Archive for September, 2007

Germany – a far away country

September 22, 2007

It takes only a little more than nine hours in the plane to get back to Germany, so some of my journeys within China have been much more time intensive, like the 12 hour bus ride from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou or the 18 hour train ride from Guilin to Kunming. Although places inside China are not the all same either, there is still a huge difference of traveling within China and going back to Germany. In a recent post I already mentioned some of differences that Liu Yang points out in her artwork that just too true – and now I had to cope with them by myself.

After a very nice flight (left Beijing around 2 p.m. and had daylight outside for the whole flight) I got back to Germany, a little colder than Beijing, but the air was much cleaner. I’ve been to some places in the mountains with very clear air, but even after being in Germany for a few days, it still surprises me to see the crystal clear sky between buildings. On the other hand I am back to German bureaucracy and unfriendliness. While waiting for my luggage at the Frankfurt airport I could once again experience how German custom officers behave when checking the luggage of a foreigner who barely speaks any German.
When I in China, people seemed happy with me speaking Chinese (even so with errors) and were typically very eager to help me. Of course, at some places I have been to during my journey, I have was somehow standing out at places where few foreigners come to. But in general this only made Chinese more friendly and the locals were trying to show us something about their village. In Germany I am not special any more, but I like it that way…

One of the big differences is the price gap. Things are so much more expensive in Germany, especially food! Even prices in China have risen in the past months, it is still much cheaper to go shopping in China. And there are a lot of things that I simply cannot effort in Germany because they are too expensive for me: While taking a taxi every now and then in China was not a huge expense, a single trip tram of bus ticket in Kassel costs more than a 4 or 5 km taxi ride in Beijing.

When I got back to Kassel, I went to the documenta, one of the world’s most important exhibitions for contemporary art. This year there was somehow a focus on Asia, or maybe the works by Asian artist were simply more outstanding for my eyes. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) who is also involved in the 798 factory was one of this year’s documenta’s stars. He brought 1001 Chinese people to Kassel with his “Fairytale” project, making it possible for very different groups of Chinese (farmers, students, a designer, …) to come to Germany. Today I watched a movie that was shot during the project, total length was about eight hours so I only saw part of it – I missed the part of the Chinese actually being in Kassel, but I saw them preparing their journey. So many of there customs and habits as well as the surroundings were familiar to me…
Another work by Ai Weiwei is the “Template”, a huge gate made from old windows and doors that were once used in Hutong streets that were tore down.

Ai Weiwei’s Template
Ai Weiwei’s “Template” was built from doors and windows from old Hutong streets…

Old doors are used as fence in Shanghai Hutongs
…so the artwork reminded me on the doors used as a fence in a Shanghai Hutong area.

Another artwork of the documenta also is dealing with the aspect of changing cities in China and the vanishing Hutong streets in the capital. Beijing based artist Lu Hao (卢昊) had made a 50 meter wide drawing of Chang’an avenue to the left and to the right of Tian’anmen. He used the a painting style from old Chinese paintings but actually draw the street as it was in 2005. Even by now, I could notice a little change to the street in 2007 here and there.

Lu Hao’s drawing of the Xinhua gate of Zhongnanhai
Lu Hao’s drawing of the Xinhua gate of Zhongnanhai

Xinhua gate of Zhongnanhai
…and a picture I took there on my last day in Beijing.


Back to Beijing

September 17, 2007

I got back to Beijing and it somehow was a little bit like getting home: After having been on the road for more than a month, when I got back to the Chinese capital I was familiar with how to get around, the language the people are using there (Beijing Hua, 北京话) and all the little things that are different in other cities.

When I was in the southern part, my travel partner and me sometimes were a little frustrated when we did not understand people although there were using Mandarin to talk to us. We were afraid that we were already forgetting the words we had learned during our studies at Beijing University, but as it turned out, it was just the accent that made us not understand some people. As soon as we got back to Beijing, we once again understood what people in the streets are saying.

Painting ornaments at a temple
Construction is still to be seen everywhere, but  it seems Beijing will get ready until the Olympics next year.

Although I was not in Beijing for only about a month, the city is in such a fast process of transformation that even after this month of absence, the city was not the same: Construction sites had been moved or completed, others had been opened. At the Xizhimen subway station we even went in the wrong direction because the passages had been changed.
At Beijing we stayed in the Youth Hostel near the Lama Temple. I had last been to the area in July and the changes made to some buildings were significant and the Beixinqiao subway for one of the new subway lines seems to be ready for the opening of the number 5 subway line.
At the subway and bus stations we also noted a difference in how Beijingers enter the trains and buses: They lined up “civilized”, just as promoted by the propaganda posters scattered in the station. Well, it was September 11, the official day to promote lining up properly, so there were plenty of stewards making sure that everyone is in line. There were much fewer stewards the next days and by September 14, everybody was back in the old scheme of pushing oneself into the subway as quick as possible in order to get one of the rare seats…

I only stayed in Beijing for a couple of days before returning to Germany. Thus, the main focus was not to do some sightseeing (although I still managed to get to Tian’anmen once again and had a look inside the Great Hall of the People) but to see some friends and get my baggage ready to meet the 20 kg limit for the flight to Germany.

Cloudy days in Yunnan

September 10, 2007

After having had a lot of rain during the first days in Yunnan, the weather got somewhat better – or at least we got used to the occasional rain that was coming down every day. The clouds still kept the snow covered mountains hidden, but at least we got an idea where they are as we were able to see the foot of the mountains. The clouds also made a mystical background of Dali’s three pagodas that we saw in the late afternoon on our second day in Dali.

Three pagodas in Dali
The three pagodas in Dali.

On the second day in Dali we first took the local bus to Xizhou (喜州), a little north of Dali. There we were kind of dragged into one of the “minority shows” featuring traditional dances and songs of the Bai people. These shows are usually part of the trips that most Chinese travel groups make and they are mostly not especially traditional. However, after being offered a big discount we had a look at the Bai architecture and saw the show that was included. Anyway, we got the impression that there are a lot of minority groups doing dances in Dali and Lijiang, our next stop.

Dances by a minority group in Lijiang
A dance performance is trained in a school yard in Lijiang.

In Lijiang (丽江) we originally intended to only stay about half a day and spend a night in the city that was struck by an earthquake in 1997 and underwent a largescale renovation since then. We planned to tour the Tiger Leaping Gorge, but it had been closed down because of the heavy rain that caused a lethal accident in the gorge and made authorities shut down the gorge completely for at least a week. So we did some day trips from Lijiang to flee the touristy city. The old houses in the city are nice to walk through for one afternoon, but then you get the feeling you have seen everything, as the old houses are almost completely transformed into shops where Chinese tourists can buy all kinds of souvenirs.

First bend of the Yangtze river in Shigu
First bend of the Yangtze river in Shigu.

Our first day trip led us to Shigu (石鼓), where the Yangtse is doings “it’s first bend”. I did not expect the stream to be that big at such an early stage of its course, but its water level was definitely higher than normal because of the rain. In Shigu we walked the village, had a good view from the roof terrace of the school on the Yangtse river and then had lunch at one of the small restaurants selling noodles, fried rice and other small dishes.

Kids in Shigu
Seems like foreigners seldom come to Shigu, so the kids were very interested in us.

In Lijiang we once again rented bikes but the bikes from Aladin (阿拉丁) were mot in such a good shape. However we still made it to the park entrance of the Yulong snow mountain area, but we were not willing to pay the 80 yuan entrance fee so we turned around and took some smaller streets through the plain area above Lijiang. In the evening we took a sleeper bus back to Kunming where we spend the day hiking in the Xishan mountain area.

Rainy days in Yunnan

September 5, 2007

After a train ride that took more than 18 hours I got to Kunming, where I met up with a fellow students after we found the youth hostel there (it had moved about one block, but the sign was still at the old address). Unfortunately after it had started to rain when I visited the Longji Rice Terraces, it never really stopped again. Even the train ride brought me about 1000 km west of Guilin, the weather situation did not change much, so I was welcomed by a lot of clouds when I got to the “spring city” as Yunan’s capital Kunming is nicknamed. Actually the first syllable of Yunnan stands for cloud (云)… When I left the Kunming train station I was also welcomed by several people shouting “Dali, Dali, Lijiang” – offering bus tickets to the two major tourist destinations in Yunnan.

Over the bridge noodles

However, we first spend one and a half day in Kunming, and then took the sleeper bus to Dali. On the first day in Kunming we still had hope, that the weather might get better the second day and took a slow start. So we first bought plane tickets back to Beijing – well, they first spelled my name wrong on the ticket and it took them some time to fix this error. After that we went to the city center, saw the two pagodas and had “Across-the-bridge-noodles” (过桥米线) for dinner. I had these noodles before when I was in Chongqing, the noodles and some meat and vegetables are cut in small stripes and is then put into a hot soup and a delicious meal is ready to eat just after a little moment.

On the second day in Kunming we wanted to got to the Grand View Park first and take a ferry from there to the Xishan mountain area. To get into the Grand View Park and go to the Grand View Tower was no problem, although the title of the park made us expect a somewhat better view on the Dian Chi lake south of Kunming. It was not possible to take the ferry, it had suspended a service, and as the weather was not that good, so we also did not want to go there by taxi, since the view was possible not worth the expenses for the daxi drive. Instead we went to Yuantong Temple, just mentioned in a side notice in my travel guide, but it was definitely worth a visit. For a Yuan 4 entrace fee I did not expect such an extraordinary temple: There was one hall surrounded by water, and the big hall was neatly decorated and featured two large dragon statues – I had never seen this in any other temple in China that I have been to.

Yuantong temple in Kunming
Yuantong temple in Kunming.

In the evening we took a sleeper bus to Dali, however I did not sleep all that much… After breakfast in Dali, it started to rain again, butwe still decided to rent bicycles and to go to Erhu Lake. Anyway, we did not find the way there, so we just toured some villages while getting wet. When we stopped in front of a farm house to put our rain coats on, the farmer’s dog started barking at us, and we ended up being invited for a cup of hot tea – Chinese hospitality is still very important for those people who invited us.

Guilin area

September 3, 2007

From Guangzhou I got to the Guilin area by taking a sleeper bus. I actually had planned to got to the city of Guilin first and then take the famous boat trip from there downstream on Lijiang river to Yangshuo. However, when the bus stopped in Yangshuo first, the manager of a hotel somehow talked me into getting off the bus in Yangshuo. Well, I had booked the youth hostel there anyway, so it was all right – only that I missed the famous boat trip. The hotel manager was actually pretending to be the owner of one of the youth hostels in Yangshuo that was closed for renovation. He first showed me the closed hostel and then took me to his hotel. Although (after a little argument) he would only charge me 10 yuan for the night and the beds looked all right, I still preferred the youth hostel that I had booked and just walked out the door.

The youth hostel helped me to arrange my trips around Yangshuo; on the first day, I took a boat to Fuli (福利), a sleepy viallage a little downstream on the bank of Lijiang river, there I jumped on a bus passing to Xingping (兴坪) where I was “welcomed” by several touts that were trying to sell their trips on bamboo rafts. One member of the “welcome committee” even followed me after I had lunch in a little restaurant and waited outside for me. Only when I went into a nice cafe and had a chat with the owners, she would not longer follow me. At the cafe I was told that there is a hill from where I could overlook – and it’s free! The half hour hike up to the Friendship Pavilion (友好亭) on Laozhai Hill (老寨山)  was rewarded with a breathtaking view on the karst mountains in the area and the Lijiang river. After coming down again, I eventually had my boat ride on the river, so I still saw the best part of the Guilin-Yangshuo cruise.

At my second day at Yangshuo I rented a mountain bike and toured the area around Yulong river a little west from Yangshuo. There are a lot of small villages (some of them cannot been reached by car) nested in the steep hills that make the special character of the Guilin area. At the end I climbed Yueliangshan (月亮山, Moonlight mountain), but I think the view from the top was not as good as what I had seen in Xingping. There were no road signs and although I had a map of the area it was hard to find the right way, so I often stopped at the villages to ask for directions. The people there were generally very nice and gave their best to explain where to go, in one village three young children had a look at the map and would even take me to the next crossroad so that I would take right path.

Traveling alone in China is not a big problem, however it is not as interesting as traveling with another person. And it is more convenient when it comes to taxi rides or ordering food because one can order more dishes and share then. In Yangshuo at the night marked when I was looking at the menu (that contained snake and dried rat) and was thinking what to order, two Chinese approached me and asked me to order some dishes together.

In Guilin itself I was basically staying only one night – long enough to meet two Chinese that had the same travel destination as I had: the rice terrace fields at Longji (龙脊梯田), some 3 to 4 hours by bus north of Guilin. So the next day the three of us took the bus to Longsheng and there changed into a smaller bus to the terrace fields. Unfortunately it rained when we got there, so we first looked for a place to spend the night, then took a 2 to 3 hour walk in the beautiful fields and in the evening had a meal overlooking the green fields before getting back to Guilin on the next day.

Guangzhou – Back in Mainland China

September 2, 2007

After my trip to Macau and Hongkong I somehow enjoyed coming back to mainland China – everything seems more relaxed and slower than in hectic Hongkong.

On my first day, I went to the Yuexiu Park after I had a quick look at the huge memorial hall that was built in remembrance of Sun Yat-Sen. The park was huge and the hot and humid air caused me to take rests more often and I spent several hours in the area. Before, I had climbed the 54 meter high pagoda Liurong and had strolled a market nearby. It featured tortoises and frogs, I also could see fresh fish, even though it was cut apart, the fish’s hearts were still beating. It is said that Cantonese people eat everything, and in the northern part of China their distinction between pet, vermin, reptiles and food is different, some people from the north even find it disgusting to think about what their counterparts in the south put on the table.
Much of these food is supposed to have some medical effect, so on my second day in Guangzhou I went to a street market that besides living animals was also featuring dried snakes and seahorse.

Dried snakes in a street market
Dried snakes at a street market.

Just south of this streetmarket lies Shamian island, once the only place where Westerns were allowed to do trade with Chinese merchants. Today some of the colonial buildings remain but the narrow streets are filled with Chinese rather than foreign life: In the park area groups of people were dancing, singing, playing potaca, chatting, and some were even swimming in the Pearl River that I had crossed by ferry (1 yuan) to get to the island from my youth hostel.

Shamian Island in Guangzhou
Activities near the Pearl River on Shamian Island.

I could not leave Guangzhou totally without missing its history: About 2000 years ago the Yuexiu king was buried here, along with concubines, cooks and other servants. However the tomb was mostly intact when it was discovered in the early 80s when apartment buildings were supposed to be build there. Unfortunately the day I went to there were no entrance fee, so there were quite a few people but the visit was definitely worth it.