Archive for August, 2007

Outside China

August 29, 2007

The past few days I spent outside China – maybe not totally because Hongkong and Macau have been given back to the PRC in the late nineties, but they are still like individual countries in many aspects. The main reason I traveled to Hongkong is that the territory is treated as a special area in regards of visa. As my study visa expired, I needed to leave the country and get a new tourist visa to continue my journey through mainland China.
But Hongkong is not only different on that aspect, compared to mainland China it is very dense, there are people everywhere, anytime. One the one hand it creates a “busy” atmosphere, but there is also a lack of relaxing.

Generally speaking, goods are much more expensive in Hongkong, especially the cost for food and living space. However there are some corners where one can get cheap food as well, but I have to search for it. But we were lucky and found some small streets with small restaurants. They had the menu only written in Chinese characters (traditional ones, so not the same way of writing as in mainland China) and the customers were all Chinese. When in the street one usually can hear all kinds of languages: Indian, Mandarin Chinese, English, German, French… The most common however is Cantonese, that I cannot understand with a few exceptions like numbers and very few words that are similar to their pronounciation in Mandarin Chinese (like “wait for the car/bus”, “fifth floor”). But Hongkong is an international city, so most people are able to speak English – if not, we could still try Mandarin Chinese to talk to them.
Another thing I noticed was that foreigners are nothing special in Hongkong. In mainland China, one is rather often stared at and one can hear children (and adults) loudly talking about “waiguoren” (foreigner) when you come near them. And in contrast to Macau where most of the tourists come from the mainland, Hongkong is very international, so you never know who is a tourist and who is doing business there. So in Macau, where I went to for one day, I was asked how may Chinese pronounciation was that “standard” and not with a southern accent – usually people tell you how good your Chinese is just after you say “Ni hao!”

Anyway, Macau sometimes looks like a European city – well, the Portuguese built it. But there are also a lot of new casinos (whose tax accounts half of Macau’s budget), there is a Formula-3 racing course and newly built skyscrapers. When I visited the city I went more for the traditional options: Some churches, including the famous St. Paul, that only consists of the front wall these days, the old fort on the mountain, the maritime museum and some temples.

In Hongkong our visit was more highlighting the newer sights. Besides an “old” temple (Chinese would laugh about its age, though), we saw the lightshow and the fireworks in front of the skyline, did some shopping for eletronics (these items are expluded from taxation on Hongkong that makes them even cheaper than mainland China), and walked the streets of the financial district. The later we did on Sunday, but that day we could only see a large picknick party going on in the streets as literally thousands of people were having drinks and food in the streets, playing cards and chatting between the skyscrapers. Several people told us that some skyscrapers can also visited for free – however, not on a Sunday. I think we are still used the the Chinese way where most shops are opened on Sunday, as well and were surprised how hard it is to find something to eat for lunch when the tall buildings are devastated.

We also toured the interesting museum the depicts the history of Hongkong and its role during the opium wars and had a look at the botanical and zoological garden. Of course the Peak Tram to Victoria Peak was also in the program, but the weather was a little hazy, so the skyline might not have been as beautiful as on a clear day. Anyhow, in Hongkong the air (and the city itself, too) is much cleaner than Beijing.


Sacred Sites in Southern Sichuan

August 22, 2007

After we got back from Jiuzhaigou we once again stayed at our “home base”, Chengdu, for a day to relax in the Wuhouci temple and the neighbouring park with its nice tea house where we spend some hours.

The next day I took the bus to Leshan, location of the world’s largest Buddha statue. Together with Jiuzhaigou and Emeishan it is one of Sichuan’s three UNESCO world heritage sites and the title caused the Chinese to come in big groups to this Buddhist place – foreigners on the other hand were quite rare. So when being in the line to make the small slope down along the figure that is facing the river everybody was eager to chat with me. Unfortunately it was very hazy that day so I decided to not take the boat cruise passing the statue since I was not even able to clearly see the other bank of the river.

Great Buddha at Leshan
The 71 meter high statue in Leshan.

I decided to go to the Wuyou temple that was included in the entrance fee of the Great Buddha (大佛). After crossing the bridge to the temple area it was suddenly quiet as the tourist groups seemed to avoid the “ordinary” temple. But I was lucky as I bumped into some locals that I had met earlier when they helped me take a picture of me in front of the Buddha statue. They simply showed me around the temple, so I had my private tour guides. The same has happened to me when I was still on the areal of the Great Buddha when I had a look at the more remote temples and pagoda.

Another famous Buddhist site in Sichuan is Emeishan (Mt. Emei 峨眉山), about 45 minutes from Leshan by bus. We spend the night on the foot of the mountain and started the exhausting climb up the mountain the next morning. Well, we cheated a little bit, as we took a bus for the first some miles but then we resisted to cable car that most of the Chinese took. We made our way up literally about thousands of steep, it is not a difficult climb but is exhausting. In the evening we were going to sleep at one of the monasteries along the path, but we had to make some seven extra kilometers as we found out the it was subject to construction and we had to go to the next one. There we met a monk from Chengdu who was taking a pilgrimage to the sacred Buddhist mountain and we saw him again the next day quite often: Every time we chatted a bit, took a photo or were subject of a photo being taken by a Chinese because both a monk and foreigners seems to be the ideal object to appear in a photo to take home.

Night at Emeishan
The moon above the monastery where we spend the night.

The next morning we could feel the nearly 30 kilometers and more then 1500 meters of elevation we had mastered the day before, but on the second day we made it to the top in the early afternoon. While the weather was not that good during the first day, it became much clearer on the second day and the clouds around us were just beautiful. We had plenty of time at the summit because we originally planed to take the monorail to the 3099 meter high “Tenthousand Buddha Summit”, but it was out of service.
On the way up we also saw another attraction of the mountain: the monkeys that were really clever when it comes to food. When taking a rest and having a snack at a small restaurant we were witnessed how a monkey stole some noodles from the restaurant and were eating them high up in a tree without the reach of the stones that the angry shop-owner throw after the monkey.

Top of Emeishan
The top of Emeishan in the evening sun.

In comparison to the youth hostels that we had mainly stayed during our trip, we stayed at a rather crappy (and expensive) hotel, but it was near the top of the mountain so after we got up at 5:00 a.m. in the morning we only had a short walk for the platform to see the sunrise. As a matter of fact, a beautiful sunrise on the 3077 high summit is pretty rare and we were satisfied with what we saw: The sun was making it’s way through the clouds near the horizon and send us some warm sunrays.

Sunrise at Emeishan
The sunrise at Emeishan.

The so-called “sea of clouds” (云海) must be amazing and on clear days one can see Mt. Gonga (7556 m) rising from the clouds. But this day we were more bathing in that sea, so we were in the clouds ourselves up to the neck. After the sunrise we made our way back to the foot of the mountain by bus, changed into another bus to Chengdu and arrived there in the afternoon. Once again we were in Chengdu, at the hostel we were even greeted “welcome back home”…

Beautiful lakes and waterfalls at Jiuzhaigou

August 18, 2007

After we did not get bus tickets for the next day after we got to Chengdu last week, we just used the extra day to explore Chengdu. So we had a chance to see the lively Wenshu monastery, the People’s Park, the big Mao statue in a central place in the city and walked the little touristy streets and had some local snacks. Sichuan is famous for its spicy food, the noodles and other local dishes we had were delicious.

Peppers used for spicy food
Spicy peppers are used en masse to prepare the local dished (川菜, Chuancai) in Sichuan.

With a delay of one day we started to Jiuzhaigou – well, as we do not have a fixed schedule, one cannot speak of delay anyway.
To get there from Chengdu one can either take the plane or a twelve hour bus ride. We decided to take the 434 km ride by both both going to Jiuzhaigou and getting back to Chengdu. The road was sometimes in a scary height above the valley, but it gave us some fantastic views on the mountain area. Compared with other mountain areas I have been to, the Sichuan mountains – somehow the back end of Tibet – feature a huge difference in elevation from the bottom of the valley to the mountain peaks.

Jiuzhaigou itself is known by almost every Chinese that we have talked to, it is a valley were one can admire the crystal clear, deep blue lakes, huge waterfalls and the surrounding mountains. As it is reknown for its “shanshui” (water and mountains), the highest form a Chinese can think of when it comes to nature, the valley has become rather crowded and tourist groups are making their way to the most beautiful lakes and waterfalls. However, they are usually taking the busses that carry the tourists up and down the Y-shaped valley so if one decides to hike the trails, one can leave behind the noisy tour groups rather quickly.

Waterfall at Jiuzhaigou
One of the plentiful waterfalls at Jiuzhaigou.

It had rained heavily before our arrival there (somehow the same situation we experienced in Chongqing), so some trails were closed because of stone slides. But the extra water made the waterfalls even more beautiful as the water was plentiful. The clear and freezing cold water is making its thirty-plus km way down the valley, forming beautiful colored lakes on its route. I have never seen such clear lakes and the downside is that after coming back to Chengdu every lake in a park seems dirty…

Blue Lake at Jiuzhaigou
The “five colored lake” (五彩海) at Jiuzhaigou.

The ticket prizes of the Jiuzhaigou mountain area are rather high – after getting a student discount the cost was still 170 yuan for the two day pass – not including the bus rides inside the valley. But the mostly untouched nature is worth the entrance fee and long hours in the bus to get to Jiuzhaigou in the very north of Sichuan province.

After getting back to Chengdu, we had a relaxing day that we used to wash clothes and visited the Wuhouci temple. There is also a park surrounding this temple with a nice little tea house where we spend some hours talking, relaxing and drinking tea in the midst of Chinese playing cards and Mahjong (麻将).

Chinese City Without Bicyles? Two Days in Chongqing

August 13, 2007

Chongqing is a city that cannot be easily compared with any other city in China that I have been to so far. With 30 million people living in the area, I expected a crowded city, especially after I had heard that there is basically nobody using a bicycle in the city. But surprisingly the city, build on the hill between the junction of Yangtze river and Jialing river does not suffer from a bad congestion as Beijing does. The streets are simply too steep to go there by bike and some of the old ways are just stairways.

Cable car in Chongqing crossing the Yangtze river
Ride on the cable car crossing the Yangtze river.

When getting around in Chongqing we relied on taxis with a flag fall as low as 5 yuan (half of the 10 yuan one has to pay in Beijing), little mini buses or the cable car that crosses the Yangtze. However, when we toured some places located a little outside of the city centre, we had a the luck of having someone to drive us around. When taking part in the AIMUN conference at Beijing University I had met a student from Chongqing but studying in Beijing. We had kept in touch after AIMUN and when I was thinking of my travel planes she invited me to visit Chongqing.

So I did not have a local tour-guide, but I also could experience the Chinese hospitality. According to the Confucian words 有朋自遠方來不亦樂乎 a friend from afar is always welcome and thus during our time in Chongqing my travel mate and me were taken to the best places in Chongqing, and on our last evening the family invited us for Chinese Hot Pot (火锅) which is said to originate in Chongqing.

Chongqing Hotpot
Hotpot with friends from Chongqing.

The sights we went to included some old houses of the former business area in the city during the Qing dynasty, an area a little outside that was used to coordinate the war against Japan (during Second World War Chongqing served as capital under the Guomindang), the old market of Ciqikou that was a little touristy, but it still felt a lot different from places alike in other cities. It might be because there are not only tourists going there but also the local people come there on the weekends.
The skyline of the places were the Jialiang river merges with the Yangtze river is quite beautiful, it is also called “little Hongkong”, but I cannot compare this yet, because I will not be in Hongkong until the end of the month. To see the skyline, that especially shows its beauty during the evening when it is lit in colorful lights, we made a cruise on the Yangtze, and went to a place a little outside with a bird’s view on the skyline.
Since we did not have time to make a longer cruise down the Yangtze to the the Three Gorges, we at least went to the modern museum of the gorges and the construction of the dam.
One other sight we went to had been suffered from the flooding caused by the heavy rain a few weeks ago. The prisons were members of the Communists were held captive during the civil war were damaged, one could only see a small part. At least we had good weather during our stay, we only had a heavy rain once – but it lasted only some fifteen minutes.

Skyline of Chongqing during the night
Skyline of Chongqing at night.

The city itself is very vivid, and the people like “renao” places, as my Chongqing friend said. Since we had a relaxing day after these two days so I went to a bar in the center of Chongqing with other guests from the youth hostel on my last evening there. Even we did not got out of the club until after 2:30 in the morning, however we had no trouble to get a 夜校, a midnight snack.

We were also taken to a party of a the family’s friend for lunch – the party was hosted because their daugther had done well in her “gaokao” exams and can go to the school she had chosen.
I don’t know how I can thank my Chongqing friend for their hospitality. One the one hand it seams normal for them to treat guest like this and invite us to all those places, but one the other hand “it just does not feel good” as an American friend said, because you never know if you can give something back in such a nice way.

Starting the China Journey: First stop at Xi’an

August 9, 2007

After we got to Xi’an two days ago we have seen a lot of interesting places in the old town of Xi’an that has been capital of the old imperial China. When we were taking the night train here, we chose “hard sleeper”, in which is easy to get in touch with some Chinese. So we were told what to do in Xi’an, what places to go and what local special food is not to miss. We had a lot of Xi’an locals around us, so we got a lot of inside information. With one of our fellow travellers to Xi’an we even spent the evening later on. I think it is much easier to make some friends now, I still remember that this was quite hard in the beginning of my stay in China.

On the first morning we directly went to see the Terracotta Army, called “the eighth world wonder” on the signs in the exhibition hall. The worriers were amazing, and surprisingly the number of visitors were also not to high, so we had the chance and take a close look without being pushed forward. After that we went to the most interesting Muslim quarter and visited the mosque. Walking through the streets in the area was interesting, we also had some small snacks there.

The second day in Xi’an it was raining all day long. Nonetheless we first stopped at the history museum and took a quick look on the “Big Wild Goose Pagoda”, according to our friend from Xi’an, it is not worth going closer and pay the entrance fee, because one does not see more than from the outside. In the afternoon we went to the “Forrest of Steles” and saw the old traditional classics engraved in stone panels – basically a library more than 900 old. After that we walked on top of the city wall, but due to the rain we decided to not rent bicycles but rather take a walk.

I am going to take the night train to Chongqing in a few hours, so we are going to leave Xi’an very soon.

Terrific Trips: Places to go in and around Beijing

August 7, 2007

Even though the exams were taking up quite a bit of my time during the past weeks, I still managed to make some short, but interesting day trips in and around Beijing. One reason was my brother who came and visited me. Of course we toured main sights, like Tian’anmen (天安门), the Palace Museum (故宫), the Palace of Heaven (天坛) and made a day trip to the Great Wall to Jinshanling. From there we walked to wall to Simatai, a nice walk although a little bit challenging because it was constantly going up and down and the sun was burning. However, tourist were few because we did not go on the weekend.

Tiantan - Temple of Heaven in Beijing
Tiantan – Temple of Heaven

The trip to the Lama Temple, a temple built in Tibetan style, that this has a quite active community, it definitely worth a visit. The neighboring Confucian Temple can be left out, as it is renovated at present and one cannot go into one single hall. The architecture, that is typical for Confucian temples (made after the “original temple” in Qufu) can be seen, but without being able to enter the halls should better tour the Hutong streets that are also in this area.

Pavilion in the Fenghuangling area
Small pavilion in the Fenghuangling area

I also went to some places near Beijing: A little while ago we toured two temples with our school, Tanzhesi and Jietaisi. The temples are one of the oldest in the Beijing area, and the later one also has an interesting section with old stones, see a picture taken by Chris.
Another location not directly in the center of Beijing was Fenghuangling (凤凰岭), a park in the hills outside of Beijing. After a 30-plus-kilometer bus ride, one gets to the park where temples, little pavilions and great view were the reward for the climb in the burning sun. We first heard of this place in the Insider’s Guide to Beijing, a book worth buying if one stays in Beijing for a longer period of time.

An interesting walking path to the temples and pavilions in the Fenghuangling area.

Other one-day trips included the 798 art district in Dashanzi, the Botanical Garden and Beijing Zoo. The Botanical Garden was very nice to talk a walk, however, at the time I went, there were not a great deal of flowers blooming. From Westerner’s eyes, the Beijing Zoo might be considered as a prison, especially the cages for lions and tigers are very small. In the reptile area I even spotted a poisonous, green Bamboo Snake (I forgot the exact name) that I had seen in Taiwan – not in a zoo, but crossing my way in a nature resort.

Lion cage in Beijing zoo
Lion in its small cage at Beijing Zoo

After my exams were over, I still had some days left in Beijing that were filled with paperwork (buying train tickets sometimes can be annoying), preparations for my “Tour de Chine” that will start today and saying good-bye to friends. But I also had time to travel in Inner Mongolia and did some short trips in Beijing: I went to Lugouqiao (卢沟桥) and Yuanmingyuan (圆明园) and the Capital Museum.
Lugouqiao, better known as Marco Polo bridge, it not bad, the 485 stone lions on the bridge are each unique and the old bridge was already praised by Marco Polo in his travel reports. However, as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident was subject in our history class, I decided to go. I did not go in the memorial park for the war against Japan but had a quick look at the city wall in this area instead.

Marco Polo Bridge in the south east of Beijing
Stone lions on the Marco Polo Bridge in Beijing

I could not have left Beijing without seeing Yuanmingyuan, also known as Old Summer Palace, because it is just opposite of Beijing University. But I am glad that I did not go earlier, because at this time of the year, there are a lot of lotus flowers (荷花) blooming in the lakes of the park. On the downside, this makes it one of the tourist attraction that is not missed by the stream of Chinese spending their summer holidays in the capital.

Lotus flowers in Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace)
Lotus flowers in Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace)

The Capital Museum is worth going only because of it’s architecture. There is a huge hall inside and the stairways are very interesting. It features a lot of exhibitions, but as I only had time to spend half a day there, I just saw a temporary exhibition, the part about old customs in Beijing and some Buddha statues from different eras that were found in and around Beijing.

Beijing Capital Museum
Beijing Capital Museum

While going to these places I got familiar with the transportation system. Actually it is not as difficult as I first thought it would be when I arrived in Beijing. A Chinese friend told me to use a web page to look up bus lines in Beijing – much easier than searching a map were hundreds of bus lines and thousands of bus stops are marked. I sometimes have the feeling that I better understand the directions than some Chinese – when going with Chinese friends, they sometimes don’t know which direction is the right one… However it is usually no problem to ask someone at the bus stop to help you.

Long distances, beautiful landscape and tourist spots – Trip into Inner Mongolia

August 2, 2007

In the past days I have been sitting quite a few hours in our “Peking University” tour coach as we traveled for miles and miles in Inner Mongolia. Our four-day-trip included a night a yurt in the grassland (草原 caoyuan), a visit to the capital of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Hohhot (呼和浩特) and a few hours in the sand dunes north of Baotou. As the province in the north of China is huge, it took us half a day to get into the grasslands, where we were welcomed by Mongolians in traditional costumes performing a special drinking ritual with us, honoring heaven, earth and ancestors. The drinking ritual was performed several times during our stay, at different places and different occasions, but it always included a cup of Baijiu.

Horse riding in the grasslands
Horse riding in the grasslands.

Today only one in every six inhabitants of Inner Mongolia really is ethnic Mongol, most of the rest in Han-Chinese. However, the policy on minorities that is carried out by the Chinese government is stressing the role of minorities. They are “allowed to dance and sing, as long as they are not opposing the control by Beijing” said a friend recently. So the government supports the efforts in preserving the culture and traditions and makes them visible for tourists – at least this is the goal. In reality this leads to a situation in what some kind of pop or even techno sounds are mixed with some Mongolian songs (sometimes sung in Mandarin Chinese, not Mongolian) performed in traditional clothes.

We also took part in a horse riding activity into the grassland, but the cold wind and the dense fog turned it into a freezing cold activity – after weeks of burning heat in Beijing we were simply not used to the cold any more. On the other hand the temperatures could climb very high. In the sand dunes of Xiangshawan (响沙湾) some of us got burned by the sun while riding on a camel.

Sand dune at Xiangshawan
Sand dune at Xiangshawan.

Xiangshawan is translated as “Resonant Sand Gorge”, but I think “Noisy Sand Gorge” would be more suitable (that would be a possible translation of the characters, as well, because “xiang” has more than one meaning). The dunes are not very big, but filled with tourists. There is a cable car that allows one to easily get into the sand without climbing the first steep dune, after that there are a lot of activities like camel riding, car driving or archery offered for extra-charge. The camel riding was all right, I did not participate in any other activities and preferred to walk through the dunes by myself. Once I left behind the glamorous tourist area, I saw beautiful dunes without having a jeep cruising through it.

Xiangshawan Sand Dunes
Lots of tourist attractions in the sand dunes – not much to see from the beautiful landscape…

Traveling with a bus seems quite convenient, the brand new highway (supported with a US$ 100 loan by the World Bank), is in a better condition than the German autobahn and allowed a smooth traveling as there was naturally little traffic (I guess not many people in the region can effort an own car, so there were some trucks and few cars on the highway). However, distances are very long. The stretch between the province capital in Hohhot and the largest city of Inner Mongolia, Baotao, is just a little more than 2 cm on my map of the province, but that stands for 250 km, a three-hour bus ride.
So there was a lot of time to relax in the bus, plan my China trip that will start next Tuesday, listen to music or watch the landscape outside. Generally speaking the landscape in Inner Mongolia is very beautiful, the wide grassland, that is a little hilly, must be even more beautiful if there would just have been a little less rain and fog…
When looking outside the window, I also noticed that all street signs both have Mongolian letters and Chinese characters. Shops in the cities also have their logo in two languages.

Street sign in Hohot
Street sign in Hohhot with both Mongolian and Chinese characters.

In Hohhot, we visited a Buddhist temple (大召寺, Dazhaosi), but besides one monk there only were tourists. In the mosque (清真寺), about one kilometer north, I just went with friend in the evening – we found a very authentic atmosphere: People were rushing to the evening prayer, just outside was a little street market. It was no problem to get into the mosque (no admission!) and nobody was really paying attention to the two foreigners that strolled the area.

The Muslim food on the market smelled really good, but we did not have enough time to give it a try since there dinner organized in the hotel. The food we ate was usually very good, in comparison to Beijing there were more dishes made from wheat (mantou, noodles) and as far as I can recall, all meals included a dish with mutton. When we were in the grassland, there was a whole mutton served for the group of us – just a lot of meat.
As I wrote earlier, drinking is quite important, in China there even is a saying “Drink like a Mongol” when referring to a person that can drink quite a lot. Another special drink from Mongolia is milk tea that is made with a little butter and salt. It first seems a bit strange to drink it, but after having a sip, it tasted not bad.

Mongolian yurt
Mongolian milk tea, cheese and other snacks in a yurt.