The time we spent in Datong was unique for a few different reasons. It is by no means a tourist city and we clearly stood out when we walked around the streets. We enjoyed it for the fact that it felt like a real and true glimpse of China, from the vegetable vendors on the streets to the mind blowing amount of high rise buildings being constructed. It's becoming more and more evident as we see this amazing country, that it is growing at a frenzied pace. In Datong they are constructing a "new'' city with high rise apartment buildings in various stages of development and new tree lined streets just waiting to be used. This new part of the city is currently not populated yet, but when it is, surely the city will be neat and tidy and uber modern. It also seems that the idea is that building up is the way to go, because tall buildings can hold more people and leave more land to build more tall buildings.
From Datong we ventured out to a couple of local areas of interest, one being a Buddhist temple constructed precariously on a cliff face and the other a
large collection of caves in which Buddhist figures have been elaborately carved dating from the 5th century. The temple did not take long to visit and had a ridiculously large entrance fee, but it's not everyday you can go to China so we thought it was worth a look. The temple is rather small, but I figure that's justifiable since the piece of property it occupies is on a cliff. Turns out that the Chinese have been thinking build up for quite a while. The temple was anchored in by large beams embedded in the cliff face and the floors are stabilized by long stilts stretching down and looking for any little place to get a grip. From the temple we went to Yungang Caves which is a site that is rapidly being developed so that in no time it can be a major tourist attraction. Getting to the caves was a hassle, first due to the fact we had to convince our driver (who we hired for the day) that just because the highway was closed for maintenance, he couldn't just choose to not take us. Upon arriving at the caves we had to walk through the construction site
to the entrance. Once there we were able to see various caves with huge carvings of Buddha and other figures. The workmanship and attention to detail was stunning, and some of the caves had carvings up to 17 meters (60 feet) tall. The rest of our time in Datong was spent getting train tickets ready and doing laundry, along with eating in small Chinese restaurants where there is no english menu and no english spoken. It's makes for an interesting/awkward moment, but it's a part of the joy and fury of travel.
From Datong we caught a 14 hour night train south to Xi'an which is famous for the Army of Terracotta Warriors. After the Great Wall, China's most famous site has to be the army of warriors and it was the one and only reason we had Xi'an on our itinerary. The warriors were found in 1974 when farmers were drilling a water well and discovered something odd buried below. Almost 40 years later and there are now 4 known pits of soldiers that have been opened with more hidden in the area. The warriors were built for emperor Qin Shi Huang who thought that his reign would
continue even after death and he ordered an army to be built for when he died. The main pit of warriors contains over 6000 lifesize men and horses built out of clay and none having the same face. The area is now a huge tourist facility, but it doesn't take away from the amazing feeling of seeing an army of clay men staring east ready for battle.
The next day in Xi'an we decided to go to a panda rehabilitation center to get an up close look at an animal that can really only be found in China. It was a cool rainy day which the pandas like, and we were lucky enough to have a couple happy and smiling teddy bears rolling around outside for pictures, rather than sleeping inside their pens. The pandas didn't do a lot but eat and look funny, but they were everything I could have hoped for. On my list of animals that I would like to use as a pillow, the panda definitely ranks in the top 3.
From Xi'an it was another night train to Hefei, with the plan of going onward the next day to a mountain called Huangshan.
On the train we had the pleasure of "talking" to our cabin mate. The only english he knew was "ok", and the only Mandarin we know is "hello" and "thank you". Once again though, the beauty of travel was shining and through pointing and with sign language we were able to tell the man where we were from, where we were going and even discuss the weather. It was another moment, like many I have experienced, that proves we are all the same people, just with different stories. I was happy that he took the time to talk to foreigners, and even give us advice on how to reach our next destination.
In Hefei we got a hotel room, and after checking weather reports we decided against our first idea of going to Huangshan. We didn't think pouring rain on a mountain for a couple days would be much fun, so we decided instead to go to the island of Putuoshan. Getting there is a story in itself.
In Hefei we booked a flight to Ningbo on the coast so that we could avoid another night train and let us reach the island in one day. After a
comfortable sleep in Hefei we woke up and headed to the airport. Everything went smooth as we checked in, waited, and then boarded our plane. Then we waited. And waited. And waited. We boarded the plane at 9:15 for a 9:45 departure. At 12:45, after a 3 hour wait inside the plane, we finally pushed back and took off for our 50 minute flight to Ningbo. The only explanation we could get through very broken english was, "air traffic control delay". Arriving in Ningbo, we got a taxi and attempted to show him where we needed to go. Thus enters the no english again. The driver speaks no english, we speak no mandarin. He thinks we want him to take us to the port city for a boat to the island, but we actually want him to take us to a bus station so we can get to the port city ourselves. He calls someone on his phone (my guess is wife) who speaks very brief bits of english and I then spend 20 minutes passing the phone back and forth with the driver as we head to the city. I finally come to the realization that the driver was
trying to tell me the highway has very high toll charges, and the driver realizes we want to go to the bus station. His helpful attitude was a real gift, but the confusion it created was a real headache. I buy bus tickets in the station, rather easily, and we jump on the bus to an island port called Shenjiamen from where we know we can get a boat to Putuoshan. Due to our day starting so late, we don't arrive in Shenjiamen until 6 and we still don't even know where the port is. Shenjiamen is busy, smelly and most people look at us like we are the only travellers they have seen this year. A lot of the looks aren't very friendly, and rather than try to find the port we decide to try and find a hotel room for the night. The first place we walk into and the girl at the counter shakes her hand at us before we can even ask anything. I think she is saying "no room" or " wait a minute", but a moment later I realize that this is a hotel that does not accept foreigners. It's a true fact that
some places would rather not take the money of a foreigner and be able to say that only Chinese people can stay at their hotel. For the moment I enjoy not being just a dollar sign. For once, my money was not wanted. The next hotel we stop at looks sketchy. The people at the front speak no english at all (becoming a trend), but I manage to tell them I want to look at the room before I book it. The lady takes me up a concrete staircase, through a heavy locked door and onto a landing with 3 more doors. She opens one, and it is the room. I've seen better and I've seen worse. I've slept in better and I've slept in worse. I go back down and tell Audree that I think it's fine. It's hard to put into words how it feels trying to book a hotel room or tell a taxi driver where to go when you understand not a single word each other is saying. It's frustrating, rattling and thrilling all at the same time. We book the room and when we get into the room and turn the lights on, the bathroom
sparkles in blue and red light and we both laugh as we realize that this probably isn't the type of hotel room that is booked nightly. It appears more as an hourly type of place. I then notice that the "mini bar" on a shelf has beer, crackers, playing cards and condoms. I probably should have noticed that when I looked at the room. We laugh and agree that it's safe enough and make sure we go heavy on the hand sanitizer before we eat.
Up the next morning and ready to vacate the dungeon of a room we are in, we head down, check out and grab a taxi to the port. I book 2 tickets to Putuoshan and after a 15 minute wait and a 10 minute boat ride we arrive.
Putuoshan is a small island know for being the home of Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. In Tibetan Buddhism she lives on earth in the form of the Dalai Lama and her home in China is Putuoshan Island. We book a hotel room for 2 nights and spend some time walking the island. The weather is hot and ridiculously humid. It's Kerala again. We
sweat buckets from the second we step outside, but we can't complain too much because we chose this place over a mountain in the rain. We walk past temples and parks and monks. It's a holy island and hugely popular with Chinese Buddhists. We enjoy the quietness that can be found down walkways and roadsides and we discuss how it's not something we expected to see in China. An island with pine trees and palm trees and a generally laid back style. After a couple days on the island we grab a fast boat to Shanghai which takes 3 hours. After a bus ride from the port, we are thrust into the chaos that is Shanghai. It reminds me of Tokyo, but so far without the same amount of charm. We figure out the metro system, book tickets and make it to the stop for our hostel. It turns out to be easy, and I'm always a little impressed with myself when Alberta farm boy figures out the big city metro system without any hassle.
Now we are checked into our hostel for 6 nights, and we will have 5 full days to explore Shanghai. The world Expo is
currently being held here, and we will obviously go and have a peak. Other than that there are no plans, but I expect that the big city has lots in store for us. After the 5 full days we will be on a plane, and since nothing has sparked any alarms, South Korea is still the go to place. I'll try and write another entry before we leave China.....
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