Of tombs and barbecues

16 04 2010

Yesterday we went to another tomb close to Xi’an – the tomb of emperor Jingdi who ruled in 188 BC–141 BC.  This tomb was discovered by highway construction crew in 1990. 

We had to take two busses to get to the tomb but on the first one we were told that the second bus wouldn’t go until thee hours later.  Fortunately we were rescued by five local ladies (one spoke English) that were also going to the tomb.  With them we took a local bus to the middle of nowhere and walked for 25 minutes until we found the tomb.  The ladies were great fun, always laughing and joking around – and really helpful and took care of us in the museum and took us back to Xi’an after the visit.  The Chinese people seem really cheerful and very helpful – even though the language is often an obstacle.

While emperor Qin was said to have ruled with an iron first, emperor Jingdi was a just and fair and ruled according with Taoist believes of going with the flow – he seems like he had a lot in common with the laissez-faire capitalists that have been ruling the western world for the last 10-15 years.  He lowered taxes, used diplomacy rather than force and shrunk the state – and the people prospered.

The tomb was similar to the terracotta army in some ways, it contains many terracotta figures but most of them are quite small – the men about two feet high (Maybe the emperor thought he might spend the afterlife in Lilliput) and not so much army focused, more just items from regular life.  The museum facilities are cleverly constructed and you can get very close to some of the artifacts.  There are glass tunnels above and at the side of the excavation pits where you get a good view everything.

The highlight for me was a holographic 3-D movie telling the story of the emperor and his wife – or so we think.  The movie was only available in Chinese :)  I hadn’t seen such a holographic movie before and was fascinated with the technology.  The movie was shown in a small room and the stage and the figures were quite small, about a foot high.  It was amazing how the figures and the props interacted with the real stage.  Elínborg was less impressed but I was just fascinated.  Just imagine the possibilities for theatre and live performances.  We could be watching plays with the best actors in the world “live” but at a fraction of the current cost.  I think that the 3-D phase that cinema is going through now will be short lived and holograms will take over – or maybe these technologies can work together?

After we returned to Xi’an Yong and Mr. Lee took us for dinner and a few beers.  He took us to a special Xi’an barbecue place that served meat, bread and vegetables.  It seemed like everything (meat, bread and vegetables) was put on skewers and fried and then coated with a spicy herbal seasoning and barbecued.  We had some beef, mutton, bread and bread balls with vegetables and like when we had the hotpot, everything was extremely good.  Yong told us that Xi’an is famous for its noodles and ordered one portion of noodles for us to try.  The noodles were wheat noodles hand made in the restaurant boiled and then covered with some hot oil and chilies and tasted great as everything that Yong has offered us – surely the best noodles that we have had.

It is strange that we have been struggling to find good places to eat in but when we are taken out by locals we have these wonderful meals.  There seems to be a some sort of disconnect here.  I have heard the same stories from people visiting China that the food is a problem but then fantastic meals are just waiting around the corner.

Now we are just preparing for the 16 hours train ride to Shanghai where we will arrive around noon tomorrow.  Yong has told us how nice Shanghai is and we are really looking forward to seeing for our selves.

The eighth wonder of the world

15 04 2010

Yesterday we went to see the Terracotta Army.  The Terracotta Army is a whole army, current estimates say 8,000 man strong, constructed by Emperor Qin around the year 200 BC.  Most of the figures are full sized and every figure is unique in shape and facial features. 

The emperor constructed his army to support him in the afterlife.  The emperor didn’t stop there and built a whole city in addition to his army.  There are acrobats and musicians, all kinds of animals, offices and stables and everything that comes with a proper city.

The site was found by a couple of farmers digging for water some thirty years ago and stumbled onto the first pit.  Now three pits have been excavated but some archeologist believe that even more pits wait to be discovered.  I just wonder how many sites like this exist in the world – uncovered and hidden to everyone?

Getting to the site was very easy – just a bus straight from the train station.  There was a constant stream of visitors arriving at the gate, mostly Chinese tourists but also a few foreigners. 

After buying the tickets there is a twenty minute walk to the main sites.  Along the way there are several restaurants including KFC and Subway and a lot of shops selling stuff made from jade, stuff made from fox/wolf/mink skins and terracotta warrior replicas.  The whole place had a very commercial feel to it – in a nice way though.  I couldn’t resist all the sales people and bought a very nice skin hat – similar to the Mao hat I had previously bought ;)

After the walk we arrived at the main gate.  We had only heard the best things about the Terracotta Warriors so at this point we were very excited! 

The site consists of a museum and three excavation pits.  We started at the museum, which contained examples of what was found in the pits as well as explanations on how all the stuff was made, why it was made and by whom.  After the museum we headed for the smallest pit that gave us a taste of what was to come.  The second pit wasn’t that exiting and hasn’t been fully excavated.  The third pit is the main attraction and contains the real Terracotta Army. 

It was very impressive to see all those soldiers lined up like they were ready for battle.  It was also very interesting to see the archeologists still working on digging up more figures.  We were very impressed with the whole site and really happy that we came to see this wonder but I couldn’t resist the thought that maybe it has been hyped up a bit too much.

It is very interesting to see how the Chinese approach archeological discoveries like the Terracotta Army and others that we have seen here in China.  They have a different approach to what we are used to seeing, at least back home.  The Chinese don’t hesitate to rebuild and fix or even recreate artifacts and buildings without distinguishing the from the authentic artifacts.  This makes it sometimes difficult to differentiate between the old and the new or the authentic and the re-created.  At the same time it is of course really interesting to see how things looked like when they were first created and you can better see the whole picture when the blanks have been filled.

This site is a perfect example of how crazy us humans can get.  Why would someone want to build such a mausoleum for him self?  It has been estimated that construction the whole mausoleum involved some 700,000 workers and took several years.  At the same time it shows the power of the emperor and how prosperous his nation must have been being able undertake such a project.  What do you think?  How do you want your mausoleum to look like?

Mae Sai Visa run and then back to Bangkok

26 03 2010

Before entering Thailand from Laos we had heard that we might only get a fifteen day visa exception into Thailand, which would be too short for us, but the Lonely Planet book told us thirty days so we didn’t worry.  When we were at the border we discovered that the 30 day visa is only granted when you fly into Thailand so we only got fifteen days.

That meant that our visa would expire before we fly to Hong Kong and the fine for overstaying your visa is 500 baht per day ($16).  To escape the fine we needed to make a visa run.  A visa run is to go to a neighboring country, only for a few minutes, and then back to Thailand to get extra fifteen days.  The cheapest option is to go to Burma (Myanmar) (Laos $30 and Cambodia $20) where you can get a day permit for $10 or 500 baht, which is very strange since $10 is actually 330 baht ?!?!

For our visa run we drove up to Mae Sai, a small border town by the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet.  The Golden Triangle used to be the world’s biggest opium producer but that has all been cleaned up – at least on the Thai side.  The four hour drive up to Mae Sai was painless and once in Mae Sai we just walked through the Thai immigration office to get stamped out and into the Burma immigration office where we paid the fee got our Burma passport stamp and walked back into Thailand with a new fifteen day visa.  The whole process took about ten minutes and was as simple as could be.

After getting our stamp we drove back to Chang Mai to take the ten hour sleeper bus to Bangkok.  We are only staying the day in Bangkok before talking another sleeper bus down to Chumpon and from Chumpon we take the boat back to Ko Phangan where we intend to load the batteries before taking on China – The Middle Kingdom.  I have a few topics I want to address while on the beach so stay tuned :)

All the way from Vientiane to Chang Mai in Thailand

18 03 2010

After the fun in Vang Vieng we took the bus down to Vientiane, the Laos’ capital.  Vientiane is a nice and cozy city but we had heard that there are not that many things to do and see there.  We therefore decided to get a room for the night and head for Thailand in the morning.

At the guesthouse we met new friends when we were going to sleep – there were bedbugs in the bed!!!  At first we saw one and thought that it was just some harmless bug but soon there were others that followed.  Needless to say we didn’t get much sleep that night and hurried away from the guesthouse as soon as possible – after refusing to pay the agreed rate.  What got us even more angry was that they seemed to know there were bedbugs in the room and rented it to us anyway …bastards!

We had seen tickets from Vientiane to Chang Mai in Thailand for 1,100-1,500 baht ($33-$45), which felt way too much for us – the savvy travelers :) so we decided to go on our own.  We had seen that everything seemed to be overpriced in Vientiane and felt sure we could do better when in Thailand.  We went to the local bus station and got a ticket to the nearest big Thai town (Udon Thani) for 80 baht – a good start.  Going through the border was extremely easy and straight forward …and no payment to get the Thai visa, which is nice :)

For some reason most towns around here have at least two, if not more, bus stations and it is not uncommon that you have to get your self from one station to the next if you have to change busses.  On top of that the bus stations are often outside the towns and that doesn’t make things easier.  Anyway we had to take a tuktuk between bus stations and got a ticket to Chang Mai three hours later for 525 baht.  By showing a little initiative we saved about 50% or 600 baht on the fare, which is huge in backpacker terms, and arrived in Chang Mai 3 hours sooner than if we would have taken the Vientiane-Chang Mai bus so we saved both time and money :)

I have to admit that the 14 hour bus ride was no luxury ride, we had one stop after seven hours and that was it.  Twenty minutes to pee and eat.  Apparently we had a toilet on board but that wasn’t really accessible because the bus was completely full with about fifteen people standing in the middle without any seats – some of them were standing for hours.

We were very happy to reach Chang Mai where we knew of a great guesthouse in the middle of town waiting for us.  Chang Mai is the main city in Northern Thailand and offers a lot of tours and activities that we are now trying to decide between so stay tuned!

ps. we have not been taking enough photos recently as you can see by the crappy photos in the last few posts but I promise that we’ll shape up here in Chang Mai ;)

Hoi An – the tailoring capital

1 03 2010

Of two days of soaking up the sun in Nha Trang we took the night bus to Hoi An.  Hoi An is a really cute little town that is mostly famous for all the tailors that live and work in Hoi An.  We have heard that there are somewhere between 300 and 500 tailors here and you can’t really turn without hitting one of the many stores selling custom made or made to order clothes.  Most of the clothes are just copied from the celeb magazines or from department store catalogs.  As a spin-off there is also big shoe making industry developing in Hoi An that copies shoes for the customers.

We arrived just after six o’clock yesterday morning and wasted no time.  We quickly found our selves a hotel room close to the charming old town by the river and after a small breakfast we went on the lookout for tailor-made clothes.  We had done some research online regarding what we wanted but were complete novices on price and the quality of fabric and workmanship.  So we visited somewhere between twenty and thirty stores, all selling similar stuff from similar catalogs but the price varied greatly.  I was offered woolen suits with silk lining anywhere from $45 to $200 and dresses were available from $20 to $200 or more.  Now we had a big problem of where to go.

After lunch we did a bit of online research, reading reviews on Lonely Planet and from customers that had gone to Hoi An before – and now we felt ready to start negotiating.  Five hours later – after a lot of deciding, negotiating, fabric choosing, measuring and deposit paying – we stood with orders from four different tailors.  I bought a silk suite and a shirt from Yaly Couture ($120), another suit and shirt from Phuoc An Cloth Shop ($135) and a (Icelandic) summer jacket from Thong Phi ($40).  Elínborg bought three dresses, one silk dress from Phuoc An Cloth Shop ($60), one jersey dress from Thong Phi ($30) and one silk-satin from Thu Linh I ($20).

We are set for a second fitting for all the clothes today and are very excited to see how it all went.  Two of the firms seemed very professional and we are not worried about their part, more just excited to see how everything turned out, but the other two are more of a question mark.  I’ll keep you updated on how it all goes in the end but it is not uncommon that it takes two to four fittings to get everything exactly the way one wants it.

We have not seen any shoemaker that seems to be able to produce quality shoes that are worth the risk.  It seems just a better option to go to a shoe store and buy mass-produces shoes – at least here in Hoi An – but this could all change if we see something exciting.

Do you have any stories of tailor-made clothes?  Stories of horrible impulse buys?

Phu Quoc island – Vietnam

14 02 2010

Yesterday we made it to Long Beach on Phu Quoc island in Vietnam.  We took a bus from Sihanoukville through the Vietnamese border at Xa Xia.  We had gotten our Vietnamese visas back in Bangkok so we had an easy time getting through the border control.  One tip for future travelers, we noticed that getting the Vietnamese visa in Cambodia was about $15 cheaper than in Thailand ($60 vs. $43 I think) so if you want to save a bit of money wait until you are in Cambodia. 

On the border we changed from our VIP bus into a mini bus and drove on to Ha Tien where we changed into a small boat that took us out to the island.  The trip was supposed to take five and half hour but ended up taking over eight hours without any stops to eat so we were pretty hungry when we got here as you can imagine.  You can find the updated route map on the right hand side of the website or just here.

The first impression of Vietnam is that everything seems more professional than in Cambodia, the restaurants seem very nice and our bungalow is nice as well so we have no complaints so far.  The money is funny since 16,000 Dong equal $1 US so we are pretty rich down here, just went to the ATM to take our 2,000,000 Dong :)  The actual notes look nice, they are made of plastic and are washable so they are very clean, which was not the case in Cambodia where you could hardly read some of the lower dominated notes.

We were very happy to see that the internet seemed to work perfectly, we could access WordPress, Facebook and any website that we tried.  I will therefore not be forced to blog through email until we enter China :)

We have been a bit under the weather the last two days so we haven’t been up to too much adventure lately.  It is nothing serious, just a minor inconvenience – it could be something we ate or something that is going around but we should be back on our feet tomorrow.