Demolition of Sanjiaodi

November 13, 2007

I had earlier written about this central place on the Campus of Peking University, Sanjiaodi, a triangular space that has been focus for several student activities in the past. Actually I by myself have profited from the existence of such a place for announcements when I sold my bike before leaving Beijing. I had a Chinese friend write a note that I would sell my bike and just a couple hours later I had found someone interested in buying. But now, the stands for posters on the square have been demolished.

Students of Peking University have obviously a history of being not always in line with the state’s opinion and students have taken part in the set off for the Cultural Revolution from here and part of the protest at Tian’anmen Square were planned there in 1989, as well. This might be a reason to shut down this place, as indicated in a blog post by Beijing Newspeak, another one might be the declining number of users. Instead of posting news there, it is more likely that those kind of news, announcements or other kinds of “publications” are made applying present-day technology: The internal network of Beida students has tons of posts and news can be spread even faster there and gain a greater audience. It is no wonder that students prefer this way of sharing news as is is more convenient to them.

Update: Just two days ago I received an e-mail from a Chinese friend telling me that they protested the cancellation of English classes for their third and fourth year at university on their school’s BBS. Unfortunately without success, classes are to be held on the weekends only and there is a charge for the students.

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Major changes in Beijing’s traffic system?

October 5, 2007

Everything is becoming more expensive in China right now, analysts calculated an inflation rate of close to 6 percent, much more than China had in the past years. Especially prices for food have gone up steeply in the past month, the prices for pork and eggs have risen dramatically. I personally have felt the price acceleration of entrance fees at tourist attractions, some prices have doubled since my travel guide was published in 2005.

Recently the city of Beijing announced to reduce the fare for its subway to a 2 yuan (about 0,20 Euro) flat fee per trip, including limitless times of transfer. It is not as much a step to fight inflation, more is it an attempt to fight traffic congestion. Beijing’s traffic it well known for its common traffic jams and the city is doing various efforts to reduce the number of cars in the streets with the upcoming Olympics. Since the subway was opened in 1971, it is the first time that the tickets are undergoing a price cut. A reduction of subway prices from 3 yuan (or from 5 yuan for change to line 13 respectively) will hopefully bring more people from their cars into public transportation. Other measures that will come into effect during the games was the ban of ca. 50 percent of cars that was already tested in September.

Traffic at Wudaokou
The new ticketing system is supposed to reduce traffic congestion in Beijing.

The new fare system was chosen on a meeting with city officials and traffic experts. There was an alternate plan to introduce a fare depending to distance traveled. However, the majority was favoring the flat fee that is also cheaper for consumers since the alternate plan’s proposal was to have a starting price of 2 yuan and have a maximum fare of 4 yuan. One reason for this choice might be that since many tickets are sold individually as single trip tickets, the administrative need to sell and check different fare tickets is much bigger. Beijing’s subway tickets are not yet sold at vending machines and paper tickets are used so the distance would have needed to be checked when getting on and off the subway. There is also a electronic traffic card, but there are still lines in front of the ticket counter at some times.

The new system was decided on in late September and is going to come into effect as early as October 7. This is also the date of opening the new number 5 subway line that will run in north-south direction. I have already seen the new stations Yonghegong and Baixinqiao in early September, but at that time the line was only performing test runs. Other subway lines are going to follow, mainly to ensure better transportation during the Olympics.
It seems a little strange to me to introduce the new system just after the “golden week” of nationwide vacation after October 1, the national holiday. At this time many tourists from all over the country are coming to Beijing and would have enjoyed to use the new subway line.

Xizhemen subway station
Will the reduced fare make the subways even more crowded?

What impact might the new system have? It is hopefully reducing traffic and the lowered fare might be an incentive for more people to not use their private car and switch to public transportation. The subway line will also make it possible to cross the city from north to south faster than before.

However, there are still some remaining problems: At present, the subways in the city center are already at their limits during rush hour and new customers might increase the number of peak hour passengers. It is unclear whether the frequency of the heavily used, but relatively old line 1 and line 2 subways can be improved. Another problem is that at the moment many people are preferring the bus that is much cheaper; instead of a 3 yuan subway ticket it only costs as less as 0,4 yuan when using the Yikatong card. When reducing the price to 2 yuan the cost for a subway ride will reduce 31% percent on average, according to a calculation by city officials and traffic experts. I assume that more people are switching from bus to subway now as the price difference has been reduced so more people might be using the faster subway instead of the buses that often get stuck in traffic jams. On the other hand, many people who are using a private car in Beijing are rather rich people who can effort a car and are not going to be considerably willing to switch to the subway just because it reduced the price one yuan. For them the car is a status symbol and the subway’s biggest incentive towards them is that it is faster then overground traffic during rush hour, not the price.

Youth Hostels in China

October 4, 2007

YHI LogoWhen being on my trip for more than a month in China, I found it most convenient to stay in one of the International Youth Hostels (国际青年旅舍, Guójì Qīngnián Lǚshè). It seems that only a few years ago such youth hostels were a rare found and when leaving behind the more international cities they were virtually not existing.

In recent years China is more and more becoming a country for Westerners attending not only tours as part of a tourist group but individual backpacking and low budget travelers as well as a becoming a country in which Chinese more and more use their chances to travel on their own. With a growing importance of this clientèle new youth hostels in the many cities are springing up like mushrooms while one even has the possibility to chose from several youth hostels at major travel destinations.
The youth hostels are often located in the city center, often in old hutong building or other special houses, like the youth hostel in Jiuzhaigou that was in an Tibetan style building.

Xiangzimen Youth Hostel in Xi’an
The entrance of Xiangzimen Youth Hostel in Xi’an leads into an old courtyard.

As they were mostly opened not too long ago, the interior is generally very modern and often much better than other low budget hotels. When looking at their mission statement, it is clear that many do not simply see themselves as a provider for chap accommodation but also as a service provider, sometimes offering bike rental, free movies and laundry service. However, some hostels were opened inside a larger hotel, so one floor of the hostel has rooms with more beds but these kind of youth hostels lack a bigger room for gathering. Youth hostels that have such a room sometimes even feature a free pool table like Chengdu’s Loft Hostel or the Xi’an Xiangzimen Hostel.

Loft Hostel in Chengdu
The Loft Hostel in Chengdu.

A lot of hostels also have free Internet available or charge only a small fee (Internet is generally cheap in China and a Net Bar (网吧, wǎngbā) down the street will only charge very moderate prices, anyway). Some youth hostels also feature a small library which can be quite useful because when being on tour with a backpack since one is happy about every item one does not need to carry. Sometimes one can also find some travel guides that are more detailed for the specific region and therefore much better than a book that covers the whole country.

If one seeks information about nearby tourist sites, the current weather condition or what local food is a no-miss, one can usually go to the front desk and gets some comprehensive information – no matter whether you speak Chinese or only speak English. Many hostels have maps available and tell you where to go and how to get there, it is very convenient to have the staff reserve bus, train or flight tickets and saves a the way to the station and waiting in line for quite a bit.
In some hostels we met highly motivated staff, in Chengdu we even happened to spend one evening having some beers with one of the staff members. She told us that it was her day off – she still came to the hostel because of “the atmosphere”. The atmosphere in Chinese youth hostels is indeed very special: There are a lot of international guests who are open to share their travel experiences, some Chinese tourists, many of them in a youth hostel for the first time. Most of the “first timers” were very impressed and some were considering to become a member of hostelling international (A membership card that is valid worldwide gets you an average discount of 5 yuan per night and cost 50 yuan).
Even it not a member, a bed in costs only about 25 to 40 yuan per night in a shared room. It can be fun to be in such a room because I was able to hook up with other travelers when I was on my own. Often the hostels also have single or double rooms that are more quiet – I have never came across a guy who snored as loud as one Chinese who shared a room with us in Jiuzhaigou.

Youth Hostel in Jiuzhaigou
Tibetan style youth hostel in Jiuzhaigou.

Looking for a hostel at the next stop is very easy and in the youth hostels usually the staff can recommend another youth hostel at the next city you are going to and make a reservation. To check for hostels online, there is the official web page of Hostelling International, but since many of the Chinese hostels are very new, they have not been added yet. The page of the page of YHA China offers a map and also links the newly opened hostels.
One bad thing about youth hostels in China: It’s often hard to find them, since they tend to hide their blue “HI” sign so I often had trouble getting to the hostel even with directions…

Kaiyue Youth Hostel in Qingdao
The Kaiyue Youth Hostel in Qingdao used to be a church building.

Last but not least is an (incomplete and unsorted) list of the youth hostels the I can recommend:

  • Chongqing Nanbin Lu: Tricky to find but very cheap rooms and friendly staff.
  • Teddy Bear Hotel, Mt. Emei: Friendly staff and conveniently located at the foot of Mt. Emei
  • Shanghai Mingtown Youth Hostel: Located right in the city near People’s Square
  • Qingdao Kaiyue Hostel: Located in an old church building
  • Lijiang Old Town: In one of the narrow streets of Lijiang’s ols town – on clear days one is supposed to the the snow covered Yulong Xueshan from the hostel.
  • Loft Hostel in Chengdu: Has a cool loft and the best staff I have met in Chinese youth hostels
  • Jiuzhaigou (郎介之家, phone 0837-7734818 or 0837-7734616): I did not expect to find a youth hostel there, not very much comfort, but it’s in a Tibetan style building and the owner and manager also makes some Tibetan style food.
  • Xiangzimen Hostel Xi’an: After getting a free pick-up from the train station the friendly staff welcomed us in this old but newly renovated Chinese house with a courtyard.

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
Across-the-bride-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.