To say the last three weeks have been interesting is an understatement. Challenging ? You bet. I was IM with one of my daughters the other night and she asked who I had met. In 3 weeks I have talked to 4 people who spoke English. The young couple from Shanghai who took me to the Great Wall, and old Brit guy I met going to see the Terracotta Warriors (he did not say much) and a gal from Poland who arrived at my hostel in Xi’an 2 hours before I was leaving. There were many surprises for me. This is not like any Communist country I have ever been too, most people appear to be well off, there are endless high end European cars etc. The amount of construction everywhere is incredible. No one speaks or reads English – No One. The famous tourist sights are well worth seeing, and inexpensive. People are warm and friendly and go out of their way to try to help. Young people are polite and always offer me their seat on the metro or bus. Budget hotels are much better than I expected. Subways are easy to use, and very inexpensive. Street food is so cheap – and fortunately I never knew what I was eating. Most dangerous thing I have ever done in my life was cross a street – any street – in China. If a policeman had not rescued me in Xi’an I might still be stranded in the middle of a busy street. Another danger was using a squat toilet with no handrail on a moving train – a high potential for disaster there!! I only got cheated once – first taxi ride in Beijing, and I never felt I was overcharged. One of the best parts was never once feeling unsafe. Guangzhou is my favorite, I was sorry to only be there two days. Such a pretty, green city – and warm – first time for sandals and short pants.
I just had to try a capsule hotel. The one I chose really could not be called a hotel. A family (grandfather, young couple, baby) just put some capsule pods into rooms in their apartment. My “room” had two sets of 4 pods. One room had 6 pods etc. When I went to check in the gal went to use her translate app, but had no idea what language I was speaking. To be fair, if I listened to her I would not know if she was speaking Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean or Vietnamese. The pods are fiberglass, and have lights, fan, and USB ports. Mattress was very thin. It cost $9 /night. My head enjoyed it, my back and knees, not so much. I went to Chendu to see the Panda Research Station, and what a thrill it was. I saw about 40 pandas from little tiny ones, some learning to crawl, some that had just learned to walk, “teenagers” and fully grown adults. The facility is huge, well maintained, and the animals seemed to be in excellent health. From there it was a fast train to Chongqing. Like the fast trains in Japan, but not quite as nice. At 300 km./hour its not easy to sightsee, but I could see the endless factories belching smog. Chongqing has 28 million people – thousands upon thousands of high rises. I am not near the metro so everywhere I go is an hour to 2 hour taxi ride – too overwhelming for me.
I took my first train trip, overnight from Beijing to Xi’an. Arriving at the station you have to find your train on the big board – it will tell you the waiting room to go to. I had booked a “soft sleeper” – the highest class of tickets. I had a bed in a room with 3 others, two sets of bunk beds. An older guy – who offered to share his whiskey with me, a young gal, and a very quiet middle age man. Each room has a thermos pot – and hot water is available at the end of each car. As soon as locals get on the train they all start to eat – and everyone makes big containers of Ramen noodles. Ride was a bit bumpy and noisy by times, but I did sleep. I came to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors and they are amazing. How they ever put the pieces together to reconstruct them is beyond me. Each one is different – and I was surprised to see they appear to be over 6 ft tall. I rode the local city bus (15 cents) to the railway station to catch a bus to where the warriors are, about an hour from the city. That bus cost $1 each way. Girls at the hostel told me to take the 103 bus, last stop is the station. I got on, lots of people with luggage – a good sign. We got to a stop, they all got off, I followed them, over an overpass, and right to a bus terminal!! Oops. Back on the bus and got it right the next time. I was able to navigate my way back to the hostel, by city bus, after dark – and am proud of it! Smog is bad here too – I have a sore throat. 16 hour train trip south tomorrow night -should be warmer in Chendu.
Its not supposed to snow in Beijing this time of year. Someone forgot to tell Mother Nature. Every day the weather man lies and says “Tomorrow will be sunny and warmer”. Never happens, so I have put on layers and layers of clothes and off to see the sights. I was feeling pretty good about mastering the subway system, but then could not find the bus to go to the Great Wall. A young couple from Shanghai could not find it either, so I did not feel so bad. They hired a local guy with a van and invited me to join them. They had their little 2 year old with them, their 6 year old niece, and both sets of parents. Parents are all from small villages so the young couple were treating them to their first “holiday”. First flights, first hotels…. Arriving in Badaling we first went for lunch, in a place with no heat, and the staff wearing parkas… real Chinese meal, with real Chinese family. The young couple spoke English so I told them how honored I was to be included. They said I was the first foreigner their parents had met – and would be a highlight of the trip. It was cold, ground covered with snow, but we climbed the Great Wall, and its not easy. Many parts are very steep – but I did it. I also visited the Forbidden City – its huge, and once you go in, you must keep going, no exit out the entrance. Tian’anmen Square is across the street and it holds a million people. It was a strange feeling to walk where so many young people died. I no longer fear getting lost, and I can go anywhere on the subway with ease. I now cough and hack like a local – I am sure if I stay I would start to spit too. Have not seen the sun, don’t think I could even if it shone, the smog is incredible here as you can see by the pictures. I went for dinner at the nice restaurant two blocks away. For all you foodies, I did not have the first thing on the menu “Pot of donkey”, or the fish heads, or the duck feet, or the pigs intestines. I did have a lovely pork and peach dish with rice and a bottle of water – for less than $6. Its always fun to see everyone when I whip out my plastic silverware. Not going to let them laugh at my attempt to use chopsticks – and wear most of my dinner. Next adventure – an overnight train trip to Xi’an.
BEIJING – AIR YOU CAN TASTE, SEE AND SMELL
If you have to fly 13 hrs and 43 minutes Cathay Pacific is the airline for you. Their service is above and beyond all the way. By the time I walked to a gate that was changed, and to the new gate in Hong Kong airport I had enough exercise to face the short flight to Beijing. Landing here it looked like it was foggy – not so, its smog! Beijing airport is huge, and unlike Japan where large numbers of people are handled with great organization and efficiency, Immigration was chaos to the max. Everyone enters a huge area, and you can see the signs for Foreigners, and Chinese Nationals – but between you and those signs are thousands of people, no lines. You simply just push and shove and inch your way in that direction. My pack is small enough to be a carry on but I always check it. Why should I carry it any farther than I have to? This was one time I was glad I did not have it with me. People with carry on luggage had to get themselves, and their luggage through the crowd, not easy – I have the bruises to prove it. The worst part of all of this is the fact that everyone is crammed as close together as can be, and the locals all cough, hack and SPIT. I was afraid to look at the back of my coat….. Finally after 1 1/2 hours I made it to the magic yellow line. You stand there until one of the Immigration officers indicates its your turn – then it takes about 30 seconds for them to stamp your passport, and tear your arrivals/departure card in half, and put the departure part back in your passport. Baggage pickup was a long walk, and a train ride away. I managed to take a bus from the airport to the main train station, then a taxi to my hotel. My room is about one half the size of “Cosy”. Double bed is length of the room, and there is a desk, then a bathroom. Its clean and the bed is comfy. To make the lights work in my room I have to insert my key card in the slot in my room. No leaving the lights on when you leave your room here. Vancouver weather – cold and raining. Here is a pic of the smog when I landed, and the beautiful Railway Station, in the rain, so the air is cleaner. Let the sightseeing begin!!