Seoul, Korea, one day layover on my way to Malaysia
The flight from Atlanta to Seoul is about 14 hours. It’s mostly uneventful. Thankfully.
I take the airport limo bus into the center of the city. Impressions: Mountains, terraced farms and a terraced cemetery. It is record cold in Seoul and never gets above 25F with a substantial wind chill. There is snow from a couple days before, but roads and sidewalks are mostly clear. Inchon airport is on an island off the coast of Korea. The ocean looks frozen and it takes an hour and a half to get to the center of the city, where my hotel is. We pass wind turbines just as we reach the coast. Trees in parks are pruned and staked, similar to Japan but not quite as rigid. I have 23 hours in this city. I’m here for two reasons: 1. I had to have a layover somewhere and I’ve never been to Korea and 2. This is an easy city to teach English in, something I may want to do in the future. I want to check out the culture and see if I think this is somewhere I want to land for a year.
You can’t help but compare what you are seeing now with what you’ve seen before. The mind understands categorizing. The city of Seoul reminds me of Shanghai. It is new and large with little of the old peeking through. The shops have roll up garage doors for security at night. Most of their doors are sliding glass. The traffic is heavy, though not as bad as Shanghai. They drive on the right and follow traffic signals (unlike Cairo). The few old style buildings so far look like those in the Forbidden City in Beijing. They are wooden structures, clay tile roofs with statues on the roof line corners to protect them.
Gifts are wrapped in cloth.
The city also reminds me of Tokyo. The bushes are sculpted, the trees staked. Nature must be pruned and prodded. It is clean with no trash or graffiti and people obey the crossing lights even when traffic is light (though the occasional motorcycle will drive around standing cars which would not happen in Tokyo). On the street are elaborately packaged fruits for gifts. They are tied in large pieces of gold cloth when sold. The cloth serves as both a wrapping and convenient carrying case. Shoppers are preparing for Chinese New Year (here known as Spring Festival).
I find my hotel with little difficulty. It’s an hour and a half limousine bus ride from the airport. Cost 14,000 Korean won (roughly 14 USD). The bus driver pointed me toward the hotel and I only over shot it by a block. A young couple helped me when I realized I was lost. Looked up a map on their smart phones and directed me, excited to use their English. Did not see a taxi or might have gotten one.
My hotel had a kitchenette. No stove, but there was a combination washer/dryer and lots of closet space.
My hotel room is clean and spare. It is almost large enough for an efficiency apartment with extensive closet space and a kitchenette (washer/dryer, fridge, cabinets, microwave, hot pot, but no stove). With the addition of a hot plate and a toaster oven, it would be as complete as mine at home. It has an electric kettle, almost exactly like the one I bought for my mother at Buford Highway Farmers Market. My room is stocked with Maxim brand coffee sachets available in the same market.
By the time I got checked into the hotel it was 8:30p and I’m tired. I explored for less than an hour but fell into bed, partly from travel exhaustion and partly just to warm up. I woke up about every hour but went back to sleep until 4:30a when the caffeine headache made worse by jet lag kicks in and won’t let me rest.
Before breakfast I walk to the Namdaemun Street Market across the street, mostly dried fish, seaweed, nuts, fruit and other food. It is well below zero with packed snow and the wind whipping right thru you. They are setting up their stalls. I am the only tourist, but get few stares. They are busy and ignore me.
Breakfast is the usual odd conglomeration I’ve seen in Asia. While you’ll find eggs, coffee, cereal, fruit and toast but also 4 kinds of soup, several salads and even French fries. Of course rice and seaweed. I try the water chestnut salad with dried bananas. And the Kim chi. I am the only non Asian. The room is decorated as in European style. Van Gough’s Sunflowers. Picasso. The Kiss by Klimt. Many guests make a sandwich on white Wonder Bread. People eat a very big breakfast, three plates and more even the young, tiny waist, well dressed women. This is not fair.
I have gloves, hat and winter coat but it is not enough to keep warm. I put on 3 shirts and wrap another around my neck like a scarf. Where is my scarf? I wear shorts under my one pair of long pants to help cut the wind. The high temps of the day are still below freezing and the wind is the real killer. But these improvised precautions help. And at least it is a sunny day. There is ice and snow, but it must have come a few days ago because most areas have narrow paths. I’m grateful the day turns out to be sunny, but this is unseasonably cold for Seoul and I had not quite prepared well enough.
At 8a I take a taxi to the palace, Deoksugung. I have a guide book that I show to the driver and he understands the characters. He makes a point of having me repeat the word to help me, not him. He is friendly and smiles. The 10 min trip costs 3600 won and I hand him 5000 ($5) as he smiles brightly. Americans tip. I think it’s partly because tipping is such an important part of our service industry in the US, but it’s also because it is tough to think of foreign currency as anything but Monopoly money. It does not seem real.
If it were warm I might have walked. If I had more than a just few hours to spend in the city, I would try to figure the subway. But taxis are inexpensive. Truly frugal travel takes time, often time to get lost. The palace is not open yet, so I walk about. They don’t open for 2 hours, so my guidebook is wrong. There is a permanent Rodin exhibit and a special Tim Burton at the nearby art museum. After only half an hour I am too cold and find a coffee shop.
There is another non-Asian, but her nose is in her phone and she does not notice me. I realize my caffeine headache is finally gone–5 cups of coffee later. Or maybe it was the ibuprofen kicking in. I started with my first cup before 5am. The young man running the coffee shop understands my coffee order in English. Fortunately the word “coffee” is understandable in most languages. Such an important beverage, so it’s no coincidence. You can say “tea” or “chai” and be understood in most languages too. The power of caffeine! Like Europe there are separate prices for sitting down or to-go–about 20% less to take the cup out. The china cup is colorful, lovely but I’m paying for heat. The bill arrives face down, taped to a piece of wood. It’s 4,000, more than my taxi tide. And a small price to pay to warm up.
Entrance to palace is 1000. It takes less than an hour to tour, very clean. Buildings very like the Forbidden City, Beijing, China– lattice work windows and open floor plans. Would be impossible to heat. The grounds are about the size of 2 city blocks. Little English signage, but I’ve been given a guidebook I can read. Frankly it’s too cold to do so now, so this will have to wait until I get home.
Then a walk to Daedaemun Gate–one of the original entrance gates to the city when it was walled. The wall is long gone. I’m headed to the shopping district behind it. Wholesale clothing and accessories, fair quality, good prices. I got what I thought was a cashmere scarf for 10,000. Later it turned out to be “Casmera,” 100% acrylic. Ah well, the cold makes it hard to concentrate on details. It was warm, which was all I really cared about. I replaced a lens cap for my camera that I lost and got a clear filter to cover the lens to keep from scratching it. Total 20,000 won. No sales tax.
And that’s all I have time for. I catch the airport limo bus back. It runs every 30 minutes and was exactly on time. I was the only person on the bus, just like last night, but riders joined the closer we got to the airport. I wish I had more time but got a surprising amount done for 23 hours plus jet lag. The ride to the airport takes about 2 hours.
Have decided the people’s attitude and reaction toward me is somewhere between Chinese and Japanese. They are not as surprised or aggressive as in China. They mostly ignore me, though not nearly as much as in Japan. If I smile, a man will acknowledge me with a slight head bow. The older women usually act as though I did not look at them. The young children are surprisingly rowdy and loud, though it seems to all be in good fun, not rudeness. A very homogeneous population. I only see Asians, and assume them all to be Korean, of course, but their skin tone, height, build and hair are almost exactly alike.
Thoughts as I ride the bus to the airport: Surprised by all the coffee houses. May see 2-4 on each block, mostly independent. Museum wedding hall? Few poor translations on signs. There is little English but enough. The elevators in the hotel talk to you and only spoke English. Lots of statues but all are modern art.
I have bulgogi for dinner before boarding plane for 6 hour flight. It’s like Korean BBQ, thinly sliced and spicy beef.
When we get to the airport at Shanghai we meet our city guide, Andy. All these made up American names seem wrong with these young Chinese guides. Andy is newly married and boasts that he and his wife can have 2 children if they choose. As we drive into the city Andy tells us about Shanghai, which is the New York of China. The skyline is tall buildings, but few of them were here 15 years ago. The city is near the ocean, though we never see it. It is built along the Huangpu River in an alluvial plain. The large buildings are a mistake, though. The city is sinking at 2 centimeters a year.
Our hotel is the Bund Riverside Hotel, located on Beijing Street and the canal. We have a glassed in elevator and I take a few city shots. At the other hotels, they kept all the “foreign devils” like us on the same floor, but here we are scattered about. There are at least 2 weddings going on (on a Monday!) and the elevators are very slow.
Before dinner I take a quick walk along the Nanjing (former Nan King) Road, now a pedestrian shopping area, with very high prices. The place is lighted up at night! I have to finally get really mean with some of the street sellers, peddling knock offs: Louis Vinton bags, Monte Blanc pens, silks, and gadgets. They are relentless. I’m surprised by the number of American fast food places when I travel. I see more KFCs abroad than at home. And McDonald’s is everywhere. The area is only 3 blocks from my hotel and there is a world of difference in the two streets between—clearly not a tourist area. And the hotel is in a metal working, engine parts area—odd.
We have an optional dinner and cruise along the Bund of the Huangpu River. Everyone opts in for a change. The dinner is fine, but I wish they would stop bringing so many dishes. I am full and find that we are only half done every time!
The cruise is lovely, though the boat is crowded and we were pushed badly. A few people were knocked down trying to get onto the boat. I have never seen such rudeness! The oldest member of our group is knocked to the ground and even Stone, a strong young man, is pushed into a bench and has the wind knocked out of him. Andy tells us this is common behavior in his country. Being first is very important. It is so cold and windy, but I stay on top long enough to take several pictures of the buildings, which are lighted from 9-11p. It costs $600,000 a day to light them! The Bund is the “concessions” area—between the great wars people were subject only to the laws of their own country, not China’s. The Bund was the British area, and nearby was the French Concession. Many of the parks and nice hotels would not allow Chinese to be in them, except to clean. This was the place to be in the 1920-30’s, wild and opulent. It has the second largest number of Art Deco buildings in the world (second to Miami, Florida).
February 28, Walking the Bund
We start the morning with a walking tour of the Bund, along the side of the Huangpu River. This is where we sailed last night and in the daylight it is a different world. Andy, our city guide, explains how the traffic works in Shanghai. Students start class at 7am. Office workers start at about 9:30am, after getting their children off to school. Because traffic is so bad through the day, construction is done overnight—which explains why it is cloudy and dusty each morning. It’s hard to see the sun, though it clears by mid-morning. Construction is at a fast pace, nearly 5000 building and roadwork sites in Shanghai alone. Andy admits that this is government sponsored to keep people working—the recession has hit them as well as the rest of the world. He glumly reports that their unemployment has risen to 4.5% and is surprised to hear that in our country this is considered full employment.
He discourages us from buying the “knock off” purses, clothing and electronics. He says that the homework is so heavy, even starting in kindergarten, that it is physically impossible to do it all yourself. Even in the sandbox, children learn they have to copy to succeed. They are also taught to memorize and recite. But not to be creative, original, inventive. They expect there is one right answer to each thing and innovation is not encouraged. In this constantly changing world, they must find it very hard. But he explains this is why they copy the designs of others, not come up with something original.
Shanghai is like New York, and even has the Wall Street of China. There is even a “bull” statue along the Bund. Andy tells us that the latest greeting in Shanghai is no longer “how are you” or “have you eaten” but “how are your stocks?”
There is a fancy tourist tunnel going under the Bund, but it is very expensive. Andy says don’t bother. Take the subway or a ferry to get across if you want. We have some free time to walk around and see the park (a “whites only” park during the British Concession). As has happened virtually every day, Katie and Katherine are late coming back. Neither has a watch. Neither will take the clocks on the building seriously, nor will they check the time on their cell phones. Personally, I think it’s Katie who uses this as a way to get attention. Katie considers herself an expert on China and is constantly throwing out some erroneous “fact,” bossing someone around, and occasionally pushing and shoving. Let’s just say she is “hard to love.” Unfortunately, most every tour has a “Katie”. She is probably just a lonely, bossy woman whose grade school reports cards read “does not play well with others.”
From here we go to a “wet market,” a farmers market on steroids. Stone buys us some Chinese “pizza,” ingredients stuffed between two flakey crusts. Marco Polo is credited with bringing pizza to Italy, but Stone insists that this food was first in China. Polo “forgot” how to stuff the ingredients into the crust after he got back and simply put them on top of the flatbread. There are beautiful, fresh vegetables, fresh tofu, noodles, dumplings, beans and rice of every description. There are even blocks of congealed blood (cubed and used in soups). But the live poultry seems to upset some of the ladies. The couple from Wisconsin raises chickens and beef. They remind the ladies that if they eat meat they should remember where it comes from. I’m most fascinated by the varieties of fish—many of which are alive. The buckets of live eels and shrimp are simply bubbling! Frogs are netted together, a dozen to a bunch. I feel bad about the soft shell turtles, which are endangered. One of the food venders holds freshly baked bread out to me to buy saying, “I love you.” I doubt he knows what the words mean since he said them just like, “here is some fresh bread.”
We are taken to lunch at a Mongolian BBQ, with real Mongolians doing the cooking on a huge drum shaped cooking surface! You choose what you want from 4 types of meat, several vegetables (including lots of sliced lotus root) and toppings like garlic, ginger, sesame oil and hot peppers. Hand your bowl of ingredients through the window marked “put the food” and retrieve it 5 minutes later at the window marked “let the food.” But there is no way to know which bowl is yours in the end because the bowls look exactly alike and the contents all look like a brown mass. Hum, another missed opportunity for great presentation.
We also go to a silk carpet sales factory. No one buys anything. This is my third carpet sales stop (Turkey and Egypt) and I’m over carpets. These are amazing, well made, and lovely. But even a small floor carpet costs more than my entire trip to China. Not gonna happen.
From here we see the Yu Yuan Garden, which occupies about 5 acres and was built during the Ming Dynasty by a high ranking government official for his aging parents. The gardens are intricate, carefully landscaped. It features pavilions, ponds, cloisters, streams and six completely different “scene zones.”
There are several dragon walls, where a corner will have an elaborate dragon head and the top of the wall undulates to represent the snake-like body. It is clear that dragons have a completely different meaning to the Chinese than to us. Having the power of a dragon meant that you had control over water. This mean that you controlled the weather (rain), agriculture, and even fire (the biggest threat to wooden buildings). This is another place that we see these extensive “rockeries.” I appreciate them and understand just getting the rocks and transporting them, installing them must have been very expensive. But I do not find them attractive. This garden was lost at the gaming table by the high ranking official, and is one of the “cautionary tales” told to Shanghai school children to this day.
The Yu Yuan (Yu Gardens) are surrounded by dense shopping and a water front promenade between the Old Town and the Wusong River. We have free time to shop. I get a few silk scarves, my one buying folly. I also see a traditional picture show, with real painted pictures, sound effects, drums and a traditional street caller. No idea what the story was about, but very entertaining. Stone treats us to candied crab apples on a stick, a popular treat. There is one seller who has a badly translated sign called “Let Them Turtles.” If I understand his business plan, he captures small turtles (too small to eat) in the nearby pond, then sells them to you to release for good luck (improved karma). Then captures them again. Hummmm.
Back at the hotel we have some free time before an optional acrobatics dinner. While those are nice, I’ve seen several and opt out. My tour manager Stone actually seems unhappy about this. First he appeals to my safety. Surely I would not venture out by myself? You bet I will. Why would I want to be alone in a big city? He does not seem to even understand that I need some space from the group. He suggests that I eat at the hotel since that is the only “safe” food. Right. Suspect he gets quite a kickback from these optional tours (which have additional costs from the base tour price).
Naturally, being told that street food is not safe for me, I want it. I look over several options and choose some filled, steamed buns. It is clear that these are well cooked, in fact too hot to even touch with bare hands. The one I choose at (because I can’t guess what it might contain since I can’t read the signs) has yummy pork. But I don’t choose at random. I watch what everyone else is buying. Two are a meal. Each is less than 1.5yuan, about 23 cents. Dinner with change back from you dollar!
I go to the Nanjing Road and walk the length of it to the Peoples Park. I pull out my guidebook to see what else is in the area, but I barely get to the right page when two young women come up and ask if I am “American.” They want to practice their English. The younger identifies her American name as Kiki. She is from Xi’an, 22yr old, almost ready to graduate from college and visiting her older cousin in Shanghai on holiday. I never got the cousin’s name, who was only 2 years older and proudly identified herself as an “assistant in a factory,” but “not a worker.” She explained that she meets with European business contacts at the factory. The language of Business is English, I assume so that all parties are at an equal disadvantage? Both girls indicate their college major as English. Neither has ever left the country and none of their teachers have been native English speakers. I can understand them, but it is tough. After about 20 minutes they tell me that they are going to a teahouse and invite me to join them.
So I probably should have said no. But they seemed genuine and it turned out they really were. But I say yes, and simply follow these women in and out of alleys, doing my best to keep the direction of the two streets and one river in mind. I didn’t lose my way but easily could have. They took me into alleys because they needed to find a bathroom. Again, there are public toilets on most blocks, but several only have facilities for men. It takes three tries before we find one that the ladies can use. I realize the younger woman is in the toilet a long time and her friend explains she has “distress of stomach.” At one point I decide that I’m only standing here waiting one more minute and then I’m going to walk off, but they both appear. We go to a teahouse and get a private room. This is uncomfortable for me. I had expected to be going to a public place, but I don’t know the customs. This may be common or this could be a complete set up. I ask the prices and am relieved that they clearly state them. We sample 3 types of tea, along with explanation by the guide (her words are translated for me) and much ceremony, include ritual cup washing (OK, it was boiling water, so there was more than just ritual) and giving the first cup to the frog god. I like the frog god and really need to buy one (I find one after we get home). In the end we split the bill and it costs me about $20 US for an hour and a half of lovely conversation. It was great and I wish I had not been so wary since it all turned out to be legitimate. But you can’t be sure. I only had money with me that I could afford to lose (about $60 total cash in US and RMB). Violent crime is not common, but petty theft and trickery is. If cornered, I’d just hand over my money and hope for the best. Oh but I have been soooo lucky in my travels.
Feb 29, free day in Shanghai, and my last
Barbara is a very brave girl. Most people took an all day, optional excursion. When we found there was another “sales stop” AND a two hour bus ride, each way, we decided to opt out. And so we have a free day in Shanghai. She’s already told me she’s leery of the subway and I have to say I am also. The map is clear, it’s clean and safe, but I can’t figure out how to buy a pass and there was no attendant who spoke English. Given more time, I would have figured it out. Eventually. We are told Taxis are cheap, but opt for the Big Red Bus, the same company with Double Decker tourist busses all over the world. Last night I found them, closing down for the evening, at the Peoples Park and they explained the whole thing to me. The cost is 100yuan for all day (about $17), there are lines (Red, Green and Blue), they have a running commentary in English (via free headphones) and they go everywhere I want. Deal!
But Barbara and I get there and there is only a bus driver, no sales person. He let us into the bus since it is raining. He gives us a brochure/map and headphones. But pantomimes that he can’t take our money. I pantomime that we want the green line. He indicates we are on the red line, but not to worry. He takes off, eventually passes and flags down a green line driver and lets us switch busses. But that bus driver won’t take our money either. So we ride the bus expecting that eventually a ticket seller will get on. But we get to the temple stop we wanted to go to and get off. Later, after the visit to the temple, we wait for the bus, but it never shows up. If I’d known how cheap the taxis were, we would have started with them. Don’t think we ever paid more than 20RMB for a ride (about $3.20)
By accident we get off at the wrong temple. We think we are at the Jade Buddha Temple and in some ways they are very much alike, so we don’t suspect. We are actually at the Jing’an Temple. Later we see the Jade Temple, but not until we’ve been yelled at by a taxi driver when we had him bring us to the wrong temple. There are so few English signs that this is an easier mistake than you’d think. And somehow Barbara seems to think that because I have a guidebook and a map I know exactly where we are and can communicate with everyone. Oh, would that it were so! We also go back to the Yu Yuan (Market and Gardens) where we have lunch and shopping.
Temples are interesting, but I am clueless as to what is really going on. I remember a tour of Italy where I’d seen so many churches that they all melded into one. My guide told me it was the ABC phenomena: Another Beautiful Church. Temples are the same. Though ABT doesn’t have the same ring. I walk away with impressions more than understanding. Incense. Burning paper money. Kneeling with hands together. Statues.
Amazed at all the elephant motifs since I don’t think of elephants in China. But these are Buddhist, and that religion starting in India (where I hope to ride one someday). We see people burning incense, huge packs of it all and at once. My favorite is a mother, teaching her young daughter, maybe 4 years of age, how to worship. It is raining and they wear slick, bright raincoats and a cheery pink umbrella, their colors reflected in the wet pavement. Every corner smells of sandalwood. I’m shocked at how, just inches from a huge reclining jade Buddha with worshipers congregating and kneeling, there are sales stands and active bartering. Pretty sure there’s a scene about this in the New Testament. We see monks chanting, beating a drum, ringing a chime. I’ve no idea what it means or what they are doing. There are fancy dressed women burning envelopes. They are in 5 inch heeled boots, fur coats, and enough make up and jewelry to be high class whores. The envelopes contain “fake” money. They burn it so that the money will go to their loved ones who have died.
At one point we get into a cab to go back to the hotel. I hand the driver the card for the Bund Riverside Hotel because it has a map on one side and Chinese characters for the name and address of the hotel. The other side is English that I can read. The driver concentrates on the front of the card. Then turns the card to the back. THEN turns it upside down. This is not good. It occurs to me how many illiterate people live in China. He turns and explains as clearly as possible the situation. I, of course, don’t understand a word. Later I suspect he says something like, “look I’ve only been a driver for about 15 minutes and I have no idea where that is. Sorry I can’t help.” But I don’t know if I should get out of the cab or what. Then he hands me the card back and simply waves to me like I was a small child, “Bye, bye!” Well, that was clear!
When I travel, I carry virtually nothing in my pockets. I carry a purse with a strap long enough to wear across my body and I keep my hand on the top of the bag, over the zipper. This is my posture as I walk through a crowded area and it’s always kept me from pickpockets and petty theft. The Yu Yuan Garden Market is busy with tourists, though all but Barbara and I are Chinese, of course. At some point this little boy, perhaps 4 or 5 years old is separated from him mother. He calls, “Mama! Mama!” He is not upset or afraid, just calling to his mother. His head is about level with the top of my purse when he comes walking beside me and “recognizes” his mother’s bag. He slips his little hand into mine. He has a big smile on his face. His cherubic cheeks flushed with happiness as he turns his head toward me expecting to look into his mother’s familiar eyes. But what does he see? The face of a Foreign Devil! His eyes go wide with surprise and he screams, “Waaaaaaaa!” dropping my hand like it was on fire! His actual mother, fortunately, had seen the whole thing and was laughing so hard she was having difficulty standing. The child was inconsolable and I had to leave so that he would stop crying.
When we first get to the Yu Yuan, Barbara is cold and wet, so we dip into a McDonald’s at her request. I never frequent them at home, but find them interesting in other countries, since they serve different items. We get hot chocolate which seems to be cocoa and hot water, no milk. At least it is hot and the basement restaurant dry. The workers are wearing cowboy hats. Not a good look.
We later have lunch at a dumpling stand. I choose real Shanghai Dumplings—something I’ve been excited to try. They are soup dumplings—these contain crab soup, and are so large, they include a straw so you can drink the crab soup inside before eating the dumpling exterior. I’m had them in Atlanta, but they were the size that you pop into your mouth. Also get what I think is fried chicken on a stick. But there are claws in the first bite. Turns out to be crab.
This is our final day. It is all over so quickly. We must leave in the middle of the night to fly first to Beijing, then to the US. It’s a horrible flight getting home, the Crying Baby express. But I will miss this country. It is not a place I would want to live, but I would like to visit more.
February 25, 2011 Flying from Beijing to Xi’an, the old capital
We have to leave the Beijing hotel at 5:30a to catch our flight to Xi’an (pronounced: She Ann) the original capital of the first united China. This began the Qin (pronounced: Chin) Dynasty 221BCE and lasted just 23 years. China gets its name from this period and the first ruler was Qin Shi Huangdi. The name of this city mean peaceful western city–Xi means “west” and An means “peace.” This is also the official beginning spot for the Silk Road, which started here in 206BCE and continued for centuries. I find this thrilling since I’ve seen the Silk Road in Turkey as well.
We are greeted by our new city guide, Ivy, who gives us some history of this area. The Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) was the most prosperous and this was the historical high point of Xi’an. During that era tea, silk and calligraphy were introduced and China was the most powerful country in the world. Japanese learned and developed their written language during this time after sending emissaries to China to learn. Ivy says she can understand some Japanese characters though not the spoken words. She also mentions that fat women were considered beautiful at the time, which makes me very happy! After the Tang Dynasty, the capital was moved capital to Beijing. Xi’an still has all of its original city walls and moat. Inside the walls is the downtown area and the business area and she says that few people live here. I saw hundreds of people and apartments so I doubt this information. I would say that few wealthy people live here.
Xi’an is a very old city and it is difficult to dig without running into one of the 8000 mausoleums and burial mounds. The city only has a single subway line, completed recently because of all burial mounds were found along the way. Took 10 yrs. to build an 8 mile stretch of line. Second ring road took 20 yrs to complete. Because of this the busses are too full. Ivy refers to her commute into work as like a BMW–bus, metro, walk.
Xi’an is a dark, dusty city. It is the first time my weather report on my phone says “dreary” and it is the only apt word to describe the area. It is winter and so bound to be darker. But everything is dirty and dusty due to air pollution and the sands of the dry country nearby. Cars that sit for an afternoon must have their windows washed before you can see to drive. My photos make it look much cleaner than it is.
The area behind the hotel is the Muslim Quarter, called Hui (pronounced: Hway) here. The term “Hui people” refers to one of the officially recognized 56 ethnic groups into which Chinese citizens are classified. They include all historic communities in People’s Republic of China and are descended from foreigners who mostly came by way of the Silk Road. They simply look Chinese to me, not Middle Eastern. Ivy refers to them as descendants of Genghis Kan, though that is not what Wikipedia says. The men wear a white cap, few of the women wear headscarves. Those who do wear head covering have hair sticking out. They follow Islamic dietary laws and reject the consumption of pork, the most common meat consumed in China. They have developed an Islamic Chinese cuisine and special Chinese martial arts. It is odd enough to see Chinese script everywhere I look, but to see Arabic script is jarring and unexpected. About half my photos this day are of the Hui Quarter. There are narrow streets, a virtual rabbit warren. It looks like most of the living quarters have no running water. People are not clean and I expect the area smells in summer.
Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi (Shan ZEE) province and one of the oldest in China, with more than 3,100 years of recorded history. The city was known as Chang’an before the Ming Dynasty and is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China. Shaanxi Province borders Mongolia in north and Tibet in east. It contains the Yellow River, considered the mother river of China.
Ivy tells us that her city loves spicy foods and if you visit someone’s home they may serve you dried chilies as a snack food. Wide noodles are native to area and she says that dumplings were started here. I have no idea if this is a Chinese phrase, but wherever any of your guides refer to the restroom they call it the Happy Room.
To get to our hotel we drive through the West wall and see the moat around the city. We see the local museum which has more English than I expected. There are treasures from the Han (206BCE-220AD) and Tang Dynasties.
Before dinner, after checking into the Brave New World Hotel, I go for a walk. Walked to western wall. There is a stairway up to the top, but it is chained off. I get more odd stares from the locals than in Beijing. A few people said “hello” their only English word, I am sure. Two school boys giggle as I respond to them. There are many street food venders and the ones near the hotel don’t look too bad. The ones in the Muslim quarter look deadly, however. There are old men playing a board game similar to checkers, though it seems to take more than 2 players. They are so serious and animated that they don’t notice me. Everyone else does. A few of the street food vendors have set up plastic chairs or buckets to sit on. These are dirty places and I wonder if they have ever been cleaned? Narrow streets make it difficult to walk. If there are sidewalks they are crowded with venders or parked cars and bicycles. Mostly there are no sidewalks and cars can only pass at an intersection. There is much horn honking and some yelling.
I am back to the hotel in time for our dumpling dinner—located in a “famous” restaurant in the center of town. On the downtown square are the original Drum Tower and Bell Tower. We are told that the Bell was rung in the morning and the Drum beaten at night. Dawn to Dusk in Chinese is “bell to drum.”
The Dumpling dinner is more interesting that tasty. Virtually every course is dumplings, about 17 of them. Only one, the duck, was really good. The rest were just OK, but I was there, so I had to try them all. After, a couple people decide they have to have ice cream. We pay $5 a scoop for Hagen Daas. I do miss sweets, as there are few found here. Fresh fruit ends most meals. And there is no chocolate!
February 26 The Terra Cotta Warriors
It is Sunday morning and we are going straight to the park after breakfast. It’s a dreary day in Xi’an. Every day is because the sky seems filled with dust constantly. My skins feels scratchy with dirt particles. Their electricity comes mainly from coal and it really shows. But there is also the fine yellow dust from the dry lands nearby, the Mongolian plain. I would be depressed if I lived here long.
The visit to the Xing Qing Park (Shing ching) is my favorite thing so far! It is filled with mostly retired people but they are exercising: Tai Chi, clapping, dancing. So MUCH dancing! Some is traditional using fans and umbrellas. We join in, badly! There is also line dancing and ballroom dancing and our couple from Wisconsin is the only ones who know how to polka. A few old men take their birds (in cages) for a walk. We are told this is a dying activity as everyone knows birds must be free. (Funny. The people aren’t!) We see a man with a heavy wooden toy top that he keeps turning with a bullwhip. This is called hitting the monkey. We even see belly dancing. My favorite is the ladies who have a paddle and dance keeping a ball on the paddle. We see people practicing music and singing. These are all volunteer activities. I think it would be a wonderful way to get out of the house each morning and get some exercise.
We see some young men keeping a small ball in the air using their feet, head, shoulders. When I ask what this is called, Stone tells me “hacky sack.” The ball looks different, but the moves are the same.
After, we visit a lacquer furniture factory. The prices are so high. Almost no one buys anything and we are all tired of the daily sales stops. I chose not to go on the final optional tour, an all day excursion, because it included a sales stop at a silk factory. I’m tired of the forced shopping and everyone else is too. It is surprising that they don’t make us more comfortable. The buildings are SO COLD, we have to keep our coats on. Doors and windows are often propped open though the temperature has not been above 45F the entire trip. I did enjoy a man who was painting with a brush. He was wonderful and I took him to be in his 70’s. Was surprised to find he was younger than I am. Do I look so old?
Back on the bus on our way to lunch and then the Terra Cotta Warriors. Stone tells us that he is newly married and last month was in Phuket, Thailand on his honeymoon. He told us that he did not really realize how much his internet was blocked until then. He said his new wife was angry with him because he spent so much time on YouTube, seeing “old” history of things that happened in China. He had never seen the fall of the Berlin Wall or the student demonstrations in 1989 in Tiananmen Square. Ivy admits that she has a secret way into Facebook, but she is afraid to log-on more than every few months.
As we drive we notice solar water heaters on roofs. Ten years ago they were effective, but now there is not much sun and they are almost useless. Our guides use the words “building” and “beauties” interchangeably. I have never heard this before and thought I was just not understanding. Stone was surprised that I did not understand this. In Xi’an it costs 700000 yuan for a 2br condo. The average person has 5000 yuan/month income ($850). Ivy says that Chinese women want men with the 5 “C’s”: Condo, Car, Cash, Cute, and Cooking ability! Chinese men cannot live up to this and are beginning to marry Vietnamese women who do not have such high standards of living. No dual citizenship here, so if you choose to stay in China you must give up your other country. Ivy feels that many Chinese left the county for financial reasons, but are now coming back. She does not mention there may have been political reasons that people left.
We stop for lunch at a former hotel, a far eastern suburb of Xi’an near the Terra Cotta Warriors. It is freezing outside, literally, temperatures in the 30’s. But windows are open here.
After lunch, we get back on the bus and Ivy gives us history of the area we will see: The Terra Cotta Warriors. The Qin (Chin) Dynasty is named after the man who unified all 7 kingdoms of China. He set the standards for a single currency, weights and measurement and set down a written language. He connected several smaller fortifications into the Great Wall. He also burned books and killed Confucian scholars, so he wasn’t all good. His reign was short and most scholars believe it was because he was so paranoid and he tried too hard to live forever. He kept searching for the secret to long life and took too many herbs, and perhaps some mercury, that probably poisoned him. This site is an underground mausoleum, begun when he was only 15. He ordered 700,000 workers to build the mausoleum and it is believed over 8,000 terra cotta soldiers, larger than life size, were built. Qin’s tomb has not yet been opened, partially because we are not yet sure how to preserve the artifacts once they hit the air. Also because it is believed that a mercury “river” surrounds the tomb and would likely be poisonous. The soldiers were brightly painted originally, but the paint fades the second it hit the oxygen. The first warrior was found in 1974 by some farmers who were digging a well. At first they told no one because they were afraid.
The site is pretty amazing! And I got to meet and get the signature of the last remaining farmer who discovered the first warrior! The book about the site was 150RMB (about $25) and an extra 20RMB for his signature and photo! I also bought as a snack, some Oreo cookies that were blueberry and raspberry. Who knew?
On the drive home, we are told the Chinese story of how the world began. Pangu, the first god, lived in an egg. Finally he could not stand living so confined anymore and so he broke the egg in two. The top of the shell became the sky and the bottom of the egg became the bedrock. When he died, his eyes became the sun and the moon. His hair became the forest. His bones were the mountains and the muscles became the rich soil. The mother of the first humans was very lonely and she made clay figures that looked like her, only smaller. She baked them in an oven to harden them. Those that were under-baked became the white people. Those who were over baked became the black people. And those who were perfectly baked became the Chinese.
Odd fact: In almost every language “mama” means mother. But in china, daddy is “baba.”
Tonight is an optional dinner and Tang Dynasty Show. I opt out. I planned to walk the city for a while. I find a skating rink and people seem surprised to see a Western women. A man passes me and he has a small child bundled up and sitting on this shoulders. The pants of the child are split open and his little butt cheeks are hanging out. I find later than most children are dressed this way, often without a diaper to “help with potty training” on the street. Right.
At 7pm, I sit down on my bed and realize I cannot even get up to change clothes. The jet lag has gotten me. I nap for 2 hours just to get the strength to shower, change into pajamas and go to bed.
February 27 It’s my birthday!
I got 10 hours of sleep and really needed it. I’m up early and walked the Muslim area behind hotel. Found 3 mosques. Everyone is up and grabbing food on the street. Does no one cook at home? It looks like they don’t have running water, so they may not have kitchens in their home either. The streets, the people are filthy. It is winter here, so I can only imagine what the smell would be like at the height of summer. The temperatures get to 100F here and I see fresh meat out, some being butchered on the street. This is the Hui area, people of Muslim decent and a minority in China. While I see Chinese characters, there is also Middle Eastern script. Most of the older men wear white cap, but very few of the young men are wearing them unless they are cooks on the street. There are very strict cuisine rules in Islam, no pork and meat must be killed in a specific way. A few women wear the white cap as well. Others have loose scarves, perhaps more because it is cold than to cover their hair. I see very few beards. The place is a rabbit warren and I get very lost because the streets do not connect on a grid. But I manage to keep enough sense of direction that I know which way is the city wall is. I managed to get to it and use it to find my way back to the hotel in plenty of time for a quick shower and change my shirt. I must have walked 6 miles and am sweaty. Amazing how it is the little things that really make a difference and this simple act of cleanliness restores me.
It is my birthday and I am serenaded in 3 languages! Of course English and Mandarin, and a couple from Mexico City also sing to me in Spanish. We are all on the bus to fly from Xi’an to Shanghai. It will take most of the day since the flight is delayed. Hum, even a Communist country cannot keep the airlines running on time.
I’ve started my trip to China. First the taxi does not come, calling to say they will be 20 to 30 minutes late. Naturally. So I told them that was not acceptable, scrapped the frost from the windows of my car and drove to the Doraville MARTA station myself (the parking turned out to be $80!). A train leaves as I’m getting up the stairs to the platform, but I have time. I get to the Atlanta airport and as always I am selected for an extra security check. I’m convinced they choose me because I am the least likely looking terrorist. That way they have nothing to worry about. For them. But I find it annoying because they won’t even let me collect my items. Anyone can grab my bag as it just sits there. They won’t even let me hold onto my ticket and passport, I have to lay those down too. I honestly fly less because of the security measures. I wouldn’t mind them if I thought they kept us safer, but I simply don’t believe they do.
At JFK, I go to the Air China desk. It is obvious that something is wrong. The very young (where are the old women?) women talk among themselves, keep asking me to wait. FINALLY they say I need to go to the China Air desk. Air China AND China Air? Seriously?
I have more than 3 hours to wait. I met a young man, going back to China where he teaches English. We are the only two Westerners I see in our boarding area. He got asthma after only 16 months living near Beijing, the air quality is so poor. He recommends that if I teach in China I don’t stay in Beijing long. His father died of cancer and he got home just before his death in eastern Ohio. He has a fiancée who is Chinese and after she gets a green card they will come back to the USA. Her father is not happy with this arrangement.
The problem with Mandarin for me is that it always sounds harsh to my ear. Everyone always seems to be angry or yelling. If someone near me on the plane is speaking, I have a hard time sleeping. It’s not a pretty language. I brought three books with me for the trip there and back. I finish the first, which is good. The second is bad and I discard. Hope the third will get me home and not be bad.
The plane flight attendants ignore me. Not rude exactly, I just don’t exist to them. I have to get quite insistent if I want something, like water. It’s a 13.5 hour flight and you need water. Japan was like that too. (I was treated worse on AirFrance, however. That’s my low standard for airline treatment) The flight from NYC is north across the Arctic Circle, across the top of Canada, headed west. I guess I thought we’d travel East.
Land in Beijing. Customs is a snap—I’m practically waved through. Met my guide, Stone, who promises to give us each a Chinese name. There are only 13 in group, the smallest group I’ve ever traveled with. Just 3 came in on my flight and we are the last. I have lost an entire day, however! It is 8pm of the second day of my vacation. Those who flew out of LA have had all day free in Beijing. I feel cheated!
Our accommodations are state run, the Tian Tan Hotel, across street from Tiananmen Square. My bed is hard. No top sheet, just a comforter. At the front desk they barely speak English. I find quickly that even though I can get to the internet, I can’t access Google, Gmail, my personal website, Facebook, any news, Twitter…anything. It’s a reminder that this is a communist country. Our guide, Stone (I never lean his Chinese name, this is the name he chose for Americans), is newly married and very excited that they can have TWO children if they choose. They are only children and the product of parents who are only children. That gives them privileges. Stone has no idea about the riots in the Arab world. He thinks that the reason his tour company, Gate 1, has canceled tours to Egypt is because the tour leaders didn’t do a good job. He’s been threatened that China’s tours could be canceled if he is not well liked. Wow. Not only do they keep world events from the people, but they lie to them and use the circumstances to their advantage. The hotel has one channel in English, CNN.
First Full Day in China, Beijing, February 23, 2011
Breakfast is odd. There’s salad, soup, even kim chi and sushi. For breakfast. It’s cold and I’m glad for my silk long underwear. Today we meet the entire group, just 13 of us. We have to make final decisions on optional tours, then it’s a walking tour of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace)—it will be about 6 miles of walking today and we have an older man on the group who uses a cane. Not sure how he will do. The tour guide is a young Chinese man of 27 and his “American name” is Stone. He explains to us that we will be among lots of Chinese tourists, but very few westerners will be around. He is right. It’s a huge area and we will walk fast so he suggests we be “like sticky rice” to stay together. He suggests we do not take photos of guards, who will be in communist uniform.
Tiananmen Square is the largest public plaza in the world, erected in 1417 at the height of the Ming Dynasty. It is best known as the site of the 1989 student’s demonstration. (Days later, Stone admits that he saw YouTube videos of the event only 2 months ago, while he was out of the country on his honeymoon in Thailand. He said he had no idea what had really happened since his government had suppressed it.) He suggests we NOT mention the event since plain clothed “Chinese CIA” are everywhere and it is still an “uncomfortable” topic. He says we should not buy the “Rolex” watches on the street that are very cheap. He calls them “Pho-lex” since they are knock offs and usually last only a few days.
We see long lines for chairman Mao Zedong’s mausoleum where the body is on display in a glass coffin and lifted up from the refrigerator every day! If I had time, I would visit, but there is no free time in Beijing. Across the street is the Great Hall of the People. I get my photo in front of the Monument to the Fallen Heroes, erected in 1952. They have a National celebration on the square on Oct 1.
On to the Forbidden City. Imperial Palace was built during the Ming dynasty. The original capital was in Xi’an, but the third emperor moved the seat of government to Beijing. The one we see in Beijing was built 1406 to 1420. It has 800 buildings and 9000 rooms (the story is that there are 999 buildings and 9999 rooms, lucky numbers). 25 emperors lived here. Last one lost power in 1924 and was driven out. Outer court is filled with political buildings; inner court was just for the emperor and his concubines and children. Most of the buildings look quite alike outside—wooden, ornate, with tile roofs. Impossible to heat. There are huge brass caldrons filled with water at every building, in case of fire. On the roof lines are figures of animals (real and mythical) to protect the building from fire, though now they also have lightening rods. This is an area with almost no tornadoes, but they do have some hail and lots of lightening. All the buildings merge into one in my head since they look so much alike.
We go to the Summer Palace for lunch. We have lunch in the Hall of Listening to Oriels. It is lovely. We learn that all the plates at our seats are small because the Chinese like to eat continuously. We have a bowl for rice or soup. At every dinner we have all the hot tea we want and one small glass of something else is included. We can have Coke, Sprite, Beer, or Bottled Water. Diet coke not included and frankly hard to find. Plates of food keep coming. We think we are done and then more food will arrive! You know they are done when they bring slices of fruit, usually watermelon. There are 3 Wal-marts in Beijing. One IKEA too.
We walk through the gardens of the Summer Palace. 800 acres in size. At the center of the gardens is a peach shaped lake. Along its edge is a covered walkway that is more than a mile long. It is a bat shaped walk way, along one side of the lake. Bat is “fu,” the same as the word happiness, so it is a very lucky animal. But I cannot see how anyone could know the shapes, since everything is on a grand scale. There is no vantage point to see the bat or the peach.
Several of us are stopped by Chinese who ask to take a photo with us. I lost count of how many times I posed with someone I didn’t know for photos. It strikes me as odd that my photo could be in the living room of a family I do not know.
Next is the Beijing zoo. Open for free, except for the pandas, which is an extra cost. I saw 4 panda, but there are supposed to be dozens somewhere. It’s quite cold and perhaps they are indoors. Not a modern zoo at all. It reminds me on something from the 1950’s. Needs cleaning—the animal cages are filthy and two buildings I went into were so smelly I had to leave. The animals pace with boredom and are kept mostly on concrete floors.
On bus ride back, a car cut us off and the police are called. It is a very minor accident and there is no damage to our bus. I didn’t feel much of an impact, just the driver hitting the breaks suddenly and hard. Lots of yelling in Mandarin. The other car is clearly at fault and we have many witnesses, but the officer is nervous because the other driver is a state official of some kind and he has his young mistress with him. The state official insists that he was in the right. It is obvious from his demeanor that he is used to giving orders. Three police are called in succession, each of higher rank than the last, and it takes over an hour and a half to settle the matter in the bus driver’s favor. No one wants to talk to the tourists, however, even though those in the front seats saw the whole thing.
It is too late to walk around the city this evening by the time we get back. I’ve had no free time in the city and am very disappointed. I try to go into a nearby restaurant, but I can’t find one that has English, or even photos that I can point at. I end up buying something off the street—meat on a stick that I watch being grilled–chuanr, the only Chinese symbol I can recognize. I know people say I should not eat street food, but if I can see it being cooked and it is hot and well done, I will give it a try. The city is much cleaner than I expected and the air quality better, though not great. It is not long after the Olympics so I suspect this is the reason. All my photos are gray from mist, fog, and smog. I saw no homeless or beggars. The temperature is in the 20’s at night and the 40’s through the day. Of course I only drink bottled water, but was surprised to find that even the locals don’t drink the water without at least boiling it—it is simply not safe for anyone to drink. I wish I had a free day here to see more.
Visiting the Great Wall, February 24
Exchange rate is 100RMB (called yuan, pronounced You Ann ) to $ 17US . No/little tipping at restaurant or taxi. No tipping for hotel cleaning. If I could manage it I would steal the bathroom scale in my hotel. According to it, I have dropped 30 pounds since coming to China. I love this country!
The hotel walls are very thin. The first night I could hear everything my next door neighbors were saying. Of course it was in Mandarin so I couldn’t understand a word. Then when they went to sleep I could hear him snoring. Last night they were even louder. The argument started at 9p and even earplugs weren’t enough. Called front desk at 11p and asked if they could get them to quiet down. I heard the phone ring in their room. He answered with a loud grunt, “WHA!” then a quieter, “oooo.”. And I didn’t hear another word.
Hate I missed first day–no free time in Beijing. And last night’s car accident meant too late to go out too. This is my second trip with Gate 1 and let’s face it, it’s a cheap travel company. If they say you will “view” something, they mean from a distance and you aren’t going inside. I’m not saying I won’t travel with them again, but I’ll pay more attention to flight arrangements, and ask for an extra day extension at the end to make up for what I missed. More cost, but it will be worth it. Most organized tour companies, like Gate 1, have designated sales stops. This one has one a day, which is toooooo much. Today we go to a Jade factory. I bought a Buddha necklace, which is supposed to balance my chi. Men should wear Guanyin (in Japan Kwan Yin). $33.
We drive to a section of the Great Wall, the longest man made structure on earth (but you cannot see it from space). It spans nearly 4000 miles and our guide tells us that it is possible to walk the entire wall, though it is in bad shape in many sections. This sounds like a good idea until we get there and I see how steep the steps are. It is in the Yan mountain range and though I walk only to the top on the next ridge, I’m exhausted. This is the Juwongguan Pass. The guide tells us we have a choice of going left or right up the mountain. He describes them as hard and harder. He’s not kidding. Honestly, heard a Chinese woman say “oi vey.” If I had had any breath, I might have laughed out loud. But it is striking, thrilling to see.
Today is February second in the lunar calendar. An auspicious holiday and the day you should get your hair cut. It is called Raising the Head of the Dragon Day. But since you can’t carry scissors on planes anymore, I don’t have any to cut my hair with.
Next we visit the Ming dynasty tombs, constructed in the 1420s. Only one tomb has been opened since the technology of archeology is still far behind what’s need to do so without destroying everything. All the silks that are inside the one tomb will instantly oxidize to ash (just like burning) when they hit oxygen. Those who went into the first tomb watched the treasures ruin as they entered. This is the last time that Gate 1 will take people to these tombs. I really enjoyed the visit, but it is rated low by travelers, I guess. The Scared Path was my favorite—statues of people and animals, all in pairs. The pair guard the walk and there are two so that half of them could “rest” while the other half stood watch. All the bodies of the emperors were carried down this path on the way to their tombs.
There is So much spitting! I’ve never been anywhere where everyone spits all the time. It’s disgusting. We ask our guide why, and he just says that it is because the Chinese language is all in the mouth and throat, nothing from the diaphragm. Spitting keeps the throat clear. I think he is slightly embarrassed.
Driving back we get a tour of the Olympics buildings, including the Birds Nest, Water Cube and the Dragon Complex. We stop at a park to take photos and there are so many street sellers, mostly selling kites. Huge long strings of kites. I didn’t get any, but almost everyone does.
At night I join an optional dinner of Peking Duck at a “famous” restaurant. These people know nothing of presentation. The duck is to be carved into 123 pieces, each having crispy skin, fat and meat. They didn’t make a big deal of it at all. And it is the worst dinner of my entire trip. Everything is attractive, but not tasty. The fish is carp and filled with so many bones I’m afraid to eat it. They have these amazing looking balls of chicken, but they taste greasy.
Back at hotel: OK, this is odd. Last night I was investigating the motel room. They have free condoms in the room and a “Happy Traveler” book. The only English words are “sex” and “pleasure.” Hum. Pretty sure I’m not the target audience for that. But to be fair they have condoms for men and women. Free. Also lubricant “only for woman” and the text reads “As the pure Chinese medicinal preparation. Privacy protected site. Use when necessary, so that the couple can live in a healthier, cleaner.” They also have these glass vials containing a liquid and mini q-tips to apply it. Separate items for men and women. “This product is the pure Chinese medicinal preparation, refined many times and exquisite productive. It’s for women only. Use when necessary, to maintain marital Passion, healthy and happy life, the good without dependence.”
I just don’t think I want to know more about that.