A Travellerspoint blog

Delhi - What Planet Am I On?


sunny 15 °C
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Excuse the long blog, but I've got a lot to say, besides this is the short version, initially I wrote a full length novel.

Before arriving here, whenever I asked other travellers who had already been to India, what it was like, I always got the same first response, and that was a "just wait and see for yourself" type of smiles. Now that I'm here, I have to agree, there really is nothing anybody can tell you that could prepare you for your first visit to India. I don't quite have the literary skills to describe it myself, but I'll do my best, mostly by using as many photos as possible.

Having left Beijing on a one stopover flight (via Dubai), I arrived in Delhi in the late afternoon. The immigration and customs hall at the Delhi International airport felt almost like a regional bus station as opposed to the international hub that it's supposed to be. It had long, slow moving queues being serenaded by inaudible arrival announcements from the loud PA system, each one prefaced by a chime stolen straight out of the Windows XP sound effects folder (the "you have new email messages" sound from Outlook Express to be exact. I'm not joking). After a long wait, trying my luck in several queues, I eventually got through immigration relatively unscathed. I then proceeded out to the arrivals hall where I could see two exits, one on either side of the building, each one crammed with hoardes of people peering inside. I knew most of them were touts and taxi wallahs waiting to whisk tourists away to a store or hotel that would pay them commision for bringing in customers. Having come from China, I was already well equiped to deal with them, but I was still dreading stepping outside and having to fend them all off. A visit to the ATM, money exchage and prepaid taxi booths were good stops along the way where I could get myself mentally prepared.

I finally headed out of the building with my taxi voucher in hand and into the mercy of the waiting masses. I walked straight to the line of waiting cabs though this didn't deter a handful of "helpful" locals offering to personally summon a taxi for me. I "politely" declined their offers and headed for one of the taxis waiting in the rank while still being followed. Before jumping in, I tried to make sure the driver knew where the suburb was that I was going to, but just asking is hardly a safety measure considering that anyone who stands to make money out of you in India tends to be agreeable even though they may not have a clue about what you are asking them. So I had no alternative but to trust the first driver who appeared somewhat confident.

Before we'd even left the end of the taxi rank, the driver stopped to let an "aquaintance" in through the front passenger's door. This guy turned around and pretended to have a friendly conversation with me. One of the first questions he asked me was if this was my first visit to India, to which I replied, "No, I have been here a couple of times before". I'd heard this is the best answer you can give them because they use this question to measure how suceptible you are to their little tricks. He then begun to inform me that the suburb I was going to was "A very bad bad area" and he was most kind to offer alternatives. I interrupted him by telling him I had already booked a place and had payed a deposit so there was no way I was going anywhere else (which was actually all true). This worked like a charm because he smiled, said "Ok" and got the driver to pull over so he could get out.

Then it was just me and the driver, negotiating our way through insane traffic and some incomprehensible scenes outside of the taxi's windows. If this had been the first destination along my trip, I would have been suffering from a severe case of culture shock right about then, but having just come from China, I was a little prepared for what I was witnessing. Even so, it was still a shock to the system and the only thing that kept my jaw from dropping was the extreme concentration I was using trying to direct the driver to my destination.

A typical scene on the side of the road in Delhi

The driver ended up having only a vague idea about the suburb I was heading to, though luckily I had done my homework (google maps) and I was able to use a couple of popular landmarks and a nearby bus station to direct him most of the way. Considering most of the streets in Delhi are not sign posted (and those that are, are very poorly done so), it seemed like an absolute miracle that I was able to guide the driver to the entrance to the alley where my hostel was located.

Another typical scene on the side of the road in Delhi, though this one is actually quite tidy looking

The hostel, called Nirvana, was like an oasis in the middle of all the chaos, and I must confess, just after arriving, the thought of not leaving the front gate again did pass briefly through my head. I ended up meeting lots of really good people in this hostel, almost all of them lone travellers like myself. There was never a shortage of sane friendly people to go out with and explore Delhi. The hostel is owned and managed by Francesco, a young Italian guy, and his business partner who I never met as he was overseas at the time. His main business was actually fast food joint called "Dosa King" that, not surprisingly, sold Dosas, which are a type of savoury crepe originating from the south of India. He was running the hostel as a side business mostly for the love of meeting and hanging out with travellers.

It's quite difficult to find a hostel in India, let alone a good one. To find one with actual dorms that targets young backpackers was a stroke of luck. This hostel had only been open for a few months and I'm sure in no time it will become one of the most popular hostels in India despite it being in south Delhi. The free meal was definitely a bonus to someone like me, brand new to India and extremely nervous about the food (safety-wise). Initially I had only planned on staying three nights in Delhi, but ended up extending it by another two, due mostly to the hostel and the people I met there - otherwise Delhi isn't really the place to hang around for too long when there's so much else to see in the rest of India. I have to add, eating my first meal at the hostel using a fork after ten weeks of only using chopsticks was rather strange, almost like how I've started feeling when I use a pen nowdays after relying so much on a keyboard.

A cricket game in progress down the alley heading to the hostel

The front garden of the Nirvana Hostel in Delhi

On the day after I arrived, two of the girls staying at the hostel, Katie (US) and Roberta (Brazil) invited me to join them on a small sight-seeing excursion, to which I gladly accepted. This was to be my first auto ricksaw ride ever, and in a way I'm quite glad it happened in Delhi. The traffic was absolutely insane, road rules are optional (if they exist at all) and you are always buzzing in and out of gaps in the traffic mere centimeters from other cars, trucks and ricksaws. I think the best strategy to adopt is to either close your eyes or to focus out the sides of the ricksaw instead of straight ahead. Though you can't help but peek at the oncoming traffic when the driver goes through a roundabout the wrong way or you hear other people in the ricksaw gasping at the next impending near miss. The dangers aren't as bad as they appear to be though, because everyone drives like a maniac, hence they are predictable, and it's all about predictability - I learnt that in China when I started running across the road, it really caused havoc and confusion amongst the drivers trying to avoid hitting me.

My first ricksaw ride, somehow a still image doesn't properly portray the hecticness of it all

The first thing I did that day was to hunt down a Lonely Planet guide for India. So far I'd gotten on fine without one in China and Japan, but India is a completely different story. I would have also bought them for China and Japan but I really hate carrying around extra baggage and these books are typically large, heavy and bulky. Unfortunately, the India edition is probably one of the biggest, but I was willing to put up with carrying the equivalent of a brick around with me in exchange for the much needed helpful advice. I bought one at the first bookstore I walked into not knowing how easy they were to find, and it ended up being quite expensive for India, but still cheap in NZ dollars.

Then it was off to Jantar Mantar, an astronomical observatory built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II in 1724. The site consists of several instruments that can take various astronomical and chronological measurements. This was the first place where we noticed there was a huge admission price differential between the locals and foreigners. I believe we payed 200 Rupees each to get in, where locals only had to pay 5 Rupees, that's quite a difference! Though I can't complain because 200 Rupees is still only around NZ$6 and I realise it takes a lot of money to maintain these places but if the prices for the locals was much higher, the vast majority of Indians would not be able to afford to visit their own national treasures.

Roberta and Katie walk up ahead at the entrance to Jantar Mantar in Delhi

The instrument known as, Samrat Yantra, which measured the apparent solar time, or local time of a place and the sun's declination

Me at one of the "windows" of the instrument known as "Ram Yantras", which measured the horizontal and vertical angles of celestial bodies

Right outside the Jantar Mantar site, we walked past a man whose sole trade appeared to be a "fixer of zippers". He sat on a small concrete block and on the ground next to him he had a small bag full of zippers and zipper parts and another bag with a few tools. He wasn't short of business either because a steady stream of customers would appear from out of nowhere needing help with their zipper problems. Coincidently, Roberta had a broken zipper on one of her boots and she jumped at the opportunity to finally having it fixed.

The "Zipper Man" fixing the zipper on Roberta's boot, in only a couple of minutes it was like brand new again

Soon afterwards we arrived at India Gate, which is a memorial to fallen soldiers from several wars. Unfortunately, it was Independence day in a few days time and the gate was blocked off by police, I guess in defence of possible terrorist attacks. I still managed to get one decent photo of it from behind some police barriers before we moved on to our next destination.

India Gate, built as a war memorial

On our way to the next sight, we spotted a group of boys playing cricket (not difficult to find in India because you'll always find a game in full swing on every open space large enough for someone to swing a bat). As soon as they saw a camera come out, they abandoned their game and ran over to pose for us.

Young budding cricket players posing for our cameras, let's just say they weren't shy

Next up on our list was the Old Fort, but just a couple of blocks before that we bumped into a really old Mosque. The place was small, but quite amazing and we didn't have to pay to get in. The mosque and the walls to the compound were crumbling and looked deserted. There was a water well in the courtyard which was being used by some men to wash and even drink from!

The water well in front of the crumbling compound walls in the background, offers of a free drink from the well were politely declined

The very old mosque near the Old Fort

Thinking the old mosque was no longer in use, I made the mistake of stepping on the paved floor in front of the door arches with my shoes on, only to be told off by one of the muslim men near the well. It was a good lesson actually, no matter how old, crumbling and abandoned a holy site looks, you should always obey the same etiquette.

We then headed over to the Old Fort which happend to be hosting some type of concert that night.

The entrance to the Old Fort in Delhi

Building in Old Fort

The walls to the fort looked impressive, though it was quite hard to get good photos because most of it was hidden behind lots of trees and shrubs. Not to mention certain areas were blocked off because of the concert that was about to commence. You needed separate tickets to stay and watch the concert so we were kicked out at closing time by some roaming security guards.

Some of the crumbling walls to the Old Fort

By this stage light was fading and we decided to head back to the hostel on yet another white knucke ride on an auto ricksaw. It took at least an hour to get there in heavy traffic and even though we'd been there already, it was still difficult to find due to the lack of street signs and because every street in Delhi looks exactly the same. At least our driver knew where the suburb was so it was just up to us to look out for our exact street (in the dark!).

The next day Francesco from the hostel, joined us on that day's sight-seeing trip. Francesco himself was quite new to Delhi and had been so busy running the hostel, that he had only gone out on one occasion to do sight-seeing himself. He offered to take us there in the hostel's mini van (driven by one of his helpful workers). Soon there were nine of us from the hostel going along for this trip (not including the driver) and we all had to cram in to the small van. It was a little crowded, but somehow it didn't feel as illegal in India, though ironically we did get a "ticket" for overloading - when I say ticket, I believe it was actually a small fee paid directly to the officer who then let us proceed just the way we were.

Us in the mini van, from left to right, Michael (Sweden), Sam (UK), Katie (US), Roberta (Brazil), Sam (Australia), Me and Francesco the hostel owner from Italy. Nick (US) was too tall to sit in the back and got to sit in the front seat - he became the official inside-the-van photographer. Jon (US) must have been tucked in on the far left because he's missing in action in this photo. All of us had travelled to India alone.

Our first stop was the Red Fort, a much more impressive fort than the Old Fort we had visited the day before. Many of the buildings in this fort were added at different times by different rulers and it showed because they were built in different styles, some from red sandstone and others from marble.

The Lahore Gate behind the smaller gate in the foreground at the entrance to the Red Fort in Delhi

Some buildings inside the Red Fort

Some marble archways on some of the buildings inside the Red Fort

A red sandstone building in the middle of an empty pond - it would have been really amazing looking had the pond been full

Our little group near the bazaar heading out of the Red Fort, from left to right, Me, Jon, Katie, Francesco, Michael, Sam and Sam (yes there were two Sams, one male and one female so in conversation we always had to prefix with "boy" or "girl" to avoid confusion) Photographed by Nick once again.

After the Red Fort, we went hunting for food. Believe it or not, we ended up going to McDonalds, not only because some of us were still a bit nervous about the food and that area was full of untrustworthy looking "street food", but also because we were a little curious about what appeared in the menu of the world's largest burger chain in a predominantly vegeterian country. Not surprisingly, there were no beef burgers, but there were chicken burgers and a seemingly popular "McVeggie". I opted for the latter because I still didn't know what to expect with the chicken meat over here and had previously decided to become a temporary vegetarian during my entire stay in India. The vege-burger wasn't too bad actually, not the most flavoursome, but it cured my hunger. Boy-Sam was feeling really brave and ended up buying something from a street stall right next to McDonalds, it was also right next to some public urinals, which by "public" I mean the most minimum of barriers and by "urinals" I mean up against the wall.

We headed about a block away to the Jama Masjid Bazaar which leads you on to the Jama Masjid Mosque. This Bazaar and Mosque offered some of the most surreal sights of the day. The place was absolutely packed with people, most of them men, which probably explains why a couple of the girls in our group ended up being pinched and/or groped during our walk. There were two long lanes of stalls selling almost anything you can think of and I was on the look out for some jandals (NZ speak for flip-flops) though I never found any there in the end.

Walking along the Jama Masjid Bazaar, the Mosque is in the background

The very surreal scene as I headed up the steps towards the Jama Masjid Mosque

The bazaar looking back from the steps up to the mosque

Francesco ended up having a big argument with the men standing at the gates of the mosque because they were trying to charge us to get in, meanwhile, local Indians were walking in and out undisturbed. They eventually changed their story from an "entry fee" to "camera fee". The fee was 200 Rupees just to take a couple of photos inside the mosque, none of us payed and we just left our cameras with the driver (actually mine was in my pocket and he never checked me). The inside wasn't anything particularly special anyway, it was the outside area around the bazaar that ended up being more interesting for me.

After we waded our way back through the bazaar crowds, we crammed back in the van and headed to Humayun's Tomb. The site doesn't just hold one tomb, but a couple as well at least one mosque and a few other buildings, but it was Humayun's Tomb that was the most impressive. The first building we visited was Isa Kahn's tomb near the entrance to the site.

The small gateway to Isa Kahn's Tomb and Mosque

Isa Kahn's Tomb, you could climb up to the roof area, but only up some trecherous steps in pitch black darkness

The setting sun and Isa Kahn's Mosque, opposite his tomb

A father leading his son towards the Isa Kahn Mosque

Next was the impressive tomb of Humayun, a huge red sandstone building with some resemblance to the Taj Mahal... but not quite as big or as striking

The spectacular, Humayun's Tomb

Inside Humayun's Tomb

I thought the above photo looked better without the flash with the reflecting marble sarcophagi. Plus after turning on the flash I captured someone who was suddenly standing in front of me which gave me a huge fright, it became even creepier when, with big wide crazy eyes, he asked me in broken English, "Tony Blair, prime minister Britain? Bush president US?". This guy was definitely on something. I replied, "Ah, umm... not anymore!" and got out of there as quickly as possible. Apparently he'd done the same thing to Katie and Roberta.

At the very end of the day, Francesco took us to his "Dosa King" street stall. It was my first (and probably last) taste of street food in India. I figured it was safe because Francesco owned it and he had eaten there many times without any problems. Plus he told us the bulk of the food preparation was done off-site and very hygenically.

My Masala Dosa being prepared, don't worry, he washed his hands ...I'm sure he washed his hands. I didn't spot the two guys giving me the evil eye (on the far left and the far right) until I reviewed my photos for this blog

After such a long day sight-seeing, it was nice to get back to the free meal and a beer at the hostel, followed by a game of cards or two.

Jon, Roberta and Sam during one of our card games at Nirvana hostel

The next day, Jon, Sam, Sam, Roberta, Katie and I decided to go for another excursion to another bazaar, but we didn't realise it was closed until we got there. As we started walking to get something to eat, two little boys came out of nowhere begging for money. There was an older boy and a much younger one who was really little. As soon as the little one spotted girl-Sam, he chased after her, eventually catching her and latching on to her leg with his arms. She managed to get away from him briefly, before he caught up with her again and latching on to her leg even harder using both his arms and legs. She was shaking her leg and telling him to let go, but all he did was just start to giggle. The rest of us were partly in shock, partly in hysterics, and partly a little nervous. A small crowd of amused onlookers was starting to gather and girl-Sam suspecting this was a way to distract us while the little boy's accomplices went on a pick-pocketing and bag-snatching spree, started walking away with the child still attached. The little boy was almost pulling her pants down and he was so tiny she didn't know how to pull him off without hurting him. I realised that enough was enough and headed over to pry the kid off her leg. I pulled his arms free but for a while he still had his legs wrapped around her ankle, then I think girl-Sam managed to pry his legs off and once free she started running. I'm still holding the boy in the air so I put him down on the side of the footpath and followed the rest of our group who were by that stage making a hasty retreat across the road. Luckily, none of our bags or wallets went missing and we all survived to travel another day. I was too surprised to even think about taking my camera out at the time but Roberta was quick to the mark.

Child clinging to girl-Sam's leg (photo kindly provided by Roberta)

We did finally make it to the restaurant we were heading to, a place called "Banana Leaf" which was mentioned in the Lonely Planet, hence we thought must have been safe enough. I had an onion and tomato Uttappam which turned out to be a little tasteless on it's own, but the sauces provided ended up saving it.

My onion and tomato Uttappam from Banana Leaf

Lunch was followed by a trip to the underground Palika Bazaar located in the center of Delhi. It is a bizzare bazaar (ha ha) which twists and turns around like one huge subterranean labyrinth. Most of us were in search for specific items like shoes, shoals, socks or sandals. I ended up buying some nice decent quality jandals (flip-flops) from one of the countless shoe stores, though something tells me they weren't really licenced by "Puma".

Entrance to the underground Palika Bazaar (forgot to take photos inside)

That was pretty much it for my introduction to India. Most of the gang left the hostel the next day, except for girl-Sam, Jon and I. Of course me being me, I'd left everything to the last minute and still hadn't sorted out any accomodation or train tickets to my next destination. So I spent the day relaxing and doing a bit of planning on the net, reading my Lonely Planet and paying a visit to a small travel agents through which I could book train tickets. The next afternoon, I left the comfortable nest I'd grown accustomed to and leapt into the wild, yet again on my own.

Heading to the New Delhi Railway station, I spotted a beggar knocking on car windows for money. Silly me decided to try to take a sneaky photo.

...Oh oh, do you think he saw me?


Posted by joshuag 08:26 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Beijing - The Forbidden City and Tian'anmen Square


sunny -18 °C
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A short blog for Beijing because even though I spent three full days there, I quite sensibly spent the first two recovering from the flu at the hostel. I was quite fortunate that I had a dorm all to myself for my entire stay because by this stage I had a heavy cough and it would have been pretty annoying for any would-be bunk mates. Not to mention that I didn't want to spread it to other travellers. It was also nice because there were two portable oil heaters in the dorm and I got to drag both of them right next to my bed - quite a bonus considering Beijing city was hitting around -22 C during the night.

I took a trip to a convenience store to buy several lemon based drinks as well as some Chinese throat lozenges. The latter I bought more for the amusing photo on the packet rather than to relieve my sore throat.

Chinese throat lozenges, only in China could a product be marketed with this photo on the packaging

The hostel was home to four cats which roamed freely around the courtyard and common room. Usually I'd be patting cats without hesitation, but I've become quite wary of animals while I'm overseas. It goes without saying I should keep away from strays, but even those with owners, you never know how well they are being taken care of with respect to vaccinations, deworming, fleas or other nasties. I did scratch one of them on the head but only because it sat and stared at me for ages with a tilted head and big cute eyes then meowed as if to say, "Why don't you like me?".

One of the resident hostel cats taking up the whole couch

At first, the people running the hostel weren't very friendly and appeared generally apathetic about their guests. But then all of a sudden they became really friendly and this mood change occurred only after I had a conversation with some other travellers in the common room about how I'd spotted some fake "good reviews" on the hostelworld website for some other hostels that had been obvisouly written by the hostel owners themselves. The staff members from this hostel were in the same room when I had that conversation and I noticed they had something that resembled a team-huddle afterwards. I also remembered that this hostel also had some really good reviews (hence why I picked it) that I though were a little undeserving. Hard to prove my suspicions, perhaps my imagination was running wild or they could have just been reminded that I was going to be writing a review on them.

Met a nice couple, Stefan and Sophie, at the hostel. They are students from Munich, Germany who are travelling around Asia during one of their breaks. They asked me to contact them if I pass through Munich so that we could at least catch up for a drink. Throughout my travels thus far, I have already aquired a long list of potential contacts in several European countries. I don't know if by the time I get there months from now, I'll actually feel comfortable contacting some of them. You never know if you will be greeted with a, "Josh who?", or "Josh! We've been waiting for you to get here!". Though I'm sure Stefan and Sophie will be of the latter category.

Stefan, Sophie and I at the hostel in Beijing

On my third day in Beijing I was feeling much better so I finally decided to get out of the hostel and see the main sights. Thankfully the Olympics had payed a visit to Beijing in 2008 which has resulted in an extremely foreigner-friendly transport system. Not only did railway stations in large cities have an English speaking ticket window (though almost always manned by the grumpiest, most apathetic person on earth) but also the Beijing Metro was really easy to use. It was even easier to use than the ones in Japan, and that's saying something.

The Xisi subway platform on Line 4 of the Beijing Metro

It was in Beijing when I finally had enough of the queue jumpers. I was buying a subway ticket from the manned ticket window because I didn't have coins for the automatic ticket machine, and a woman barged in front of me even though I was the only one in the queue and already up to the window. Up to that point, I was always either amused or caught so much by surprise by the queue jumpers that I had no time to react. Not only that but I am the type, or should I say, I was the type that liked to avoid confontations. This time, as soon as she started talking to the ticket man, I interrupted her by putting my hand between her face and the ticket window and said to her, "No no no. Wait your turn lady!", then I bumped her out of the way and finished buying my ticket. She didn't really react much, she just moved aside with a look on her face like if she'd just been slightly inconvenienced.

Immediately out of the Tian'anmen West subway station, I spotted the grandness that is the ironically named "Gate of Heavenly Peace" also known as just "Tian'anmen". It leads to the Forbidden City and faces directly on to Tian'anmen Square (which is where I see the irony due to that little incident just over 20 years ago). From there I could also see the National Centre for the Performing Arts (a.k.a "The Egg") and large flat open area that could only have been Tian'anmen Square. When I got closer and Tian'anmen revealed itself in all its grandeur, I woke up from my traveller's daze and truly realised I was actually in China. Flanked by four large Chinese flags on either side and still proudly displaying a large portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong in the middle, this gate has got to be the most classic and prominent symbols of Communist China.

First look at Tian'anmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace)

The National Centre for the Performing Arts ("The Egg")

Right outside of this gate, it was full of touts and scammers. Ignoring them completely seemed to work quite well around these parts, though sometimes a sharp, confident "Bu yao" would be required for the more persistant ones.

I have to admit, I was lucky it had snowed in Beijing because the Forbidden City looked quite awesome. I have seen pictures of it without snow and they don't compare to how I saw it.

Time for lots of photos now, which as we all know, each one tells a story of a thousand words. I won't bore you with the specifics of each gate, hall and building because there are so many of them that I would be here forever and you'd fall asleep. If you are really interested in the details, just google the Forbidden City and I'm sure you'll find the layout and names of each and every building, or perhaps you should actually visit Beijing yourself! All I will say, is that the Forbidden City, formally known as the Imperial Palace, was built around 1406 to 1420 and it was the permanent residence of the emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

First look inside the Forbidden City from the entrance

The snowy grounds within the Forbidden City

Walking through the central axis of the Forbidden city, it was a progression of gates and halls, each one with a specific purpose and a profound name (such as "Hall of Preserved Harmony"). Each of the halls in the central axis housed an Imperial throne, each one bigger and more grandious than the last.

Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest hall within the Forbidden City

The imperial throne inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony

The sun glistening through the statue decorations on the roof of one of the halls

The number of statues along roof ridges represented the status of the building. The maximum allowed was 10 statues and the only building in the Foridden City, and in fact all of China, allowed to have 10 statues was the Hall of Supreme Harmony. This hall was were the Emperors hosted their enthronment and wedding ceremonies.

The roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony with 10 statue decorations, the only one with this number in China.

Aside from the gates and halls, there were also plenty of ornaments and statues surrounding some of the buildings as well as the Imperial Garden at the very end of the main axis. The garden was probably my favourite part.

A Copper and Iron Lion Statue in front of one of the Halls, there was a pair of these on each side of the steps

A Copper and Iron Vat. There were lots of these situated next to the halls and they were apparently filled with water and used to fight fires, which occurred often due to their lack of lightning rods in those days

Huge lamps in Forbidden City

A 400 year old tree in the Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City

One of the four amazing looking pavilions in the Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City, there is one for each season, I forgot which season this one represented.

A gate along the side path parallel to the central axis

At this point, my camera started behaving strangely, showing almost no battery life left, to suddenly having plenty and at one point it shut down completely. I figured it was due to the extreme cold and I later read that my camera's optimum operating temperature is only between 0 to 40 C. Also, my fingers only have an optimum operating temperature of between 15 to 30 C so this combination made taking photos quite difficult on a -12 C day.

After leaving the Forbidden City, I headed across the road to Tian'anmen Square, the infamous site of the 1989 massacre. Before entering the square, you must pass through a metal detector and your belongings are searched and x-rayed.

The Tian'anmen Gate from Tian'anmen Square

Tian'anmen Gate and the National Flag on Tiananmen Square

Monument to the People's Heroes, Tian'anmen Square

Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, Tian'anmen Square

The Great Hall of the People (background) seen from the south side Tian'anmen Square

I can't say that Tian'anmen Square itself is much of a tourist attraction since it's just a huge open area with a building and monuments in the middle. For me, the interesting part was (perhaps a little morbidly) being on the spot where the massacre had occurred over 20 years ago. After leaving the square, I headed down the road a couple of blocks towards the Grand Hotel Beijing, which is quite a famous Beijing landmark.

The Grand Hotel Beijing

Intersection near the Grand Hotel Beijing

According to my calculations, the scene of the famous "Tank Man" incident during the closing stages of the Tian'anmen Square massacre, occurred at the above intersection, roughly where the silver car is located to the right of the bus. I wanted to take a photo from the famous angle at the Beijing Hotel (though from ground level) but I was already starting to attract funny stares from the police men patroling the footpath, so quite sensibly I decided to make a hasty retreat.

It was getting colder and darker, so I decided to head back to the hostel so I could get warm, have dinner and have an early night ready for my departure from China the next day.

Once again the subway saved the day for my trip out to the airport. A couple of really simple transfers and I was at the gates of the departure terminal. The Beijing airport is really quite flash. The departure terminal is a huge building with a dome-like roof supported by huge columns. The place is really clean and easy to navigate due to the English signage and the check-in counters are all set out really well in a long line of parallel counters.

The Beijing departures area, there is a whole other floor for arrivals right below this one

Well, that's that for China, a crazy country in which there was lots to like but plenty to dislike also.

My favourite parts were the amazing landmarks that I got to visit which had previously seemed almost fictional, like the Terracota Warriors, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tian'anmen Square and last but not least the incredible limestone hill formations around Guilin and Yangshuo in the Guangxi Province. I'll also never forget the surreal introduction I had to China as we sailed into Shanghai through the misty Pudong River. The local people that I did get to know were really friendly and welcoming, particularly the hostel staff in Guilin, Yangshuo and Badaling.

What didn't I like? Well that's easy, the queue jumpers, general rudeness, the traffic, blocked websites (youtube, facebook) and most of all, the constant spitting. I also have to confess that before I went to China, I didn't really like Chinese food, and now after a month of eating the real thing, my opinion hasn't really changed. There are certain dishes that I did like, quite a lot actually, but in general it's not my food of choice, especially their meat dishes which almost always come with lots and lots of chewy fat and/or bones still attached - Thanks, but no thanks!

Luckily I don't have to worry about offending the majority of the Chinese population because chances are this blog will be blocked by the sophisticated web filters employed by Chinese ISP's on orders from the Chinese government - I have after all mentioned the words Tian'anmen Square and massacre in the same page. This is not an exaggeration by the way, it is almost guaranteed to happen.

I only just barely scratched the surface of China, it is such a huge country and I was constantly reminded by people of all the amazing places I should have visited, but just didn't have the time to go - so perhaps I will return one day. One thing for sure, if I do return, it will definitely be in spring or summer! Though I really did appreciate the relatively small crowds at all the tourist sites due it being the low season.

Goodbye China! Onwards it is on to my next destination...

Posted by joshuag 01:26 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Badaling - Influenza and the Snowy Great Wall


semi-overcast -15 °C
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During my last day in Xi'an I had started to feel just a little under the weather, but I thought it was combination of smog and fatigue from all the walking I'd been doing as well as the ridiculous bike ride I'd taken along Xi'an's city walls. It wasn't until I boarded my train to Beijing that I knew for sure I had caught some sort of cold. Luckily, the journey was only 11 hours and I had bought the highest class ticket (Soft Sleeper) on a much nicer train so the amount of mysery was kept to a minimum.

So far in China all the destinations I had been to only had "K" trains running along their routes. The "K" trains are some of the oldest trains on the railway network. They are slow, cold and the carridges I travelled on only had squat toilets. I won't go in to too much detail about the quality of these squat toilets, suffice to say I felt like dunking myself in to a vat full of disinfectant every time I used one. At least I always carry a little bottle of hand sanitizer with me, otherwise I would have gone insane - I'm one of those neurotic people that uses their elbows to push elevator buttons and door handles in public places. Because the train route from Xi'an to Beijing is quite major, I could finally opt for one of the nicer "Z" trains which are much faster, cleaner and the better class ticket carridges have very comfortable beds in lockable compatments - not to mention they have relatively nice and clean Western style toilets.

There was only one other person in my four bed compartment and he was a business man from Xi'an who spoke decent English. He was polite and friendly although very serious but at least I was able to have have a conversation with somebody on a train, even though it was just small talk. Not feeling the best, I had an early night and was fast asleep before 10 pm. At around 5:30 am I was awakened by the Chinese version of elevator-style music that they play when the train nears its destination.

That morning I realised I had caught something a little worse than the common man-cold when I started feeling all the classic symptoms of the flu. These included a sore body (I swear even my hair hurt), a slight fever, a cold sweat, a light-headedness feeling whenever I turned my head and just an all round miserable feeling. I started to worry a little, not only because I could have contracted the dreaded H1N1 virus, but also because I was due to fly out of the country in only six days time and most airports are measuring passenger's temperatures before boarding. All of this and I also had to deal with arriving in a brand new city where the temperature was a bone chilling -18 C (officially the coldest place I'd ever been to). To be honest, with all the spitting and uncovered mouth coughing and sneezing that Chinese people do, I wasn't particularly surprised that I had caught the flu - I did almost predict me contracting it in an earlier blog. The only thing that stopped me from going to a doctor, was that my lungs were fine and I was still breathing easy.

Unfortunately my journey for that day was still not over because I was not staying in central Beijing that day. I had already booked two nights at a hostel in Badaling which is just over an hour northwest of the center of Beijing and one of the largest and most popular entry points to the Great Wall of China. To get there I had to catch a train from the Beijing North Railway station and I had just arrived at the Beijing West station. This meant catching a bus then walking a few blocks to the Beijing North Railway station before finally catching a final train to Badaling.

It had snowed quite heavily in Beijing about a week before I got there and although the roads and most of the footpaths had been cleared of much of the snow, it was still piled up on the side of the footpaths and really slushy in places. The worst part was that I didn't know which way to start walking from the bus stop and it took me a while to find someone who spoke English so I could get directions. By the time that happened, I had already walked two long blocks in the completely wrong direction. Even though I spotted the roof of the train station pretty quickly, the area was not very pedestrian friendly and it took me around 45 minutes in total to negotiate my way there with all the detours I had to take around barriers, motorways and snow piles. Walking around with a steadily worsening flu along the freezing cold and slippery streets from the bus stop to the railway station with a pack on my back was without a doubt the lowest point in my trip so far. It was quite a relief once I had bought my train ticket and got to rest for about an hour until my train started boarding.

The snowy views outside the train from Beijing to Badaling

After finally arriving in Badaling, all the other passengers (day trippers to the Great Wall) headed north towards the Wall's entrance. I was left alone on the steps of the tiny station inspecting the directions to my hostel that I had printed out. The directions told me it was only a short 5 minute walk and that I should head south for about 30 meters and then cross the railway tracks to the nearby Badaling Village, but after walking for about 50 meters along the empty road, there was still no sign of a crossing and I thought perhaps the map had been incorrect, or even worse, that I had gotten off at the wrong station. Even though it was sunny, there was a gusty cold wind blowing and I didn't want to risk walking around for hours looking for it in the cold so I headed back to the station where I showed the hostel's address (written in Chinese) to the non-English speaking guard standing inside the doorway. After looking at the address for a while looking rather pensive and mumbling to himself in Chinese, he pointed north, and said "Twenty minute". Not surprisingly, I was not particularly confident with his directions but I started walking northwards anyway whilst looking for someone that could give me a second opinion. Unfortunately the street was now almost completely desterted except for a lonely brown mini van parked underneath a bridge with a man sitting behind the wheel and a woman standing next to the open side door. They were both looking at me quite eagerly and it wasn't long before I realised it was an illegal taxi. As I approached, the woman pointed to the open door and said, "Hello? Taxi?" I knew the hostel wasn't far but I would have taken the taxi just so I could get to the right place and somewhere warm as quickly as possible. I showed her the address to which she reacted in a similar manner to the railway station guard. After a while, she also pointed north and said, "Yes. Taxi" and gestured for me to get inside the van - I asked, "How far? How long?". She pointed north and said "Thirty minute". Now I knew something was wrong because the hostel was supposed to be only a 5 minutes walk, how could it have been 30 minutes by taxi? I said "No thank you, I walk" and continued northwards. This didn't deter her because she started following me on foot, repeatedly shouting "Hello? Taxi? Hello?". No matter how much I dismissed or ignored her, she went on and on until I finally had enough so I turned around and shouted "No taxi! Bu yao! Bu yao!". Finally it was silent, though rather comically about 10 seconds later I heard a distant and solitary, "Hello? ...Taxi?"

Eventually I reached a small complex of buildings where I spotted a small cafe with a woman standing inside near the door. I walked inside and she greeted me with a big smile so I showed her the address. She proceeded to have a long discussion in Chinese with another staff member who also came over and joined her in studying the address while I stood there once again not feeling too confident. Finally she turned to me and gestured for me to follow her as she walked out the door. She took me to a bigger, flashier cafe across the road and about a block away. After the two women had a short discussion in Chinese, the woman from this other cafe greeted me with near perfect English and told me her brother owned the cafe as well as the hostel I was looking for and she was going to call them so they could come and pick me up. With a mixture of relief and skeptisim, I thanked them and sat down to wait on one of their comfortable couches. About two minutes later, a very friendly woman walked in and said, "Joshua? You booked through hostelworld?". With a big sigh of relief, I replied, "Yes!" and just managed to restrain myself from hugging her (I had justifiably suspected this was going to be a scam to get me to go to a different hotel). I thanked everybody again and two minutes later I was at the entrance to the hostel. It turned out that I had initially walked in the right direction from the station, but their "30 meters" estimate was off by about 150 meters (the directions I've been given by hostels in China are almost always incredibly vague and/or inaccurate).

From the outside, the hostel looked quite cold and isolated, surrounded by only a few other buildings and large flat areas covered in a thick blanket of snow. In the background you could see an endless row of snow laden hills and the only sound you could hear was the howling wind.

The area around the Great Wall Courtyard Hostel (right), in Badaling

My fears about the hostel disappeared as soon as I walked in and caught sight of their courtyard. It was sealed from the outside by a roof surrounded by large windows that let in lots of sunshine. All of the guest rooms had doors and windows that faced directly on to the courtyard and a small pond with a fountain and gold fish lay at the center. Around the edges of the courtyard there were several tables and comfortable looking couches. The whole place was tastefully decorated with lanterns and wooden furniture which gave it an authentic Chinese look and feel.

A Buddha statue facing the entrance of the hostel

The pond, furniture and rooms surrounding the courtyard

The courtyard of The Great Wall Courtyard Hostel in Badaling

Even better, I had actually booked a bed in their six bed dorm, but the dorm was under renovation so I was given a private double room for the same price. This was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time given that I was feeling absolutely miserable with the flu. My room was not only equipped with AC but it also had one of the old style water radiator heaters so it was warm, dry and cosy.

My room seen from the courtyard at the hostel

It wasn't long before I was tucked up in bed in the fetal position and sleeping like a baby (yes I know, I'm pathetic). When I woke up at around 7 pm, I ventured out of my room and was immediately invited by the hostel staff to join them and the other guests for a free home cooked meal. The only other guests was a couple from Australia who were making their way home through Asia after having lived and worked in London for the last three years. The food was delicious, or at least I think it was delicious because I couldn't really taste anything by that stage. There couldn't have been a better time for me to get a hearty home cooked meal as well as several cups of steaming hot green tea. The hostel is owned and operated by a husband and wife team and some of their extended family. Apart from the wife who spoke almost perfect English, the rest could only speak a little, but they were genuinely friendly, hospitable and obviously very keen to make their guests feel comfortable.

After dinner, I excused myself and headed back to bed so I could get as much sleep as possible. Unfortunately that night my body begun attempts to detoxify so I woke up in the middle of the night suffering from a dripping cold sweat which is not the best thing when you're away from home and unable to change the sheets. Luckily I was in a double room with two beds so I just changed beds instead!

The next day was a little overcast but with only the slightest of breezes. I don't know what temperature it was, but it was definitely in the double figures below zero. Having no wind was the important part because that day I planned to visit the Great Wall of China and I didn't want to get hypothermia at the same time as having the flu which would probably have meant the end of me. Now, usually common sense would have told me that going out on a long walk in the freezing cold whilst suffering from the flu would have been a rather stupid idea, but I thought I travelled all this way and this was probably the only chance I would ever get to see the Great Wall, so in the end it was an easy decision. Actually, originally I was planning on taking a tour to one of the more remote parts of the wall, but this involved a bit of a hike and most of the tours had been cancelled due to the deep snow and now because of my flu I had no choice but to take the easier option.

I had a huge breakfast at the hostel, then geared up with several layers of clothing, including thermal underwear, two pairs of socks, two pairs of trousers, a t-shirt, two long sleeve tops, a jacket, insulated gloves, a scarf, a hat and a thermus (hot water bottle) full of boiling water. By the time I had walked to the entrance about 2 kms from the hostel, I was actually sweating so I had to remove one of my long sleeve tops and tie it around my waist.

The Badaling entrance to the Great Wall of China seen from the section before the first tower

The first part of the wall was quite crowded, though I was told it was very quiet compared to what it's like in the high season. The views were quite spectacular, especially with the snow around the hills and you could see the wall zig zagging up, down and side to side far into the distant hills. Walking along it became a cycle of punishment (long steep climbs) followed by rewards (excellent views and easy downhills).

Along the side of the Great Wall near the entrance

Yes, I was really at the Great Wall of China

The poor girl that took the above photo was almost a bit reluctant and I knew exactly why, she had to take her glove off to press the button and even a few seconds without gloves became quite uncomfortable.

After a couple of hours, I reached the highest point on my walk which was a tower on the tallest hill in the vicinity. There I rested for a while gazing at the views - actually, I rested at every tower that I reached. I would lean against the wall of the tower, sheltering from the chilly breeze whilst sipping hot water poured from my thermus.

Me standing at the highest point that I reached on the Great Wall of China

Almost everybody that reached this high point, took a few snaps, then promptly turned around and doubled back the way they had come. Luckily I had insider knowledge after talking to the Australian couple from the hostel the night before. They had already visited the Great Wall and they told me that you could continue along the wall until you reached a large red flag with Chinese characters on it, and this flag marked a small underpassage that led to a different entry point to the wall. After that you could walk along the main road for a couple of kilometers before linking up with the main Badaling entrance where you had started. So I set off on my own down the empty section of the wall, and this definitely became the highlight of my walk. I was virtually on my own and I was confident I would make it back before it got dark because I spotted something red on the side of the wall in the far distance. It was extremely quiet and peaceful and even though there were still a few steep climbs, the majority of this section was now down hill.

An isolated part of the Great Wall, I was the only one around in this section for several kilometers in either direction

Parts of the wall were really steep and had no steps, I would have been sliding down the icy path if it weren't for the hand rails

Even though I was at the most popular and touristy parts of the Great Wall, it actually felt like I was in one of the remote parts. It was really peaceful and the only sound you could hear was a slight breeze whistling through the wall's turrets and my shoes crunching the small amounts of snow still left around the edges of the wall. I reached my last tower where I took a long break just gazing at the wall which went on and on into the distance.

The view down the empty wall from within one of the towers

Strangely enough, throughout most of my walk, I didn't feel that bad and I almost forgot that I was sick. Perhaps I was distracted by the incredible views or the concentration I was putting in while negotiating the tricky steep steps.

I got back to the hostel just as it was starting to get dark outside and I headed straight to bed after taking a long hot shower. My mission had been accomplished and I could then get on with relaxing and just trying to recover. I slept for a couple of hours before I heard a gentle knock on my door. I opened it to find the young niece of the owners inviting me for another one of their free home cooked meals, this time a traditional Chinese "Hot Pot". How could I say no? Once again it was nice to have a hot, home cooked meal, as well as a couple of beers!

Our Chinese Hot Pot dinner - The couple who owns the hostel are on the left, their niece is in the middle and the Australian couple on the right (unfortunately I forgot everyone's names except for the woman owner who's name is Nie)

This hostel was probably the best place I could have stayed at considering how I was feeling. It was hands down the best hostel I stayed at in China. It had plenty of character, the rooms were very comfortable, the staff were genuinely friendly and to top it off, we got free home cooked meals every night I was there. They quite justifiably got a brilliant review and top marks from me on the hostelworld website (I forgave them for the bad directions).

So that was it for my Great Wall adventure, though my sickness continued for a few more days, but don't worry, I'll try to keep the complaining and feeling sorry for myself down to a minimum on my next blog.

And mum, don't worry, I'm fine now.

Hui tou jian!

Posted by joshuag 06:58 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Xi'an - City Walls and the Terracotta Army


semi-overcast 4 °C
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Forgive me Father for it's been 17 days since my last blog.

So I left Yangshuo at around noon on the 2nd of January for another one and a half hour bus journey back to Guilin where I was catching a train to Xi'an. Once again I sat right at the back of the bus so I could have a corner to keep my pack and pockets away from idle hands (it's amazing how aware I've become of every pocket and bag that I carry). I seemed to give the other foreigners on the bus the same idea because when they saw me, they headed straight for the back of the bus and sat right next to me. Everyone on board was Chinese except for me, a couple from India and a couple from Australia.

By the time we reached my stop in Guilin, everyone except the Australian couple had gotten off and I noticed two lone unclaimed backpacks sitting on the footpath beside the bus. I realised immediately that they belonged to the Australian couple and that the driver had taken them off the bus without checking who they belonged to. I quickly jumped back inside as the driver was about to close the doors and I yelled out to them to warn them of what had happened. Looking rather shocked, the Aussie guy quickly jumped out and shoved the packs back into the luggage compartment. Needless to say, he was extremely thankful towards me, and not too happy with the driver. It felt nice to have done a good deed for some fellow travellers, because out here it sometimes feels a like it's us against them - a harsh generalization perhaps, but that's what it feels like.

Later that evening I embarked on yet another long haul train journey, this time for 27 hours to Xi'an in the Shaanxi Province. Once again I didn't encounter any other English speakers on my carridge and I resorted to sleeping and listening to my iPod for the entire journey but it didn't really bother me because I wasn't in a particularly talkative mood. The windows on this train were just as dirty as the last and I couldn't really get any good views let alone photos, but I did get one that encapsulated the general mood of the views outside my window.

A typical sight outside my train window along the route from Guilin to Xi'an, I actually liked that the window was dirty for this photo

I arrived in Xi'an late in the evening to a chaotic scene outside the train station. It's one thing to turn up in a strange city during the day, but when you're alone, it's dark and there are hoardes of people everywhere, it can be quite intimidating. Luckily I knew which bus to catch to my hostel and after a quick search I found the bus stop which was through one of the city wall gates and over the road from the railway station, so it all went pretty smoothly considering.

My first day in Xi'an involved a meandering walk around the city center. The center of Xi'an is surrounded by a huge city wall about 12 meters high, 12-14 meters wide and with a circumference of 13.74 kilometers. It is the longest, most intact and best preserved ancient city wall in China and it does look impressive, especially at night when it's all lit up.

One of the towers along the southern end of Xi'an's city wall

The South Gate of the Xi'an city wall, it is the main gate and my hostel was only about 50 meters away

There are a few lone towers dotted around the center of the city within the city walls, the most important of these would be the Bell Tower, which lies at the very center of the city. The next one is the Drum Tower which is larger and about 2 kms to the west of the Bell tower. I wasn't much in the mood for paying expensive entry fees so I skipped actually going inside them.

The Bell Tower at the center of Xi'an

The Drum Tower in Xi'an

The next day I went shopping for a scarf at the markets in the Muslim quarter located near the drum tower. Just before entering the Muslim quarter, I stopped by a cafe for a much needed dose of caffeine. As I exited, an old woman pan handler hoveled over to me and pushed her empty tin cup in my face. I figured this was the perfect time to get rid of my Jiao notes which I had separated and put in my back pocket for an occasion such as this. A Jiao is a fraction of a Yuan, that is, 1 Jiao is one tenth of a Yuan (so currently 1 Jiao is around NZ$0.02). To me they are a pain to carry around in my wallet so I thought at least I could give them away instead of throwing them out. As soon as I dumped a few of the notes in her cup, the woman gave me a big smile which quickly turned in to a frown as she looked in to her cup. Then she extended her arm towards me once again while saying something in Chinese. Who could blame her for not being particularly satisfied with what I had given her, but for her to insist on more money and then proceed to grab my arm quite forcefully was a bit too much so I just walked away. Obviously the phrase "Beggars can't be choosers" doesn't apply in China.

Anyway, once in the Muslim quarter markets, shopping for the scarf turned out to be fun and a headache at the same time. I quite liked haggling prices with the stall merchants, but as soon as you show a hint of interest in one of their products, they don't shut up and they insist on showing you every item they have for sale instead of leaving you in peace to choose colours/sizes/etc. In a couple of the stalls, the person running it would call out to a colleague from another stall to come and stand in the narrow exit so that you'd be trapped inside. After a while, I got sick of being trapped in their stalls so I returned to the very first stall where the young guy running it simply said, "Take a look, if you see one you like we can discuss prices". He won for being the least pushy, not to mention that he had the nicest scarf. I felt satisfied haggling the price down by only 20 Yuan which was still a bargain.

It's quite strange haggling for prices in a cheap country. You know the prices are cheap compared to the West, but they begin with what would be hugely overinflated prices for the locals. So you are torn between not wanting to rip them off because most of them are obviously just barely scraping by, and also not wanting to look like a silly tourist mug for paying what they would consider to be ridiculously high prices.

The next day, I finally decided to visit Xi'an's main tourist attraction, the Terracotta Army. The Terracotta Army, dating from 210 BC, was created to guard the tomb of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang and they were discovered by local farmers in 1974 while they were digging for a water well. For this excursion, I teamed up with two Aussie girls, Jill and Michaela, that I met at the hostel a couple of nights before. Jill works in Beijing and Michaela was visiting a mutual friend there and they themselves had only known eachother for about a week. They were very nice and down to earth and I think going with them made the trip much more enjoyable. The archeological site is about 50 kilometers from Xi'an and we all decided to skip the expensive tours offered by the hostel and do it on our own by taking the regular buses without a guide (none of us are fans of tour guides).

Once we reached the site, we had to walk through a mini concrete and bricks village full of souvenir shops, restaurants and people offering to be our guides before we finally got to the actual entrance to the archeological site. Although it was really cold that morning (around -5 C), this meant that there were very few other tourists there and for once in China at a tourist location, it didn't feel crowded. Since we were doing it without a guide, we ended up walking through the buildings in a not so intended route but by the end our opinion was that we had done things in the perfect order.

We started by turning to the right and entering the museum which only contained scaled down models of some of the statues, and although they were impressive, with the real thing only a few buildings away we skipped through it rather quickly.

A model displayed in the museum of one of the war chariots. The actual chariots were made out of wood and only a few small fragments have survived

The next building we entered was Pit 2 which is the second largest pit. The statues in this building were mostly in pieces and scattered all over the ancient tiled floors.

Some smashed Terracotta statues in Pit 2

All of the statues in each of the pits were arranged in proper battle formations along corridors separated by thick compressed earth walls. Each corridor is lined with brick tile floors and covered by wooden ceilings. Many of Pit 2's corridors remain unexcavated and were still covered by these sagging wooden ceilings.

The unexcavated corridors of Pit 2 with the sagging wooden ceilings.

The next building we entered was Pit 3 which is thought to be the command post containing high ranking officers, horses and a war chariot. This pit was quite small but the figures here were more intact and quite impressive (obviously after some restoration efforts).

Me with some high ranking officers and horse statues in Pit 3

The final building we entered was Pit 1 which is the biggest measuring 230 meters long by 62 meters wide. Most of this pit also remains unexcavated with only around 2,000 out of the estimated 6,000 statues having been uncovered. We entered through a side door right at the back of the building which was actually an exit, but it was actually good this way because most of the statues are right at the front and we got to see them in gradually increasing numbers. For me it was one big "Wow" after another. What can I say, it's one of those sights that photos cannot justify. It is truly an amazing sight especially if you consider that it was all created over 2,200 years ago.

Michaela and Jill and the view of Pit 1 as seen from around mid way through the side of the pit

Jill, me and Michaela with the huge Pit 1 in the background

The front lines of the Terracotta Army in Pit 1

Me at the very front of Pit 1

After exiting Pit 1, we had a late lunch at the village before hopping on the bus back to Xi'an. I don't know how, but just before we left, Michaela somehow persuaded me to buy a small box of Terracotta Soldier figurines from one of the souvenier shops, at the time it all made sense because the price was so incredibly low. So much for my "No Souveniers Rule". She became a bit of a souvenier addict in China and was already carrying large bags full of stuff back to Australia. I'm obviously not carrying it around with me for the rest of my journey and a small package should be on its way to New Zealand at this very moment.

Michaela and I doing the "Kneeling Archer" and "Standing Soldier" poses near the exit to the village, a small crowd of amused Chinese tourists gathered to watch our antics.

We had a couple of beers back at the hostel in Xi'an before Jill and Michaela caught a flight back to Beijing. They almost missed their plane because they wanted to stay in Xi'an another night to have a few more drinks and also walk along the city walls with me the next day, but they were unable to reschedule their flight without it costing as much as they had already paid.

Alas, the next day I ventured on a tour along the top of the city walls on my own. The entrance was near the South Gate wich was thankfully only about 50 meters away from the hostel. It was a fine day but it was very hazy and freezing so I put on several layers and set off on my journey. Once on the wall I realised even a stroll to the east or west sides of the walls was going to take forever, so I hired a bicycle and decided I could then do the entire 13.74 kilometer circumference in perhaps just a couple of hours. Actually the sign at the bike hire place said one could do it comfortably in 100 minutes and in fact would they start charging extra for every minute over this time limit. Now, normally it probably would be easy to ride 13.74 kms in 1 hr and 40 minutes but this is an ancient wall. The floor bricks are uneven with large chips taken off them not to mention that my bike had no gears and about 1 km into the trip, when it really got bumpy, I discovered the tyres were a little flat.

The view along the south side of the ancient Xi'an city wall, I think even without the haze you could not have seen the end

My hostel as seen from the south side of the city wall

One of the Towers along the wall taken from another tower

One of the corner towers on the city wall

Once I reached a quarter of the way, I looked at the time and realised I was already 5 minutes over what I should have been. Now I had to not only do the next 3 quarters in the remaining time but also make up for what I had already lost. I thought those cheeky people at the bike rentals must make quite a bit of money in extra charges because I was cycling at a reasonable pace, only stopping very briefly to take photos and I was still running late. Even though the extra charges weren't that much, I somehow became determined to get back within the 100 minutes.

This was the view I had while cycling along the wall. I was quite proud of my special effects.

The Xi'an Railway Station as seen from the north side of the city wall

The main intersection within the city walls just opposite the Railway station, that was about as quiet as I'd seen it.

A large smoke stack as seen from the east side of the city wall, it's this kind of thing (as well as the heavy traffic) that makes China so hazy and polluted

Overall, the sights from the wall weren't that impressive, mostly because the walls are quite far away from most of the attractions in Xi'an and also because there was a heavy haze in the air that day.

By my watch, I reached the bicycle hire stand only 3 minutes over the allowed time but this was only after a mammoth effort over the last quarter of the journey which left my legs a little sore. They didn't charge me anything extra which was good because I would have been quite mad at them for their extremely deliberate journey-time underestimates. At least I got some excercise, though for once in my life I don't really need it with all the walking I've been doing during my trip.

Some guards posted at the entrance of the wall, they are of course just for show.

I was quite glad to have finished my bone shattering bike ride so I decided to head back to the hostel and reward myself with a cold beer before heading to the Railway station and on to my next destination in China.

So that was Xi'an, my favourite large city in China thus far. Somehow, even though it is still crowded it seems much more ordered and less chaotic. Crossing major roads in Xi'an isn't as much of a life and death situation because of the frequent pedestrian underpasses. Also, the streets are much much cleaner and people tended to not toot their car horns as much there. You can also tell there's plenty of money floating around the city. Lots of flash cars along the neat avenues as well as countless shopping complexes selling all the top brands and labels.

Anyway, that's it for now. My next destination is coming up very shortly because I got so far behind...

So until next time, that's me signing out.

Posted by joshuag 06:41 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Yangshuo - China's Tourist Oasis

Xmas and New Years in China

all seasons in one day 10 °C
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I'm going to try and make this blog entry more about photos, mostly because the scenery has finally come alive for me in China, but also because I'm feeling lazy.

An hour and a half after leaving rainy Guilin by bus on xmas eve, I arrived in sunny Yangshuo to some amazing views, it is also in the Guangxi province. I thought Guilin's limestone hills were dazzling, but in Yangshuo they are even more spectacular. Yangshuo is a much smaller city and the entire sky line is dominated by towering limestone hills. It is supposed to have a population of 300,000 but they must all be hiding in caves or under rocks because it has the appearance of a small town of less of than 50,000. Sure it's touristy, the main walking street, called West St, is a testament to this with all the bars, restaurants and souvenier shops, but I didn't care, it was relatively clean and a great escape from the noisy, dusty and congested Guilin. It didn't take long for me to find my hostel, hidden away in a small alley behind the main street only about 50 meters from the Li River and almost directly beneath one of the limestone hills called Green Lotus Peak. The hostel claims to have the best view in town from their roof top bar, and they weren't kidding. Soon after checking in, I ventured upstairs to gaze at the view.

The view from the bar at my hostel in Yangshuo, pity my panoramic photos don't appear correctly on this blog because a single frame does not capture the reality.

The view of Yangshuo from the roof top bar at my hostel, the neon lights show you where West St is

The entrance of my hostel down the small alley by night

Since I was staying in Yangshuo for about nine days to chill out over xmas and new years, I stayed in my own room instead of a dorm room. They didn't have a single room so I had to book a double and it was huge. It had two double beds and if I wanted to there was still plenty of room left for me to do some jazzercise. Pity the inviting beds were a disappointment just like all the other beds I've had in China. They tend to use the base of a bed and forget all about the top mattress, sometimes I wonder if they ever test the beds out themselves, or whether perhaps they find it comfortable to sleep on concrete.

The hostel provided some nice sporty brand name flip-flops from ...er NKIE?

It was great relaxing around Yangshuo over the next few days. Most nights the staff would put on a Chinese barbaque with lots of meat and vegetables. My favourite were the really tasty skewered mushrooms. Xmas day came and went, and I hardly even noticed it, neither did anyone else at the hostel really. Even though there weren't many people staying there (once again, it's the low season) I still met lots of really interesting people from all over the world, Germany, England, the US, Singapore, Argentina and Spain to name a few. Unfortunately, I didn't really get photos of most people because our activities over my first few days consisted mostly of hanging out at the hostel bar or going out to eat at various restaurants and I usually forgot my camera.

The barwoman JC at the hostel was also very friendly and she lets the hostel guests select whatever music they want to listen to, she also didn't complain when we stayed at the bar talking and drinking until 3 or 4 in the morning. She would call everything she liked "cute", even things like food or the warmth of the coal fire.

My "Beer Pong" opponents, Harald and Ulf (both from Germany) ...they won.

Because Yangshuo is a backpacker tourist mecca, the town has adapted to make it as comfortable for tourists as possible, and hence make as much money as possible. There are restaurants and cafes everywhere, most of them offering Western food as well as Chinese. West St is lined end to end with various bars and stores offering touristy souveniers like t-shirts, fabrics, jewelery, children's toys, chop sticks and anything else you can think of.

West St by night, it runs from one end of town to the other.

On one of the days, I decided to rent an electric scooter and take a ride about 15 kms out of town to see the surrounding countryside. I rode along the main road taking little detours now and then when I saw an interesting sight down a side road. The scooter's battery supposedly only had about 30 kms worth of juice so I didn't venture too far but it was quite a fun ride and the roads were really quiet so I didn't have to fear for my life.

My trusty electric scooter - top speed about 40 km/h though with the bumpy roads my average speed was probably about 25 km/h.

The sights were quite amazing along the road too, there were plenty of tourist spots like caves, strange shaped hills and of course rivers which you could take tours on bamboo rafts.

Bridge over Li River, this area appeared to be one of the main bamboo raft launching points

Moon Hill, apparently you can climb up to the top but I was feeling too lazy to do by the time I had reached it

A small farmer's shed and the beautiful scenery

A local farmer carrying vegetables

By the time I was on the main road again on the way back to the city, I had become like one of the locals, freely tooting my horn to let people know I was coming. I had learnt whilst being a pedestrian that people just pull out whenever they want and the only way they stop is if you sound your horn to let them know you're coming. Strangely, when I got back to the hostel several hours later, the battery indicator was still showing full so I'm glad I didn't rely on it to tell me when I should turn back.

The view along the "main" road just nearing the edge of Yangshuo

The same night after my scooter ride I met a couple from Singapore, Tim and Angeline (Tim being originally from Germany) as well as a guy from Argentina, Miguel who works in China for a US company. Over the course of a few friendly beers at the roof top bar we agreed to rent some mountain bikes the next day and take a tour together along a well known trail beside the Li River.

Luckily the weather was pretty good the next day, which happend to be new years eve, and before heading off we decided to have breakfast in noodle restaurant that was quite popular with the locals. Although delicious, my noodles were quite spicy which I think contributed to my first funny-tummy of this trip. Usually I love spicy food and don't have a problem with it so it may have been something else but who knows. Luckily it never got so bad that I had to deal with constant trips to the bathroom which is definitely a good thing when you're on a bicycle the whole day.

The scenery along our bike ride was quite amazing and even though we were cycling through a well established bike route, we were passing alongside farms and through small villages with houses built from mud bricks. The roadway varied from flat concrete to bumpy dirt paths often covered with puddles and thick mud. We were somewhere in between the real rural China and a well trodden tourist trail. We only saw three or four other groups on bikes the whole time, but I can imagine in summer this place would be like the peleton in the Tour of France.

The very start of the cycle trail, it was a good example of what was to come. It was so quiet you could hear your heart beating.

Some of the amazing views along our bicycle tour

We stopped by for lunch in a remote cafe/hostel called the Giggling Tree which is run by a Dutch couple, apparently it's mentioned in the Lonely Planet and has good reviews in hostelworld.com. This was despite one of the locals trying to mislead us in to going to a completely different restaurant on the other side of the river which would have required us to cross with our bikes on small bamboo rafts, for a small fee of course. We were using a pretty vague and badly scaled map of the area, but we were quite sure we didn't have to cross the river. This guy was being very persistent and way too helpful and it wasn't long before we all became suspicious. Once we decided to ignore the guy and head back to the last fork on the road that we had passed, he gave himself away completely by swearing at Angeline in Mandarin and taking off on his motorcycle. After asking another local where the cafe was, she pointed down a different road and we discovered that someone had twisted the sign for the cafe to point in the wrong direction leading people towards the river, it was easy to guess who the culprit was.

Angeline, Me and Tim on our cycle tour not far from the Giggling Tree cafe & hostel, Miguel was the photgrapher

One of our aims was to get to a really old beautiful bridge on the Li River that was supposed to offer some really amazing views, but unfortunately none of the roads or tracks had any sign posts and even though Angeline spoke Mandarin, it was difficult to get good directions from the locals. Our problems were compounded with the fact the roads in and around the villages all became one huge maze. It wasn't long before we completely lost our bearings and the only thing that kept us going in the right general direction was the river. Due to all the confusion and the impending darkness, we never did make it to the old bridge, but we did find another bridge, which although itself was not particularly spectacular, it did offer some of the best views of the day.

View of Li River from one of the many small bridges

Me on bridge of Li River

After arriving back in Yangshuo, we all had a couple of hours rest before heading up to the roof top bar of the hostel for some beers, a barbaque and a few games of pool. We didn't really pay much attention to the time until Tim looked at his watch and pointed out it was fifteen minutes to midnight. Although I had been told that there was going to be a fireworks display put on by the local authorities, the rumour had now changed to no fireworks, pity because the roof top bar would have been a fireworks spectator's paradise.

So a small group of about six of us from the hostel rushed down stairs and on to the main street so we could get a countdown in one of the local bars. Most bars were playing terrible music (as they did every night) and we had to search for a while before we found a place that was actually going to have a countdown (this was China after all). By the time we were inside, it was about one minute to midnight and we were herded off to a small table in the "foreigners" section, then before we could all even order a drink, the DJ started a countdown, it was midnight, we all cheered, looked down at the expensive drinks menu, looked at each other, shook our heads and basically walked out. I can still see the shocked look on our barmaid's face as we walked out without even ordering a single drink. We all headed back to the hostel for a few more cheap beers, better music and some games of beer pong.

Despite it being quite a subdued new years, I was not at all disappointed and it just ended up being another fun night at the hostel bar.

Seconds before new years countdown in seedly little club in Yangshuo, I think we were there less than five minutes

The next morning (I say morning but it was actually around noon) I got up and headed out for breakfast with Tim, Angeline and Miguel before they all left for Guilin. I had already planned to stay another night in Yangshuo just so I could recover from a predictable hangover. We had breakfast at another noodle place, though I didn't actually eat anything myself, mostly because I didn't want to push my luck again with spicy noodles and also because I don't usually have a huge appetite in the morning after a night of drinking. We followed breakfast by a coffee from McDonalds which I have to admit, is a pretty reliable, cheap and consistent source of caffeine in China.

Two cute little girls having a noodle breakfast on new years day, this photo made my morning.

After saying our goodbyes, I spent the rest of the day napping and watching DVDs at the hostel, a perfect start to the new year.

One of the things I liked best about Yangshuo, apart from the amazing scenery of course, was that it is so small you can easily walk from one side to the other, this means there are no noisy, poluting cars or buses, at least not in the main part of town. Another thing that I enjoyed, was that even when you are eating Chinese food, you can almost guarantee that the restaurant will have menus in English and staff there will speak at least a little bit of English. Of course that's not an expectation I have of China, that would be pretty arrogant, it's just that finding places to eat where I know what I'm ordering and trying to communicate with restaurant staff are definitely the hardest things about travelling here, not that it's a huge problem because where there's a hunger there's a way.

So that was it for the south of China (and 2009), heading north from now on and temperatures are going to plummet.

Happy new year!

Posted by joshuag 02:16 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (3)

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