World Clock

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The Wall!

If there's nothing else you do on your trip to China, there is one spectacle you cannot miss.

"He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man." - Mao Zedong

The Great Wall of China, or Wànli Chángchéng (literally "The long wall of 10,000 Li"; Li being a Chinese unit of distance equal to around 500 metres) was begun around 200BC during the Qin (pronounced chin) dynasty. Initially constructed separately by independent kingdoms, the individual walls were linked together under the command of Emporer Qin Shi Huang, coincidentally China's own unifier, to form an over-7,000km long barrier. The wall was built, rebuilt and repaired over a period of around two millennia (!), up until the 16th century when the then state of Mongolia was incorporated into China and repairs ceased. This part of China, north of the wall, is now known as Inner Mongolia (although it is not actually part of the Mongolia we know today).
In the early stages, during the Qin dynasty, the wall was merely comprised of compacted soil and most of these sections have since eroded away due to lack of necessity, and hence maintenance, over the subsequent centuries. When the idea of the Great Wall was revived in the 15th century by the Ming dynasty, bricks and stone were brought in for the rebirth of the wall and a much stronger and more elaborate fortification was constructed over the next 200 years; the wall we see today.
As an "impenetrable line of defence" to keep out the invading Manchurians and Mongolians (or barbarians as our guide liked to refer to them as), it never did fully serve its purpose despite being guarded by over one million soldiers at its peak, and the infamous Genghis Khan is rumoured to have said, "The strength of a wall depends on the courage of those who defend it." Apparently sentinels could be bribed. In 1644 the gates were opened by a disgruntled border general to the Manchus, who subsequently seized control of Beijing and overthrew the Ming resistance to eventually establish the Qing dynasty. A fascinating piece of history!

After some fussing about the lack of punctuality that our arranged car showed on the morning of Monday the 5th of May, we were on our way with two other awesome Aussies, Brooko and Azza, to a town called Gubeikou. Near here is a section of the Great Wall known as Jinshanling. It is a fairly undeveloped section of the wall, relatively untouched by the monster that is tourism, which makes it all the more beautiful and intriguing. From here we walked 10km atop this amazing structure amongst amazing scenery to another section known as Simatai. What an experience!

I'll let the pictures do the talking...


Sunday, 25 May 2008

Beijing - One World One Dream

Our first experience of Beijing? 4:30am standing out the front of the Beijing Train Station, no idea where we were, haggling with a number of taxi drivers to take us to our hostel. Initially the first driver told us he would take us for a 50 yuan fare, or probably about 60 yuan if he used the meter. We weren't satisfied with this and didn't have to look far for other drivers wanting our business. We were looking for 30 yuan. One driver offered 40 and when he saw we weren't happy with that, he said "OK, 20 each, let's go.." to which I replied jokingly, "We may be white but we ain't stupid!" Eventually we found our guy, 30 yuan. Turns out the hostel was only 2 blocks away and our agreed fare was about 5 times the actual metered cost - and even then it didn't get us to the hostel door, he refused to drive us the extra 200m down the road and kicked us out at the corner! Oh well.. We got there in the end, and let's face it, the taxi only cost us about $1.80 each :)
Basically our entire first 2 days in Beijing were spent in an internet cafe (as is evident by the sudden boom in blog posts during those 2 days), the first day was because we were simply exhausted and the second was because of the rain.. Oh the rain.. A massive downpour and thunderstorm, apparently the Chinese government's doing via the quite controversial method of cloud seeding to wash away the pollution. The morning of this day was cool and cloudy, pretty normal really. We ate breakfast in the outside courtyard area. Within minutes, though, the sky was black and the rain was bucketing down. That is some awesome power right there! Actually, this is not new for the Chinese government, I understand they also use this method to bring rain to the Shaanxi province, essentially stealing the neighbouring provinces rain and throwing that entire area into drought! Not cool!
Anyway, that evening, on our first official venture into the city, we met up again with Tom and Sandy, this time at their luxurious 5-star hotel. Boy was it flash! We had a drink there and for dinner headed to a popular place called QuanJude Roast Duck Restaurant - if you want real, delicious Peking duck (Peking being the local name for Beijing), get yourself to this busy 5 storey mega-restaurant! It was so lovely catching up with those guys again. On our way back we stumbled upon the beautifully lit fortified walls of the Forbidden City, so called because it was off limits for 500 years!
The following morning we got up at 6am sharp in order to miss the crowds at Tiananmen Square, the world's largest and very politically charged public square. We managed to avoid a large number of the tourists, however there were still a few large Chinese tour groups (with their matching caps) out and about.. Are they crazy, at 6am!! At the northern end of the Square sits the Gate of Heavenly Peace, built in the 15th century and hung with a massive portrait of the gentleman that stood atop it on 1st October, 1949 to declare China as the People's Republic on 1st October, 1949, Chairman Mao.
A bit of trivia: Prior to Mao's death in 1976, the currency notes displayed only pictures of commoners - a farmer, a maid, a street vendor, etc. in the true spirit of communism. Today, however, you would be hard-pressed finding such a note as they have all been replaced and now bear Mao's picture (I did happen to come across a few though.. I kept them as souvenirs).
This day Lee and I parted ways for a bit and I found myself wandering around the Lama Temple, the most renowned (and impressive) Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet which was converted to a lamasery in 1744. Within this temple is a chronicle of the lineage of the Dalai Lamas and a 17m high statue of the Maitreya Buddha, carved from a single piece of sandalwood! Wow! Following this I caught the newly completed Line 5 subway to the site of the Beijing Olympics to check out the National Stadium (aka the Bird's Nest) and the bubble-clad, environmentally conscious National Aquatics Center (nicknamed the Water Cube). Now I can say I've seen an Olympic stadium.. I haven't even seen the one in Sydney!
Next up: The Wall!


Meeting up with Tom and Sandy again for some fried duck!

The walls of the Forbidden City

Standing in formation: changing of the guards in Tiananmen Square

This guy was intent on getting that photo!

Mao and the Gate of Heavenly Peace

Lee quite excited about the guards

Our local hutong

spinning a prayer wheel at the Lama Temple

the Bird's Nest!

Saturday, 24 May 2008

more trains, hassles and Buddhas!

After our time in Vietnam and Lee's experiences in Ghana, Lee was not at all happy about catching this bus between Pingyao and Taiyuan. But we did it as it was basically the only way we could get between the two towns. And we survived! Yay! In fact, the bus driver was quite good (by South-East Asia's standards) although the roads along this 3 hour journey left a bit to be desired. Our time in Taiyuan consisted of walking for about 3km with our backpacks to the train station only to find that the ticket lines were huge.. So we walked around to a few places that were supposed to sell tickets (or course, when we enquired they had no idea what we were talking about) and then even our taxi driver got lost trying to find our last resort, the Advanced Bookings Office. Maybe half an hour later, and after asking 5 different people, the driver found the place we were looking for and we were able to get our onward tickets to Datong.. Another yay!
On the train, two cute little Chinese girls were very interested in us and so their dad eventually came up and acted as a translator between us in broken English. This ultimately aroused interest amongst the rest of the carriage and soon we were surrounded by about 15 Chinese peeking over each other in amazement that we could actually speak! It was certainly an experience talking with the few people that were daring enough to chat with us. Answers to the little girls' questions, such as "Why do you have that ring in your nose?", were a little more difficult to translate.. They seemed to also be fascinated by the fact that we knew how to use chopsticks. This was my first true experience of 'getting in with the locals' in China and it was great!
Datong itself is a massively polluted city due to an excess of fossil fuel processing plants perforating the outer city limits, and our 'floor attendant' in the hotel we stayed had a severe lack of customer service skills. Luckily, we weren't here for the city or the accommodation. The two attractions here are both outside of the city, the Hanging Monastery - an ancient Buddhist retreat built into the side of a mountain and held up precariously by huge stilts - and the Yungang Caves, the latter being definitely our highlight!
We caught a bus out to both sites, but the trip to the Hanging Monastery managed to take the limelight away from the actual site itself. For starters, the bus was supposed to take an hour each way.. It took nearly 3 hours to get there, and about the same amount of time on the way back! We made an interesting 30 minute stop to pile as many people as possible onto the bus, and when all the seats were full they pulled out small fold-out chairs for people to sit in the aisles too. After we had filled every possible space with humans, we were on our way.. for about 10 minutes until we came across a police road block. They stopped us, an officer boarded and videotaped everyone on the bus, then we were left for about 15 minutes without any further info before our driver decided to just take off. Then came the roadworks and exciting off-road experience.. Eventually we got there, jumped off the bus, took photos of the Monastery for about 5 minutes and were so tired from the bus ride that we decided to get straight back on the return bus haha. 6 hours well spent.
And then the next attraction: Begun over 1,500 years ago, the site that is the Yungang Caves holds the earliest Buddhist carvings in China. 51 caves full of carvings, some intricately painted, some in their natural state, are what's on offer here. The main caves number around 20 and within these are housed several seated and standing Buddhas and Hindu gods, some upto 17m high. The spaces around these huge figures are equally impressive, lined with thousands of miniature carvings of pagodas, dragons, phoenixes, flying angels draped in flowing silk, and the many tiny Buddhas seated in niches known as the '1,000 Buddha' motif. It really is a special place and it was lovely spending some time here exploring the grottoes from the earliest, eroded carvings to the most recent and better preserved masterpieces inside the caves.
We spent our last hours, before our final train trip in the evening to Beijing, wandering around the busy Huayansi Jie.


Everyone wants to help - asking for directions in Taiyuan..

so cute!

the bus coordinator climbing over the passengers for some reason on the way to the Hanging Monastery

we made it! the Hanging Monastery.. pretty neat

Yungang Caves - very popular!

some of those carvings are huge!

1,000 Buddhas

i love these carvings.. they are really impressive!

Thursday, 22 May 2008

a touch of the past in Pingyao

We arrived back in Xi'an from our trip to the Terracotta Warriors mid-afternoon and spent the afternoon doing not much. After a lovely dinner with John, Chris and a few of the other teachers we caught the bus back to the train station ready for our 11:30pm train onwards. It took us a long while to decide on our next destination, from before we arrived in Xi'an, and we were still debating after we got on this train. Initially we were going to visit a Buddhist mountain called Wutai Shan, but then thought the better of it because of our increasing lack of wonder with each temple that we saw. Instead, Taiyuan and Datong were next on the list. Then back to Wutai Shan and Datong. And so on.. Finally we purchased our ticket and it was to Taiyuan. Of course, on the train we changed our minds and decided to instead get off early in a small sleepy town called Pingyao, as talked up by quite a number of people we had been speaking to. What a good decision at 7am!
Pingyao is a little different to many places you will see in China. About the time when the rest of country came upon some money and began modernising, this once thriving merchant town fell into a recession in the 20th century. Because of this unfortunate turn of events, Pingyao's streets have remained unchanged ever since. But this is exactly what attracts people there. This city, located in the Shanxi province, is considered to be possibly the best-preserved ancient walled city in China as it managed to escape destruction during the many wars and conflicts over the centuries.
Two colours defined Pingyao for me: grey and red. Anywhere you look - whether it be the roofs, the fortified walls, the half-demolished (or half-constructed, depending on how you look at it) buildings, or the paved streets which are often blocked off to motorised vehicles - grey fills your field of vision. In stark contrast with this are the red lanterns swinging in the breeze, hanging from every store and building, the red flags and banners displaying the slogans of the many local restaurants (each one serving essentially the same food as the next), and the red-hued pillars and gateways dotted around the city.
No McDonald's, no Starbucks, no bullshit basically. Just people getting on with their lives (albeit mostly in small knickknack shops aimed at the tourists, especially in the tourist area). I really enjoyed our short stay here. Though there was not much to actually do as such, it was nice just to be in a place different to the relatively bustling cities that we had experienced thus far. We spent the early part of the day walking the streets, getting slightly lost again before taking a small two-person motorised bike back to our hostel. After a short siesta and a stint on the net attempting to get the blog moving, we ventured back out at nightfall to see the transformation as the streets became dark and then revitalised by the now-illuminated red lanterns.
Another early start was required the next morning, but this time to catch a bus to finish the trip to Taiyuan we had started on the train.


Putting on his shoes, sitting on Lee's bed while she sleeps

coming in from the train station

the streets of Pingyao

just observing

still don't know what this game is, but they're enjoying it!

old-style transport.. awesome!

the streets at night. a little blurry - love the night shots!

loving the red lanterns

Warriors of the Underground

The Army of Terracotta Warriors is an absolutely mind-boggling concept. Buried underground for over 2,000 years, this "army" was only uncovered 34 years when peasants working in a field drilled into one of the subterranean cavities, becoming the accidental discoverers of one of the biggest and most important finds of the 20th century.
The Army was made specifically for and under the orders of the first person to unify China, Emporer Qin Shi Huang, around 200 years BC. He was reputedly a bit of a paranoid control freak, responsible for the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of civilians to work on massive construction projects such as the Army, and burying 460 disapproving scholars alive because they criticised his fanatical decision to burn almost all written texts. All in all, not a very nice guy.. But powerful, nonetheless.
Qin Shi Huang's reasoning for the construction of the Army is still under debate, but most scholars today believe that he expected his rule to continue into the afterlife and he had the approximate 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots (all of which were made of wood and have since disappeared due to decay), 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, all life-sized, placed there to guard his tomb. And if a terracotta army wasn't enough, there are also acrobats, strongmen and musicians thrown in for entertainment too!
A very impressive and curious feature of these soldiers is that no two are alike; their facial features, their stances, even the markings on the soles of their shoes are all different, leading many to believe that each figure may have been based on a real soldier.
There are 3 pits of soldiers, the largest of which holds an impressive 6,000 figures in formation - it just has to be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, for Qin Shi Huang mostly, hardly anyone is interested in his actual (still unopened) mausoleum about 1.5km west of the warriors.
While we were here, we bumbed into some old friends.. Tom and Sandy (from our Intrepid group in Vietnam) were also visiting the Army with their new Intrepid China group. They were kind enough to let us crash their tour group for a bit.


the first pit

up close with one of the warriors

the big one.. over 6,000 figures!


no two the same

a little maintenance..

she should have just brought a camera..

Photos up!

I've also changed the format I use for putting up photos, and it's much neater for everyone involved now... Enjoy!

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

the ANZAC train and the Ancient capital

Xi'an Back in Shanghai on the evening of April the 24th, RV was kind to let us stay one last night on her couch. We all took a stroll out to the famous Bund on the riverfront and had another "last dinner" before retiring early due to our early-morning train commitment.
The next day, as you should all know, was ANZAC day. Last year I was in a place called Raglan in New Zealand, where they held a moving remembrance ceremony. This year was a little different, we had planned on holding up Aussie flags and eating ANZAC biscuits with RV but the morning was a little rushed and so we missed out on these important ceremonial proceedings. Instead, we spent the entire day and the early hours of the next (21 hours in total) squished into the approximate 50cm gap between the top bunk of a 3-tier sleeper berth and the ceiling. There wasn't even enough room to store our gear and so these bags were also crammed onto our beds. One word. Luxury. It actually wasn't all that bad, fun even, and I managed to curl up on the small bit of bed I had left to read, eat and sleep for much of it, mainly to avoid the stares of our carriagemates and passersby. Instant noodles was the meal of choice (as was chicken feet with some of the locals). They even decided, after not having had any form of entertainment for the entire day, to start blaring music out of the speakers at about 11pm, right when we were trying to get to sleep.. Why?
5:30am. We arrive at the ancient walled city of Xi'an in the Shaanxi province, one of only 3 of the original Chinese cities we had planned on visiting before embarking on this trip. It's cold, the sun has not yet risen. We're tired, hungry and about to meet our next lot of couchsurfers in a strange new place. A familiar big 'M' shines brightly and becons us into its warm, welcoming cocoon; we couldn't resist. After the inevitable and expected feeling of grossness wore off, we caught the double-decker 603 bus to the Xi'an International Studies University to meet the lovely Chris (a fellow Adelaidean - possibly the only reason why they let us stay) and her equally lovely, but slightly less Australian husband John. They took us up to their place and we freshened up.
Late morning we enjoyed some delicious local street food served up by a very smiley deaf lady and her husband before taking a stroll atop the city's walls. After some more local street cuisine for lunch we had a wander through the city's muslim quarter - the only place in the city that muslims are allowed to wear their traditional head-dress - until we got lost in a maze of forever narrowing alleyways. John's advice for this situation: keep walking in one direction until you bump into one of the walls! After we found ourselves by putting this advice to use, we also found a Tibetan temple and a little later, a Chinese-style mosque - one of the largest in China as is accentuated by its name, the Great Mosque.
Our first evening was spent back at Chris and John's house on the Uni campus, chatting over some Chinese takeaway (yes, they've even got Chinese takeaway in China!). We already had a feeling for this city that people seemed a little more friendly and laid back than in Shanghai. The fact that there are more than 50 universities here seems to be a factor here as the population is much younger and also much more inclined to try help as a way to practise their English. The staring factor was also down, probably again because of this younger, more worldly crowd.
The following day was a fairly lazy one. A late start meant that lunch at a local restaurant was basically our first outing for the day with Chris, John and a group of fellow international teachers. John persuaded me to eat a raw clove of garlic before the meal. Not recommended. After this, we made our way to the 7th century Big Goose pagoda which disappointingly does not resemble a large bird in any way.. It is the birthplace, however, of modern Buddhism in China after the authentic "undiluted" Buddhist sutras were brought back here from India and translated by the monk Xuan Zang in order to renew original Buddhist values in the country. It is these scriptures that were used also by the Japanese in the introduction of Zen Buddhism to Japan.
We visited the muslim quarter again for dinner as we had heard it is definitely worth seeing at night. It was. The colours, the foods, the overall feeling of the place - it was very lively with an almost street fair-esque feel to it. Great!


our accommodation on the train

the facilities

on the wall

I never figured out what this game was, I believe it's some form of Chinese chess..

you see this sight everywhere.. a little kid with split pants. actually they are made that way so it's easier to go to the toilet on the street - yes, on the street..

that's a lot of arms.. Buddha statue in the Tibetan temple

next religion please.. in the Great Mosque

burning candles as a Buddhist offering

wierd as street food.. rice, sugar, some sort of soy sauce paste - pretty good though!