Leaving China

30 04 2010

We spent the majority of the last two days in China shopping.  We went to the Pearl Market and again to the Silk market and managed to get some great deals (in our opinion :) on bags, shoes and watches but most importantly we got some cheap useless crap, some looked-like-a-good-idea-in-the-store-but-will-probably-not-work-at-home kind of stuff that always makes you feel good. 

The Pearl Market was similar to the Silk Street market, just a bit smaller and had fewer tourists and thus was a bit cheaper.  We managed to spend all our remaining Yuan (sans some dinner and ride to the airport money ;) but could easily have spend loads more.

Between the shopping we went to the Olympic park where all the main buildings constructed for the 2008 Olympics reside.  The park is a vast, gray, concrete park with a few impressive highlights.  First of course is the Bird’s Nest or the Beijing National Stadium – an unconventional, beautiful building that surely catches the eye.  Next to the Bird’s Nest is the equally impressive Cube, especially after dark, where Phelps won eight gold medals during the Olympics.  The other buildings in the park were just huge piles of concrete, steel and glass.

On Wednesday we had planned to go and see Chairman Mao in his mausoleum but we were a bit intimidated by the line and decided to come back very early Yesterday.  The mausoleum opens at 08:00 in the morning and we planned to beat the crowds and arrive early on Thursday.  We managed to get there around 08:15 and the line was already enormous!!!  It was about three times as long as the day before.  I measured the line on Google Earth and it was almost exactly one kilometer long and had about 4,000 people cuing up to see the mummy.  It was probably extra long due to the long weekend around the first of May, which is especially important here in China.

This was our last chance to see the Chairman so we had no choice but to cue up.  Fortunately for us the line went pretty fast and we went through the kilometer long line in about fifty minutes – not bad.  After passing the extensive security check, where Elínborg was thoroughly body searched, we got into the mausoleum.  Apparently they’ve had recent problems with Scandinavian blonds harassing the Chairman :) 

We entered a smallish hall with a grand statue of the Chairman flanked by a great painting of a Chinese landscape.  I was a bit afraid, after a few disappointments with over-hyped Chinese tourist attractions, that this was it but fortunately we exited the hall and went into another smaller one where Mr. Mao rested.  We had heard that the mummy was unnaturally yellow so we were prepared for anything. 

It was a bit strange that there were signs everywhere telling us to be quiet, respectful and courteous and then there were plenty of guards yelling at the people to hurry up and stay in proper lines.  So many people long to pay their respect to the chairman that there isn’t a lot of time allocated to each individual and the guards have to keep the line moving.

I thought the whole experience would be creepy but when inside I just thought of how the mummy was unnaturally real and untouched – that’s all.  It just seemed like chairman Mao was just sleeping peacefully under the thick red blanket embodied with the hammer and the wheat cutting instrument which English name escapes my memory right now …maybe a bit orange rather than yellow… but it wasn’t creepy at all – at least not until we got out and started processing the experience.

We were very happy that we stuck with the cue and saw the chairman and now it is one of our biggest regret of the trip not to have visited Ho Chi Minh’ in Hanoi or Uncle Ho as he is called in Vietnam.

We have now left China.  It has been great three weeks and I’m sure that we’ll return some day.  Thank you Yong and Amanda for welcoming us to your cities and thank you for the hospitality!

I’m sure I’ll continue to write about our trip through South-East Asia and China as I continue to digest the whole experience.  This has mostly been a travel blog I’ll continue to blog on my travels – be that back home in Iceland or abroad so stay tuned!

How great is the Great Wall of China?

28 04 2010

In the first two days in Beijing we visited the Silk Street market and the Great Wall of China.  We had been looking forward to both attractions for quite a while and were really excited.

The Silk Street market used to be an outdoor street market with numerous stalls lining the streets but has been moved indoors to a seven floor shopping mall.  At the market one can buy all sorts of stuff, both traditional Chinese stuff and replicas of western fashion stuff like bags, watches and clothes.  There is no fixed price and you need to bargain hard to avoid over-paying for the things you want.

We have found the salespeople here in China extremely pleasant but the sales girls at the Silk market were very aggressive, grabbing us into their stalls and trying to block us if we wanted to leave without buying anything – all in good fun though.

We did a bit of shopping and were very happy with the results.  After hard negotiations we got what we wanted for the prices we wanted.  Some store owners acted like they had been unfairly treated but as we all know it is always they that win in the end – otherwise they wouldn’t agree on the final price. 

After Elínborg went berserk in the bags department I had to drag her out of the mall so that we would have some money to eat for the last three days – but we plan to return on our last day to spend any excess Yuan :)  Maybe we’ll be composed enough to take some photos ;)

The day after we went on an organized tour to the Great Wall and the Ding Ling underground tomb with mandatory stops at jade and silk factories.  The wall was build to keep the nomadic hoards of Mongolia away from the Chinese empire.  It is actually a series of walls rather than one long wall, constructed from the 5th to the 16th century.

Most visitors go the the wall at Badaling but to escape the crowds we went to Mútiányú, a bit further from Beijing.  Like Badaling, Mútiányú has both cable cars to go up and slides to go down but we, like proper backpackers, opted for the stairs :)  When we were about half way up we kind of regretted our decision but we marched on and made it to the top.

Most pictures from the wall are without any people on the wall so it is difficult to get a clear image of how high and wide the wall really is.  My first reaction was that the wall seemed smaller than I had imagined (about 8 m. high and 5 m. wide) but very long and majestic. 

We got on the wall through one of the many watch towers and walked on the wall for a couple of hours.  The sky was blue and the weather very nice and we enjoyed the walk very much. 

After the wall we went to the Jade factory.  Our guide rationalized the jade factory visit by telling us that after visiting tombs and graveyards the Chinese always touch jade to get rid of evil spirits from the graves and the wall is the worlds longest graveyard.  It is thought that the bodies of about 10,000 workers were buried under the wall during its construction.  We knew that the main purpose was of course to sell us some jade items.  Jade is not really our thing and the price was definitely not in our range so we left empty handed.

We had a very good lunch and went to the tomb of emperor Wanli and his empress and concubines.  The tomb is an underground palace 27 m. below ground level.  It was impressively build but all of the relics and artifacts were destroyed during the cultural revolution so there wasn’t much to see.

At the end we went to a silk factory and were educated on the production of silk.  The main purpose here was to sell us silk duvets but we are happy with our down duvets and again left empty handed.

The traffic in the afternoon in Beijing is something else and it took us two hours to navigate through the city to get to our hostel but we got there in the end, jumped to the night market to get some dinner and went to sleep after a great day.

When we woke up in Xi’an

14 04 2010

We spend our last whole day in Beijing strolling round Central Beijing.  We walked to Tiananmen Square where I bought a old fashioned Chinese/Russian winter hat.  We had been stared at before but nothing like when I had the hat on.  Later we were told that the Chinese connect the hat with Chairman Mao and his followers.  We were also approached by several Chinese people that wanted us to pose with them on photos.  We felt like rock stars but somehow this was a strange and surreal experience.

After checking out Tiananmen Square and the surrounding buildings we walked to Jingshan Park.  The park is located on a small hill, 45 m. above the very flat surroundings, just behind the Forbidden City.  There seems to be an (small) entrance fee where ever you go here but and we paid 2 Yuan to get in (15 cent).  The view from the top of the hill was great!  We saw over the Forbidden City and basically all over Central Beijing – or as far as the smog allowed us – and this was something we should have done on day one for sure.

Before heading in for the night we had a wonderful Pizza at Hutong Pizza a well hidden Beijing treasure.  In the morning it was time to train to Xi’an.  We had to postpone our departure to Xi’an for one day because the Hard Sleeper class we wanted was full.  The west train station in Beijing is huge but very well organized.  Right in the lobby there was a big sign telling us which of the twelve waiting rooms to use and forty minutes before departure we were allowed to check in.

The train had double decker coaches and each floor had about twelve open cabins with four bunk beds – two lower and two upper.  We bought upper bunk tickets both because they were cheaper but also because we had heard that it would be easier to sleep in the top beds.

The train ride was twelve hours and went by pretty quickly.  It was very easy to sleep in the nice beds.  Even though they were a little hard they were way better than the buses in Thailand.  We found us in Xi’an at 06:20 in the morning – roaring to go.

Brrrrr…. it’s cold in Beijing

11 04 2010

When we arrived in Beijing the weather was very nice, 20°C and sunny, better than in Hong Kong, which lays almost 2,000 km. south of Beijing.  When we woke up on Friday however the weather seemed freezing cold to us even though it was about 13°C but quite windy.

Despite the cold we went to the Forbidden City – probably the most famous site in China.  We walked from our guesthouse to Tiananmen square and walked through the Gate of Supreme Harmony, which sports a nice portrait of Chairman Mao.  The Gate overlooks a massive courtyard where the rulers of the past could address up to 100,000 people at the same time. The Meridian gate marks the beginning of the Forbidden City and we joined the constant stream of hundreds of people flowing through gates.

We mainly followed the south/north axis of the city that contains all the biggest halls and buildings.  I don’t know if it was the weather but we felt that the city was a very cold place and not very inviting.  There are big gray plazas between great halls that all looked similar but no one was allowed to enter the halls.  It wasn’t until the Imperial Garden that we felt any warmth in the place.  Due to the cold we didn’t stay too long in the Forbidden City but we’ll return to Beijing before we go home and have already planned to return to the Forbidden City and explore it further.

Most of the afternoon went into searching for warmer clothes.  We wanted to find something cheap and that wasn’t too easy since we were in down-town Beijing.  I found a nice Burberry coat for $4,000 and an Armani coat for $2,000 but that wasn’t exactly what I was after :)  Finally we found a sweater for me for $16 and a nice running jacket for Elínborg for $7 and two pairs mittens for $7 so for $30 we got what we wanted.

On Saturday morning we walked for an hour to see the Lama Temple, the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet.  The weather man had said that today would be colder than yesterday but we were happy to see the warm sun and the weather was quite nice.  The Lama temple was beautiful and we could sense the peacefulness that surrounded the temple as soon as we arrived.  The whole temple stunning but the most famous artifact is a 26m. or about six stories high statue of Buddha that was carved out of a single white sandalwood tree – quite impressive.

We ended the day by eating Beijing (Peking) duck at the Beijing Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant, highly recommended by Lonely Planet.  We had been looking forward to this moment of months and were quite excited.  Unfortunately the duck was overpriced and even though it was good it wasn’t any better than at Nings in Reykjavík.  We have not given up on Peking duck and will continue trying until we find the perfect duck!

We have been quite surprised that Beijing feels like the most westernized place that we have visited on the whole trip.  Maybe westernized is not the right word – it is most like what we are used to in the west.  Maybe it is the climate that makes the difference but the people most like the people back home apart from the different faces of course.  They are similarly dressed and have all the latest gadgets and all that stuff.  The traffic is also most like we are used to with mostly cars on the streets.  Maybe there are more bicycles outside of down town Beijing – we’ll find out soon enough.

After listening to Lost on Planet China we has some implanted ideas about China and the Chinese but so far many of them have proven wrong.  The Chinese are not as rude the author proclaims, they are not spitting or blowing their noses at every step and the menus in restaurants are in English and the food is quite good so most things have a more positive spin that we thought :)

From Hong Kong to Beijing

8 04 2010

On our second day in Hong Kong we had planned to take an open air double decked bus tour around the city.  When we woke up the weather would have nothing of it though.  It was raining and kind of cold so for the first time during our trip the weather made us change our plans and first we went to the Hong Kong museum of Art and then we went shopping.  I have never seen so many shops anywhere and the luxury brand stores here will make even Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich blush!

In the evening we saw the Symphony of Lights, a fabulous light-show where the sky-scrapers on Hong Kong island are the main actors.  The lights on the sky-scrapers dance to the rhythm of a specially composed music and you can kind of see the character of the sky-scrapers on how they dance.  Some are shy and minimalistic while others are cocky and a bit of a show-off and everything between. 

This morning we took the short flight to Beijing and landed in Beijing in the afternoon.  The weather in the capital was nice and the temperature was about thirty degrees hotter than when we flow through in January.  We have been quite impressed with the Chinese so far.  People have seemed cheerful and there is a pleasant wibe everywhere we have been. 

The taxi drives tried to scam us though.  We knew that we should pay 15 Yuan ($2) from the train station to our hostel but they didn’t want to talk to us for less than 100 Yuan.  We met two girls that told us they paid 300 Yuan ($45) for a ride that was supposed to be 20 Yuan.  Fortunately we found a tourist information office that helped us out.  It shows what we knew that you have to know everywhere what is the right price to pay for things or else you will be overcharged.

In the evening we went to a touristy night market that sold food and snacks from all over China.  On offer were for example grilled snakes and scorpions and worms, lamb testicles and penises, pig kidneys and hearts and cow stomachs and many other mouth-watering dishes.  We were not so adventurous and had fried dumplings, chicken pancakes, Chinese hamburgers and deep-fried ice-cream for dessert.  All of the dishes we tried were very delicious.  Hopefully we’ll go again and perhaps we’ll be more adventurous then ;)

Bangkok baby

13 01 2010

On Monday we arrived in Bangkok after the long long journey from Reykjavik.  Air China is not our favorite airline: the seats were uncomfortable, the online entertainment was basic, the food was OK at best but the stewardesses were cute and the price was attractive so over all I guess we got what we paid for.
Flying over China was absolutely wonderful, we had clear skies and a good view over great mountains, vast plains and square looking villages.  Very promising for our visit in April.

The Mountains of China

The Mountains of China

We were a bit nervous coming into Beijing airport as we had heard would be humungous (3rd largest building in the world) and our worries did not lessen as we came down the tarmac seeing endless buildings along the airstrip – but we were pleasantly surprised when we came inside.  Everything was so organized and intuitive and easy and we had a very relaxed stay-over despite the freezing cold outside (-9°C).

We arrived in Bangkok just before dark, took a taxi to our hotel and went straight to bed after the exhausting trip.  We woke up at 8 o’clock the next morning, showered and were ready to take on Bangkok.  When I got out I realized that something was not right, it still kind of dark, the people on the street ware obviously the remains from last nights party and I could hear the drum and base sounding from clubs in the distance.  I therefore checked my watch again and now saw that it was only 05:00 so we went back to bed again, 1-0 for jet-lag :)

After we finally woke up we went out and had a wonderful day in the Khao San Rd. area, watching the people, visiting a Buddha temple, eating good food and enjoying the sun.  The weather is nice, sunny with a slight mist, around 30°C and a little breeze, excellent for a couple of Icelanders.

Khao San Rd. where our hostel is located

Khao San Rd. where our hostel is located

Thailand has been called the land of the thousand smiles but we haven’t really experienced that, maybe that will change when we get out of Bangkok or to different regions of Bangkok.  The sales people are very polite though and are not all over you like in too many places.  They seem contend somehow or maybe just used to foreigners looking at their stuff without buying.

All the best to all of you!
– Ö r n  and  E l í n b o r g –