Tuesday, September 18, 2007


En route in style

I took a polar flight from New York to Tokyo (my third one). It literally goes up and over in a little less than 14 hrs. Then another 3.5 hrs to Beijing.
There goes my plane!

Now, one normally thinks this is awful, but lucky me I got into business/first class thanks to Dad giving me upgrade frequent flyer miles for my b-day! My first time ever. I mean, I'm happy if I get food on the plane. So, I felt like a little kid seeing Disneyland for the first time.
My first meal! Look - real silverware!

The flight attendants were getting a kick out of me (what do you mean have I decided? oh... you mean I get to choose my meal off of the menu?) and I was taking pictures left and right so the guy next to me definitely thought I was weird. You mean I didn't fit in with my north face backpack, ghetto sneakers and gear? As I was testing just how far back my seat went back on the 777 from Tokyo to Beijing, the stewardess on JAL actually said to me "You are lucky. This is first class." It was the first time I was disappointed to hear the flight was only 3.5 hours. Can't you circle around a few more times?

Daily Life in Beijing

OK. But yes, I was really excited to step into China and meet Lynn at the airport! It was sooooo awesome to see her smiling face when I landed. I hadn't seen her since she left in Feb. So, we immediately started chatting nonstop all the way back to her apt and into the night!

Lynn and I.

Some Beijing background: It's a huge spread out city. The best comparison is probably to LA - expanding over a large area with different pockets, lots of traffic and a ton more ppl. (15+ million) It's arranged in the "ring" system. The inner ring is the city center then the rings expand outwards to 1st ring, 2nd, 3rd and so on. Lynn lived in the 4th ring on the NW side of the city. The 5th ring is the boonies, but we just found out that there is a 6th ring. Beijing and its surround suburbs encompass ~7,000 sq. miles.

What I loved about this trip was that it was a good mix of living the ordinary life of Lynn in China and getting to know the ins of this crazy country at the same time mixed with the tourist-y stuff. I ended up spending a total of 11 days in Beijing, though the average traveler speeds through in about 4 days.

Lynn's apt. complex
My home in China. So, most people live where they work and work where they live. Lynn's place was in the Petroleum complex. It was about 1/2 car ride (w/o traffic) to the city center.

The living room. All apts. have a little balcony alcove for drying clothes since dryers aren't an option.The bathroom. No showers stalls/tubs. Everything gets wet. Getting a tub is a luxury like getting a dishwasher in NYC.

Construction workers (there are lots of them everywhere) grabbing food at the local stand. Most eat at the local canteen on the premises.

The local market where we grabbed many varieties of fresh pears, eggs, noodles, soy milk in a bag, etc.A small, but traffic-y road near Lynn's apt. Most roads have a side part for bikes and turning cars. But overall there is NO order. Traffic is insane and intense. Cars have the right away. Then bikes. Then pedestrians. And of course, pollution is out of control. View from the light rail station at Wudaoko. There's a good gathering of foreigners in this university ladened area near Lynn's apt, especially a large korean contingency. Everyone bikes around or takes the busses. The best thing I saw on a bike was a couch! After that even the full sized mattress looked dull in comparison.

Olympic Frenzy
Yes, they are crazy for the Olympics. There are countdown markers everywhere.
The Olympic nest - we saw it in passing while on the 4th ring road. It's north of the city center.
The Olympic mascots were everywhere. Lynn and I like the red one. Fire-y!

FYI: China is preparing for the Olympics (ie. getting its act together)
problem: pollution. too many cars.
solution: less cars on the road. Cars with license plates ending in even numbers didn't get to drive for 4 days.
problem: general rudeness and no order.
solution: cue day! Every Wed you have to cue (for the bus, at the store, etc). Go figure.

Playing in Beijing city:
local style

One of the first things we did after hanging out at a local cafe was go to the National Art M
useum of China (NAMOC).
They had a great exhibit by modern Chinese artists. This one reminded me of one of my favorite artists, George Seurat, and his pointillism. The museum was nice and could've been anywhere, except for all the Chinese people and the big stand alone AC units.

Then Lynn and I went to the Modern Chinese Capital Theatre since Lynn's friend, Emma, who works for this theatre, got us free tickets to see the Hong Kong cast of Peach Blossom Land. It was quite bizzare, but fun and fortunately had English subtitles.
Me in front of the Modern Chinese Theatre.

It was a fun first day, and I'm most certain that NAMOC and the Modern Theatre are not in the Lonely Planet book. Just enjoying the art world the way Lynn and some of the locals would.

The next 3 days were spent hanging with Lynn's friends, going to church, school and running errands.
Lynn at the bank.
Note: we spent one whole day devoted to the bank. Why? Because everything is paid for in cash - rent, phone bills and tuition. So of course you have to go to the bank and get money from an actual teller. But everyone has to do the same thing, which equals long waits! So we waited several hours in both the morning and afternoon- only to not get the money in the end. Just an example of the many frustrations one has to deal with living in China! It gave me a more realistic picture of life in China, and put my "romantic" ideas of living abroad in check.

In the city: tourist style
By the 5th day, I finally ventured my way in and around Beijing city center by myself via light rail, subway and bus. I ran some travel errands and explored before Lynn met up with me in the evening.

Houhai: an area with several small pretty lakes. Great for strolling around, but it was surrounded by a lot of touristy bars and pedi-cabs trying to lure you in for a tour.
View from the lake: some peace in the crazy city.
A chinese guy blew these animals for us (rooster for Lynn and monkey for me - our Chinese birth year symbols) out of sugary syrup. We never got so many stares (an believe me, I got quite a few), and locals would ask us how much we paid for them - the chinese are obsessed with money.We got a few hours of priceless entertainment from them though!
Exercise! This was my favorite, unlike the jerky "elliptical" in the behind me. They have exercise playgrounds since a gym actually cost about $80/mth.
The Hutongs: Ally way streets scattered throughout Beijing where a lot of locals live. Some streets don't have electricity. This was one of my favorite things about Beijing - wandering aimlessly and observing the locals in the side streets. They are brimming with character, though the city is trying to eliminate them.
A kid "machine gunning" Lynn.
Parapanilia in all sorts. Hail to Mao.

Summer Palace: extreme extravagence
After a lazy morning getting food from the local market, we packed lunch and spent the entire afternoon at the palace, which is located about 20 miles outside the city center, not far from Lynn's apt. It's where the emperor lived. Not too shabby. It was fairly impressive and enjoyable, despite the hordes of Chinese tour groups.

The lake with the palace in the background.The climb up to the top of the palace.Random temples on the mountain side.People doing calligraphy with big brushes and water.Lynn and I on the backside of the palace.

After the palace and crowds, we needed a little unwinding with a little local outdoor shopping.
I didn't really buy much in China, but we had some good finds here - clothes that didn't quite make it to the states.

Fragrant Hills Park
Back to the more local happenings ... Deciding to enjoy nature and avoid the crowds, we went hiking up in the hillside way out in the boonies, beyond the 5th ring. It was mostly peaceful, "urban" hiking (ie. paved stairs the whole way up) except for the occasional loud speakers hidden in the trees playing music and an old chinese man singing aloud to his radio-phone. It would've been a lot less crowded if it weren't for the cable car up the mtn. option.
We got a great view of Beijing, and all the smog that hovered over they city. In fact, we even saw factories up on the hills. As Lynn said, "Beijing knows best."Us at top of the hill - after about a one hour hike.

My first week was already a great time with Lynn - experiencing both the insides of the culture and hitting up a few touristy things and just hanging out and sharing great meals with her. But now it was time to head on out...
Off to XI'AN: Traveling within traveling

As much as I was enjoying Beijing, I had the travel bug and really wanted to explore outside that city. My first priority was to go to Xi'an, an ancient capital of China. Lynn unfortunately had to get things in order for the start of the new semester. After the bank fiasco, it was pretty clear she couldn't accompany me.

No problem though. I ventured into Beijing to the train station on my own and managed to get the appropriate ticket to Xi'an. I am trying to get on the #9 public bus at the train station. When the first bus came, I just observed how it's done. The second bus I tried to get on unsuccessfully. The third one I shoved my way into the appropriate position to get funneled in by force.
I took the Z19 train at 21:24. When getting my ticket I just kept repeating "Z" and "soft sleeper" and "Xi'an." In other words, get me on the fast luxury train to Xi'an.
This was the most luxurious train I've ever taken! There were 2 bunks per cabin, a personal TV and headset that I had no idea how to use, slippers and hot water - all for 400 RMB = $55. Of course I was with 3 business men in my cabin as normal ppl can't afford this accomodation.
After the 11 hr and 1 min overnight train, I arrived in Xi'an to much gloom and rain and madness. This picture captures my first hour in Xi'an rather well.

I had no hostel reservations, but according to Lonely Planet, I could get on the number 603 bus to the hostel .... except that there were many main streets and no less than 50 different bus lines at the train station! After about 45 min of wandering, being drenched, asking everyone for bus 603 in Chinese and avoiding a pick-pocketer (he tried to open my purse right in front of me! I just shot him a nasty look), I found bus 603! This would definitely be put into the "personal
growth" part of traveling!

However, now of course I had no idea when to get off seeing that I didn't know this city at all. I couldn't even see outside the fogged up windows, not that that would really help. So, crammed in this double-decker bus described as a pick-pocketer's paradise, I started showing "nice looking" ppl. the name of the street I was looking for. I got off a few stops too early and walked in a few circles, but alas found the hostel!

Only to find out that the hostel, while quaint and English friendly, had only a dorm room. No problem. I've done dorms before, and this was only 4 ppl. Except that it was small, dingy and a girl that was clearly sick was sprawled on the bed. The bathroom was no better. I quickly locked up all my belongings and headed out to secure my future train ticket and explore.
The drum tower. The center of the old city.

While wandering, I ended up finding a budget hotel near the drum tower that had a single with its own bathroom for a reasonable price and decided I was no longer 20 years old and only traveling for a little while, and it was my birthday weekend, so what the heck! I'll splurge for $25/night for the hotel! City Hotel Xi'an - I highly recommend it.

Now, for 4 glorious days in and around Xi'an...

Muslim Quarters:
The first afternoon I headed to the Muslim Quarters, which was one of my favorite areas in Xi'an. It's inhabited by one of the largest ethnic Muslim communities in China. I ended up going back every day to wander and eat the food.
Man walking through a side alley way. I loved strolling aimlessly around these quarters.
Kids playing on the stoop.
My first meal in Xi'an I just walked into this family restaurant and pointed to a bowl of noodles. The owner, above in white, saw my Lonely Planet book and was very intrigued. By the end of my meal, no less than 7 other ppl were beckoned over to look at my book, specifically the local foods written in Chinese. We had great conversation, or rather pointing, but I had to leave when they started smoking right into my face. I saw him 3 days later on a Moped and he honked and he invited me back to his restaurant.

You can get just about any type of "antique", "real" jade and trinkets here.

I loved eating the street food! My strategy was first to observe from a far. Then approach and point and saying something that sounded like "iga" which I think means "one of this". They would ask questions. I would nod. They would probably ask for X Yuans. I would hold out what I thought was more than enough, then they would ask for smaller bills or give change, then hand over the yummy food. With this method, I got to try just about everything I wanted too!
After salivating over these lamb skewers and many failed attempts to get them by my usual strategies, I finally secured 4 skewers and spiced grilled pita bread on my last day. It was absolutely delicious and one of my favorite meals here. A fabulous dried fruit market.Delicious potatoes. Muslim food contains lots of strong spices including cumin and star anise.

Too many different foods to try! But I managed to single-handedly get all the main ones. Here is where I wish I had a travel buddy to help me eat all the food! All of my days in Xi'an I just got street food. Even with sampling about 8 different things each day, I normally only spent 15-20 RMB (less than $3) on food.

The first night I ventured onto the bus outside into the modern city to see the big pagoda and a random water/music show that was popular with the locals and Chinese tourists. It was kinda weird, but interesting to see the crowd and the newer city on the bus ride.

Terracotta Warriors: the ghosts of the first emperor

The morning of my second day, I headed out to see the infamous warriors. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who unified the country in language, roads and much more, decided that he wanted an army of warriors to guard his tomb. That's perfectly logical. The main reason I wanted to come to Xi'an is to trek out to see these guys. So, I hopped on the public bus and rode an hour outside of the city.

Over 8,000 warriors, chariots and weapons were discovered in 1974 accidentally by a farmer drilling for a will. There are 3 different pits .
Each face is unique and each warrior signed by its artist.
His enemies raided some of the tombs, but a lot of the soldiers are still in tact. Excavation is still occuring.Hailed as the eighth wonder of the world, the terracotta warriors are definitely impressive.

Riding the wall:
After returning to the city, the weather looked promising so I biked the city wall. The old city wall is still standing around Xi'an. It's the most complete city wall to survive in China. Dividing the old modern city, it stands 12 m (40 ft) tall, ~14 m wide and 14 km in length.
Me and my bike on the wall. It was pretty leisurely, although a bit bumpy and rough on the butt at times. Since it cost 40 Y to get on the wall, it was peaceful and not full of crowds. Definitely one of my favorite activities here. The beautiful sunset from the city wall looking into the old city. But I couldn't stay up here forever so I descended into the city.
Getting steamed buns from a mom and her son (behind sign on the right).

Above is one of my favorite random streets that I found while meandering the back roads. It was dusk, and only locals were out and about - kids playing, barbers cutting hair, friends talking, dinner cooking. I stopped by a local bakery and chatted with a mom and daughter. While watching some kids, 4 of them were intrigued by my camera and approached me. This is exactly what I love about exploring.

By my last day in Xi'an, I had already seen everything, so I took it easy. I meandered the Muslim quarters getting the last of the food I was eying, window shopped in the local clothing stores and the upscale malls and spent the afternoon relaxing, reading and writing, at a local bakery while watching teens, couples, moms and daughters come in and out. It was nice to just chill out.

I loved Xi'an. It was pleasant to stroll around, had good food, great atmosphere. I had plenty of time just to explore. Most ppl zoom through in 2 days, but I had 3 days in the city and spent another day at Hua Shan - a mountain about 2 hrs outside of the city. That was quite the experience deserving its own post ...