Published: May 11th 2012April 25th 2012
Some general thoughts on China: This is the biggest blog I've written so far. When I decided to take this trip, China was the main country I wanted to see. I thought I would take two weeks to see the main sites. I ended up staying for a month. This is a very interesting time to be in China. They get a new president this year and the senior leadership gets shuffled. There was a major scandal involving Bo Xilai, that was a major embarassment for a government that tries to control the message the world sees. This is China's biggest struggle - realizing they are losing control. More disturbing is the case involving Chen Guangcheng, a civil rights advocate and the man who has exposed China's policy to force abortions on women who already have one child. The fact that China has to keep people under house arrest (and the fact they can't keep a blind man from escaping) shows its weakness on many levels. First, trying to control information is going to get more difficult with modern communications. The Communist government would be wise to allow more freedom of the press and release political prisoners. Second, if they can't even keep a blind man under house arrest, how are they going to control information for 1.3 billion people? Inevitably, China will have more embarrassing situations. For a culture in which "saving face" is so important, it will look more and more ridiculous by trying to cover up its dirty laundry. Already, you can't see anything online about the Tiananmen Square Massacare - though everyone knows it happened. The more China tries to hide from its past, the less serious it will be considered. China is one financial crisis away from seeing major political change (in my opinion). What does this say about a government or society that tries to rewrite history in the information age? It says that they are out of touch and are clinging on to a system that inevitabely will only be itself in name, rather than the ideology that created it (eg. Communism). A lot of people in the west forsee a rise of China that threatens western culture. Though true, I have to say that China is still a very long way from being able to shape foreign policy in a way the US currently does. They have a lot of internal problems, which will require them to give their people more freedoms. In effect it is a culture that is at war with itself. The sons of the revolution have accepted that they cannot continue in the footsteps of the Maoists. They are figuring out how to do this in a way that retains their power, and lets their people prosper. I honestly believe that this parallel system has limits and will eventually result in major change in China's political makeup in my lifetime. A major issue I contemplated during my time in China deals with the dignity of human life. In Shanghai I saw some very sad cases of beggers with major deformities. But the case of Chen Guangcheng really calls us all to question how we view an issue like abortion. In China, the "abortion police" basically hunt down women who are pregnant and already have a child and force them to have an abortion. Does you consider this murder? If you do consider this murder, then what's the difference if an abortion is forced or elected by the child's mother and a doctor? The result is the same for the child. It's just insane to me that some people think that circumstances due to convenience or the proximity of a child to its mother should be acceptable in determining whether or not it is permissible to kill that child. As much as I want the United States to condemn the forced abortions in China, we also have to realize that there is no difference to what is happening there and what is happening here in the US, which allow women and doctors to do the same thing. The result is the same for the child. If you feel it is unjust to the child to have the Chinese government force its death, then you have to feel that it's unjust to the child for a mother or doctor to do the same thing. It's just not logical to permit this in one country and condem it in another. These are my thoughts. I hope you enjoy my blog on China. The next 10,000 words are all about my experinces, what I saw, and the good friends I made. Welcome to China (gong sound!) !!!! China
After hundreds of thousands of miles flown, I finally took a flight on a Boeing 747
. This was
a first for me. It felt like the first time I had flown. Boeing’s flagship had always been how I expected to see the world. Unfortunately, all the flights I've taken in the US, between the US/Europe, or the US/South America have been on Boeing 737s, 757s, 767s, Airbus A319s, A320s, A330s, and A340s. This was another of the many “firsts” for me on this trip. Shanghai
- I got into Shanghai mid morning and took the Maglev
train from the airport to downtown. The top speed hit 301 kph (187 mph). It was a very smooth ride too. The first impression of Shanghai was good. After I found my hotel (which lost my reservation and then found it again), I decided to head straight to the Indian Consulate to apply for my Indian Visa. For those who don't know, I've decided to make this a full world trip and do a loop around planet Earth - seeing as many great things in between as I possibly can in 9ish months.
The Indian Consulate was in the middle of an industrial park. As soon as you walk in you know you're in the Indian Consulate. The smells of
India are so potent I thought I was at the border already. The girl at the desk told me I would have to get the visa in Beijing since I didn't have residency in the region Shanghai is located. I figured I would have enough time to get the visa in Beijing while I waited for my friend Mike to arrive.
I headed to the main downtown area, The Bund
. The Bund is a huge walkway on the river that sits right across from Shanghai's business district. It's lined with a lot of European colonial buildings that are banks and the stock exchange. After walking around for awhile I took this mini subway tunnel under the river that had cool psychedelic lights changing. Though not worth the price, it did look cool. It's advertised as a glass tunnel, but the only glass is the pods that take you to the other side. I popped out on the other side by the Pearl TV Tower
and walked around the area. One of the things I wanted to try in China was McDonald's. There happened to be one to I got a double cheeseburger meal with chicken McNuggets. Like every other
time I eat McDonald's I say to myself, "why did I just do that?". The business district (Pudong) has one of the biggest buildings in the world, the Shanghai World Financial Center
. Though slightly smaller in total height as Taipei 101
, it floors are higher. I decided to go to the top since it was night in hopes of getting a good view of the city. I'm sure that on a clear day the view is spectacular. However, the day I went was a bit overcast.
Shanghai is the biggest city in the world, in terms of people who live within the proper city limits. I was really impressed with the subway and in general it's a clean city (apart from the air pollution). There are so many districts in Shanghai. The one I liked the best was the French Concessions
area. I spent about two days walking around this area. There are tons of little shops and cafes and parks. The roads are lined with trees too. After I walked around a bit I went back to my hotel until dinner. A friend of mine put me in touch with a couple that works at the US consulate
in Shanghai, so I had dinner with them. Shana and Jesse had been in Shanghai for about six months and took me to a nice place. It was so good! - kung pao chicken, roasted green beans, spicy tofu, and Chinese beer. I thought it was going to cost a fortune, but our bill came to about $12/person. They gave me some great tips on places to check out in Shanghai and China in general.
The next day I headed to the Jing-an Temple
and the Shanghai Museum. It was a little rainy so it was good to be indoors. The temple had a Buddha in the main temple. This ancient temple is right beside a huge luxurious shopping mall.
The museum had lots of ancient Chinese art, calligraphy, and paintings that had been well preserved. When I left the museum three Chinese students, who apparently wanted to practice their English, approached me. They asked me some simple questions like where I was from and how old I was. I asked them a few questions in return, but I don't think they understood me. Either way they found it amusing and just started laughing. I made my way
back to the subway and headed to another section of the French Concessions that Shana had recommended. This area had a lot of side streets with little shops and bars. That night I went down to the Old City section of town, which was one of the biggest shopping roads I've ever been on. There were tons of people lining the streets. Another difference from Vietnam and Laos were the number of offers I got for prostitutes. I couldn't walk 20 ft. before someone new would ask if I wanted a massage - the "special" massage. Guys and girls would come up to you and say something like, "ties, watches, young girl?" "I'm just looking for Pizza Hut", I replied.
The last day in Shanghai I took a 'hop-on, hop off' bus to make sure I hadn't missed anything before heading to Beijing. I'm glad I did because there were a few cool shopping areas I hadn't seen. I also headed to church that night. Though it was in Chinese, it was subtitled in English on the TVs that lined the pillars. When I got out of church there were a few beggars asking for money. As soon as
I gave one a little change, the other ones came running after me pleading for something. Though there aren't nearly as many homeless on the streets in China as you might see in a US city, the homeless in China seem to always suffer from some type of deformity. Some had severe deformities or burns. A few people have told me that gangs kidnap people and deform them - then send them to the city to beg, before stealing their money. I'm not sure how true this is because I'm sure the government would follow the homeless back to the gangs. Either way I saw some pretty sad cases. One guy was basically a torso flopping on the street and pushing a bowl for money. Another woman was in a wheelchair and had her knee twisted, exposing her foot, which had about a 3 inch infected hole in her heel. I also saw a few people with bad burns from fire or radiation. It really made me think about how it must feel to be someone that society has rejected for whatever reason. Not only do they suffer the repulsed faces that great them, but they also have to live
very lonely lives. Ironically, I was also reading a book by Henri Nouwen called "Here and Now
" that was touching on this same topic and dealing with it. I have my own times when I feel lonely, especially traveling so much on my own - but I'm only a Skype or Google Voice call away from family and friends. I was surprised to see some of these things in China because I don't recall seeing any beggars or homeless in the other two communist countries I've been to - Vietnam and Laos. Also, China has a booming economy, so I figured there would be more services available for the disabled. Beijing
- I took the high-speed train from Shanghai to Beijing
. The trip takes about five hours. There is some great countryside to see. There is also a lot of construction going on. At certain points it looked like cities were being built that didn't have anyone living in them yet. All you could see were cranes and construction workers, but no cars or regular people.
A big difference that I noticed from Shanghai is that English was going to be more of a challenge for the Chinese
in Beijing. I was able to get some help to find out what subway stop I needed to go for my hotel. I opted to take a taxi instead. Driving from the south train station into Beijing was nice. Beijing is very spread out. Also, it has huge roads that cut through it that go straight for miles and miles. My driver dropped me off close to where he thought my hotel was. Apparently, it was down an alley and I would have to walk. I had the address written in Chinese and asked around. Luckily it wasn't too far from the main road. I finally made it to my hotel and decided to call it a night.
The next day I got up early to go to the Indian consulate in Beijing. This was definitely the most frustrating experience of my trip so far. For starters I couldn't wave down a cab to save my life. After trying for a half hour I figured I would take the subway. Of course no one in the subway and any idea what stop I need to get off at. I decided to go back to my hotel and have them
call a cab. Unfortunately, the hotel only booked cabs to the airport. They did tell me what bus I could take and then to ask the "Beijing Hotel" the directions from there, since it was supposed to be close. The directions online said it was by the "Beijing Inn". Unfortunately, "Hotel" and "Inn" can be confused in Chinese and I was a long way off from the Beijing Inn. I got off at the bus stop and walked to the Beijing Hotel and asked the concierge where the Indian consulate was. The concierge had no idea and called the consulate for directions. I took a cab from the hotel, but the cab driver had no idea where to go, so he called the consulate as well. After driving for about a half hour the cab driver dropped me off in the middle of some industrial park and just pointed and said something in Chinese. I saw some younger looking business professionals and asked for help. They led me to a building and I went to the 9th floor where the consulate said it was located. I ended up walking into a bay of offices and no one was Indian. I
asked a girl if I was in the right place and she communicated that I was not. She was nice enough to take me downstairs and outside and point to the building she thought was the right one. I'll give her credit - she really tried to speak English and help me out. It was pretty clear she did not do well in her English classes. If she couldn't remember a word she would just laugh and then her friends would laugh too. At this point I had been looking for the consulate for about 4 hours so I figured another half hour jumping from building to building wouldn't matter much. The security guard at the building this girl pointed me to pointed me right back to where I came from. This reminded me when I lived in Italy and people would just send you in one direction, rather than telling you they had no clue. I then decided to go to the only building I hadn't tried and sure enough it was the one. I got up to the consulate, took a number, and spoke with the representative. For starters, I found out that the visa would take 7
business days, rather than the 5 days listed online. The other issue was the itinerary I printed for my flight from Mumbai to Dubai. They wouldn't accept the Expedia printout I had and wanted the actual itinerary from the airline. Of course there were no computers to print something like that, so I had to go back to the hotel. At the end of the day I just decided I would try for the Indian visa when I get to Nepal. If I can't do it there then I'll just see India when I see Russia and get all the visa frustrations over with at the same time.
That night Marisa, a friend I met in Bagan, Myanmar, met me for dinner and took me around the neighborhood. She had worked for the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong and New York and had been living in Beijing studying Chinese for the last few months. The neighborhood was amazing. It had these little stone streets and a lake that had a lot of buildings with traditional Chinese architecture. The food at the restaurant was amazing. We had dumplings and kung poa chicken and a few other things I can't
recall. It was so cheap too! Another unusual thing was that it was sunny in Beijing that day. The next day was supposed to be nice as well.
Given the good weather, I decided to take a trip to the Great Wall of China
. My friend Mike was coming in a few days, but the weather is so unpredictable that I decided I wanted to make sure I saw it on a good day. The trip was to the Jinshanling section of the wall, one of the more popular sections. Luckily there were not a lot of people there that day. I've seen pictures where the whole wall can be filled with people. The trip is a 3-hour bus ride, 3 hours of walking, and 3 hours back. I've been downloading a lot of iTunes university lectures to my iPhone to pass the time on the trains/planes/buses. One of the most interesting ones is called "Behavioral Biology" - by Robert Sapolsky from Stanford. Biology never came easy for me, but this guy makes it really interesting. He has a dry sense of humor too. The whole idea of behavioral biology is fascinating to me. I'm doing a few other
courses on international relations, psychology, philosophy, and negotiating (something that should come in helpful in China). These, along with the mandatory audio download from The Economist that I listen to, help kill the long hours of transit.
The Great Wall of China was my original top spot to see on this trip, even before it became a world trip. Its magnitude is just breathtaking. The wall is over 5500 miles of brick. Contrary to popular belief, you can't see it from space with the naked eye. But that doesn't diminish how amazing this structure is. I've never seen anything like it. Building a structure so big is one thing, but to do it on top of a mountain range puts it in a category all of its own. Walking up and down and through the guard towers was one of the coolest things I've ever done. I just wish China allowed Facebook so I could 'check-in' and post pictures while I was walking it. The weather was great, slightly hazy, but nothing impeded viewing as much of the wall that could be seen that day. I'm so thankful I went that day because the day I went with Mike
was extremely overcast. After I got back to the hotel I had dinner with Marisa again and told her about everything I had seen.
The next day I took a bike ride around Beijing. Marisa was gracious to let me use her bike while she worked. She had been doing some part time work for Flipboard
, a news app that aggregates news stories. This has become my favorite news app and I would highly recommend downloading it if you have an iPhone. The bike she leant me wasn't quite like my M. di Campiglio
, but it did the job. The basket on the front was barely attached and I was scared to change the gears, given the amount of rust on the cables, crank, derailleur, and cogs. My goal was to get to the Temple of Heaven
. To do this I had to ride by the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. I planned to see these things with Mike in a few days so I just cruised by them. I did stop at Tiananmen to see the Chairman Mao picture. There were tons of tourists. I've come to conclude that Tiananmen and the Forbidden City are the Mecca of
China. I remembered the huge boulevard from the protests in 1989
(this site is blocked in China) and watching the tank stop for the student protester and trying to go around him. It's amazing to see these things in person. After getting a few pictures of the area (and getting my picture with Chinese who wanted to take pictures of me and who wanted pictures of me holding their babies), I road down to the Temple of Heaven. The Temple of Heaven
is claimed to be the most important temple in the world. If you don't believe them, just ask them. The tickets to get in contain multiple tickets stubs for each section. When I got to the first section I realized I had lost my stubs. I was granted admission after pleading my case. I did this two other times. The grounds at the Temple of Heaven reminded me of Versailles in France. It takes awhile to walk though, but the gardens and temples are really nice. I got back on the bike and rode back to my hotel.
Marisa had made a lot of friends in Beijing. She organized a dinner and we headed over. On
the way we stopped at a store and I played soccer with a few kids while Marisa went inside. We got to the restaurant and had a few drinks until everyone arrived. Marisa's friends - Nicole, Xiao (pronounced Shaow), and Carolyn all came. I was the only guy and got to hear about how exciting speed dating is for ex-pats in Beijing. It also gave me a good insight about how girls talk about guys when they're together. I'm glad I didn't do the speed dating after hearing about the guys they met. After drinks we ordered and then the anticipation began. I was really excited about this meal because I was going to have duck! Peking duck! - a must have in Beijing. The duck was so good! They brought it out with the head and all. It reminded me of the scene in The Christmas Story when they go to the Chinese restaurant on Christmas. - "Is ok?" - (laughing) - "Yes, it's...it's a beautiful duck. But you see.....it's ...it's smiling at me." (CHOP). Well, the duck and everything else we ordered was amazing too!
We noticed something that doesn't happen too much in Beijing - thunder
and rain. It started pouring. To complicate matters we couldn't find cabs. Carolyn and Xiao decided to walk to their apartments and Nicole was able to get bike taxi with a cover. Marisa and I got one too, but it was a long way from the area I was staying. The bike driver had to stop and get a new battery for his bicycle/motorbike. We also stalled on the road once and had to wait for it to charge. Quite an experience.
It was time to switch hotels. I've been Platinum at Starwood hotels for 8 years. After 10 I'll get lifetime status. This year they let bookings using points count towards status, so I'm trying to get the 25 stays needed to make Platinum again. I booked the Sheraton and headed over. After taking the subway in the wrong direction and then having to walk about a mile after I got to the right station, I checked in and relaxed a bit. I went to the gym and sauna and took a nap. A friend put me in touch with her friend, Iraise, who was teaching in a city south of Beijing, Shijiazhuang
, and who was in Beijing
that weekend. We had dinner and talked a bit. I was kind of counting on her to be my tour guide the next day, so I told her what I planned to see with Mike and asked what else I should see in the meantime.
The next day I checked out and expected to stay with Mike that night at the Renaissance
. Mike had two free nights he wanted to burn (it's great having consultants as friends). Unfortunately, he sent me an email saying his flight got delayed in LA and that he would probably miss his connection in Tokyo. I decided to see if the hostel Iraise was staying at had extra room and just stay there. Luckily, they did. It was also close(er) to the Summer Palace, which is what Iraise suggested we see, since Mike and I would only have two days to see Beijing and the Great Wall - if he ever got in. That night we met up with Marisa and friends again. This time there were a few more people. The two new guys, Peter and Henry, were reporters. Both had worked for the BBC. Peter is a BBC correspondent in Moscow. Henry
seemed like he had been everywhere. When I travel I'm always humbled by people who have REALLY traveled. Peter had been in Russia for the past 7 years, but had also covered events in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and pretty much everywhere else you don't take the family on vacation these days. Henry had just returned from Tehran, where he had been for the last 4 months. Again, the food was great. I've become accustomed to spicy food now.
The next day Iraise and I headed to The Summer Palace
, which was basically a playground for the emperor’s staff and nice retreat site for the emperor himself. The grounds are huge. There is a huge lake and walk path. My favorite part was the marble boat (not functioning) that sat on one side of the lake. We basically ran through the palace because Mike was supposed to land that afternoon. Once we got through the palace we headed to the Renaissance. Never underestimate how far apart things on Google maps can be sometimes. We got out of the closest subway stop, only to end up walking about a mile (with bags) to the hotel. The timing was perfect. Just as
I was asking the front desk if Mike had arrived and getting my credit card out for incidentals, Mike showed up. After a thug hug and telling him how glad I was to see him we headed upstairs to drop off our bags and then hit the concierge lounge for free drinks and appetizers.
Iraise was heading back to Shijiazhuang that night and Mike and I were heading to meet Marisa and her friends again for dinner (Marisa does lots of dinners). The location was back where I stayed the first few nights when I got to Beijing. After dinner Mike and I walked around the area and we booked another tour to the Great Wall through the hostel we were staying at the next night. The tour started at 8:00 am, so after dinner we headed back to the hotel to get some rest.
Mike and I checked out the next morning and tried to get a cab. This was an impossible mission. The taxi line was about 8 deep and we needed to get to the hostel asap, before the tour left without us. We decided to take our chances and get a cab on the
street. This taxi driver took his good old time too, making sure to stop every time the light turned yellow. It was frustrating watching the time go by when he should have been taking a chance with our lives and zipping through traffic. I knew we were going to be late so I had the driver call the hostel and I told them we would be "a few minutes late". Luckily, we were only about 5 minutes late. The bus waited for us and we headed to the Great Wall.
The section we went to this time was the Mutianyu section. The weather was not as nice as the first time I went. This section of the wall had steeper sections. It almost felt like you were climbing a latter at points. There was also a section that had not been restored and was blocked that we ventured through, which provided some cool views. This tour also included lunch. The food was great and served family style. I think Mike and I finished everything, to the dismay of the other travelers who were impressed at how much we could consume. The tour finished at the Olympic park area. We
got to see the Bird's Nest
and the aquatics center. However, we didn't go in. It's a pretty impressive structure. The street vendors still sell souvenirs from the 2008 Olympics.
We had done a lot of walking that day and decided to take a nap before getting more duck. Mike really wanted this (understandably), so we headed to a restaurant nearby on a recommendation. This time the duck came out all cut up in nice pieces - no smiling duck.
Our last day in Beijing was saved to see Tiananmen Square
and the Forbidden City
. Mike and I headed there early. After hearing some thunder we decided to take umbrellas. By the time we got to Tiananmen the skies had become darker and it was pouring. I had left my poncho in my bag at the hostel so we ended up buying two on the street. I put mine on and it ripped right down the back. Mike was wearing a (real) NorthFace waterproof jacket, so he let me put the other poncho on - carefully. Now I was wearing two ponchos, one over the other - a yellow one and a purple one. It did the job.
The good news was that my Merrell shoes
(one of the best purchases of my life) were GORE-TEX and kept my feet dry the whole time. Mike was not so lucky. We walked through Tiananmen and then headed over to the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, Mao's tomb was closed that day. I saw Ho Chi Min in Hanoi and wanted to see Mao (and some day Lenin). After some confusion about tickets for the Forbidden City we headed in. The Forbidden City is huge, but you can't really go inside any of the buildings. Everyone just pushes up to the door and tries to take pictures of what's inside. We ended up only taking a few hours to walk through it. Once we got out we tried to find a coffee shop. After walking for about 10 minutes, and seeing nothing, we decided to head back to the area we were staying to get coffee and then lunch. Mike really wanted to go to the Silk Market
, so we headed over there after lunch. We only had about an hour to spend there because we had a flight to Xi'an that night. The Silk Market is infamous for shopping. Apparently, there
is a lot of fake merchandise there. Once you enter, you're constantly being bombarded by people trying to sell the latest: Gucci, Armani, North Face, Rolex, and anything else you could possibly want. I had no intention of buying anything. However, I ended up getting a NorthFace jacket for $25. I guess the NorthFace was overstocked...haha. Mike had a NorthFace jacket from the US that he bought for about $150 and we were comparing the two. It would take a pretty skilled eye to see the difference. The cut of the jacket was perfect. The embroiderment on the front is the only thing a trained eye might
notice. The back embroiderment was spot on. I needed a new jacket anyway. Mike and I also got new cases for our iPhones. We negotiated the price down and for the sales girl to put a front cover on as well. "Ok, case and I make beautiful",
she said - meaning she would clean the phones as well. I also got some knit pullover shirts - Polo had a sale that day too. After the market Mike and I booked it back to the hostel to pick up our bags and then we
grabbed our taxi to the airport to fly to Xi'an. Xi'an
- Mike and I got to Xi'an late and headed to the Sheraton
there. We decided to break up the nights using points, and also so I could get 'Stay' credits toward my platinum status. Almost immediately I could feel like I was able to breathe again. Xi'an is a small town of about 8 million people. The hotel there was one of the nicest Sheraton's I had stayed at. The only reason we went to Xi'an was to see the Terracotta Warriors. The next day we got up, had breakfast, and headed to the bus station to catch the bus to see the warriors. The bus ride was about an hour. The area reminded me of southern California. The air was dry and it was sunny out. We got to the entrance area for the warriors and everyone got off the bus and just started walking in one direction, though there were no signs. We had a few offers for English tours but turned them down. Finally, by the ticket booth, we were approached by a lady who wanted to give us a tour, but declined because
we were just going to get the audio tour. She said she would to it for the same price. "Tina" spoke great English and we said we agreed to do the tour with her.
The Terracotta Warriors
are one of China's most famous treasures. The area is divided into three pits. Pits 1 and 2 are not that big, but pit 3 is huge. It was amazing to see all of these soldiers just standing there. Most of the warriors had to be put back together. No two faces are the same. There are about 7000 soldiers guarding the Emperor, whose tomb is about a kilometer away. They have a lot of pictures of famous politicians who have visited. There was one of the Clinton's. Apparently Bill was a huge fan and wanted the autograph of the farmer who discovered the warriors. Mike and I had lunch and then headed back to the hotel for one more happy hour. The next day we were flying to Guilin. Guilin
- Leaving Xi'an was interesting. We got to the airport and checked in. One thing I've noticed about the Chinese is that they can be very pushy. Mike and I
were standing in the security line and about 8 Chinese tried to cut. A security guard came by and told them that they were out of line and had to go back. Most of them were old ladies, but Mike and I pointed them all out. When the guard left, two of the "cutters" tried to get back in. I'm guessing these ladies were about 75 and stood about 4'10' - but it made no difference to Mike and I. You know what they say, "once a cutter, always a cutter". We were all standing in line, walking like penguins. Mike and I stayed close so they ladies couldn't cut in. We could hear them talking to each and trying to send signals so they could cut. We ended up splitting them up, one in front of Mike, the other behind me.
When Mike said he wanted to come to China we really had no idea what to see. I thought we could see Beijing, Xi'an, and Chengdu. After a quick Google search, Mike suggested seeing Guilin - based on the pictures he saw online. We did some more research and it turned out that it's one of the
most desired places to see in China. I booked all the tickets before he came. Guilin is similar to Halong Bay in Vietnam, except it's on a river, rather than a bay. The mountains surrounding the town are breathtaking. I have to say that it's the best scenery I've seen on my trip so far.
When Mike and I landed in Guilin we talked to a tour agent at the airport that offered tours of the Li River. I figured I would do research when we got to the hotel and to use her price as a baseline. On the cab ride in the cab driver called a tour agent and I talked to him. We agreed to have the cab driver drive us around that day and to take the Li River cruise the next day. The price was about what the Lonely Planet
said we would pay. That afternoon the cab driver picked us up to take us to a good Chinese restaurant and to take us to the Reed Flute Cave. Mike and I were starving by that point. The restaurant she took us to was quite interesting. We opened up the menu and were greeted
by some interesting dishes like: "Fried intestine with green scallion" and "Boar's sexual organs with spicy salt". Though tempting, Mike and I opted for a chicken dish and rice, with some vegetables.
Our cab driver, took us to the Reed Flute Cave
. This cave looked amazing inside and the Chinese did a good job adding colored lights to enhance the experience. It could have been used in a Bond or Batman movie. Apparently Mike and I were assigned to a group, but we didn't stick around to hear the commentary that was all in Chinese. We ended up walking through the cave pretty quickly and then around the grounds, which provided some great views of the city. Like most tours in China we ended up at a few factories. One that made pearls and one that made silk. The factories gave us very informed tours, but in the end we didn't buy anything. I didn't know that silk was so good for your skin or that oysters were basically drugged to speed up the production of pearls they produce.
The next day was the Li River
cruise. This became the focal point of our trip to Guilin for
multiple reasons. Our tour guide, "Carrie", greeted us at the Sheraton and we were off to the boat with the rest of the tourists. The weather was overcast and rainy and we were worried that our cruise would be a wash (no pun intended). However, that type of weather made for some of my best photos of the trip. On the cruise we met four people from California that were traveling through China. Cindy, Perry, Sarah, and Lonnie were traveling China together and sat at the same table as us. The cruise was a few hours with lunch and we had great talks about traveling. Mike and I tried to stay on the deck as much as possible, but the rain would come down too hard at times and we would get drenched.
Getting ripped off in China is to be expected. Moving from Communism to Capitalism is not something that happens overnight. There is a lot of corruption in China and people taking advantage of tourists because of the language difference or them not knowing whether or not the product they are buying is genuine or fake. Our tour guide, "Carrie", though she would get a few extra
Yuan out of Mike and I, along with some of the other tourists. I'll try to write a condensed version. Unfortunately for "Carrie", she was dealing with a tourist with a lot of time on his hands:
So here is what happened - Mike and I buy a tour for 400 RMB (~$65). Lonely Planet said to expect to pay between 350-450 RMB, so I figured we were within range. Plus, my Lonely Planet was written in 2009, so I was expecting the price to be what we played. When we bought the tickets they said there were two other tours that we could buy for an additional 200 RMB (a bamboo raft tour and a boat ride through a Shangri-La). If we didn't want it we could just take the bus back to Guilin. Mike and I declined the offer and figured we would just go back to Guilin when the Li River tour was over. On the boat "Carrie" said that we were the only two not going on the additional tours and that they would have to come back to pick us up after those additional tours were finished. She said she would give us a
"special deal" for 150 RMB/person. Mike and I declined and she came back again at 100 RMB (~$16). My grandpa used to say, "no good deed goes unpunished". This was true in this case. Mike and I agreed, as to not inconvenience the rest of the group and so the bus wouldn't have to backtrack just to pick us up. However, I noticed "Carrie" telling other people in our group that they too were the "only ones not going on the additional tour". Part of our deal included us not saying anything about the price to anyone else, but since I caught her telling other tourists the same lie I considered our contact void. I asked a Canadian guy what he paid and he said he paid 150 RMB. Then, a woman in the group asked me what we paid and I told her 100 RMB. Apparently she told another guy and he asked "Carrie" why they had paid 200 RMB, while other people only paid 100 RMB. When we got to the bamboo raft "Carrie" then knew that Mike and I had told other people what we paid and she said she couldn't offer us the deal anymore. That
was fine for us. She said we would get our money back. Mike and I went back to the bus and waited with the rest of the tourists (apparently we weren't the "only ones" not going on the additional tours).
We headed to the second tour spot, the Shangri-La boat ride. Mike and I stayed on the bus with the others who weren't doing the tour. Some people got on "Carrie's" case, saying she should honor the deal she made with us. We weren't going to argue it because we actually preferred to not be on the additional tours. While on the bus "Carrie" came on and said she had talked to her boss and that they were sorry about the mix-up and that we could go in the Shangri-La if we wanted to. I told her I didn't want to pay anymore for this tour. She said we could go in and that we would get our 200 RMB back. I thought it was good customer service. She put us in the group with the other tour guide, which made us a little suspicious. Though, we figured she was just upset with us and was looking to distance
herself from us for a while.
When we got back to the hotel everyone got off the bus. We hadn't received our 200 RMB, so I waited for her outside the bus. When I asked for it she said that we wouldn't get it back because we went into the Shangri-La. I told her that wasn't the deal and that she said we could go in for free AND get our 200 RMB back. "Carrie" disagreed and tried to argue that it cost her money to send us in because she had to buy tickets for us. I told her that wasn't my problem and that she shouldn’t have done that, considering I specifically said I wasn't going to pay for it and we were going to get our 200 RMB back. After arguing on the street for about 10 minutes she said I could just come to the office and talk to her manager. Also, a crowd was gathering watching us argue. On the walk over she said I was the only person to ever argue over something like this (apparently other tourists just take it).
When we got to the office her manager had left. The
other tour guide, "Daniel", was there and I explained the situation to him. "Carrie" was talking to him in Chinese and trying to convince him of her side. I explained my parts in English and got her to admit that she said we could go into the Shangri-La AND get our 200 RMB back. For whatever reason she thought that the fact she bought our tickets entitled her to keep the 200 RMB. The two argued in Chinese for a bit, then he started wagging his finger back and forth telling her she couldn't do that and pointing to me as if she had defrauded us. I just looked at her and agreed with him (hoping he was on my side). He told "Carrie" that the least she should do was to give us the profit she made off the tickets, which was 100 RMB. She refused and left. The other tour guide and I talked for a bit. I thought it was all over. But he offered me 100 RMB, as long as I wrote an explanation for his boss. I wrote a 3-page account and dedicated a page on how great "Daniel" was at handling the situation. This
is rather small given the 20 page paper I wrote to my career counselor at Deloitte about my experience with two of the most duplicitous individuals I had ever worked with on a project at Lincoln Financial, dubbed - "The Lincoln Manifesto". (also the catalyst for why I quit Deloitte and decided to take a year off to travel the world). This time justice was served. "Carrie" was shammed by her own colleague, lost face, and left.
Having only recouped 50% of what I felt we were entitled to, I decided it would be good idea to head back to the CITS (China International Tourist Service) office. Though I gave a written account, I was worried that it would get read after we left. Mike and I headed over to the office to talk to the manager. We ended up talking to the office manager first. He welcomed us into his office where there was a picture of him, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett
on the Li River together. He sat us down and we explained the situation. He agreed that we were taken advantage of. He also said the business card of the guy who sold us the
tour was fake. He put us in contact with "Carrie's" manager and we told him the story. He agreed as well and gave us the difference. After about 3 hours of total arguing we got 100% refund. This is apparently unheard of in China. I have brought justice to China. Like I told "Carrie" - it's about the Principle!
Mike and I walked around Guilin the last day. There was the elephant hill, which we could barely see through the trees they put up specifically so you can't see it. We also saw the "twin towers", which are two pagodas in the middle of a lake. Guilin has some great views, but the prices are significantly steeper than the rest of China.
The next day Mike and I were heading in opposite directions. It was great having a friend on part of my trip. Mike flew back to Beijing before heading back to the US. I flew to Kunming for a day, and then was off to Dali to meet Marisa and her friend David.
I landed in Kunming
and went straight to my hotel. It was about 4:30 and I was only staying there for a
night. There wasn't anything there I wanted to see, but I needed to get a bus there to head to Dali. I walked around a bit to look for a place to eat. The restaurant I selected looked like it was frequented a lot of people so I decided to try it out. They also had a lot of western foods on the menu. There were two Americans sitting down and I asked if they knew if the food was good. They said they were trying it for the first time and that I could join them. Greg and Sue were both working in Beijing and taking a tour of southern China for a few days. It felt great to meet some people from the US and to be welcomed to eat with them. Unfortunately, our paths didn't cross again.
The next morning I headed to the bus station to catch a bus to Dali. I thought Beijing was bad when it came to the Chinese speaking English - but in southwest China almost no one speaks English. I've become very good at charades. I flagged a cab and asked her to take me to the main bus station.
The hotel had written the name of the bus I needed to take to get to the main station. This cab driver took me to that bus, rather than the main bus station. It was worth trying to explain so I just ended up taking the 82 bus the whole way there. I made it to the station and grabbed some snacks before buying my ticket. I noticed the girl behind the register sneak a photo of me right before I paid and was embarrassed that I caught her. It was kind of funny. Dali
- Dali is an old town that sits at the base of a mountain. This is the city I planned to meet up with Marisa and David. I had no plans of seeing southwest China, but thought it might be a good experience, since I would be with people I knew. Traveling can get boring by yourself, so I try to travel with groups when I can.
I came to find out that there is Old Dali and New Dali. The bus leaves you off in New Dali. I had no idea where I was when I got off the bus. However,
two Chinese tourists recognized that I was probably going where they were going and told me to come with them. The only way we were able to communicate was using a translator on one of the guy's phone. It worked out well and they got me to where I needed to go. After looking for a hotel for about an hour I found one and then met Marisa and David for dinner. Dali is pretty touristy, but has some great streets to walk down. The next day we took a hike up around the mountain for a few hours. The path was paved and the weather was perfect. When we got to the end there was another lift that would go up to the top of the mountain. It was 200 RMB (~$35/person). I told them I would just go back to the hotel and meet them for dinner.
It was about a 45 min walk back to my hotel. On the way back I got jumped. This had never happened to me in all my time traveling - especially in broad daylight. But it happened. Just as I was walking buy a parked car, out of nowhere came
two cocker spaniels. The first laid a bite on my right leg and started barking. Then the other came out and started barking as well. Apparently, I had infringed on their turf. The bite didn't break the skin though. I bull rushed them and they backed off.
Shaxxi - The next day it was off to Shaxi. Marisa and David had rented a taxi to take us their and were in a triple so I was able to stay with them. Shaxi is a small town that looks like it's out of China's version of the wild Wild West. There is an old town with a few bars but not much else. We ended up walking around and then headed to a teashop to relax, read, and get on the Internet. I started to think about my trip and the time I was spending places and decided that I would just head to Chengdu early, rather than continue on with them to Lijiang and Shangri-La (the actual city), since they wanted to stay a few days in Shaxi still. I went back to the hotel and booked a fight to Chengdu in a few days from Lijiang. Lijiang
and Tiger Leaping Gorge
- I headed from Shaxi to Lijiang. I had to grab a minibus first to a small town that had an actual bus station. After the minibus took off two of the people in the bus started arguing (a mother and daughter with a baby in the middle) this went on the whole way. I was glad to get out. I ended up getting to the bus station over an hour early, but that was fine given that the minibuses only leave when they're full. I made it to Lijiang after another 3-hour ride and walked around till I found a place to stay. Lijiang is the most tourist-saturated place I've been so far. The city looks like it was brand new, with a classic feel. This is mostly because of an earthquake that hit the city a few years ago. Since it was a UNESCO site, China dumped a bunch of money into it to build it back.
One of the places I stopped to see if they had a room was a place that had good English speakers. Though I didn't book a room with them, I did book a trip to Tiger
Leaping Gorge. Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest gorges in the world (depending on how you measure it). The mountains on both sides are huge. It took over an hour to descend to the river. At the bottom the water and rapids were pretty violent. Most of the people do a multiple day trek through the gorge. I figured that one day was enough for me, so I took the abbreviated trip - just 3 hours. We dropped the people off who were doing the multi-day trek. The remaining people were two Chinese girls and me. We had lunch and then started our trek. Judging how slowly they were going, and the fact that they used umbrellas to protect themself from the sun, I figured it would take at least an hour and a half to get back up. They only thought we needed an hour, but agreed to head back early. Let's just say we made it back at the exact time we had to be back. The one girl was seriously struggling. I don't think she expected it to be so physically exhausting. I joked that I was going to have one of the horses get
her and take her up the canyon. I think she understood the joke. I would walk ahead to set the pace, then wait in a shaded area till they made it up. Just as they thought they would get a break in the shade I would say, "ok, break's over - let's go!". They slept the whole way back on the bus.
Marisa and David showed up the next evening. It was my last night in Lijiang and we went to a restaurant that was known to have good southern Chinese food. We ordered a few dishes and finished it pretty quickly. We noticed the two girls sitting next to us ordered something with fried worms. David wanted to try them and they let him take a few. When I used to go finishing with my grandpa we used to stop at "Sue's Bait Shop" and get mealworms. I could never understand why fish liked them. Well, David found out. He tried the mealworms and some other ugly critters. I was impressed. I'm not sure if it was on his own that he did that. We weren't drinking by this point. Maybe the sun had got to him, or
maybe he had just been traveling with Marisa for too long. Either way he said they were "ok", but not much flavor to them. At least they were fried! Chengdu
- The next day I caught my flight to Chengdu. I tried to get some coffee at the airport and was wondering why no one was in the coffee shops. Then I saw the menu and figure no one probably wanted to spend ~$10 for a cup of coffee. The flight was only 70 minutes, but would have been 18 hours in a bus. Going to Chengdu made sense for a few reasons. The primary reason was to book a trip to Tibet. To do this I need a stamp and to organize a tour with a group through a tour agency. It's also the biggest city in central China so they have flights to my next stop, Nepal, if I couldn't go to Tibet. Chengdu is also known for having the largest panda population. Leshan, just to the south, is also well known for the largest Buddha in the world.
I got to Chengdu and checked in to the Sheraton. It was time for some proper accommodations
again. I was able to get a workout in and hit the sauna. I also headed to a hostel to try to book a trip to Tibet. Unfortunately, they said that China had just made it more difficult and that I would need 3 more people from the United States in order to book a tour. I tried a few different places but no one had 3 more Americans that had a trip planned in the next 5 days. After walking around for another hour I finally accepted that my trip to Tibet would have to wait, just as my trip through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway
would have to wait. It's 2012 and there are still so many travel restrictions for people who just want to see some of the most amazing sights in the world.
After walking around I decided to go get some Sichuan food. The waitress spoke no English and the menus were just in Chinese. I took her outside, where there were a bunch of pictures, and pointed to what I wanted - a chicken dish with vegetables. I got a beef dish with vegetables. I was starving so I just ate it. When
I say "ate", I mean I put food in my mouth and then doused it with huge gulps of water. Chengdu is known for it's spicy food. If you feel like your head is about to blow off, it's because you head is about to blow off. I think my face was turning violet, and I was worried whether or not oxygen was getting to the brain. After a few bottles of water and enough rice to feed 4 people, I was physically ok to walk back to my hotel.
One of the main attractions in Chengdu are the pandas. I went on a tour of the "Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding". The Chinese are very proud of their pandas and the work they do to make sure the pandas don't go instinct. The have tons of pictures up which leave nothing to the imagination on how pandas reproduce - be it natural or in vitro. The pandas are pretty laid back - literally. We got there for feeding time in the morning. The pandas were eating their morning servings of bamboo. Most of them lay on their back and chomp away chewing one reed after another.
The park also had red pandas, which basically look like a fuzzy fox. The red pandas have tails as well. On the trip I met a couple from Seattle, Warren and Betsy, who were traveling the world for 25 months. They even wrote a book on how to do it and have a website
decidated to it.
My last day in Chengdu I took a day trip to Leshan. Leshan
has the biggest buddha in the world
. I had seen a picture on Iraise's Facebook page and I made it one of the things I had to see in China. The two hour trip from Chengdu to Leshan was well worth it. Hiking around the Buddha and the grounds took a long time and it was really hot and humid that day.
My biggest disappointement in China is the fact I didn't get to go to Tibet
. The Chinese have cracked down on tourists and have made it very difficult to get in, unless you go through all the hoops. I was really hoping to take the train from Chengdu to Lhasa (the highest train in the world). Unfortunately, it will have to wait. My flight to Nepal
connected in Lhasa though, so I got to see it for about an hour.
Next stop - Nepal!
There are more photos below