups, lots of gold but the gardens at the back were a bit bare. People were touching, walking over and sitting on everything in the gardens so I’m not sure how long the Forbidden City will last. Perhaps some better tourist management is required.

We walked up behind the Forbidden City to the garden behind and climbed the hill to the top Pavillion and looked down on all of the Forbidden City. Too bad it was a little smoggy but I guess it’s hard to avoid in a city like Beijing.

Benno was interested in visiting the city museum but it was closed for 3 years for renovations. So we thought we’d check out Mao’s mausoleum but it is only open in the mornings. We were just hanging around, deciding what to do when the Tea Ceremony couple approached. See Benno’s post for more on that. I must say, the fruit tea was so sweet and delicious, the jasmine is always my favourite, and the bamboo tea was something we’d never heard of before.

Benno’s birthday dinner was at another famous and historic veg restaurant called Gongalin. It was near our hostel so we walked… had some trouble finding it as there was no signage in English. Eventually Lara asked outside a restaurant if they knew where Gongalin was and the staff pointed behind them- we were already at the restaurant! It was quite upmarket – throne like chairs to sit on and staff waiting constantly on you, but the price was still cheap (about $15-20 for our meal).

The Great Wall

13 04 2010

Day 2 was walking the Great Wall of China. In Seoul a fellow backpacker had recommended the Simatai part of the wall and strongly suggested against the Badaling section so we followed his advice and it was worth it. A slightly painful 6am collection, then driving about 3 hours to the wall, arriving around 9am. The driver organised our tickets and showed us the path, then we were on our own to walk the wall until lunch time. It was fairly quiet, not many other people and just a few “Mongolian ex-farmers” selling drinks and tacky souvenir t-shirts along the way. We had excellent visibility and the surrounding mountains were beautiful. It wasn’t too cold, although the strong Mongolian winds were a little scary on sections of the wall with no fence/wall.

Benno took a flying fox off the wall after our 4 hour walk and we had lunch at a restaurant with out tour group. They were able to provide vegetables for us, and hopefully the rest of our tour group didn’t mind having to share with vegans rather than meat eaters.

We went to Loving Hut for dinner. The subway was so busy we thought we’d almost be crushed to death. Just when you thought the train was full, another 20 people would shove their way on until the little old man next to me was wheezing from having the air squeezed out of his chest by all the people pushing. We almost didn’t make it out of the train but with some pushing we exited just as the doors shut again. Breathe.

Loving Hut offered us salt and pepper tofu and chili green beans – just like we used to eat at Ip’s at the central markets. While we were sitting there eating Benno saw a friend from Adelaide walk past outside. Small world. Fortunately on the way back the subway was a little less crowded, although Chinese could learn some subway manners from the Japanese (like waiting for people to exit before entering).

Welcome to China

13 04 2010

We survived the busy subway ride from our Seoul hostel to Incheon, Had to ask for help as to where the bus stop was, then got on a public bus for the International Port for 1000 won. Unfortunately the stop was not written in English so we had to guess by the road signs where we should get off. We arrived at Port Terminal 2, found the Weidong ferry building and about 600 Chinese waiting for the ferry. It was really packed and noisy. People were pushy in waiting for their tickets- there was no line, just push in when you see a gap. While our tickets were being printed there was a man who pushed in and was trying to hand his passport and money to the lady. Pushy!

The ferry itself was quite luxurious – karaoke room, convenience store, duty free shop, cinema, TV in room, sauna, restaurant, cafe, late night party on the deck and golden banister on the grand staircase. We had a few won left over so we bought snacks from the store and bought a korean souvenir from the duty free shop. We watched the 10pm movie about UFOs (in English) and some bad korean and chinese TV then slept well in our ensuite royal suite room. Very grateful to be able to escape the crowds!

Our luxurious 'Royal' ensuite berth number 106. Great for escaping the crowds, second hand smoke and loud noises.

Clearing immigration etc was no problem – our visas were fine and we got our stamp. Out in the waiting room were taxi drivers all trying to get our custom. We declined and walked out on the street to flag one down and negotiate a price to get to the train station. 30Y was probably too much but still a lot cheaper than Japanese taxis.

Benno had written down Beijing in Chinese characters and we tried to buy train tickets from Qingdao to Beijing but it was already full. We had to buy seats for the next day. So then we had to find accommodation – we took the easy option and followed one of the guys outside the station to a close hotel he was touting for. 100Y a night was cheap, even if the door key never worked and there was no working heating. We walked around the rubble-filled city, down by the beach where people were selling turtles, star fish and baby octopus on a stick along with shells and other crap (fancy a pig shaped toy that squashes flat then returns back to its original shape?). Found an internet cafe and a supermarket selling only snacks – we have since termed these crapmarkets. The internet/gaming room staff spoke no English and we had trouble communicating … we just wanted to check our e-mail so they refused any payment (not that 3Y is much anyway).

Anyway, we stayed one night in our budget hotel next to Qingdao station and got up early for our 8am train, making sure we understood what waiting room we needed and where our train would be leaving from. Fairly uneventful ride- top speed of 243 km/hr, about 5 hours to get to Beijing with most seats taken. From Beijing we had the fun of transferring to the busy subway and taking 2 lines to our hostel with our all our luggage. No more stairs, please!

Dinner was at VeganHut- English photo menu and English speaking staff. We were happy to discover that the Chinese restaurants in Adelaide’s ChinaTown taste the same as Chinese food in China. Top points for authenticity.

DMZ Tour

9 04 2010

We were picked up from Mr Sea at 7.15am and taken by tour group to the DMZ- Demilitarized Zone (buffer zone between the North and South Korean border).

We drove past the Han river which flows through both countries. In the south it is surrounded by barbed wire fences and there are ‘anti-boat walls’ of explosives built in the river to stop North Korean spies from entering SK.

Also, along the main highway north are huge advertising billboards across the road that hide explosives as an ‘anti-tank wall’.

We reached Imjingak and saw the Bridge of Freedom where 12773 prisoners walked to freedom in the south in 1953. Also there was an old train that used to run into North Korea that was derailed during the Korean War and riddled with bullets (1020 bullet holes to be exact).

From there we got transferred to a special red tour bus that went to the DMZ border to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. We walked down into the North Korean built tunnel, under the DMZ. It was quite steep going down into the tunnel, which stretches 1635m in length below the DMZ. There have been 4 tunnels found officially, but unofficially North Kore dug at least 20 tunnels under the DMZ aiming for a surprise attack on Seoul which is about 50km away.

After that we went to Dora Observatory in the DMZ which is the northernmost observatory from which you can see North Korea. We had 90% visibility and could see the South Korean village (and flag pole) and the fake (unoccupied) North Korean village (with flagpole). Photos are only permitted behind the photo line, so of course you can’t take a photo of North Korea!

Then we went to Dorasan train station, the last stop of SK rail, built with the hope that lines to NK will open. So, half the station is ready but currently unused- the sign for the onward tracks to the NK capital and a customs/immigration section ready for when tracks open through NK to China and beyond to Europe.

A sales attempt at an expensive ginseng store ($500 for some ginseng extract?) and we were finished.

We went to Sinchon (no e) and had lunch at Loving Hut (the third one so far) before doing some shopping and walking through Yongsan Electronics Markets,  Dongdaemun markets and walking along the newly built/refurbished stream that used to be a highway.