Published: October 3rd 2006October 3rd 2006
Hong Kong Tram
Cheapest way to traverse the city, $HK2 and great views from the upper deck.
After 2 weeks in China it is readily apparent that this is the most difficult country I've ever traveled in. The language barrier is simply impossible which makes everything a struggle. If I can eat 3 decent meals, find a not too shabby hotel with hot water, cross 8 lanes of traffic without a near death encounter, use a clean toilet, and procure a bus or train ticket then the day is an unqualified success. Absolutely nothing comes easy.
Eating is always a challenge because I'm still spastic with chopsticks and most restaurants have menus only in Chinese. Ordering there is a roll of the dice. Some restaurants have English menus but are clearly overpriced since mostly foreigners patronize them. I've resorted to frequently hitting street markets which are generally clean and always cheap. Even if I have no idea how to ask for a dish, at least I can see what is being eaten and ask people how much it is, albeit in awful, broken Mandarin. Sometimes, however, a wrench is thrown into the system of pointing and paying which I experienced last night. I wanted to by a bowl of noodles but first had to go to a
Tradtional Market, Hong Kong
Can buy some strange (by Western standards) stuff.
small table where I bought a ticket to take back to the food stall. I knew how to ask for a coupon of a certain value except I had to specify not only the price but exactly what I was ordering. The list of dishes was there all in Chinese so I have no idea what I ate but at least it was tasty. Finding a decent cup of coffee has also been difficult since I left Hong Kong. Most cities have McDonald's which also satisfies the requirement of a clean bathroom. Efficiency is key since simple tasks take about 5x longer than you think.
I started the trip in Hong Kong, arriving from Singapore via a very short stop in Macau. Hong Kong (as well as Singapore) is a shopper's paradise so I was not totally enthralled with it but a lot of the islands are undeveloped and well preserved. My last day was spent hiking on Lantau Island to what I thought was the highest peak in Hong Kong. Lantau Peak is actually the second highest but it was still great to get away from the intensity of the city center where I was staying. Next up
was Shanghai but after 4 days each in Singapore and Hong Kong I could only manage one day in Shanghai and bolted for southern Anhui province to hike Huang Shan or Yellow Mountain. Very popular with the Chinese as evidenced by the thousands of people, cable cars, and 2 dozen or so hotels scattered around the summit area. Not cheap either - about $25 just for the entrance fee. Doesn't sound like much but consider that I had a good lunch today for 45 cents. Everything has an entry fee that is totally out of whack with the general cost of living here. It is quite aggravating in addition to wallet lightening. I haven't decided if most of these places are worth the price of admission, especially the moutains which are way too crowded, developed, and commercial. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of open space in a country of 1.2 billion people but what little there is has been poorly protected and over exploited. There was one brief moment of solitude after viewing the sunrise from Bright Morning Peak. Nearly everyone went back to their hotel for breakfast but I trudged on to Heavenly Capital Peak
Transitioning from dried fish market to traditional medicine shops. No idea what turtle shell remedies.
where the exposure and peacefulness were the highlights of the trek. Took a 17 hour train ride the following day to Tai Shan, arriving in town around 11:30 pm, stashing my bag at the train station, taking a taxi to the trailhead, and starting the hike around 12:30 am. Again, way too many people but at least the entrance fee was a more tolerable $8.
From the base of the trek I managed to find a bus to Ji'nan from where there would hopefully be a better selection of trains to Beijing. Tai Shan is kind of a backwater so the ticket office only issues what is called "hard seat." It's not as bad as it sounds but overcrowded (detect a pattern here?) and luggage space is at a premium. In Ji'nan all the train tickets were sold out but the bus station was nearby and it was easy to get a ticket to Beijing. For some reason it is much easier to get bus tickets than train tickets. Probably because the train is much cheaper in hard seat and usually nicer than a bus. Upon arrival in Beijing I somehow managed to find city buses from the long
Lots more medicine...
distance bus station to the city center and avoided a much more expensive taxi ride to a hotel near the Forbidden City. Beijing was OK but 4 days was too much for me. Most of the first day was consumed trying to purchase a train ticket but having to go to 2 train stations because the main station did not sell tickets for my next destination.
The highlight of Beijing was without a doubt the Great Wall. I wanted to go to a less visited site called Simatai and a couple of people who worked at my hotel said there was a public bus all the way there. Left the hotel at 5 am to catch a city bus to yet another long distance bus station (8 or so in Beijing) where many people said there was no bus to Simatai. I balked at a minivan driver who wanted to take me round trip for $45. Eventually, a bus conductor told me her bus went to Simatai so I took it. Except that it didn't. She woke me up 2 hours later in Miyun where there were yet more of the minivan mafia waiting to take me to Simatai
Hong Kong at night
Taken from Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon across Victoria Harbor. Victoria Peak in the background.
and back but this time for only $30. I offered something a little more than $10 which was unacceptable so I hopped on the next bus back to Beijing and resigned myself to visiting Badaling, the more touristy section of the Great Wall. Back at the bus station I saw 4 other backpackers walking around with the same Lonely Planet guidebook so I instantly knew what they were there for and told them my saga. We found one more person wanting to do the same thing, nabbed him, and the six of us took the minivan for a not unreasonable cost of $7.50/person. It was a long drive (second time for me!) and by the time we got there most people were on their way back to Beijing so the place was as empty as a China tourist site can get. Walked on the wall for a few hours, had some great views, and headed back through abysmal traffic.
After yet another overnight train ride in hard sleeper, next up was Datong, Shanxi province. Not to be confused with Shaanxi province where I will head in a few days after a short stop in Henan province to visit the
Big Buddha, Lantau Island, HK
Biggest sitting Buddha in the world.
Shaolin Temple, birthplace of Kung Fu. Datong's two sites of interest were Yungang Caves and the Hanging Monastery. The caves were dug out of the sandstone cliffs in the 5th century, if I remember correctly, taking 40,000 workers 64 years to carve the caves along with the 50,000 Buddha statues. It is very impressive. The monastery is equally impressive since it has been hanging in the same spot for 1400 years. Holes were dug into the cliffs and the beams supporting the structure were place 2/3 of the way in. The monastery is strategically placed in a canyon, only receiving 2 hours of sunlight in summer, none in winter, so the wood is preserved.
Arrived in Kaifeng this morning after taking a sleeper bus which is just what it sounds like - a bus with ~36 beds. Not as nice as a train sleeper but October 1st is National Day and marks the beginning of a weeklong holiday when half the country seems to be traveling and train tickets are at a premium.
Up to this point, China has not been what I expected. It's too Westernized, at least in the cities (which is to say everywhere) in
Summit of Lantau Peak, HK
Good hike to the 934 meter summit but it was scorching hot.
the sense that it appears that the powers that be are succesfully turning China into a country of consumers. Shopping seems to be the number one activity and most places don't seem all that different from home. The Chinese have gotten the worst of both deals: from the West - consumption, glitz, congestion, sprawl, fast food, expanding waist lines, muffin tops; and from the Communist days - lousy service, lack of and no respect for privacy. Students in Tiananmen wanted Western style democracy but they got KFC and The Gap instead. It's kind of depressing but that didn't stop me from scoffing down a couple of Dairy Queen Oreo Cookie Blizzards when I was in Beijing.
Chinese are nice enough on a personal basis, especially on the train when I am the only non-Chinese person in a sleeper carriage of 60 people. But collectively Chinese society at large is difficult to deal with. The country and people are incredibly diverse but the unifying attributes of spitting anywhere, cutting in queues, and blatantly disregarding pedestrians can be very trying day after day. I'm not totally sold on this place but it's only been a little more than 2 weeks and
Hong Kong from Victoria Peak
After hiking Lantau I was in no mood to hike to the top of Victoria Peak. Conveniently, there was a tram.
most people I've met say the southern provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan are the best which is where I'm going to finish the trip before heading to Tibet on the way back to Nepal.
Thanks for reading this far and stay tuned...
There are more photos below