mostly pictures of the kids, maybe some links, and probably some music.

Friday, February 18, 2011

On A Plane Home

Flight left a little late, just as predicted.

Sitting right at the back, had all three seats to myself, but a young man has joined me. He is sleeping right now.

We had a real honest to god, "ladies and gentlemen, if there is a doctor on board please come to the front of the cabin" style emergency. They asked in three languages, twice. Not sure what it was, or if a doctor presented themselves, but there was a bunch of hustling and bustling. Update - when we land in Toronto, passengers are confined to their seats while paramedics come on board, we had a bunch of tiny grannies on the flight, not sure if it was one of them or someone else.

We flew home by a different route. Straight-out over the East China Sea, up along Japan, across the Bering Sea, the south coast of Alaska, The Yukon, N.W.T., Manitoba and down into Ontario. We are up above The Soo right now.

They have just handed out the hated customs forms, and yet again not included a pen with it. I guess I should remember to bring one, but come on!

Our crew is very senior, seriously, three quarters of the staff look like they are ready to retire any time. I heard a couple of them discussing it while most people were sleeping. They had never been on a flight with this high a seniority rating before.

Between the 28 hours in planes, the at least 54 hours on busses and trains, and the mattress-less bed at Morag's, my sore bony ass is going to take a while to recover from this trip. I managed to sleep on the flight, but it was fitful and plagued by cries of "mercy" from my rear-end. I only managed to get in one and a half full movies and an amusing Australian short film about meeting God on this flight, oh yeah, watched the first 3 episodes of Community too.

Borrowed a pen from the man in front of me, the one with the hilarious little baby girl, who has been as good as gold, love her, hate customs forms.

Loved the trip, love coming home.

Waiting On A Plane

Sitting in the departures zone of the Shanghai Pudong Internatinal Airport. Beside me is a 2.5 - 3 year old boy watching some crazy kids show about tigers brushing their teeth, oh wait, now it is a human girl, getting her teeth brushed by her dad. He is watching it on his mother's super thin MacBook Air. It looks lighter than my iPad.

Morag and I had a fight about breakfast this morning, but we worked it out before I left. I am really going to miss being with her everyday, I think we were both coming to the point where we needed some space. She has a very small room.

Out into a rainy, damp morning (only full-on rain since I got here.) The roads and side walks on Morag's campus are paved with an assortment of stones, big, small, rough, smooth, even polished. The polished ones, slick with rain, made the walk to the bus with full back-pack and carry-on a little bit challenging. Morag says they are super fun when covered with a layer of snow. Onto the Special Number 2 bus for one last trip through Suzhou, out through the Quantum Gate - this weird installation/sculpture thing over the road leading to Morag's school, it has these two rings of bright white metal, attached by strings of lights, and the road, and tunnel run right through the centre of it. On one side there is a statue of Albert Einstein, and on the other I.M. Pei (who it turns out designed the fabulous Suzhou Museum.) At the train station I grab a quick veggie bun then jump onto the fast train to Shanghai, then a long subway ride with 2 changes, and here I am. No need for a limo or a cab, I got here by transit. Why doesn't Toronto have a subway to the airport? 

Plane is running late by about half an hour. Have 65 Yuen left and they are burning a hole in my pocket.

Had a snack which included the worlds greatest coconut milk ever. Half an hour till we board and although I have free Internet access, blogger is being a pain.

More Things Here

There don't seem to be very many (if any) high-water, apple-bottom, booties here. Most of the trunks I have observed are neat and petite, not completely empty like my own, but not stuffed full.

As near as my ignorant, unsophisticated western tongue can tell, Chinese hard liquor comes from one of two flavor classes. The Slightly Sweetened Medicinal Tincture group, and the Poison group. The one I had last night came from the latter. I don't know how long it would take to re-educate my palette, but I am guessing 7 lifetimes.

Did see the aftermath of a traffic accident today. Dented car, destroyed motorbike, people talking to the police. Just like at home.

I had a culturally insensitive moment a few days back and got hostile with a guy who cut in line at the post office. It was a waste really, language barrier reduced us both to angry gesticulations. Morag pulled me away and pointed out that I had in fact been standing sort of between two lines, so maybe he wasn't really butting. Whatever, since then I have been way more aggressive, you might even call me "the elbow kid", no one cuts in on me anymore, and I have even done a bit of cutting myself, not proud of it, but I have.

Went to the movies, which had assigned seating, which was weird because we didn't realize it at first and were sort of awkward about it. The lobby totally smelt of popcorn, and although I remembered Morag telling me something about it, I ordered it. They don't salt popcorn here, they sugar it! Not caramel corn style, more like they switch out our salt with sugar. A bit weird at first, but tasty.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

2nd last day

You know who has a great 20 year old daughter? I do. Simple as that. She has entertained me, educated me, helped me, adventured with me for the last 16 days. She must have been bored, irritated, embarrassed, but she did it. She rocks. I am so grateful that she allowed me to take advantage of this opportunity.

I wasn't so glad when we slept in again this morning. I did try and wake her up at one point and she told me "I am in a very bad mood right now and trying really hard to be nice" so I let her go back to sleep, and did the same myself.

So, we missed breakfast again, however, it was so late when we finally got up that the cafeteria had reopened for lunch.

Then we took the bus to the North Suzhou Bus Station and caught an inter-city bus to the quaint little canal city of Tongli. It is sort of like Suzhou in the antiquity/canal/proximity to Shanghai department, but it has kept it's old town pristine, instead of building up around and in it. You get off the bus, walk about 15 minutes, cross a canal, pay an entry fee and it is like you have stepped back in time. Tiny lane-ways, people on little boats along the canal, gracious gardens, and a feeling that it would totally reek during the warm months. We visited a couple of gardens, looked at some shops, saw some museums and then headed back into the newer part of town for dinner.

One of the Museums was the Chinese Sex Culture Museum. They have two buildings, the one in Tongli, and one in Shanghai. The write-ups made it sound great, but it wasn't. Lots of stone phallus and naked people in the pretty gardens, but in the buildings themselves just a weird assortment of sculptures, found objects, artifacts and plenty of paintings of different coital positions (you have seen them before, from Japan or China, well this place had tons, pretty much minor variations on each other). The "curator" had tried to tie each room together with a theme, but the displays didn't really much reflect the ideas (and why was there a giant sculpture of a soaring eagle in the middle of the gallery of sexual deviancy?) There were some interesting "sex education" figurines that could be hidden inside larger ceramic figures, so that mothers could discretely use them to teach their daughter what was expected of them. The pillows that were built to hide dildos for lonely nuns and concubines were pretty cool too, but how people sleep on the hard wood or ceramic pillows I do not know. The whole place was more like an eccentric with an eclectic interest in the erotic decided to put their collection up for public viewing, than it was a museum.

Our dinner was scrumptious. We went into this tiny little hole in the wall, and were handed baskets by this 6 or 7 year old girl, then we went to a fridge and filled our baskets with our soup fixings. I had two kinds of tofu, bok choy, nappa, hard-boiled quail eggs, preserved greens, two kinds of mushrooms and ramen noodles. I handed it to the woman standing by the big pot of water and she cooked it up for me. Meanwhile the little girl showed us to our table, brought us a bottle opener, and straws. When our big steaming bowls of soup arrived we added chilies, and vinegar and chowed down. It was so cold in the place, and the soup was so hot and spicy that my nose was running like a faucet, but I didn't mind, I was hungry. For entertainment we had a blaring TV showing some crazy loud cartoon about a little boy and a pig who where friends, but yelled at each other a lot. All this for less than 3 bucks for both of us.

My favorite point in the day was about halfway back to Suzhou. Our bus driver is barreling along (don't have an actual speed, but factoring in the roar of the engine, the bouncing, the creaking and rattling, I would guess about 330km/hr) this elevated expressway, holding down firmly on his horn as he tries to veer across all 3 lanes of crowded traffic, flashing his lights and weaving in and out, when his phone rings, and he answers it, and starts YELLING at the person on the other end, no preamble, straight to the bellow. We made it though.

Tomorrow we will get up early, and we will make it to breakfast, then we will finish our Scrabble game, then I am off to the airport.

Egads, I will miss the big girl terribly.

Super Supermarket

Today's original plan had been to sleep in, then wander around campus (people are beginning to return, there were about a hundred or so in the one cafeteria open tonight, the day before I arrived, Morag was all alone. To put it in perspective, there are 4 big cafeterias on campus here, each seat between 300 and 600 people at a time and they are usually so full that you have to shove people aside to get up the stairs.), and then maybe visit the giant athletic/movie theater/bowling alley/coffee shop just off the south end of the campus. Turns out we slept in too late to wander campus and get breakfast, then when we got to the mega-use-complex everything but the movie theater seemed abandoned. So, we took a bus ride (about 40 minutes) to a shopping mall that along with 2 different donut shops, a two story KFC, and a Pizza Hut has a GIGANTIC Grocery Store. Well it was more than a grocery store really, imagine a Costco, but where you don't have to be a member and where you can buy just one or two of something and not have to go for the 20L jar of mayonnaise. I hadn't seen any bulk food in Chinese Grocery Stores (CGS), Auchan had it. I hadn't seen a produce section of any merit in CGS, Auchan had it (nearly all the produce was individually shrink wrapped, but there was plenty of it.) Plus a bakery, plus a butchers and a live aquatic animal butcher (be thankful you aren't a soft shelled turtle in China, your life expectancy would be pretty short here.) Not to mention the restaurant, and the two full aisles of Ramen Noodles - two full grocery store aisles of different flavors of Ramen and other instant Noodle soups. If we had been outside, instead of in air-conditioned comfort (both heating and cooling is referred to as air conditioning here - which when you think about it, makes sense) then the far end of the store would have faded into air polluted grey. The place was maximum size, no joke.

After buying belts, booze, mangoes, souvenirs and school books we came back to Campus and ate dinner at the cafeteria (not so tasty really, but less than one Canadian dollar to fill the belly to bursting.)

Then back to Mo's room to re-wire her bathroom light (guess where we got the electrical tape and the light bulb?) and try and Skype my darling wife to wish her a happy Valentines. No luck, she wasn't on line. But just so as she and everyone else in the world knows. I Love Her, and Can't Wait To See Her!!!

We might go see a movie later if we have the energy.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Guess where I am? A train station. Guess what I am doing? Waiting. Guess what all the guys cramped into the little anteroom outside the toilet are doing right under the no smoking sign? That's right, smoking! Plus c'est change. As far as new experiences go, well, I am interacting with my first Chinese schizophrenic right now, she is seated directly across from us, letting her invisible enemies have it and chain-smoking and chain-spitting up a storm.I am avoiding eye contact as best I can as she is pretty agitated.

So I want to retract yesterday's (she has moved over a row to pick up a newspaper) 100% glowing revue of Shanghai. I am downgrading it to "no cooler than New York." I guess yesterday was all sunny and bright, and we spent most of it in the French Quarter, and the subway lines we took were brand new. Today was grey and cold and polluted and snowy/rainy. The subway line (#2) was older and dirtier, Lujiazu station was missing ceiling tiles and Pudong was a bitter disappointment. Sure the Oriental Pearl Tower was like a pretty CN Tower, and the Shanghai World Financial Centre was like the worlds tallest bottle opener, but everything we saw was touristy and sorta gross. Imagine Niagara Falls surrounded by enormous sun-blocking office towers. To be fair, we didn't wander far from the edge of the river, and perhaps if it had been warmer we could have had a better time, but it wasn't and we didn't. We did decide to check out the Shanghai Insect Museum, which instead of the interesting educational science centre thing I had hoped for, turned out to be the most hateful, disgusting animal torture center slash petting zoo from Hell I have ever seen. I am so ashamed I spent money there. If there is such a thing as a Chinese ALF, I hope they liberate everything there and then burn the shit-hole to the ground. On the plus side for Pudong we did have a nice coffee in the Super Brand Mall.

Back in Shanghai proper we had a stroll along the Suzhou Creek, and then down the Bund, taking in the faded European grandeur. After that we walked in the centre of the Huangpu section of the city and visited the tres lovely Gongdelin Vegetarian Restaurant (since 1922 no less.) It was a fancier place, in a fancier neighborhood than last night's vegetarian restaurant, but the price was only a little bit more. Some things were nicer (tea, service), some worse (the meatballs). Both were excellent over-all, but if you are ever at the Gongdelin, don't bother with the Fried Sparrow. too much batter, not enough sparrow.

Now we are waiting for the train to Suhzou. Had a bit of a scare when the automated ticket booth kept telling us there were no more trains tonight, but we found a human and she sold us some. I think tomorrow is just lying around.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


During our 3 long train rides I have seen a bunch of central chinese countryside, and I have to say, it sure is full of people. Is there any 24 hour train ride you could take from anywhere to anywhere else in Canada that wouldn't spend at least some of the time traversing wilderness? I don't mean pristine arctic wild lands, but at least some area where you don't see houses, or farms or settlements at some point? We haven't gone through anywhere here where you don't see a farm or a road, or people working, or houses or some signs of people. I guess up in the north there is desert, and out in the west you have the Himalayas, but around here it is people people people.


Normally when I go on vacation or travel I love to send postcards. It makes me feel good, I honestly get pleasure from it. So I have been writing postcards while I am here, and sending them off (19 at last count), but they just aren't giving me the boost they have in the past. Partly I think it is because I write on here every day, partly it is because I am nervous that they aren't going to even make it to Canada. (None of the many packages sent to Morag have gotten to her yet, although my mom received word that the one she posted has at least arrived in China.) Maybe next time, no blogging, just post carding. Probably not, I am doing the blog mostly for Nicci, because she likes it, and I really like her. So too bad for you potential postcard receiving people. Blah Blah Blah, what I really mean is I miss Jemima and Nicci, I am about ready to go home. I want my sweetie and my little baby. I want my bed, and my dog. The home fries at breakfast were good, but the coffee really sucked and I miss Nicci. Waaaaaa.


The interplay between Pedestrians, Drivers, Cyclists here is like a dangerous crazy-ass ballet. It is based around the same precepts as queuing and perambulating on a busy sidewalk. Fill any unused space, DO NOT make eye contact, act like you own the place and yield to greater numbers.

Only a couple of days ago (after having to jump quickly out of the way of a taxi) did I realize that there are no stop signs. Head towards the intersection at full speed, slow if there is something bigger, merge right in, any lane will do. Pedestrians dive, bicycles dodge, horns honk, and weirdly, I have seen only one accident. Morag has seen one between two scooters and a cyclist, the one I saw was just a single vehicle (black Mazda Five with Roof Rack - Nicci, are you following me?) that managed to get itself rammed up on a median. Morag and I try to cross with a group of locals, if you follow their lead it is comforting. I was busy looking at a map yesterday and when I looked up Morag and the gang were already halfway through a multi-lane havoc-full crossing. I had to make the journey by myself, and I didn't like it. Cars seem to left and right turn on red lights, scooters can ignore any red light, and even if the little green man is flashing for you to cross, cars have the right of way and you have to be prepared to move out of the way fast. I am not saying it is bad driving - everybody seems to follow the same rules and know what is going on, it is just really foreign to me.

A lot of people smoke here. No smoking signs seem to mean - Keep it to a minimum. The slow train had plenty of no-smoking signs, but as long as the smokers kept out by the bathrooms, where there wasn't a no-smoking sign they figured they were safe. 8 people smoking in a 75cm x 200 cm space can really fill up a train car with smokey goodness, fast.

There isn't as much horking, honking, snorting and spitting as I had been led to believe (oh there is plenty, trust me, but not the levels I expected).

Green vegetables get cooked to within an inch of their lives (at least at every restaurant we have been to.) Also, green vegetables seem to come from the Green Vegetable fairy, and not the supermarket. Every supermarket we have visited is about 98% packaged food. One or two has a few wilted veggies, but nothing like the produce aisle at home. Yesterday, walking down a tiny side-street in the French Quarter we happened upon a little veggie market, and the produce was healthy looking, vibrant, plentiful and weirdly clean (the carrots looked ready to go into surgery), but this one market in Shanghai can't be feeding everybody, where is it all.

Tofu isn't a vegetarian threat to meat eaters here like at home. Tofu is a wonderful squishy addition to most any meal you get. Sadly, for us vegetarians it is usually cooked with some form of meat. We were on our tour of the Terra Cotta Warriors and Zsa Zsa our guide was busy being aghast about our vegetarianism, literally shuddering at the idea of giving up meat, and I said "but you eat tofu", she looked at me like I was an idiot and said "yes, tofu is delicious". So different than at home.

Sweets aren't very sweet here. Mildly sweet, usually bean filled or seed filled, and chewy or flakey, but not North American High-Fructose Corn Syrup Super Sweet. The only chocolate bars I see regularly (except in the lah-dee-dah richie-rich grocery stores) are Snickers, M&M Peanuts and various Dove things.

Ramen Instant Noodles are the food of choice for travelers. Every train and bus station I have been to has big piles of instant spicy noodles in cardboard buckets. All different flavors (how many types of meat can you dehydrate? All of them!), and colours and seemingly eaten by everybody. 

People prefer hot water to cold water. Every hostel we have been to has a hot water dispenser, only one has had a water cooler. It is good to have plenty of hot water dispensers, you never know when you want to eat some Ramen.

Again with the Trains!

OMFG! Take a fast train why don't you! No really, try it. The train we took from Suzhou to Shanghai today was so fast. It took an hour to get from Morag's place to the train station by bus, and then half an hour to get all the way to Shanghai. Check it on the map. Wicked ass. Our top speed was 341km/h. I know some of the fancy Japanese Mag-Lev trains go over 400km/h, but that is the fastest I have ever gone, except in a plane. I loved it.

OMFG! The subways in Shanghai! What a system. Big, complicated, cheap, clean, easy to navigate ticket buying system in English and Chinese (all touch screen), and on some of the lines the platforms have a glass panel and the train doors line up with sliding glass doors in the panel and it is like a big long train elevator door system. The best part about the trains though (besides the little LED flashing station indicator that shows you where you are and where you are going) is that there are no doors between cars, so you stand at one end of the train and you can see all the way down to the other end, and when it turns a corner it is like you are on the inside of a snake.

OMFG! The money here! A couple of posts back I mentioned that the social life/economy in the cities we have visited doesn't match up to the image created by those vintage Maoist posters. Well Shanghai, the birthplace of Chinese Communism, has gone completely the other way. (At least on the surface, I know little of the ins-and-outs of contemporary Chinese politics and there may well be things going on that rival the heyday of the Gang Of Four.) One of the activities we attempted today (and failed at) was visit a museum at the little house where the founding meeting of the Chinese Communist Party took place. It is in this ultra chi-chi boutique lined avenue. It is within spitting distance of a Rolls Royce dealership, and restaurants that look like they would be by invitation only. Just 2 blocks away are HUGE flagship Apple, and Versace outlets and acre after acre of upscale stores. (There was a Beard Papa though, and we did get a Cream Bun, and it was delightful.) The Party and what came out of it must still be important to people though, the whole time we were standing around the museum, people kept coming up and taking pictures of their families in front of the plaque on the door.

Really today was a failure in many ways. We slept late. We almost fought at the house, and then again when we got off the train in Shanghai. I tripped and hurt my knee. Two of the four places we set out to visit were closed by the time we got there. I got Beard Papa cream all in my mustache, some Belgians/Germans/Austrians made fun of us for taking the subway instead of walking, and the women at the Buddhist restaurant tonight treated me like I was an imbecile. But it wasn't a failure. The train and subway rocked it. The Chinese Propaganda Poster Museum was fantastic. Most of those posters were trashed when Deng Xiaoping took office, and the museum has thousands. We bought a nice one for Morag's room, to remind her that science is hard work, but paramount for the revolution. We didn't make it to the Jade Buddha Temple on time, but we did make it to the Jade Buddha Temple Vegetarian Restaurant, and despite the withering service, the food was such a pleasure. It was the first vegetarian restaurant we have been to, it was a relief not to have to keep an eye out for stray flesh, all the different fake meats were divine, and the greens weren't completely over cooked. (Bok Choy gets sort of gross when it is cooked to death, and I LOVE Bok Choy.) 

We are back at our Hostel, the bar may be playing nasty techno, but it is smoke free, almost empty, just us another backpack type couple and some chinese guys playing poker. The fireworks are going, but they are far enough off in the distance that they can be ignored. 

Tomorrow we are doing a couple of other sections of the city. The Bund (old European downtown) and Pudong (crazy new skyscraper downtown). The plan is to go home on an evening train, but we are going to decide if we want another night over breakfast tomorrow.

The Colonel

KFC has China locked down. Sure you see Mcdonalds (creepy little girl come hither patter playing outside every restaurant) and Pizza Huts (way more upscale, sit-down than at home), and I even seeb two Burger Kings, but KFC? Damn, the Colonel is in charge! As we walked through old town and the shopping core today there must have been 7 or 8 of them. It seemed the same in Bejing and Xi'an too. Morag says it is because people just aren't that into beef here, so KFC makes more sense. Could be, but I also wonder if it isn't that The Colonel's face (which is on all the signs, and posters and storefronts) resembles that of the venerable ancestor. Serious, bearded, looking down from on high. Maybe it strikes some sort of cultural chord, or maybe they just got here first and out-maneuvered the others. You also see plenty of Starbucks, some Dairy Queens, and any number of the high end boutique type shops - Fendi, D&G, Prada etc. Maybe the Party still holds sway in the country side, but in the big cities I have visited, the dollar seems to be the chairman.

Suzhou City Limits

Suzhou City Limits are hard to reach, because it is a really big city. We took an hour and a half bus ride from the campus to the "old city" and the downtown shopping core. The shopping core (imagine Yonge and Dundas that goes on and on) is just one tiny part of downtown. There appear to be several downtowns. At least that was how it seemed to me from the top of the North Temple Pagoda (the tallest pagoda south of the Yangzi - and a little scary, I kept thinking, the foundations of this were laid down 1700 years ago, and it is really tall and really full of people). The pagoda is part of a working temple, so there were lots of monks, people burning incense (the biggest incense I have ever seen, over a meter long and about a decimeter around!), and plenty of incarnations of the Buddah. 

Before that we had lunch at the saddest restaurant in the world. We only went in because we couldn't find another one, and it had these tanks full of live turtles, and frogs and crabs, and eels and fish, all waiting to be eaten. On top of that the only staff person present spent her time staring vacantly at some Chinese Idol type show from 2009. Creepy and weird, and the tofu dish had meat in it that we had to pick out.

Before the depressing lunch we saw the Humble Administrator's Garden, one of the nicest and largest enclosed gardens in China. Morag promises me that when she is a billionaire she will set up something like it.

And before that it was the Suzhou Museum. It isn't very big, but it is a beautiful building, the exhibits were well laid out, and the English translations were easy on the brain. (By the way, a big "thank-you" to China for providing translations on so many signs. Thanks!)

Tomorrow and the next day are Shanghai, after that we aren't sure and then it is time to go home. I really miss Nicci and Jemima, I can't wait to see them.


Sitting in Costa Coffee at the corner of Fuxing and Madang , hope this doesn't offend anyone back home, but Toronto drools, Shanghai rules. 100% true. Sorry Toronto (and Montreal and Vancouver and really any other Canadian city.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Beard Papa Lets Us Down

We slept nearly the whole day away, and it was raining and cold, so as I stumbled around waking up Morag did her laundry. We left the residence around 7ish and walked to a nearby plaza for dinner. While there we went through The Lonely Planet to plan our next week. TLP talks about a place called Beard Papa, I mentioned this to Morag and she went into rapture about the cream buns you can get at Beard Papa, and didn't it turn out that there was one only a short bus ride away at the Times Square Mall (home of the worlds longest outdoor overhead LED TV screen). So onto the bus we hop.

Down through the mall (did someone say this was a Communist country? you cannot tell that from the high end malls in the cities) into the food court. There is Beard Papa. Sadly, there are no cream buns, well there are some, but they are in the oven, come back in 20 minutes. OK, walk around the really high-end mall, look at stuff we can't afford, marvel at the huge TV screen in the sky (and it was only partially on), buy some Chinese style junk food (kim chi potato chips, blueberry potato chips) in the really expensive grocery store, and head back to Beard Papa. Sorry, there are no cream buns, what? but you said? sorry, dang! Back on the bus and back to campus. Morag gets chatting to friends here, and on the Internet, so I do laundry, read some comic books and drink a beer. As I sit here typing this, my poor tired ass is reminding me that I just spent 23 hours on a train and to please give it a break. Tomorrow we tour Suzhou. 

There is no training for this.

What a train ride.

Sweet Jebus, what a train ride.

There is so much to say about it, but unless you were on it, I am not sure you would really understand.

Firstly, we were on the slow train. I don't think the train itself actually goes slower than most other non-super-train trains. But it stopped at nearly every town, and out on the tracks and just about anywhere else. Just sat there and waited. Not sure why.

Secondly, we were in hard seats. The seats had some foam padding on them, but they were benches, and couldn't tilt back. On our side of the train each bench sat 3, and on the other side they sat two. The  benches were paired, so that each bench faced another bench and there was a small table between them.

Thirdly, it was jam-packed with people. Every seat was taken, the aisle was jammed, and any open space had more people crammed in there as well. 

Getting to the bathroom, was an ordeal of squeezing out of your seat, stepping over the people sitting at the edge of your benches (they buy these tiny little stools to sit on), pushing past the people in the aisle and gouging your way to the line up at the toilet. I didn't drink or eat much so I only had to go once. I went early in the morning, and really, given everything else, it wasn't that bad. Stinky and covered in a pool of urine, but not that bad. Morag went a couple of times and said it was really gross by the end of the day.

Fourth, there is no privacy. None. Everyone is talking to and about everyone else. Needless to say, Morag and I were a big draw for attention. No one else spoke any appreciable english, and I am sure no one appreciated my faltering attempts at Mandarin. The man beside me (the smiling jack-ass was my name for him) had a translator on his google phone, and I had a phrase book on my ipod, so we managed a bit of information exchange, but it was minimal. No one believed that Morag was my daughter, someone called the conductor on us at one point and we had to show our tickets (only us, no one else in car 18), and Morag says that when I was asleep and snoring people were video-taping me (yes smiling jack-ass, I am speaking of you.) It gets a bit tiring being stared at for 23 hours.

Fifth, the noise! Oy the noise. Everyone has a cell-phone, everyone has every tone on their phone turned to maximum volume. Most people stare at their phone for at least two rings before answering it, and nearly everyone has different tones for text messages, and it is a bit like being in a huge arcade. There was one person at our end of the carriage that had this little chirp sound for texts or something, turned to the max, that went off at least three times a minute for the whole time we were on the train. I am not exaggerating. I couldn't see who it was, which was just as well, because I would have smashed the fucking thing, but it just kept going off. Plus people were playing music off their phones, there was music playing over the intercom (Guy Lombardo era big band tunes for the most part. Auld Lang Syne, Silent Night etc), and several people were watching movies or playing games on their laptops. Add to all this the general volume of that many people crammed in that little space and you have cacophony galore. By the last quarter of the voyage my brain had given in and I started hearing the babble in english. I kept looking around to see who might be speaking english, but really none of it made sense, it was just my brain being tired.

Sixth, the train was running late, and lots of the stops weren't on the map, so I didn't really have a sense of where we were, and most of the stops didn't have signs up that told you where they were, or if they did they were only visible as you were already leaving the station, so I was stressing out a bit that we were going to miss Sozhou and end up in Shanghai. I think they were announcing the stops over the intercom, but I couldn't really hear it above everything else. Thankfully nearly everyone got off at Sozhou, and some of the people who had been staring at us let us know that it was our stop. Even the conductor came by to make sure we knew to get off.

From the train station we caught a cab, it was the middle of the night so no busses were running and got back to Morag's residence. We were so tired we fell into our beds, and I slept for 13 hours straight.

I wouldn't trade the experience, and we were lucky to get any train ticket out of Xi'an at all (let alone seats). I enjoyed watching the people interact, and was happy to see that even "one child policy" teenagers are sullen and rude to their parents, but I don't think I will ever want to do that again. If I am back in China when Jemima is a University Student i think we will book soft sleepers well in advance, or maybe fly between cities.

Bulls In Xi'an Shops

So our last day in Xi'an was spent walking. We walked a lot. It is a city of 8 million, so the nice old part inside the city walls (44km long rectangle, wider than tall, don't know the measurements, so can't give you the area, sorry.), is just a smidgen of what there is on offer. We spent a good portion of the day wandering around outside the walls, but not very far. It is a big city by Canadian standards and we were certainly well outside any "touristy" areas.

In the morning, after another leisurely breakfast - turns out there is a breakfast even slower than the Mexican, and that is the Israeli one. I don't know what qualified it as Israeli, it was just fried eggs with tons of canned tomatoes over a layer of barely cooked potato strips. It was quite tasty though. The English and American breakfasts were ready in a jiffy for everyone who ordered them. I think it might be the addition of potatoes that puts the kibosh on a speedy repast - we packed up our room, stowed our bags and headed out. Our first stop was the Great Mosque in the heart of the Muslim quarter. It was great (size wise) and a Mosque (lots of prayer mats and men getting ready to pray in their little prayer hats), but it was in pretty poor shape, and like almost everything else in every city we have been to, covered in a layer of grime. – It is weird how dirty and how not dirty everything is. The walls, streets, benches, anything that sits still is REALLY GRIMEY, a few things that move are too, stray pets, the beggars,the medium and slow trains. Most things that move are shiny and clean. The People, their Cars (haven't seen a carwash, but any vehicle that is getting used regularly seems to shine). Given the number of people, and their endless ability to litter you would think that the country would be up to it's hips in garbage, it seems though that there are these tiny old people that come out early in the morning that clean it up. Seriously the entrance to the Subway late at night is just a shambles, get up bright and early and it is all gone. Oh, and you NEVER want to sit down on a floor EVER. Enough about the grime – The Mosque was an interesting blend of Chinese and Islamic. The arabic calligraphy blends in nicely with the dragons and lotus flowers. The prayer hall was impressive, but we weren't allowed inside. I don't think non-muslims ever are, but on top of that they were getting ready for noon prayers. After finishing up with that we walked through the quarter and had Cold Noodles with Sesame and Ice Peak Soda. I know, what a surprise, but they are so good. From lunch we headed out on a long walk through the walled city and beyond to The Temple of the Eight Immortals. An ancient Taoist temple set on the sight of a teashop where someone got hammered and said he saw all of the Eight Immortals sitting around him drinking. I know there is more to the story than that but that was my take-away from the poorly translated, highly reflective, almost impossible to read signs outside the temple wall. Inside it was a working temple built on the same model as all the other temples (and the mosque) we have seen. Lots of courtyards surrounded by little prayer rooms and a central gate leading to another courtyard, back and back until you get to the main one, and then a garden behind it. The Temple was quite busy, monks doing prayers, tons of worshippers. The incense brasiers were so full that most of them were on fire, rather than smoking and people kept burning themselves trying to add their incense. I am more used to the smell of Indian/Hippy incense, so at first the chinese stuff just seemed to smell like smoke, but I am accustomed to it now and kind of like it. I have to learn more about Taoism, what was going on in that temple, especially all the offers to statues of crabby looking old men with long beards just doesn't mesh with my simple understanding. I didn't see Piglet anywhere.

Another long walk took us to this park. It was a big park with a driving range, a pond for rowing, an amusements section, and a very sad park. I guess someone forgot to put up the don't walk on the grass signs (they have them most everywhere you find grass), and most of the park was just beaten down dirt with trees poking out of it. Between the dead dry dirt, the dead winter trees, the layer of grime, and the ever-thickening haze of the smog, well it wasn't an uplifting park for me. The families there seemed to be having fun though.

After that, a very long, long, we can't find what we are looking for walk took us almost all the way back to the hostel. Seems like the highly recommended restaurant we were searching for is no longer there. People pointed us in the direction for it, but the building was half abandoned. No worries, a second highly recommended restaurant was just a few blocks away. And it was good. Spicy noodles with Tofu, incredibly spicy potatoes with peppers and onions, weird pear flavored beer. MMMM MMMM. We still had 5 hours until our train left so we sat in a really expensive cafe and drank really expensive coffee (Actually no greater than Starbucks price, but the 4 we had were more than the dinner, including beer), then picked up our bags and walked (we had time to kill, but my hips, knees and ankles felt like they were being murdered) up to the train station.

There were 2 hours to go until the train left, but there was already a line up, so we lined up. What a mad jumble. Pushing, shoving, stepping over. Cramming into any square inch. We couldn't figure out why, all the seats are assigned, so people who have them don't need to worry, all the standing spaces are just that, one carriage is as good as another. Morag got really crabby at being shoved, sat her bag down and went to sleep on it. Changed the whole balance of power in our section of the mob/line. People behind us would see the empty space beside me, and come plowing forward to move into it, get up to me, realize there was a body in the space, but between the prone Morag and the whole family with the huge bags beside her, there was no way past. Rolling eyes, tentative half steps, attempts to climb over. If I hadn't been so tired I would have enjoyed it more. Suddenly, with an hour to go, the sign changes, there is a collective groan/growl/rumble that runs through the crowd, everyone jumps to their feet and starts pushing. Both Morag and I were lifted off our feet a couple of times. People were in a panic to get on the train, running flat out down the platform for a train that wasn't going to leave for an hour. I really don't get it,  my guess is that the standing only folks had to grab luggage space. It was difficult to get to our seats, because of all the people standing in every doorway, seriously, put your body in a doorway and don't move, even for the big fat guy with the huge backpack, just don't move. It was a bit like a rugby scrimmage. Once we got to our seats, and then kicked out the squatters (only pay for a standing seat, then sit wherever and whenever you can, even if only for a few minutes) we fell promptly asleep, even before the train left the station.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Squat It!

I am not grossed out by squat toilets, I don't even really mind them, especially if they are the modern style flushing ones. Whatever, you gotta go, you gotta go. I just want to know how people can read/play video games/smoke while they are on them. I  barely have the ability to void myself between trying to balance and keep my calves from cramping up. I guess it is doing it all your life, but I am still deeply impressed.

In the interest of full disclosure, I DO NOT like a squat toilet on trains or busses. If I was the only one ever going to use it and I was only going to use it once, well then maybe. A multi use/multi user squat toilet on a moving vehicle is a recipe for pools of human waste over the whole floor. Call me prissy, but can you imagine the bacteria count on everything in there, and what about the carpet or floor outside the bathroom. The "three second rule" need not apply. Truthfully, I move through the world happily ignoring germ worries, so I guess the reason I am thinking about it here is the smell, it is hard to pretend the bathroom is germ free when your eyes and nose are watering from the smell of dried urine.

PS thanks to the anonymous comment maker for the picture, i went with this one because it looked more like the one on the train. Well, the train one was stainless steel set in green plastic floor tiles, but you know.

PPS - turns out that blogspot and the proxy server don't like each other, and if I try and attach pictures from my end it doesn't work. Oh well.

Xi'an and not X'ian

Little Ms Way Smarter Than Me points out, quite witheringlly, that I have been mis-spelling the word Xi'an. Many apologies to everyone, in China, and everywhere else that I am such dorkus-malorkus. If you really want to see Morag get annoyed, watch me mis-pronounce "thank-you", makes her crazy.


On our way home from the Muslim Quarter tonight we walked down through the Bar District. It is this several block area filled with all kinds of bars. Reggae Bars, Jazz Bars, English Pubs, slick joints with valet parking, and holes in the wall. About half way through we entered a freaking free-fire zone. Two gangs of youths were playing dueling banjos but on the firecracker. There were these rolls of M-80 sized (about 5cm long and probably the thickness of a hot dog) crackers, maybe 500 in a roll, and they attach rolls together so that they go off consecutively. Then there were barrages of mortars, about 30 in a big cardboard container, and finally some really big dangerous sounding singles. Louder than a gun, and sort-of scary. So picture this, a narrow little street, really more of an alley, packed with cars, bars, and pedestrians. At one end of the street, Gang A, at the other end Gang B. Almost as soon as the explosions stop at the north, the south end goes off. The smoke is so thick it is hard to breath, the air is full of ash and embers, it gets up your nose and in your eyes. Everyone, even the people who are lighting them jump when the big ones go off, and it just goes on and on, at one point we had to run to get by a barrage of mortars that was just being lit. I got a little worried that someone was going to get hurt, but if they did I didn't see. Don't get me wrong. I am a firecracker lover. A lover of the bangs and flashes. This was just really extreme.

Tiny Little Eunuchs and Beautiful Muslim Dancing Boys

I know it is my fault for not learning enough (tell the truth, any) Mandarin before coming to China, I know, but sometimes I get frustrated by the language barrier. Case in point - since the day we arrived here (3 days now) we have been telling the women at the front counter that we want to go on the tour to see the Tomb of Han Jing. 

"Yes we know that there needs to be a minimum of 3 people to go, but another woman has already put up a note saying she wants to go, but oh maybe she doesn't want to go and we should check in again tonight, oh it is night time now, can we go on the tour, oh check in again in the morning, good morning, can we go on the tour, damn it is cancelled, well how about tomorrow, you will see if the driver will take just the two of us? OK thanks for trying."

Half an hour later we are sitting in the cafe, awaiting a leisurely breakfast (only leisurely because if you order the mexican breakfast it appears someone has to take a quick flight to mexico to get it for you - no one else's eggs take over 20 minutes to arrive.) when in comes the driver, looking panicky, wondering why we aren't at the front waiting for him. We try hurrying the breakfast up and the woman at the counter gets snarky with us for being late for the tour (do not even try to explain why it isn't our fault - just smile and nod), finally the no-nonsense tour driver barges into the kitchen and starts yelling in Mandarin, breakfast arrives immediately, including the undercooked potatoes.

Grumbling aside, what a pleasure the tour was. Way less crowded than the terra-cotta warriors, way nicer buildings, more informative in most every way. Good times for all 3 of us on the tour (yes indeed the other person signed up did want to go). Han Jing was an Emperor of the Han Dynasty. He was a Taoist who made plenty of reforms to the army, judiciary and bureaucracy. He and his Empress are buried in the gigantic plot of land about an hour outside Xi'an. So far mostly just the burial plots outside of the two main earthen mounds have been dug up. Thousands of 40-50cm tall terra-cotta figurines. Male, Female, Eunuchs, Soldiers, Workers, Bureaucrats, tiny little clothes and furniture and weapons. It is like a giant ancient death-defying doll house really. When you enter the excavated burial pits you walk into this hole out in the middle of a field, down down down into this totally modern, fancy-ass, climate controlled museum. You even have to put little shoe condoms on the protect the environment. The signage, and the electronic tour guide were well done (our tour guide hooked us up and then just grunted directions at us). Just the main museum was worth the price of the tour, but then we went and saw the rebuilt southern gate (Big wall enclosing the grounds with gates on each side, most of the walls and gates totally destroyed by time and looters.) and another museum full of all the little bits and pieces that have been dug up. Little tiny arrows, mini belt buckles, and these terra-cotta figures that were built to be sitting on terra-cotta horses - very bow legged.

The ride to and from the Tomb was through the industrial outskirts of Xi'an, and that was a wee bit bleak, mostly because the air pollution today was the worst it has been so far. I would guess things become invisible at about 1km. But by 500m things were really hazy. As we drove through all the factory land (including a huge power plant belching out exhaust) it just seemed sort of hopeless. Like if Eeyore was an environmental state. I am wondering about lowered crop yields. Between the reduced solar radiation hitting the ground, and then the thick layer of dirt and grime on the leaves you have to think there would be some sort of effect.

Once we were back at the hostel, little Ms Energy Pants wanted to head right out. Just on the other side of the wall from our Hostel there is a little 5 stall food fair going on for the New Year. We ate this totally spicy noodle soup full of undercooked lentils, tofu, tomato, lettuce, and peanuts. All the dry ingredients are sitting out the counter in cardboard bowls, you point to the one you want and they dump it into this wire mesh basket and dunk it in a big pot of boiling water, then back into your cardboard bowl and add the salty sauce, the nutty sauce and the spicy sauce. It came with this slab of really pink bologna looking stuff, but Morag and I had it picked out. A few stalls down were these 3 teenage boys selling shish-ka-bobs and these big, flat, stale sesame breads,  (really tasty when crumbled up in the spicy broth.) One of the boys in the bread and meat booth wasn't actually cooking or serving he was just shaking his booty. He was dancing to this beat heavy, eurasian sounding, indian sounding, loud loud music. He was really into it, and though when I complemented him he blushed, he didn't stop.

From there we walked a long long way to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. We had to walk about 5km ( i wanted to say "walked and walked" but poopy pants here said that was hyperbole, and simply not true, so fine, 5k.) We were definitely out of the down-town core. Many of the stores were still closed, but we passed a whole street of pet and aquarium stores (later we stood next to a boy on the bus who had got himself a mouse) The Pagoda Compound was surrounded by a big history and culture park, and a long, wide, series of fountains. Tons of people were just strolling around with their families. Plenty of tacky tourist/fairground junk for sale, lots of people staring at us, we got photographed by a whole gang 20 somethings and had a nice afternoon.

Dinner was back to the Muslim Quarter - delicious cold noodles and Ice Peak Orange Soda. Bought souvenirs, ate some peanut halva (like a crunchy bar without the chocolate) then back to the hostel.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Terra Cotta and Secret Rooms in The Wall

We did a lot today, yes we did,  but my favorite part was walking through a park with my daughter, watching families and grand-parents go about their daily lives.

We got up bright and early, didn't wake up our roommate, (don't know why not, as we weren't quiet, but he kept a snoring), and waited a long time to get our "Mexican" breakfasts, so long in fact that our tour ended up having to wait for us and another table of people.

9 of us (plus guide and driver) in a van heading out to see the Terra-Cotta Warriors. Our tour-guide was a woman named Zsa-Zsa, "27, Female, and still single". She was great, full of information, excellent english and seemingly enjoying her job. It was great to be there and see the Warriors, especially in Pit One. Pit One has 6000 warriors in it, and 2000 of them are restored enough to be standing up on their feet and all looking in the same direction. You always hear how each of them has a different face, but when you are staring at 2000 of them, staring back at you, you really notice how individual they are, and it makes the whole thing quite intimidating. One thing I learned today is that the Emperor had them built slightly larger than life (by about 15-18%) so that they would be more intimidating in the after-life. He wanted to make sure he was in charge there too. Each one of them has at least some facial hair, even if it is just a creepy little mustache. What happened to that facial hair? I haven't seen very many Chinese men with any. Mine certainly inspires curiosity, lots of staring, asking to have pictures taken with me (no joke, happened twice in Beijing) or people just coming up and touching my earrings.

After the Warriors we went to see the Emperors tomb, but it is really just a tree covered hill and some park-land around it. They haven't started to excavate any of it, seems like the soil is quite poisonous (crazy Emperor being buried with LOTS of mercury - according to what we heard, over a thousand times more mercury in the soil than usual), and there are a lot of pits to work on. Zsa Zsa wasn't sure when it would begin.

Then we shared a lovely lunch with our tour-mates. A young man from England who quit the banking sector to travel (on the road for over a year), a couple of Americans who just spent 5 years in South Africa, and are taking a year to travel before their next jobs (they work for aid agencies), a Basque guy who was pretty quiet and three 20 something young american women who are doing a term of university in China to learn Mandarin. 

After Lunch Zsa Zsa tried to convince us all to get dropped off to the East Gates of the old city, and walk back to the hostel at the south gates (about 13km), nobody but Morag and I wanted to, but Zsa Zsa didn't listen, the van stopped at the East Gate and she ordered us out, and was faced with a rebellion. No one would get out, not even us, so they drove us to a little gate halfway along and everyone got out there, but only M & I went up. We had a splendid walk up top, there were all sorts of displays - like giant dioramas - of Chinese culture and history, mostly about the New Year.

We had gone past all the festival displays and were at one of the Archer's houses (there is some building about once a kilometer) and we saw a little sign that said come see the museum. So we went in and there was this big multi-story museum buried right in the centre of the wall. It wasn't very informative, but they had all sorts of stuff they had found when they were fixing the wall up, and they had uncovered some of the first foundations and it was cool to see. We ended up back on the street and crossed under the wall to this park that runs along the moat. It was full of families having their afternoon walks, and lots of old folks exercising and gambling. Big crowds watching chinese chess, and playing this card game with long skinny cards. It took us all the way back to the south gate and the hostel.

Dinner, Dairy Queen, a search for a Pagoda down dark and scary streets, then a beer and now the day is done.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Oh, so that is what happens when everyone goes on vacation at once

We thought we had it all under control. We were in X'ian, third big city on our adventure. Do what we want to here, and then head onto Chengdhu, no problemo.

Except, we were twitching about whether to go the Chengdhu or back to Suzhou, and then the woman at the hostel wouldn't book our train tickets for us, and then we went to the "ticket seller" and she was the meanest woman in the world and just kept pulling a "computer says no" on us and laughing in our faces, and then we got to the incredibly crowded train station (did you know there are 1.5 billion people here?) and the woman in the first two lines wouldn't or couldn't help us, there were no tickets available (our lack of Mandarin was a big negative), and Morag and I were almost yelling at each other, and then a woman sold us tickets for two days from now, and then about 15 minutes later we are walking down the street and realize our tickets take us to the wrong city (Suzhou and Xuzhou may be pronounced very differently in Mandarin but to our ears they seemed the same), so we head back to the train station again, and get the right tickets, but they are for 2 days later and they are on a slow train and we can only get hard seats and they leave at midnight and get there 24 hours later and waaaaaaah! A lot of people are traveling right now, and we want to go the same direction as them. Boo hoo, no Chengdu, but more X'ian and Suzhou, so ok. After the crowded train, mean woman, ticket fiasco we had a freaking excellent afternoon. We visited a wicked Pagoda and saw a huge bell, then we went to visit the biggest Mosque in China but instead get lost in the maze of alleyways in X'ian's Muslim quarter and it is like Blade Runner meets the Exhibition meets a claustrophobic's worst nightmare and we eat some DELICIOUS cold noodles with sesame and chili sauce and then some weird gelatinous rice goobers in chilies (not nearly as tasty as the noodles) and some alarmingly cute and dainty fried quail eggs on bamboo skewers and are thrilled and delighted. Now we are back at the hostel, have been kicked out of the bar and are sitting in the cafe and are a little bit drunk. An exhilarating day. 

X'ian Wall

In the youth hostel we just arrived at there is a beautiful golden retriever. I don't know what her name is, but i have been calling all dogs in china "chumley". I like that name, but Morag hates it. She says if I name our next dog Chumley she may kill me.

The youth hostel we are staying in today (and tomorrow and maybe the next day), is different than the one in Beijing, it is much bigger, and seems to be at least half Chinese families/travelers and not just hip western youth. It is right beside the old city wall, you walk out the front door and are faced with this 12 metre tall  wall that stretches off into the pollution in both directions.

Forbidden City? Whatever!

So on Saturday we tried to go to Mao's Tomb and The Museum of Chinese Culture, and they were still closed. Too bad for us. 

You know, going through security into Tianamen, waiting with the dense crowd, grannies, little kids, whole families, then getting out into the square, well, I found it quite emotional. Standing there where the Students and the Tanks squared off, with all those people, who don't know what happened there, or won't or can't think about it, I got a little teary eyed. Maudlin maybe, but I did. It sure is impressive though, very huge, and down at the end, Mao, watching over it all. 

So since they didn't want us going into the cultural hot spots around the square, we opted for the Forbidden City. The line up was quite long, but as we get to the end of it a young woman befriends us, and tells us there is a "back" way in, we just have to go through a gallery of art from her school, then into "The Workers Cultural Garden", then from there into the Forbidden City by a side gate. We didn't buy any of her art, though she had produced some lovely silk screened and lacquered plaques. She avoided the hard sell, just pointed us in the right direction. 

Turns out that all we did was skip the line-up for the First Gate (and trust me, The Forbidden City has gates-a-plenty), we still had to buy tickets, and then go through another line up to get past the second gate and into the courtyard of the first Palace.

Let me make this clear, the place may be the size of a city, yes it might, but holy-moly cannoli, it isn't forbidden any more. More like the Come One Come All City. Soylent Green style crowded in there. At some of the doors/windows into the main Palaces it was crush-tactic. A perfect place for pick-pocketing, but no one tried.

Quick aside, I was having trouble believing that this is really a country of 1.5 billion people. Sohzou, and Beijing were like ghost towns - but by Saturday I began to believe, and after today, oh I certainly do, but more about that later.

So the Forbidden City (hah), is staggering. The scale of it. Mostly you are only allowed to walk down the central plaza's, one awe inspiring square with a Palace at the north end after another. Forgive me for not remembering names, but know that Prosperity, Good Fortune, Celestial and like-minded words were involved in the titles. You slowly make your way back to the big one, and then into the beautiful garden behind it. The place was packed, like the Ex almost. Most of the side palaces (and there are tons) were off limits, but on the east side of the final two main courtyards there were a collection of minor ones that were open. Lots of exhibitions of Jade and Gold, all in the small palaces and courtyards that were home to Concubines, and Dowager Empresses, and Princes. Only a fraction of these are open to the public, and after a while, not being a huge student of the minutia of Dynastic Chinese politics they all start to blur together.

Once we were out the backside of the Forbidden City (about 4 hours, and tons of poked kidneys) we crossed the road and went into Jianshing Park. According to what we read, the park which includes a great big hill with a great big Pagoda on top was built and landscaped primarily  with the rock that was dug up to make the moat for the Forbidden city. The park was crowded too, but it was also very quiet and very pretty. We went up to the top (sore, very sore from the Wall on Friday still) and were treated to a lovely panoramic view of most of Beijing. Man what a big city, it stretched out in all directions as far as we could see through the pollution (the day had actually been clear until it cooled down in the late afternoon and the smog rolled in). I recommend this park to anyone visiting Beijing, it is a lovely break from the hustle and bustle, but you are still right in the heart of things.

We walked down along the east side of the F.C., through a neighbourhood we hadn't been through before, but the restaurant we were looking for was closed for the Holidays. Tired, dazed, and sore we ended up in the alley of our youth hostel where we found a totally cool restaurant. It was split into two buildings, across the alley from each other. They are owned and run by this guy who has lived in Beijing his whole life and loves the traditional small neighbourhoods. His pictures (big handmade large format camera) of the people of these vanishing areas were all around the restaurant, as were lots of pictures of him with famous people. But what really gave the restaurant it's beauty was how small, crowded, dirty and fucking full of life it was. The staff were all wearing their big winter coats, yelling, running around, the place was filled with local families, the food and dishes were being run back and forth across the alley, people had written all over the walls and there was a 1960's era propaganda opera film playing on this large screen TV, the woman looking oh so sincere singing about a red lantern, and through all this a little terrier was just wandering around. We bought some postcards of his prints, and if I am ever back in Beijing I will be heading right for that place.

From the restaurant we had a bit of an adventure getting to the train station for the over-night to X'ian. (Our fault entirely, we thought we knew better than a local, and then had Taxi-Pirates after us.) We were in a "hard" sleeper. which meant 6 beds squished into a train cabin. Tight, and full, and hard to sleep in, but I managed. Too bad about my snoring, but the guys up on the top bunks (sweltering hot) didn't sleep much anyways. One of them kept getting phone calls. We made X'ian by 8.30 and had something to eat at a filthy little restaurant crowded with people looking for breakfast, what we didn't know was that we had walked right by the shuttle for our hostle, waiting for us. We were in trouble when we finally got there.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Near Heart Attack on The Wall

So I was up bright and early, talked to Canada, then waited for our ride to The Great Wall at Baidan. We were booked into a group trip, just us from our hostel, but there were already 3 other people in the car and we picked up 6 more from another one.

What a beautiful day for it, the sky was as clear as I have ever seen it in China (4 whole days of experience) the wind was brisk, the temperature cool, and the wall, torturously unbelievably almost impossibly hard to climb. Seriously, the wall you see with politicians and pop stars on it, is beautiful, smooth, clean and mostly flat. Where we were was straight up and down the sides of these mountains, and 3/4 of it was covered in broken tiles at best, and chunks of rubble and dead grass at worst. That said, what a rush! It was gorgeous, scenic, and peaceful. Once i realized I wasn't going to die of a heart attack (it took me almost 2 guard stations before my heart and lungs caught up with the rest of me,) I had such a lovely day. What an achievement that wall is, even the bits that were totally decrepit were still completely impressive. We had one more hill to climb when we cut out, the guide had told us to be back by 12.30, and the path was so steep and smashed up that we figured we didn't have time. Sadly (for my fragile male ego - I only made it by the heart attack stage by feeling like I had to beat the other older guys with us), 5 of the young-uns went flying by us and managed to go right to the end at the top of the next mountain. I guess them achieving that wasn't sad, but if I had known they were going to make us all 1.5 hours late leaving I would have gone on with them, I would like to have said i covered it all.

After they finally arrived back at the van we went for lunch in some weird deserted little village and they had two different kinds of Tofu and some delicious veggies. Lots of meat too, and one dish that was just tons of huge chunks of onion and some kind of smokey pork, once the pork was picked off the onions were nice. Some of the older Italian folks with us DID NOT enjoy the food, but everyone else did. One of the Italian girls who is living here tried to explain it by telling me that "once you have grown up on Italian food it is so hard to enjoy any other kind of cooking, you are spoiled" I noticed it wasn't stopping her dad, I think they were just old and crabby.

Once we got back to Beijing we drank coffee and then went and bought Morag's friend a nice Chinese cooking knife and listened to hundreds of thousands of more Fire Works. I am not exaggerating, hundreds of thousands.

Today it is Mao, Forbidden City and plenty of parks and temples, then a 12 hour overnight train ride.

On The Pain Meds

I am so sore! All I did was walk yesterday, granted for 8 hours, but it was just walking.

We set off yesterday to see Mao's Underground City. It is about 10 blocks from The Forbidden City, easy walk right? However, the Street Names on the signs, and the street names on the Lonely Planet map don't match, and the lonely planet doesn't list all the alleyways, so there was plenty of wandering around looky dorky. This is a big city, this is an empty city right now. Tiananmen Square was practically empty, or so says Morag. We finally found the alleyway we wanted by accident. We saw some old guys getting ready to let off fireworks, and thought we would watch, looked around and there was a little sign with the name we were looking for. After all that though, the Under Ground City was closed, from the looks of it, for ever. TLP mentioned that they were doing some "research" down there a couple of years ago, I guess it never ended. It was in the totally decrepit falling apart mostly rubble neighborhood. Very Kung Fu style with the narrow doorways and tiled roofing, twisty turny and half of the buildings were just crumbly heaps. Here is my conspiracy theory take on the underground city. Mao had it built in a moment of OMGness and then 35 years later some bureaucrat notices that it is right smack under some old school neighborhood, seconds from the heart of downtown and he/she says, let the houses rot and fall apart, we can raze the whole thing, and put up apartments and malls, someone else says, what about the underground city, and everybody chuckles and says research, followed by a cave in. Too bad, I would have loved to have seen it.

All over the downtown, on walls, on the ground, on busses and phone booths are posters and stickers forbidding people from having fireworks and fire crackers, seriously, once or twice a block. That said, yesterday, New Year's Eve was CRACK-A-LICIOUS. It was like a free fire zone. In the distance the constant thud of mortars, all around us the rapid-fire crack of machine gun fire. The brightly colored tracer rounds skipping along the ground, and the pall of gun powder smoke over everything. These people LOVE fire crackers. The mortar rounds were about 15cm long and about as thick as a roll of twoneys. The whole thing lifted off the ground, about 15 storeys, and BOOM down come the enemy air craft. We were walking along this huge divided avenue, busses, cabs, scooters, bikes and about 8 middle aged men letting off Mortar after Mortar and giggling and giggling. They noticed us watching and many Happy New Years were passed back and forth. I video taped                                       about 30 seconds of of a chain of fire works a poppin, and boy does it leave you sort of dazed. Dazed and stinky, everything covered by smoke.

After not finding the underground city we set about finding a Taoist temple. Looked pretty straight forward on the map, but in the 3 years since The Lonely Planet was printed someone has built a humongous highway and clover leaf type thing, and trying to navigate our way through it and find the tiny side street (which turned out to be a giant divided avenue) took about another hour and a half. We finally found a temple, but it was Buddhist. Beautiful, old, full of pagodas and different aspects of the Buddha, including one gorgeous wooden one that was 15m tall. The big Pagoda was really tall and impressive and all damaged. Still it wasn't the Daoist Temple we were looking for. So back onto the street, out of the quiet side neighborhood, onto a major thoroughfare and suddenly there was the Daoist Temple. Sadly, we had taken so long to get there that it was only half an hour from closing. Still we got to see some monks doing monkish things, lots more gigantic incense and tons of figurines of different Daoist deities. My understanding of Daoism has come from "The Tao of Pooh", so I found the whole pantheon  confusing. After that we found a nice restaurant that made us some lovely vegetarian food (if you over look the ground pork mixed in with the tofu - we didn't, but we did pick it out.)

Seven hours of walking and checking stuff out. Cool.

Training for the future

The train ride was interminable, on and on, grey pollution, farms, roads, people on scooters, some mountains, a little bit of the great wall flashing by. The best part was that it was a fast train, only taking 10 hours, we have a 40 hour train ride coming up next week. 40 hours! At least that is what the lonely planet guide books says. Morag says that we hope there is a fast train now, or maybe we don't go. I hope there is a fast train, because that is where the Pandas and the Giant Buddha are. Right now i am in the lounge of the youth hostel about 15 minutes away from Tiananmen Square. The hostel is in a warren of streets, tons of little shops, and boutiques, it reminds me a bit of Yorkville in Toronto, but not quite as rich, almost though (Well, i have done a bit more walking around since and some of it is certainly as chi chi as Yorkvill, bu then you go around a corner and it is totally run down and comfortable). Today we are planning to go to see some "underground" city that Mao had built in response to the space race or something, and then a Taoist temple for a New Years celebration. Tonight at the Youth Hostel they are having a new years party, and tomorrow we are going to see Tiannamen, or maybe the great wall depending on what they suggest at the hostel.

The Youth Hostel is deceptive. On the street it is just this little two story store front, but once you are in past the little store at the font there is a restaurant/lounge, a quiet eating room and then a block long courtyard with a pretend fountain and fake grass running down the middle. the rooms are off to the sides. there are private, semi-private or dorm rooms. We are in a semi private with a bathroom and shower. It was so cold last night, the heater was making noise, but not much heat. I woke up an hour and a half ago, and came out to Skype Nicci and Jemima, since then I have been letting Morag sleep and just sitting in the Lounge. There is "Get Him to The Greek" playing on the television (last night it was "Good Morning Vietnam"), I find that a bit depressing. I am going to wake Morag up and make her eat breakfast now. 

Onna Train!

I am on the high speed train from Suzhou to Bejing. It is super space age and quiet and floaty, and white and bullet shaped. It is very crowded, and very fast. I am getting used to the lack of personal space, and the culture of pushing in to line is livable, but the combination of the pushing and then the stubborn refusal to give up any ground is a bit much. The woman beside me right now is in my window seat. Fine, I am a good guy and she can have it, she was here first, but, she has her purse tucked in between her and the window, and it is a big purse. That means that half of her body is over on my middle seat (which should be her seat anyways). I am a big guy but right now a tiny woman is taking up one and a half seats and i am cramped. I keep trying to assert my right to the space, but she just shoves right back (in her sleep). Morag is across the aisle, in a little single window seat, completely trapped in by everyone's luggage that won't fit over-head so is piled up around her, it is like she is in a fort. 

You really get a sense of how fast we are going when you pass a train headed in the opposite direction, just a blur of white blue and red and a humming noise.

Otherwise it is just flat, suburban, semi-rural houses and vegetable gardens, hydro lines, canals and grey grey pollution. It is something out of a dystopian novel, no bright lights, just flat grey air pollution that fades into a white wall at about 1km. Little Ms. Bony Bum and I are in for a long ride.

Onna Ground

So the plane was on time, Immigration, customs and baggage retrieval worked like a charm, I followed the signs for the 'long range bus' and got a ticket without a hitch. Got on the bus and promptly fell asleep. So when I woke up and we were at a stop, and some people were getting off and some were staying on, and i was befuddled and sleep deprived and I had a bit of a panic attack. I breathed myself through it, figured that all would be well and went back to sleep. Turns out I was right, all was well, they kicked the rest of us off the bus in the centre of Suzhou. I managed to score a taxi, use the translations provided by Fang to let the taxi driver know where I was going, and she was SUPER helpful. Well, she only needed to be super helpful because she didn't really know where we were going, but she didn't give up, and eventually we found the right campus, and the guard at the gate was helpful and let her drive her taxi onto campus, and then these two international student women were helpful and used the Mandarin they had to convince the driver to do what I could not seem to convince her to do, which was drive south, and then who should come walking out of the darkness but Morag. I made it, I am in her room, I have eaten rice and greens, we have packed for tomorrow and now I am going to sleep for a while. I am one lucky fellow, people are really nice to me. Nicci and Jemima for letting me go, Joy for helping them out so that I could go, the woman beside me on the plane who answered my questions about where to find the bus at the airport, the nice guy across the aisle from me on the bus who told me to wait one more stop, the patient taxi driver and the happy gate guard, finally my super smart big girl for agreeing to put up with me. I am lucky.

Onna Plane!

So we have just passed over the coastline to Russia. I can't see any frozen Tundra below me, just clouds, and it was dark when we went over the arctic ocean. I know it is a shorter route to go up and over, but it is so counter intuitive, I have spent my life looking at two dimensional maps, I have to keep checking the onscreen display and waiting for the 3-D version to come up. The picture in my head keeps reverting to the 2-D, go west over Canada and then the Pacific model. My row mate and I are sharing an empty seat, and the little girl behind me has just announced that we are more than halfway there. I have watched twofilms and had two naps so far. My lunch was vegetarian, but for dinner they brought me chicken salad, seems they have me down as a diabetic and not a veggie.I wish I could go back to sleep, but my rear end has beaten me to it, and is hogging the bed.

Now we are half an hour outside of Shanghai, my tubeless ear is busy popping, breakfast was tofu scramble, I slept for another couple of hours and watched another movie. Mongolia/Northern China was really snowy and empty looking, now it is crowded and chilly looking. My seat mate has been wonderful, much nicer than the stewardess who wouldn't get me a pen, look me in the eye or tell me what kind of Congee it was for breakfast. I have had the map display running for the last little while, and if Morag and I manage to do everything we have planned, we are going to cover quite a lot of ground.

I am not sure if this is going to work...

I have linked into this blog through a proxy server on a free trial, so who knows, but so far it seems ok. I am going to try and post what I wrote on the plane and see if it goes up. Sadly there seems to be no way for me to link to pictures from inside here in my ipad. Oh well, if this works, i can do it from Morag's laptop when we get back to Sohzou. Which by the way i can not seem to pronounce properly.