More use of the Avast key...

Well, we leave the city for real for the first time tomorrow, venture small towns and village like places for a few days. It should be about 4 million sorts of absolutely beautiful, but there's a part of me that's absolutely nervous-like-twitters about it.

My city girl stripes be showing.

Still, we leave tomorrow, bus out of town @ 7am, and don't quite know the exact details of where we'll end up. Adventure, neh? After all, if you don't do a few things every now and again that scare you, how will you know any better?



We arrived today in possibly the most beautiful place in the world, at least that I've ever seen, and from what we hear, the surrounding area is exponentially more so.
You have NO idea just how happy I am right now.
This is like some childhood dream come true or something. I mean that in a most literal fashion, as my mom used to buy these instant chinese Lo Han Kuo drinks, and each would come with a scenic photo of China. EVERY single photo was from this area. And I'm here.
Remember how I said that I hadn't had it really hit that I was in China, that it hadn't felt anymore 'real' being here than before I left. Oh, on the bus into town this morning, it definitely hit. I'm really here. It's real. I'm not dreaming.
And it's ABSOLUTELY freaking GORGEOUS.
*eeeeee* :)


Before I leave Xi'an

Xi'an has been absolutely amazing, and I can hardly begin to describe in this little box. But I will start with today, and wait til I get back to write about the rest -- I wouldn't want to waste the day, with this working internet, and my returning ability to compose reasonable English sentences.

I spoke a lot of mandarin yesterday, along with a little cantonese when need arose, in real conversation -- not mere directions or food ordering or purchasing -- and it was thoroughly wonderful and mentally exhausting. So, today, I didn't speak much at all. If you asked me to sum up my last day in Xi'an, in a minimum number of words, if you asked me "What did you do on your last day there?", I think I would respond:

"I walked."

I doubt my sandals will last much longer than just this trip -- but they were more comfortable (by leaps and bounds) than any of the more expensive varieties, so I can live with the short lifespan if it means I don't break myself. =) But seriously, I think I walk about 5-6 hours a day, so maybe three times what I would on a normal day, nevermind such activities as hiking the Great Wall. So, if my shoes last only for the duration, it won't be that much shorter than my standard shoe lifespan. Did I ever mention that I wear out shoes in crazy short time? :P

Anyway, I awoke early, and headed out for breakfast buns (one red bean paste, one mushroom) just a block or two away. Forgot my watch, but thankfully, not as dependent on it as I once was. Weaned, am I. So, don't quite know when I finally reached the city wall, about the middle of the East side, and headed up for a walk. Xi'an is one of the few cities where the city wall, around the old city, was still mostly intact, and has since been restored, so you can now walk or bike an ancient wall around a once ancient city, about 20m off the ground. In the 35C + humidity heat. The breeze was nice, thankfully. But, despite the weather making me feel like I could stick to furniture VERY easily, it's a lot of fun. I walked the wall, backwards, apparently, since EVERYONE I saw was walking or biking in the opposite direction, including the mini golf-cart style electric cars for tours and the like. The first person I ran into at about Heping Lu gate entrance, who told me it was 9:10am. Don't know how long I'd been walking, but I just kept going. Meandering along. I love walking. I think biking would have been fun too, but I'm not quite totally comfortable with biking yet, having been out bike-riding all of once (thank you Kaili! teacher extraordinaire), so my feet still serve as my preferred mode of transit (love of public transit inclusive, even).

Anyway, as you walk along, there are periodic signs near each major gate that say things like "Nan Men" (South Gate) 1050m, telling you the distance to the two gates on either side of you. These distances ranged from about 1000 m to 2600m or so. Oh, did I not mention that the old city walls form a rectangle of about 3 km by 6km? So, about 14 km around the perimeter. And I walked it. Okay, not entirely true. I walked all the way to the North Gate (about 3/4 of the way), when I decided to leave the wall to walk in the city. Mostly because the popsicle of fun I wanted to buy cost 5 yuan on the wall. And when I left it, the first corner store / stall sold a better one for 0.50 yuan. That's worse than beach prices, even, and there are fewer stairs here, though the price of admission to the wall constitutes incentive enough, I suppose. I even ran into Garrett before leaving the wall, as he was biking along, and was shocked that I'd walked nearly the whole beast. What? I said I liked walking. I could walk nearly forever, and often do, even at home, to clear my head, or just because. =) In the end, though, I wasn't quite stubborn enough to walk the whole perimeter, though, in distance, including the walking in city, I did probably much more than 14K. Unsurprising, really.

Went back to the Muslim quarter's infamous snack street for lunch, for another rou jia mo (meat in a hard bread biscuit thing -- fabulous, and cheap), and tried something sweet as well -- I think it was some dough made of rice flour (like those sticky rice balls mmm.), with a filling that looked like dates from a distance, but when I asked, the only part of her explanation I understood was "black sesame" -- gotta increase my food vocabulary in chinese, I know. I asked only if it was sweet before buying a small portion, to which she added more sesame, black sesame paste, some sweet plant material (unidentifiable), and a big scoop of honey. WAaaaaaaay too sweet, but interesting to try. Totally couldn't finish it, but was carrying it around for a bit... Then when this old woman came up asking for money, I gave the rest to her. I figured at least it wouldn't be going to waste. Plus, it made me feel a little better overall (more on this near the end of the trip -- still mulling, as I am wont to do).

Bought a donkey, which I didn't really want to carry all the rest of the way, but really wanted to have. No, no, not that kind... This one. Wandered a lot, saw a lot of interesting food, found overpriced souvenirs to not buy, and generally really enjoyed myself. Xi'an's been really good for new food -- both interesting to taste local dishes, as well as for the way things are served. Lots of takeout, like noodles, made fresh and mixed up in stalls on the street, are mixed in a bowl lined with a plastic bag, along with sauce and seasoning. Then they just pull up the plastic bag, tie it up, and hand it to you. So, you're likely to see lots of people in the neighbourhood with bags of loose, cooked food, a meal in a bag, hanging off their handlebars. It's hilarious, and awesome, considering that takeout, back home, tends to get packed then bagged. Anyway... I've more to say about food, as I've tried more interesting things here than anywhere previous, but I think it will wait til another day. Just thought I'd give you a taste of it... aHAHAHAHAH. That was an excellent quibble. Not a pun. =)


Short and Sweet from Xi'an

Just a few thoughts -- less of a tourist blog than my usual fare, but I hope you won't mind.

It's funny how I expected this trip to be a huge eye-opening experience, to show me new things about the world -- and it certainly continues to -- but it actually turned out to call out more strongly to things already a part of me.

A call to bring bits of my cultural heritage to bear. I don't know why I didn't see that coming -- I should've, really -- but between language and childhood memories and little pieces of family tradition coming into play, this trip is hitting parts of my brain in unexpectedly powerful ways. We shall see what comes of this, hm?

I don't know that I'll blog much from here on in... Not that I haven't much to say, but I've been writing a lot, by hand, of late, and somehow, it feels more right. More myself. Also, it tends to prevent me from becoming oh-so-easily distracted by unexpected things from home -- I got two emails that hit odd nerves when I got to Xi'an, and haven't shaken it off yet (never mind that it's deathly humid and gross here too... Ick. Just glad it's not the 43C it was last week. I think we'd just have collapsed at that) -- one that asked for my shoe photos to join a real-live-honest-to-goodness exhibition (ohmygoodness) and one that said, in more words, an 'I miss you' that I hadn't expected to hear.

Distractions. Off to play with the hostel's kittens instead of you folk, methinks. Avast, from a VERY old town.


Xi'an - Day 1 - Thru the coal and out the other side

Well, hotmail's decided that its servers are too busy today, so gmail is my reliable fall-back. Thought it'd be terribly slow out here, like google.com once was, but... I suppose at least it's working.
We've hit Xi'an, after a 17 hour train ride, and I absolutely love this hostel, so far. It's very quaint, all 'round, tucked away in a little nook next to the old city walls, with awesome people, free internet in the afternoons, a free dumpling night on fridays, kittens, birds, open courtyards, lovely showers, a big energetic dog, LOTS of helpful info on other hostels in China, helpful tours and maps posted all about, a blue guitar, and a surprisingly high percentage of foreigners who speak mandarin. Very cool. It has character. It's beautiful. I will take photos before I leave. But, I highly recommend it if you drop by Xi'an, ever. The Shu Yuan HI hostel. I know; you all think HI is the devil and all, but this place is super wonderful. Did I also mention that our 5th night here is free?
Anyway, after 2 and a half days in coal country (will post about the AMAZINGNESS that was Datong later, perhaps), I did my laundry today while Garrett napped off the beginnings of illness. The wash water, usually a dirty sandy shade, even in Beijing, was a deep deep grey. Unsurprising, considering the heaping piles of coal everywhere, the mines, the roads, the stations, the power plants pumping out clouds of smoke as high as you can see. It was... like nothing I'd ever seen. And yet, amidst all that, such beautiful things.... 1600 year old buddhist carvings more than 25m high... A monastery built on the side of a sheer cliff in one of the most gorgeous rocky valleys I've seen. Other treats a plenty. But more on that later, I suppose.
I think I'd rather go play some blue guitar now, or wander about the city. Give someone else a hit o' internet. =) Loving every bit of this so far. Hope you're all doing well on the other side of the earth.


Beijing - Getting from Point A to Point B - an ODE TO TRANSIT

Well, I thought that since we leave Beijing tomorrow morning, it would be a good time to wrap this city up with a little ode to the transit here. I should first mention, though, that we did finally get train tickets to Datong today (woot. Apparently, FIFTH time's the charm), so that's where we're headed for the next couple of days. Though I'm sure there's readily available internet somewhere nearby in town, I probably won't go looking for it, so you're likely not going to hear a peep out of me til we hit Xian by O/N train.

It hasn't been quite long enough here to really feel settled in, but it's been wonderful. Any longer and I think I'd want to be living here proper instead of living quasi-tourist-like in the hostel.

Oh, and before I begin, I should also add a disclaimer... This is probably going to be an almost stupidly detailed post, so if you have no interest in things like buses and transit and traffic and the like, you might just want to stop here. For those of you with keener bus-love like me, and enjoy detailed description (ie. this is for you, Lap Kei, you with your "and then the door opened, and there were two steps, and I walked in, and the door closed with a whooshing sound"), then... hoorah. It begins:


So, much of my time in Beijing has been spent as a pedestrian, and having lived in Vancouver and complained heartily about the silly non-jaywalking that goes on there (being a proper skittering sort of Ontario pedestrian myself, and not assuming that traffic will stop at unmarked non-intersections for me), Beijing has been quite the experience.

You know how I've complained about the disorderly non-queueing that exists here? Crossing the street feels a little like that. Although vehicles do follow traffic signals, that's about the only actual rule that seems to exist. That is, NO ONE has the right-of-way. So, when crossing an 8 lane street, it's up to you and a veritable sea of other pedestrians to negotiate with the right-turning AND left-turning bikes, pedicabs, taxis, and buses to cross. You see that green "walk" signal ahead of you? All that means is that orthogonal traffic is stopped. It does NOT in any way mean that there is no traffic. In fact, sometimes, it's easier to cross when it's a red/don't cross signal.

Being used to reasonably strict right-of-way rules myself, I wondered when I first got here how no one seems to die while crossing the road. Or at least why no one has yet lost any toes.... But somehow, with a large amount of honking from the motor vehicles and hearty bell-dinging from the cyclists, everyone manages to get across the road. In one piece. You just start walking until honked at (translation: "I am about to run you over if you do not halt so I can turn in front of you"), then slow down or stop briefly, and then continue to swim through traffic. It's not unusual at all to see a veritable SEA of taxis, bicycles and pedestrians just stopped in the middle of an intersection as everyone negotiates who's turn it is to pass. After two weeks here, I think I'm actually quite comfortable with it, and have found myself in the sea, alone, even, from time to time. Back home, I'd never consider crossing the street with a bus turning 6 inches away from me (you think I exaggerate? No, no. It's actually close enough that I would probably have my foot run over if I put one of my feet in front of the other.), but here, it's completely normal. Sort of a weird feeling actually, having a moving bus half a foot from your face, knowing you can't move backward because there's another bus or cab turning behind you.

The streets themselves have quite a neat design, at least the major ones do -- The middle lanes are through lanes, but then there's a small median or divider, and then the two curbside lanes are for right-turning vehicles and cyclists (cyclists being the curbside lane). There are usually, on the very large streets, underground pedestrian crossings (lit generally only at night, which is occasionally a little eerie) or bridges as well, which may also be another reason why pedestrians seem to survive against all odds. There are also traffic guys at some of these big intersections, who wave red flags and have whistles to blow. But people don't seem to pay them much attention, unless very specifically being yelled at (as in the case of the cycling woman I saw going diagonally across the 8 lane 4-way intersection), and they don't seem to be consistently stationed at given intersections, so I haven't entirely figured out their purpose in life.

The sidewalks are wide and wonderful and treed on most main streets, with a few detours where the sidewalk mysteriously ends, and the alleyways are always nifty to wander through as a detour. But, Beijing being the huge city it is, walking will really only get you so far... Which brings me to...


Currently consisting of 3 different subway lines (Y3 for line 1 and 2, which go east-west and in a big loop, respectively, and Y5 to transfer to line 13, which goes in a big loop up to the north of Beijing -- suburbs-ish), the subways are fabulous. They announce every stop, go speedily everywhere, fit tons of people, and ... well, they're subways. I love them almost inherently. The only real 'adventure' involved herein is (a) getting on or off at a transfer station is always a fight to get through a CROWD of people shoving their way in/out at the door, and (b) figuring out which exit (of 4) to get out at is sometimes more of a challenge than expected, as each exit lists major roads and landmarks, as well as a couple of bus routes found there, but as the exits aren't always at the readily predictable 4 corners of a main road, sometimes, poking your head out of the subway is super-disorienting. I've spent a reasonable amount of time after each subway ride asking the random folk around where the bus stop I'm looking for is. Because it's never RIGHT there.


Mostly single-decker (only the #5 seems to have a double-decker consistently), but of really nifty design. There are some trolleys as well, but sort-of hybrid trolleys, which run on wires where they exist, and detach and run independently everywhere else. I've yet to see one reattach itself (though I did spend a good amount of time walking up and down a particular block trying to witness this event, since I saw detached buses at one end of the street, and attached ones later on, so they must have some transition!), so I'm unsure if this is a conductor-assisted task, or if the buses can do it themselves. This would be something the Translink buses might love, considering the number of times I've been on a Van bus that's fallen off the wires during a turn, forcing the driver to exit and reattach the poor de-electrified trolley.

For most buses you get on at the front, and off at the rear, just like in Canada -- but with the expanded accordion buses (you know, like the 98 or 99 B-lines in Van or the 95 or 97 in Ottawa or whatever equivalent you choose), there are three doors, none of which is immediately next to the driver. The middle of these is where you exit, while the other two are both entry doors, and both have a corresponding conductor associated with it.

So, that's another thing about Beijing buses. Every bus has a driver, who drives as well as opens and closes the front and rear doors, as well as one or two conductors, who collect fares, call out stops (on buses that don't do it automatically, or for smaller stops in between), and mostly keep track of the passengers. The conductor has got his or her (usually a her -- I'd say 90% of the time, if not more) own little seat, as well as a small walled-off (with metal poles, like the kind you hold onto when standing, but horizontal) area that they can walk back and forth in to take fares and call out things. When the bus isn't packed (which is rare on the main routes, especially during rush hour -- if anyone complains about how packed a given 99 or something is back home, I invite them to take Beijing transit sometime.), they sometimes come out of this little cubby hole and walk to the back of the bus as well, allowing you to sit down before you pay. Fares are variable, depending on the bus, but most are Y1 or Y1.50, and some actually vary depending on how far you travel on a given bus, so you have to tell the conductor what stop you'll be getting off at.

I only actually figured out this variable fare thing because we took one bus that we had to pay Y1.50 for to the Summer Palace... But the neat thing about that was that I then learned that their bus/transit passcards must also be some sort of declining balance system, instead of an unlimited monthly pass. They have to scan their card when they get on the bus, or enter the subway station, but on variable fare buses, they also have to scan again when they exit, thus tracking how far they went, and subtracting the appropriate amount from their card.

The conductors also tend to lean out the window as the bus pulls up to stops, shouting out where the bus is going, answering questions before folk actually get on. No one actually talks to the driver. They also shout out once everyone's on, or once everyone's off at the back doors, telling the driver to close the doors and leave. It's funny hearing the differences between different people doing this, as some just shout out "men" (literally, "door" -- though with the Beijing accent, it comes out sounding somewhat more aking to "mehr"), and others say "zou le" (as in "go"). There are no bells to ring for passengers to say when they want to get off. You just sort of get up when you're near your stop, and the conductor tells the driver to stop to let you off. Or sometimes the conductor will shout (or in a normal, quiet speaking voice) about what stop is next, and ask everyone if anyone wants off... If no one answers, we drive past without stopping.

The buses, at least the single ones, are designed to fit almost entirely standing passengers, with room for about 12 seats in the back (back row, plus two rows with a double and single), and then a row of front-facing singles up the side, and then two sideways facing benches of three at the front. This leaves enormous amounts of aisle room compared to canadian transit, and the poles are well spaced for holding on. There's also a horizontal bar across the windows at about chest height, which is designed to allow one set of people to hold on very close to the seated passengers, while a second layer piles in behind and holds onto the higher ceiling bars (like those in Canada). Granted, all this design is somewhat moot in rush hour, when there are enough people in the bus that you wouldn't be able to fall over even if you wanted to. Personal space is not an option.

Because buses are so packed, conductors tend to announce the next stop immediately after leaving a given stop, to give people lots of time to get to the back doors to exit. Some buses also announce this automatically, as well as saying "move on back" and "if you don't have a card, buy your ticket", over and over again. During rush hour, the major stops also have conductor-type ground-crew at stop, that flag down buses, and wave them to leave once everyone's on board. I suppose that the conductors are otherwise occupied at the time.

Finally, the last highlight, which is a big one for me, having ranted about this in Vancouver for some time now... The bus stops are WONDERFUL. Unlike Vancouver stops, which frequently give no information other than "BUS STOP", leaving you no idea of what bus is coming, when, or where it will take you, or even unlike Ottawa stops, which occasionally list an out of date schedule in addition to route numbers.... Beijing bus stops (I mean ALL bus stops), have separate signs for every bus that stops there. The sign states the route number, the fare (and whether it varies, and what distance or stop the rate increase occurs), the first and last bus (although no frequency info... they seem to all run exceedingly often though), AND, best of all, EVERY SINGLE stop that the bus makes. There might be a few along the same road that aren't listed explicitly, but essentially, you can look at a bus sign and decide if it'll take you where you want to go. Very cool.


So, that's pretty much all I've taken. There are also SEALOADS of taxis, pedicabs (motorized three-wheeled bike-like things with a single backward facing seat on the back of it, which will fit one, or occasionally two people), bike-rickshaws, scooters (Brook, I even saw a guy in a tux scootering through the city... Not perhaps a traditional 007 mode-of-transit, but I can see it happening. ;) ), and bikes. Lots of bikes, mostly with baskets in front. Actually, I saw an excellent sight this morning -- a middle-aged man, cycling past on a yellow and pretty pink bicycle, wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt and aviators while talking on his cell-phone and smoking. Except for the smoking bit, I thought it was pretty cool. Actually, come to think of it, I think the cell-phone was a bit stupid too, but somehow, it (and the cigarette, I suppose), made the image that much more brilliant. I never thought of pink bikes and the grateful dead as much of a pair.

Anyway... that's getting around Beijing for you. =) It gives me much glee. Now off to much smaller cities than this (basically everywhere until I finally hit Shanghai at the end of the trip) -- I'll let you know how it turns out. Cheers, m'dears.



Funny, I haven't felt much like blogging of late... Except possibly when I've been on the bus to and from places, when I've been planning out all the important details that I mustn't leave out when I finally get around to discussing transit in Beijing (ooh, excitement!)... I've been writing a lot, still, but somehow, when I've sat myself down at the computer, to check up on email and look into hostels, and all that jazz...

I just find that I don't want to write. I don't know if the backlog of things to say is beginning to get to me, that it's appearing much too daunting... I dunno.

I'd like to think that it's more that I haven't been feeling especially talkative and sociable of late, and, as blogging tends towards that end of my spectrum (especially travel blogging), I don't feel much like sharing. I promise that it's not for lack of things to say.

Either way, hopefully this shall pass soon enough. For those of you keeping track, I leave Beijing on Tuesday (train tickets pending, so I suppose that's not yet entirely certain) for Datong for a couple of days (don't know if I'll bother looking for internet while I'm there), then *hopefully* managing to hitch a hard sleeper bunk on the train (17h) to Xi'an from there on Thursday night. As I've mentioned, I don't quite know the train ticketing system yet, so I don't know how lucky we'll be in getting sleeper tickets (I really really hope so), and I have a suspicion that the one train we have to take overnight has no A/C. Oh good. At least it's night, so it won't be too bad.

Unlike today, where I walked up a mountain in 37C heat with minimal shade. Largely stubborness and idiocy on my part, but still... I don't think I've ever sweated quite so much in my life. Like, you know that feeling you get in the dead humid heat of an Ottawa August? When you stick to plastic furniture, and have to peel yourself off? Imagine, instead, that you don't stick to anything, because you leave pools of sweat behind. That's more like how it felt on the bus ride back. Ick.

Anyway, tonight Garrett and I are finally going out for the ever-famous Beijing ("Peking") duck, which should be lovely. I'll let you know how it is, but we expect to spend a fair while in line to get into the restaurant, so hopefully, it'll be worth it.

PS. Transit post coming soon, I promise. Hopefully "soon" will not mean "once YY gets back to Ottawa and regains sanity and has time to spare", but we'll see about that.

PPS. I hate internet explorer. Crash. Crash. Bleah.


Beijing - Day 12 - And the willows did not weep

So, today was spent at the Summer Palace (Yi He Yuan, all 2nd tone), and I absolutely loved it. How can you go wrong with willows, lakes and gorgeous bridges to boot? I can just tell that Hangzhou's West Lake (Xi Hu) is going to absolutely take my breath away. I'm just going to want to sit there everyday...
Garrett was significantly less impressed, being more the buildings/intricate design/museum sort, but I think I've more or less had my fill of all of the above. Yes, it's gorgeous, but a building is just a building (as I may have mentioned before) after a while. Yes, I suppose you can argue the same for bridges (or lighthouses, as my previous obsession seemed to be when I visited the Maritimes), and for hillsides or other such treasures. But to each his own, I suppose. This is my paradise. Even in the 35C weather, I was perfectly happy to meander around the lake right up until they closed around 5pm. Blissfully so, in fact. Admittedly, I was absolutely hiding out in the shade of the willows for as much of the day as possible, and near the lake, the breezes were absolutely heavenly... but still... 35C is still brutal, and I definitely was dripping with sweat (you think I exaggerate, hm?) by the time I came home.
WHICH, btw, I should point out, takes about 1.5 hours, all told, with about half an hour in the subway and then another hour to get there on a bus. It was, however, my first chance to see variable fare buses in action, and so, I was pretty giddy about that. I think I shall have to write a post specifically about transit around Beijing, as I've much to ramble on about there. Eeee! Hurrah!
Other than raving about the gorgeousness of the scenery, I suppose I have few other comments about yi he yuan...
If you (ever) go, I'd personally vote for buying the cheaper (park admission only Y30) ticket, as opposed to the Y50 ticket that includes admission to a few other sights in the park
1) the gallery (Y10 if bought separately -- I wasn't too keen on it, but, as I mentioned, I'm sort of done with the generic old relics bit... Though some of the Han dynasty and earlier (ie. 200BC-ish, or early as 11th century BC) bronze work was pretty awesome. I'm just sort of done with seeing MORE pretty things from the Qing dynasty (1600-1900ish, though most of it is from the 1700s, typically), as all of it begins to look the same to me.)
2) the "garden" (aka. museum, another Y10 -- neat if you're up for another museum, but definitely worth it if you're willing to wait around a bit -- every 1/2 hour, they have a live performance on this old stage where the Empress Dowager CiXi (like, the Queen Mother, essentially, in monarchical terms) used to listen to Beijing Operas -- so I got treated to a neat concert on traditional chinese instruments (PS. SOOOOO tempted to buy a Yi Wu while I'm here, perhaps when I hit Shanghai... It'd be so much cheaper than getting it in Canada, and I've always wanted to learn. I don't really know how I'd go about learning, but... From what I hear, they're not too pricey -- one guy in the hostel picked one up for Y30 -- around $5CDN. Granted, this was off some random guy on the street, so maybe the quality is questionable, but still.... ) -- plus some dancing (which, of course, made me glad I'd learned some as a kid, and made me sort of want to go back to it (again, it being a group dance, and more performance than social, I don't really know how I'd manage it, but the thought persists) -- egads, I'm begining to actually APPRECIATE my years and eons of chinese summer school and saturday school. I didn't think it even possible.)... Enough brackets for you? (sorry... I'm a bit flighty today)
3) Suzhou Street - bleah. Y10 if bought separately, but SOOOO not worth a penny. Besides the fact that we're going to the real thing (Suzhou is a small city about an hour or so west of Shanghai... It's like China's version of Venice, canals and gorgeousness abounds), and that this imitation can't compare... Besides that, you walk around this little canal, and all they do is try to sell you stuff. But you can't walk away, since the path is only wide enough for one person to fit. So, basically, I paid money to have people hassle and solicit me with goods that I could purchase elsewhere, probably for cheaper, with wider variety. I get enough hassling from sellers on the street. I don't need to buy it. Though, admittedly, I'm starting to learn to tune much of it out. Especially with the number of ticket scalpers I pass on the way into the train station (never thought train ticket scalping was a big business, but it REALLY is.... At least 10 or 20 people at any given street corner near the station constantly saying "mai piao" or "fa piao", and trying to sell tickets).
On that note, today was our 3rd venture into the Beijing train station (which, thankfully, is just across the street from us) AND we still don't have train tickets. If I learn how the Chinese train purchasing system works, it will be no small miracle. Perhaps nearer to the end of my trip, I'll post about what I've learned. So far, it seems some tickets can be bought 5 days in advance, some only 4, some only the day before. So we keep going back to try and buy tickets in advance, but keep leaving empty handed. We almost bought today, but the VERY HELPFUL WONDERFUL ticket lady who was about to sell us tickets had her computer crash. Two reboots with no success. So, we said we'd come back. I think we're going to hold out til Monday in the hopes of getting tickets on the 11:40 am train, instead of the 3pm. It saves us from not only having to find the Beijing West train station (a city with 4 train stations!), but also gets us into Datong early, which makes me rest a little easier about finding a place to spend the night there. Since we're only booking seats, hard seats at that, it shouldn't be a problem. After all, the tickets for that train don't even seem to be available (only sleeper seats can be bought today). I'm significantly more worried about being able to book a proper sleeper from Datong to Xian once we arrive there. Funny how the more in advance I try to plan things, the more things seem to fail. The system is not designed for my degrees of planning, I suppose.
Other than my whole "I don't understand the train ticketing system" rant, which is adventure and a half in many ways, my only other real rant of the day is that I hate that this country doesn't QUEUE. I've probably mentioned it before, but you can be at the ticket window, ASKING a question, and have an arm reach around and shove money under the window. There's no concept of "I was here first", only "I can get in". It's incredibly frustrating, and I'm still far too nice about it. I've started shoving back, though. Just a little. I've learned to shout out what ticket I want while shoving money under the window, without caring what other people are doing. I'm really not a fan of it, but "when in Rome..." Besides which, if I don't shove in, I literally would NEVER get a ticket to anything. I'd never make it onto the subway at all. Grr. I didn't think I'd ever say this, but...
As a bonus, it's a really cool word. And with that, I think I will stop rambling at you and go to bed. Hoping for a sweet and dreamless sleep. =) Gnite kittens (or I suppose, good morning to most of you). It's passing by all too quickly, but seems just right.


Beijing - Day 9 - Observer and Observed

Bloody hostel and its uppity rates. *grumble grumble* It seems silly that booking online, service fee inclusive, is somehow cheaper than even the member rates here. *grumble* we could always move, but I really am a fan of the place, for all its conveniences, so here I am, in the internet bar, making a booking for a hostel I already live in, so that we can extend our stay at the same rate we've been paying already. Fools. *grumble*
In other news, today was hot and sunny, unlike the predicted thunderstorms, so I think tomorrow, we'll hit the great wall for a fun 4 hour hike of goodness. Gah. Hiking in 33C weather seems like stupidity, but at the same time, it's not getting any cooler (except yesterday, at 25C or so, which felt really cold. I wore pants. Long pants. And a long sleeved shirt. When I turn on the A/C to cool the room down a bit at the end of the day, I feel like its too cold if it's any lower than 24C. I'm going to be really cold when I get back to Canada. Oh boy.), and at least it's not thunder and lightning and other such goodness, which would be even less fun to hike in. Tomorrow's a sunscreen kind of day. Plus, it should be a little cooler outside the city, out in the hills and things.
Today was an excellent wandering day... I even managed to find a real market -- one for food, just tucked in a tented alleyway area of one of the main roads. I love markets. I love grocery stores, and markets are just a cooler version of them. Didn't really buy anything, as I have no need for raw meat or veg, and the fruit wasn't really any better than what I've found near the hostel -- plus, I wasn't in any mood to bargain, so, just wandering around the rows of veg made me happy enough. I love (food) markets.
I didn't realize until I was walking around in there how much my trips to HK with my mom when I was younger had an impact on my perceptions of the world around me. As much as I'm still very much a born-in, raised-in, Canadian kid and all, there's a lot about how I see the world that was fundamentally affected by things like going to the market near my grandmother's old house on Po On Road, by the crowded streets, the roosters crowing, the morning congee... The smell of fish... It's familiar without being really a part of my actual life.
Travel is important. Profoundly so. (PS. Thank you, Ma Zi)
I took photos of the math/physics bridge as well today, and while I was geeking out with my camera over that, a middle-aged chinese man came over to chat. The conversation was a little stilted, as always, since I had to get him to say things a different way a number of times, since I didn't oft understand what he was saying at first. I got confused about whether he knew where Canada was when he asked something about what language we spoke in Canada. But, it was pretty cool, all told, considering that he didn't speak a word of English. This was a contrast to the conversation I had with the photographer I met waiting for the ticket window to open @ the old observatory. He spoke a little English, and a little more Cantonese, and so, a little wee three language (dialect, technically, I suppose) broken conversation ensued. He had a very pretty camera. With a very very pretty telephoto lens. ... Drool..... Anyway, he offered to take a photo for me at the top of the observatory, and I think they turned out pretty well. It's always neat when the person taking your photo is a big photo geek too, since they're all at neat angles and stuff. Not your typical "pose with the famous statue" tourist shot. Very happy.
I also hit a photo contest exhibition on the way home (most gorgeous great wall photo I've ever seen -- gorgeous dark royal blues, wall in the lower 1/4 of the frame just snaking back across the scene, and AWESOMEly beautiful lightning bolts covering the rest of the frame.), and while it wasn't really the typical "defining Beijing" tourist fare, I really like photos. I think a lot of you folk would've loved it too.
I really like Beijing. I don't know necessarily that I'd be overly interested in moving here to live or anything, though I don't necessarily think I'd mind either. But it's a nifty place, and I feel surprisingly comfortable here. I've mostly gotten used to some of its quirks (toilets (there will be an ode to these later on in the blog, because there's so much to say about them), transit (packed, but oh-the-love), trepidatious crossings -- I'm sometimes suprised that I haven't been run over yet while crossing the road. No one has right-of-way here. There's just a lot of honking, some stopping mid-way through the street, and a lot of looking over your shoulder to make sure that LARGE bus doesn't run you over -- because they really will. Adventure every time. =P), and don't even notice the few things I don't like about it (spitting, smoking, smog (mostly blown away today), squatting (again, ode to toilets), soliciting LOTS of soliciting -- although sometimes that's character...)
Even the heat isn't so bad. =) It feels like I've been here forever, that so much time has passed back in Canada, even though it's only been days here. At the same time, it feels so short, as we leave Beijing in only another 5 days or so, and then do a few much shorter stops. This trip will pass by in the blink of an eye, methinks. But I suppose it's all relative; depends which one of us is observing as to which one of us is moving. =) I know. Profound. Deeply Profound.
Don't forget to double your muffinage, kids.


Beijing - Day 7 - Functionally illiterate

I'd never really had any concept of what that meant. Functionally illiterate. But how can one be functional if you can't read, I thought, what with all these words and signs and papers around us?

Well, I'm finding out. And it's not nearly as hard as I suspected. My spoken mandarin may be broken, but my written mandarin is far worse. I'm getting far better at menus these days, and signs, but really not much else. Even sometimes, I know what the words are, what they mean, but can't figure out how to say them, and try to go with some butchered cantonese -- which usually seems to work. That, and some degree of pointing.

The question "what is that?" or "what's in that dish?" has been my friend, oh yes it has... I don't always understand the answers, but I can usually pick out enough words to decide if I want to eat a particular dish.

On that note, I've found my new absolute favourite eatery in Beijing. It's right across the street, and while it has the appearance of a fast food joint, it has all (well, almost all) my chinese comfort foods. It's got congee, it's got those sticky rice lotus leaf things, it's got soymilk (mmm), it's got bbq pork buns, other buns, and lots of simple dinners of rice/noodles and stuff. It's called Fieldhome (I can only read the first character of three, which does, indeed, translate as field... the rest, I can't tell. Like I said, functionally illiterate). It's not really special in any grand way, but it's great low-risk easy breakfast/brunch or late dinner after a long day. AND IT'S NON-SMOKING!!!!! This is most unheard of in China, and makes me so happy I could cry. Except not really. Since my eyes water enough with the smoke. Anyway, it's great Anytime that easy is preferable to new (not that I'm squeamish when it comes to food. More cautious. I've had food poisoning enough times from things that ought to have been easy peasy and safe in Canada, that I daren't risk things like scorpions or starfish, though both look quite exciting. But that's something I'll talk about another day... As it was a while ago... Back on track...). Plus, I've never been a big fan of eating out lots (unless eating out means picnic, for I am a large picnic girl) -- not just for price, mind, since it's super cheap to eat out here... More... I just get sick of it really quickly. I'm a big fan of plain food, ordinary food, simple food. With highlights of other fun things every now and then.

Picnic skills, however, came in handy today, as Garrett and I spent the day @ the Palace Museum (more commonly known in English as the Forbidden City), and, as my mom (who, PS, is the coolest person ever) warned me, the best you're going to do for food there is ice cream and instant noodles. Lots of instant noodles. But I'd brought lunch. So, no need to eat either yellow salt flavour or brown salt flavoured noodles. Though Garrett did say they weren't too bad. The rehydrated vegetables were not nearly so unimpressive as one might expect.

The day itself... well.... I walked around that place for... a good 5.5 h, and I didn't even see everything. Garrett stuck it out and chipped in the extra Y10-20 to go in the extra section(s), and so stayed about another 2.5 h after I left to pick up some plane tickets (from a lovely travel agent who wishes she could travel to Xian with us -- her hometown, which she very much misses. I love being able to semi-communicate in mandarin. It makes me happy. As did booking these tickets. Being able to sort out this, with the only English words having been used in the 3 times I've gone to pester her about times and prices and available flights being "passport" and "email" -- I'm pretty damn proud of that, actually. I still have to go back and ask her one more thing or two, but... I dunno. Something about that exchange today - tickets, conversation, and all - made me infinitely happy inside, so much so that I was nearly torn between glee and a tear or two as I walked down the street to my hostel. Right.).

I have very few things to say about it, and fairly few pictures (though, Karim, m'dear, I may actually give you a run for your money... I didn't think it was possible. I've taken nearly 400 photos in 7 days, and I haven't even hit the gorgeous scenery that I've been waiting my whole life to see. Admittedly, some of these will get deleted as soon as I put them on a computer and figure out which of the 3 shots is actually properly exposed, and has just the right DoF that I want -- I've been doing some serious exposure bracketing, since I don't trust me not to underexpose, and I've had a lot of weird lighting, and a LOT of backlighting. Blah blah blah *geeking out about camera*), but that's mostly because nothing I could possibly say, nor any photo I could possibly take, no matter how postcard perfect I might be able to get it (difficult to get postcard perfect photos because of (1) smog today, (2) construction aka. restoration work on portions of the palace, and (3), most importantly, TOURIST HORDES. It takes almost infinite patience to acquire people-free photos, and sometimes is legitmately impossible to do. Especially once the tour groups really pack in. Oh chinese tour groups, with your crazy matching hats and vests. If I join one of these things, where we all match like sheep, or more like lemmings, bright red vested lemmings, you have my formal permission to have me committed.), nothing I can do can possibly convey what this place is like.

The sheer scale cannot fit in a paragraph. Cannot be squashed into a photograph. Now I really know what the word palace means. It was imposing and gorgeous... and IMPOSING in its grandeur, but more so in sheer size. Its bigosity, as Jon Lam might put it. It makes you feel very ant next to giant ant hill, except that the ant hill is incredibly ornate, hundreds of years old (at least -- even the most recent stuff is Qing dynasty, which is mid-1600s), and filled with museum exhibitions. AND IS HUGE. Did I mention I walked around for 6 hours? And that wasn't covering all that was open to the public, not to mention the HUGE sections that aren't public access?

Emperor = Excess. Enough said. I feel very... grain of sand by the sea. And I'm happy.


** Beijing - Day 5 - I was Not lost; I'd just intentionally misplaced myself.

I have a strong urge to update about the previous two days, as they were most eventful, but I have a limited attention span, enough to write about from just today, and most importantly, would think it silly to spend that much money on the internet. Yes, it is dirt cheap and all, but... Really.

I write long enough posts as is. However, I may end up covering some of that content anyway, what with my continuation of an ODE TO PUBLIC TRANSIT (oh, glee...)

Anyway, this morning, as Garrett was taking some time to sleep in and get over a little jetlag, I figured I'd head out and check out the old drum tower which he'd been less than keen on seeing. However, first things first, I paid up for another 5 days at my lovely little hostel, and changed rooms (I now face the back of the post office -- not only is it much much much quieter (someone this morning on the main road decided that mere honking was insufficient, and held down their horn for what felt like HOURS... you try and sleep through that dears.), but also, I think it's SUPER COOL, as I get to see mail getting loaded and stuff. Now, this may not seem so nifty to you, perhaps, but I think it's really cool. Especially because it looks so different from what I've seen in Canada. Everything's in bales. Wrapped up in the same sort of stuff rice and whatnot gets transit in. And there are green uber postal trucks. UBER POSTAL TRUCKS. Actually, incidentally, I think I may have seen mail getting delivered today, which is neat. I don't exactly live in a residential area, so I had no idea what the chinese postal service delivery folk dressed like on the job (except at the post office itself). And while I'm not entirely certain that this was a mailman (I didn't exactly want to interrupt his work to ask), he was definitely riding a bike, delivering a letter. This was made somewhat difficult as this was in old Beijing, and the door he was delivering to seemed to have no mailbox, and so he was making an effort to shove it over the door. Anyway...moving on).

I even managed to get bottom bunk in my new room, though by the time I came home, it appeared someone else was trying to move in and claim it. Bunk wars? Perhaps. We'll see. =)

Anyway... To get to the drum tower, I hopped the subway out around the ring (PS. DEEP DEEP LOVE OF THE SUBWAY). I thought my day was off to a rough start when I forgot my change, and had to be called back to the ticket window (slightly embarrassing, especially given the horde at the ticket window at the time -- and yes, I do mean HORDE. Ain't no such thing as a queue. You can be standing in front of the window, with your money out in front of you to give to the ticket lady (and I say ticket lady mostly because all the ticket takers and ticket sellers and conductors all seem to be women in this city... absolutely every one I've seen so far), and someone will manage to cut in front of you. Easily. In fact, I think I had 4 people cut in front of me before I finally just shoved money under the window like everyone else. Silly non-queuing.

The subway was reasonably full for 8:30am, and reminded me yet again of just how many people there are here... I mean, it feels like there's never a moment where you won't see other people around in the street. It feels like that would be so improbable as to be near impossible. But the little map on the wall lit up which stop we were at, so even when I couldn't always here the announcements of the next stop, I still had my bases covered for getting off right. I did see the neatest subway ad though, on my way out. It was actually a lit ad on the subway tunnel wall, which covered a fair distance of tube with frame by frame photos. So, like a flip book, as the subway sped past, the pictures animated. The only difference was that you could always see 3 or 4 frames at a given time, so it was like having 3 slightly offset flipbooks sitting all in a row for you to see. Very cool.

Anyway, I got off the subway having absolutely NO idea where I was, but it was a major intersection, so I asked the nice policeman for directions. Did I mention that it feels like it's hard to get lost in Beijing, simply because there are so many people -- official people -- everywhere for you to ask directions. Best of all, even local folk seem to do it, so I don't feel so bad being the crazy foreign tourist interrupting their work to ask directions.

I wandered along, said no to a few pedicab rides, and found myself in old Beijing. Coolest thing ever. I think in the tour books, they call it the HuTong (alley) district, but all it really is is some really really old buildings. It's postcard old-school Beijing. I love it. I have so many photos now of these old gorgeous villa-esque alleys and houses and complexes on the background of modern Beijing skyscrapers and commercial buildings. I love how the two seem to coexist. You turn a corner off a major street, all commercial, with four lanes of traffic, and, oh, there you have it, there's a imposing giant wall/arrow tower/really really old building, just cropping out of the ground in front of you. You'd think it would seem almost out of place, but it never does. It fits well, in fact. Blows you away, but fits.

I paid my admission to the drum tower (they let me get my student discount this time -- it really varies where will let you get away with that, and where will make sure you're a chinese student only), and walked up the steepest flight of stairs I've seen in a long time (steeper yet, I think, that those at the Granville skytrain station, which are something else too). Sidenote - next time you decide to build a steep staircase, DON'T BUILD IT OUT OF MARBLE. I definitely had a death grip on the railing, as I felt like I was going to slip off the worn marble stairs, especially those with a little incline toward the floor... Give me a push, why don't you... And then, oh, the view. You can see all of old Beijing, but also, the drum tower is straight north of the Palace (the Forbidden City), and so, at the very very far end of a long long street, you see this gorgeous building, this palace, cropping up above everything else around it. Really cool.

I arrived just in time for the drum ceremony thing, and so got to see that (absolutely worth the price of admission). Huge drums. Awesome. Wonderful. Happiness.

Crossed from the drum tower to the bell tower, where the courtyard between the two is filled with only two things. Parked tour buses and brightly coloured rickshaws. The first two drivers were nice enough, and left me alone after only two refusals. Then, when I was reading the bell tower sign (deciding if I wanted to pay more admission -- glad I did, you'll see why), another guy came over, with his little pamphlet, and just wouldn't take no for an answer. "But I'll give you the student discount... Only Y80 instead of 180! Look at all the things you'll see. Blah Blah Blah" I say no, again and again, and then go to the bell tower. He says that he'll wait til I come back to take me on the tour. I think nothing of it, but when I came back down, he was totally still there, waiting for me. Took another 5 minutes to finally leave ("Look, you don't even have to pay me til we get back! Look! Blah blah".

Not that I begrudge them their making money, and I'm sure they do actually do a nice tour of some really cool things. But I *like* walking. In fact, I love walking. I'd miss that way too much.

Anyway, the bell tower itself was less exciting (no drumming to see), and loaded with English speaking tourists (LOADED). BUT... (1) they had binoculars to see the city with (very cool), and (2) they had a guy dressed up for the tourists selling chinese papercuts. No, not the "ow, I've hurt myself, stupid paper..." kind, but the art-kind, and the kind I've been obsessed with since my mom brought home that book with them when I was little. I was just asking the price of the pig (which, I bought -- first souvenir purchase of trip, but TOTALLY worth it), and then, as his daughter showed off some of the other designs (he had this AMAZING full banner-length one of a street scene in old Beijing. Gorgeous), he offered to teach me. So, I learned to cut out butterflies. Very cool. We chatted (me with my broken mandarin, with occasional translation assist from his kids, who spoke reasonably good english - he had a few phrases that he knew, all of which were written out in a little book he kept, using chinese characters to transliterate the sounds. Coolest thing ever. I'd never really thought about transliteration in that direction before, but it makes perfect sense), and he told me about how he learned how to do paper cuts when he was 15 or 16, from his mom, and had been doing it ever since. He was just super happy to be teaching someone, and kept pointing out things like, how I should hold the scissors, or how the scissors are designed with one blade shorter than the other, etc. etc. He was just so happy. Very cool, altogether, and I loved that, although he was really in the tourist souvenir business too, he was good-hearted about it. Not a "selling is all that matters" attitude at all. Really friendly, and when I left, he was teaching a young English speaking girl to cut something too. Very cool.

Made admission to the tower worthwhile, in every which way.

Anyway... After the towers, I lunched at a little noodle place (I picked sort of randomly off the menu, and wasn't disappointed. It had stuff in it I recognized from soups my mom used to cook, and that made me altogether rather happy), and then went meandering. Made use of a public washroom (how very exciting, though I'm sure no one but my mom and I will concur), and remarked that they crop up in Beijing VERY frequently. Like, one every half a block, often, compared to virtually zero in Canada (where you have to go and use the bathroom at Timmy Ho's instead). I think this is cool.

And wandered. A lot. And then, I turned a corner, saw a big giant wall/defense tower (turned out to be a coin museum, actually), and decided that I had no idea where I was. I did, incidentally, figure out how to get to the great wall at Badaling by public transit, if we should choose to go to that section (likely no, as it is super touristy, and less fun hiking/scenery. Difficult to get a photo without thousands of people in the frame), as I happened across the bus stop. But it took me a good while to reorient myself. I did, and without having to ask or anything, and found the nearest subway to take me home and all. But, in technical terms, I got a bit lost.

Good lost, but still technically lost. =) However, I got a bonus garden/temple (which appeared a bit lovers lane ish, unexpectedly) and that big old building in the middle of a highway interchange. So, I'd say I won.

So, the final vote: "I was not lost; I'd just intentionally misplaced myself."

PS. Oh, and in case you were curious, the drum and bell towers told time, back in the day. The timekeeping things they had on display were also very cool.


I type too much

And when I lose it to the vast hole that is the internet... there is no going back. Grr.

I had a VERY long post. An ode to public transit. And it is gone.

And I am SO too tired to retype it. So sorry.

The internet ate my message.

* Beijing - Day 4 - More Taken by the Living than the Dead

Today we decided it was finally time to hit one of Beijing's bigger, more significant attractions, and headed out to TianTan(天坛), the Temple of Heaven. There's a great deal of historical signigficance to the place, most of which I'll leave you to suss out on your own, but it was the largest of the temples at which the Emperor would pray to the gods, and so, was appropriately ornate.

And by ornate, I mean, gorgeous - especially as the largest temple building had just been restored the previous year to its former sparkling glory. There's a lot to be said for restoration work, and I appreciate its value, but, nonetheless, it's rather annoying when two-thirds of the famous temple you came to see are closed due to it - I certainly received a large number of shocked looks from my mom upon my return to Canada with the words "oh, no, I didn't get to see that either, it was under construction".

The construction meant that after the main temple, a gorgeous sacrifical stage-thing (altar, I suppose, to be proper about it), and its associated historical/museum counterparts, we were left only with minor exhibits to check out (animal-killing pavillion, anyone?) - though I shouldn't complain, since it meant we had time to wander through the musical instrument museum while it rained.

More importantly, while the temple is gorgeous as anything - you'll notice I haven't many things to say about it. That's mostly because, though it's one of the most gorgeous buildings I've ever seen... when it comes down to is that a building is a building is a building. HOWEVER, everything else about the place completely took me in in a way that it seems only China can. For one, it was my first time on public transit here, and, thus, the bus-love (which I'll talk about again later) began. More importantly, though Tiantan (天坛) is a major tourist attraction, it's also located in the middle of a large and well-maintained "public" park.

Now, public parks in China are rather different than they are in Canada - for one, in Beijing, many of the larger parks charge admission, which, in turn, pays for maintenance and landscaping work therein. Admittedly, I'm not such a fan of the idea, since I figure that parks ought to be free... but... I will say that the amount of maintenance that goes into these places might merit it. Unlike the usual grassy playgrounds or wooded spaces we're used to in Canada, "park" in China defines an extremely well-manicured green space, with paths, pavillions, and neatly placed rows of trees and flowers or shrubbery. More of a "Keep off the grass" space than the places I used to run around in as a kid, or lay in the sun as an adult.

Be that as it may, though, parks in China also have more LIFE in them than almost any I've seen in Canada, and the median age of the people in it is substantially higher. While neighbourhood parks in Canada are often akin to children's playgrounds, their Chinese cousins are the centre of Chinese adult exercise and life. There are groups line-dancing in the courtyard, tap dancing, doing tai chi, singing en masse, playing games (from the chinese version of hacky-sack to diabolo-esque trick juggling and racquet sports - the most entertaining of which is certainly one we saw again in Beihai Park, often played by older folks, consisting of balancing, spinning, tossing and catching a small ball in a slightly curved racquet - Garrett wasn't all that impressed by the two people we saw tossing and catching a ball back and forth until he realized that neither the ball nor paddle were velcro, and that the only thing keeping the ball on the paddle was its carefully manipulated angular momentum), etc. There were even small Chinese string quartets (by which I mean classical chinese instruments, not european) and wind ensembles playing in the pavillions, surrounded by strangers, each engaged in their own social activities.

Every park we went to (Beihai, Summer Palace, Fragrant Hills) had hundreds (I don't even exaggerate) of people, non-tourists, who were spending their time practicing, playing, and exercising in public. The amount of activity in these places astounds me, even now, and I love it to pieces, even more than the actual attraction, the piece of history, that we were there to see.

The funniest part though is that the reason that you'd never see this sort of thing happen in Canada - above and beyond the simple reduced number of people in a given area - is that I can't imagine people in North America being unselfconscious enough to be exercising in public in that way. Sure, people go for a run, or go to the gym, or play sports, just the same. But, all across China, there are pieces of exercise equipment outside, and everyone ACTUALLY uses them, whereas, back home, people complain that their gym doesn't have frosted glass windows. The idea of being self-conscious just doesn't come up when you do tai chi or line dance in a group of people in between the trees in a busy public park. It takes some getting used to, I'll admit it (my only experience was learning some tai chi in Xi'an, and I'll come back to that), and there are some things even I think I'd feel a little awkward doing. There are people you walk past who are just standing around smacking a tree, or walking along a busy path, doing high kicks every few steps. It is simply not POSSIBLE not to look completely silly while doing it. At the same time, I think everyone in those parks was 40-60 years old and probably twice as fit as I am. That feels pretty silly too. :)

I'm not saying we should be building these things, or having groups sings in the park (though, if you do, call me - I'm totally up for a little group sing in public), but... there's something inherently lively about them, and I loved it.


* Beijing - Day 3 - uneventfully surreal

After waking at 5:30AM, I thought that today would be another day to take it easy. I'm tired, and it's terribly hot, so I started an early morning by heading down to see the Mao mausoleum and Tiananmen square -- I can't say that I share Alison's fascination with dead communist dictators (though communist statues are pretty awesome), but, the experience seemed like it would be unlike absolutely any other, and it was free (unlike everything else in the country, it seemed) so it seemed an ideal way to spend my early morning time.

I'd already heard from roommates etc. that you weren't allowed to bring bags etc. in with you to see Mao, and not trusting their bag check (and not wanting to line up twice), I went first thing after breakfast, and took nothing with me, not even my camera (I feel so naked without it). More significantly, Sabine had been prevented from entering the other day because she was wearing flipflops, and I wasn't keen on heading over only to be turned away, so I borrowed A's hiking boots (egads, that was really brutal in the 30C weather), which it turned out wasn't even necessary. The distinction between flipflops and sandals seems somewhat unclear in my head, though my mom says that it's well-ingrained in chinese tradition. "Slippers" (like, flip-flops, or anything that flips or flops, heh) just wouldn't be respectful enough. Anyway, I finally arrived at the mausoleum, recognizable not by any sign or statue outside it, but rather by the extensive queue of chinese tourists, lined up to pay their respects to the embalmed deadman.

Yes, you heard right. I said QUEUE.

Shocking. Chinese people actually forming a reasonable queue, 4 by 4... largely enforced by guard types standing around with megaphones, and the autorepeat annnouncement telling us the rules (line up 4 by 4, no bags, etc. etc. Which, ps., I was esctatic to be able to understand most of in my early broken mandarin!). Still, I've definitely seen the Chinese manage to NOT queue when the queue was enforced by narrow metal aisles, so the queue itself was impressive enough to make the event worthwhile.

Before entering, a fair number of people were buying roses (Y3) to lay at the large stone statue of Mao seated in the main hall of the mausoleum. Needless to say, I didn't buy a rose. Not that I don't think the man was an important (pivotal) character in Chinese history (I don't think it wrong to say that there wouldn't have been China, really, without him -- more on this when I get to writing about Shanghai... And not to say that he didn't do things wrong too, but still... pivotal). But... I'm not into hero worship. Nor martyrdom. Nor roses, for that matter.

We continued in line throught the main hall (roses, statue), where the line was split in two halves and herded around on either side of Mao's body in a well-lit glass case - which, btw, looks really fluorescent and waxy and eerie. I do, indeed, mean HERDED, quite literally. No slowing down, no turning, no stepping out of line, no talking, no anything but herding, in a respectful and dignified fashion past the body. Granted, I don't know about dignity, given that I've heard that Mao asked to be cremated -- oh politics, how you don't *really* change, no matter the affiliation you might give yourself.

Heh. Funny. I'd forgotten that this whole scenario was familiar; apparently, rules and the like for visiting Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam are equally strict - so Karim tells me, having caused a bit of an incident when he visited the place, being not so readily herded. ;)

Regardless, the herding is well-enforced until you're spat out the back of the building, where they release you back into the wilds to fend for yourself -- against about 12 or so tourist stalls selling every kind of Mao merchandise imaginable, including watches with a mechanical waving Mao in the face.

Yeah, as I said before, the idea of "dignity" or "respect" is... apparently a fluid political concept. The whole experience was rather surreal, but absolutely worthwhile, mostly for that very fact. It definitely triggers my "Seriously?" response, but in a good way.

Wandering back out into the square, the sales don't stop for even a second -- Tian'anmen merchandise consists mostly of kites (actually pretty cool), sunhats, and the instant photos with a monument of your choice -- popular at every tourist destination I visited in the country, except those truly in the boonies.

But, you know, I love that square. Talking to Garrett about it, we found we were at an impasse - he saw so much of the history, the bad parts version (not the 'good parts' version), that the place held nothing good. Until I hit Shanghai, nothing, no place or item, struck me with that kind of sadness. Inherent biases, which we both admittedly have, come into play too, but... beyond that... the fact that the square is
fabulous now I won't let be overshadowed by its past. It is a place, and, my love of open plazas, of bustling people, of kite-flying, all of that takes precedent in the now. So it goes.

PS. I also got suckered into going to this 'student art exhibition' (aka. buy our expensive paintings you silly tourists), and G was with me at the time, and I felt sorry for dragging him into it. But, really, it worked out okay. We didn't get scammed into buying anything, and I got to practice my mandarin with someone who could actually speak enough English to translate when I didn't understand words - so, I still win. But, I mention it because it crops up a couple of other times in my narrative later on, especially by the time I hit Shanghai (the WORST city for scams and the like), so it's worth mentioning that I enjoyed that first experience with it. Obviously not for the reasons they intended, but that's their problem, not mine. :) It was only later experiences that made me cynical about it, really.


** Beijing - Day 2 - Two sides to any story

Funny. I didn't realize until today, or at least didn't fully comprehend the extent, how different an experience Garrett & I will have in China, even if we travel this entire trip together. For one, having been to HK (though it's been a while) as a relative (instead of as a lone tourist sort), some things here in Beijing are... well, not old-hat, per se, but at least familiar. Ordinary, even. I, in fact, own a U2 brand shirt (the purple one, from back in the day, pressed and starched into oblivion, though I still love it), and so the storefront is hardly surprising or photo worthy. (I should note, of the photos taken today, minimum three were of storefronts of big brand-ish stores -- but for very particular reasons). So, (1) HK influence.

For two, though my mandarin is poor, it exists in some broken and wonderful fashion, and I think is getting better too. I'm beginning to fully appreciate what Christopher said once about how much of the culture you miss when you can't speak/understand the language in question. There are already tons of things that I miss because I can't read the unilingual historically informative plaques (sad, but true. I'm nearly totally illiterate. More broken than my speech, it is). But at least I catch bits, and can sometimes get a lot just by asking.

There are a number of examples of this one from today... For instance, Garrett and I wandered past a gorgeously constructed building having chinese-style architecture. While I couldn't read the sign to figure out what it was, I was curious enough that I popped into the little entrance hut-thing, and asked there. Qing wen, zher shi shenme di fang? Shi yi yuan, the man responded. He then proceeded to ask me what place I was looking for, and I had difficultly explaining that I was just curious what the building was, and that I really wasn't lost or anything. I mostly just spat out some broken mandarin, a thank you, nodded and smiled at them and walked out. But MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. That gorgeous building, which you'd think was historically relevant or something, was a hospital. A teaching hospital, too, although that I discovered later on, when looking at signs on the other side. I'm pretty pleased that I asked. Pleased as punch, one might even say.

In addition, tonight, when I was reheating my leftovers from last night for dinner (rice and dumplings, though the dumplings were nothing compared to those at lunch -- went to a little restaurant that specialized in almost nothing but dumplings. Mmm) in the microwave in the hostel's kitchen, there was a chinese guy cooking dinner at the same time, humming to himself. He then motioned me over and pointed at his wok, currently filled with chicken wings and potatoes in some brown sauce. He didn't really say anything, assuming, as most do, that I wouldn't understand (look at the crazy foreign girl try to work the microwave). But I asked, in mandarin, what it was (didn't really catch what he said it was seasoned with, but caught chicken and potatoes), asked if it was spicy, and then said, sure, I'd love to try some. He asked if I could (would?) eat chicken, and when I said yes, he got me to take out my tupperware full of rice, and put a heaping scoop of potatoes, wings and sauce on my dinner. Wow. Thank you, I say. It's tasty, I say.

So, he keeps cooking and singing to himself, and I sit down to eat at one of the kitchen tables. When he's done cooking, his two friends (a guy and girl) come to join in the food (carrots w broccoli, and another dish -- a spicy cold cucumber-ish type thing. Krista/Maureen/Dee would be proud. I tried it even though he warned me it was spicy. I figured it wasn't often I was going to get to try a home-cooked chinese meal.) They invite me over to sit and eat with them, totally sharing everything they've got, and I get introduced by the cooking-guy as "a new friend", which made me laugh. Much of the meal was them chatting, and me trying to follow the conversation (mostly unsuccessfully... they spoke rather quickly). But bits and pieces of it included me too, and I explained why I like eating chinese food, and that my mandarin isn't very good, and that I'm from Canada, and yes, I have to get a stamp in my passport to come to China for vacation. I understood almost every question they asked me, and knew enough to answer, albeit brokenly. Even stuff I didn't understand, I could get if they explained it a little in mandarin. No English required. Except the word "passport" which I couldn't remember, and is difficult to explain. I'd also written my name in chinese on my food (as it was in the communal fridge), and they asked about that too. Said it was nice (they said you picked a good name, Ma zi).

So we ate, laughed, and ate more. It was good, I'd say, and not really an experience I'd expected to have. Definitely the highlight of my day, though. Even the food and craziness of wangfujing (today's tourist highlight) couldn't compare to that. Plus, funny story, the guy who was cooking reminded me of Christopher, as least in as much as (1) he ate as fast as humanly possible, without breaking limits of courtesy, (2) talked very fast and animatedly, with hardly pause for breath, and (3) would sing like Chris dances, almost unstoppably.

I think I'm becoming the hostel's resident foreigner who hangs out with the staff or something. In fact, one of the guys I was playing guitar with yesterday (who works at the hostel, and seems to speak more English than the dinner folk tonight) stopped in to say hi to the people I was eating dinner with, and waved to me too. I should really start learning names though. I dunno. I'm still feeling moderately unsociable, but somehow, hanging out in a language not my own is worth it in all possible ways. Plus, since I can't say much anyway, it doesn't seem so odd that I'm comfortable being quiet. Bonus, sweethearts. Absolute bonus.

An excellent slogan

The motto of the chinese postal service (as they translate it):

Post is profession. Post bureau is home. Mail is life. On-time delivery is gold.

I love it.

PS. For those of you who've asked, No, the underlined words aren't links. They eventually will be, once I'm home, and have the ability to upload my buttloads of photos at my leisure. Buttloads. About 70 so far, and I haven't even REALLY gone anywhere of note. Let alone into the scenic destinations I want to go to so desperately. Anyway, the point of the underlining is mostly to remind me that there are photos or other links that I'd like to eventually point to, once I'm back in Canada and do a good hearty upload / revision / insert missing posts.


** Beijing - Day 1 (and some) - I touched history. Whoa.

So, here I am. In China. For real.

Somehow, I expected there to be some moment upon arriving when I'd feel like I'd really arrived. When it would finally hit me that, Wow, I'm really here. I'm in China. I'm travelling. I'm speaking broken mandarin in conversation with the girl working at the bakeshop (probably one of the highlights of my day, but back to that later).

But somehow, I expected there to be some feeling of ... shock. There is, I suppose, in a fashion. It's really different. And there's a lot that I miss, because my chinese just isn't quite good enough. It's not like anything I've ever done before. It's a little scary. All that is still true. But it didn't get any more REAL when I stepped off the plane.

Philosophical Moment Warning: I think, perhaps, this is furthering some notion in my head that anything's possible. I don't mean "anything", of course, as my relationship with physics is still on good terms. But merely I'm settling into the realization that this is, in fact, as real as it gets. And not only is that "good enough", but it's already mind-bogglingly more than enough. What more could I ask...?

Anyway... philosophical thoughts aside... The hostel I'm staying at is right across the street from the main Beijing train station, which is very convenient (and walking-distance close to things like TianAnMen square, and other major Beijing attractions of note), but my window has the misfortune of, in fact, facing the train station, and thus, I awake to not only the usual traffic noise (honk, vroom, honk honk, HOOONNNNK, vroom), but also to a pleasant but VERY LOUD female voice announcing the various departing (or arriving?) trains. I can't really make out what she's saying, other than a variety of place names, but I think that's good enough. Still, the place is nice, and very convenient, and reasonably priced for Beijing @ some 40 yuan a night, so I quite like it. Realistically, the honking is just as loud as the train announcer anyway, and less regular, so harder to ignore.
This morning, however, I awoke instead at 3am, when my lovely roommate on the bunk below me decided she needed to pack before leaving at around 6am.

ANNOUNCEMENT: The top bunk can BITE ME.

Everytime this girl shoved stuff in her pack, the whole bed shook. By the time I was awake enough to figure this out though, and then got up to go to the bathroom, she'd finished packing, so I just ignored it and went to bed. It was funny, though; my Aussie roommate who also left this morning was even more peeved about it, and referred to the other girl as unbelievably rude.

Anyway, for now, I'm down to two roommates: a Scottish girl whose name escapes me at the moment (ed: Allison), who intends to join the police force, and Sabine, a German girl who is teaching at a school across the way. Both seem nice, and I've enjoyed meeting them, though admittedly, I'm feeling a bit asocial as I begin my wanderings. More interested in quietly absorbing the place around me than talking about it, per se.

This makes me an interesting travel companion at times, I'm sure.

Hm. What else about the hostel? It's got both western (standard toilet bowl) and chinese (squat) toilets, and I think I might just prefer the latter. The habit of throwing the used tp in a wastebin instead of the toilet is still a bit strange to me, but there's just something I really quite like about a step-on button to flush. It's a beautiful thing. I'm still getting used to the communal showers (perhaps I'd be more comfortable with it had I swum more in public pools?), but whatever. Comfort is as comfort does.

Oooh. I also got the chance to play some guitar this morning (not well, but I had fun) in the common room (Krista, Maureen, and Dian would be proud; I've introduced my song to a whole new continent), and the two chinese guys who work at the hostel's internet/long-distance phone call booth thing sat and listened and applauded. One even played (and sang) a traditional chinese song for me. It was pretty awesome, all told. A little bonding over music (Karim, it wasn't a flute, I know, but I make do).
Of the hostel guests, the non-Chinese folk all don't seem to put a lot of trust in the provided hot water, and prefer buying bottled. Me, I figure my mom survived 4-5 months of the stuff, and it's well and boiled and lovely, so I'm unwilling to be paranoid about it. Quite frankly, I have better things to be paranoid about than 100 degree Celcius water. If I'm going to worry about that, eating out really ought to be out of the question. Silly.

Oh, I also totally got my first set of "what's that little white girl doing sitting on the side of the road? crazy." stares today while waiting outside the hostel for Garrett. I was actually surprised to have not gotten any of that yesterday, and not felt out of place or anything. Lost, a little. But not out of place. I've felt more out of place in HK prior to this, even... But, perhaps out of place is merely a state of mind. Perhaps I'm just noticing it less, because I'm determined to be here. I don't really know.

In other news, I still find it a little scary crossing some of the big intersections. Through traffic. Here, when you have a walk signal, it only means that orthogonal traffic is stopped. All those other cars and bikes and things that are turning right or left TURN RIGHT INTO YOU. While you cross. It's a little scary. I like following the flow of pedestrian traffic. I figure that if I'm in the herd of Chinese pedestrians, do as they do and I won't get killed by traffic. One cab driver gave us the funniest look yesterday as he turned past us though; he peered out the window, wide-eyed, while turning very very narrowly in front of us, as if to say "Hm, I hope I'm not driving over your toes" as well as "yes, yes I am a little crazy, thank you."

This phenomenon makes me very thankful for both under-street and bridge (over-street) pedestrian walkways. (sidenote: All stairs here seem to be built with 12" ramps at the sides or centre, and I've yet to figure out why. It's not wide enough for any type of cart, and I've yet to see a bicycle pretend to be a pedestrian in this fashion.) I'm also a big fan of the tons of traffic cop type folk, with their whistles and red flags. Traffic is still intimidating, but I don't think it's actually dangerous.

[wow. I haven't even talked about what I did today, and I think I've already been writing for an hour. I have a lot to say. There is a LOT to see, a lot more to write about, a lot to photograph... And yes, for those of you who keep track of these things, my first photo taken in Beijing is, indeed, of a sign, though not a road sign. And yes, I've taken a lot of photos. And I haven't even been to anything yet, for real]

So far, my wanderings have taken me to many no-place-in-particulars, and one "attraction" of note. Garrett and I went to see the old Beijing city wall (Ming Dynasty, around 1400's -- I had completely forgotten that there'd been dynasties and emperors well into the 1900s in China. That boggles my mind. Boggles), which is now a historic site and has been turned into a park. It's really pretty, though falling apart in places, as most historic things are. The park was neat too, and had signs for where tents could be pitched, and water spigots were for drinking... I'm curious who gets to pitch tent there, but my mandarin wasn't quite good enough to ask one of the guard type folk wandering around the park.

Garrett is doubtful that this is the government being friendly to squatters, but I am more optimistic than he. I don't know what it's for, per se, but it's definitely signage designed for long-term, not just for some annual fair or event. The park is built permanently for temporary tent-residents. Besides which, I refuse to be negative about a place and culture I know nothing about, by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, I realize I have my own set of biases too, and so shouldn't pick at those of others, but... that one tends to get on my nerves more than most.

Anyway, at the top of the wall, there's a modern art gallery, which also has an exhibit on the history of the area. The history was really interesting, especially some of the modern stuff (WWII era), and the art, well... was as art tends to be. I always find something I like, and something that I think, why would you ever have made this... how is THIS art?

Also interesting to note, the park had music. Projected from speakers. That were designed to look like rocks. It sort of ruined the "natural" park/greenery setting that I tend to want in my long "walks through the park", but was entertaining nonetheless. Also entertaining was the extensive list of rules for this park, best expressed in photo.

Anyway, one last thing, and then it's off to find dinner, I think. One other interesting thing that came about yesterday, though unrelated to China... We met a Swedish guy named Marcus on the bus ride from the airport, as he is staying at the same hostel as us. He's doing his PhD in compsci, and was travelling through China since he'd just been at a conference in Chengdu (in the Sichuan province... that's in the west). That's SO the reason to go to conferences. Well, you know, that and hearing all the cool stuff happening in your field. That too.

Over dinner, though, I asked what his plans were for after his doctorate, and he responded with 'anything but academia'. It was really neat to talk to someone, different field, different country, different stage of the cycle, and realize, yes, they totally understood.

Publish or die. Thesis eat soul.

Welcome to my world kids. It's like I said to Garrett. The only reason I'm so functional on this trip, despite any lack of sleep etc, is my thesis (well, and the courses that I was doing too, I suppose). If I could put my body through that, I can do anything. It taught me to be so functional, for so long, on so little. Nothing really compares.

ANYWAY, I'm sure you all don't want to hear me thesis-whine. You've had enough of that during the year itself. I certainly don't want to hear me thesis-whine. I just loved that moment of understanding that occurred. People in research just get it.

Avast, kids, til another day.

PS. The only thing that drives me crazy so far is the cigarette smoke. Even the smog isn't so bad (although makes for very unattractive photos at any distance at ALL, and is very sketchy when you think about it), but smoking... in enclosed spaces... with no rules other than "don't smoke in BED". Eeg. My poor lungs. My poor eyes. Bleah.


* YVR-PEK - Day 0 - So it Begins...

Winging my way across the sea, in an Air Canada jet capable of intercontinental travel (unlike most bananas - I'll have you know that my notes/diary on the plane actually does say in LARGE bold letters "NOT A BANANA", with reference to my flight), I was some odd mixture of ludicrously tired, excited about starting this lovely adventure, and sad about leaving a city I'd called home for a while in a very real way.

The flight itself, as most flights (thankfully) are, wasn't especially eventful. Of note, there was surprisingly lovely airplane food (ice cream, smoked salmon, free wine, et al. - to quote, "domestic ain't got nothing on this here thang"), a window seat wing view (oh wing seat, why do I always get you?), and the good company of my friend Dave beside me (Garrett was across the plane, somewhere ahead of us). Of less pleasing note, especially on a 10-11hour flight across the Pacific, was that on this particular plane, the tv-screens were more or less toast, implying absolutely no on-board entertainment for the duration.

It's a good thing I can amuse myself ad infinum.

The flight went a little something like this (not so much in chronological order): Talk. Eat. Compare mandarin phrasebooks (mine, The Rough Guide, wins, if only for using proper pinyin and NOT including how to say things like "you're just using me for sex" - I'm sure you'll hear me rant about this again later). Compare baby camera tripods. Teach Dave how to use some of his camera's more useful features. Eat. Ponder. Read in-flight magazine. Read in-flight safety pamphlet. Learn that apparently watches are not allowed on the safety slide. Ask Q: is it the 80s hair or the moustache that makes airplane-safety-brochure-man an idiot? After all, he continuously demonstrates improper safety procedures. Nap. Play cards. Stare out the window. Listen to the chinese passengers in front of me exclaim over the big mountains and lakes. Wonder if I will do the same when flying over China, area I have not flown over twice a year. Eat. Ponder. Witness minor medical emergency requiring the use of an oxygen tank - everyone's standing up, someone's shouting - you know you watch too much CSI when that's what this reminds you of. Reality doesn't get any more real than this. Candy falling from the sky (overhead compartment), about 167 of them. Nap. Write. Eat. Take large numbers of photos of the condiments from my meal. Is salt a condiment? Take even more photos of the beloved soya sauce fish. Begin soy fish fighting league. Soy fish fighting league disbanded after police interference (not really. We got bored. And fell asleep). Sleep. Cup'o'noodles (salt flavour, yellow salt flavour). Chopstick fight.

I wonder if chopstick fighting is disrespectful of my cultural heritage. Probably. But only to the same extent that any food fight really is. Miss Manners would hardly approve.

And that's about the whole flight, right there. Sleep. Eat. Fend off boredom in silly ways. Repeat. Still, for me, I'd say that was massively roaringly successful, as my last few oversea expeditions resulted in me not-sleeping and making full use of the air-sickness bags, being one of those fun motion-sickness kids. So, sleep=check; not vomiting=check; SUCCESS.

Time to set foot in Beijing.