A Travellerspoint blog


Toilet star rating = God bless!

The Lonely Planet describes Kunming as being a popular destination with Chinese tourists. The city itself doesn't have much in the way of appeal for tourists though, all the sights being out of town. The train from Xian to Kunming took 24 hours so we decided to save time and fly. It only cost us around $200 and we arrived at Kunming airport about 12.30am after a pleasant flight. We took a taxi to The Hump Hostel, checked in and crashed out.
We were a little unsure of our plans but the staff at the hostel were extremely helpful. We decided we'd head out to the Stone Forest, as originally planned, then fly to Guilin late that evening (avoiding another 18 hour train journey). We enjoyed a Chinese breakfast of congee and pancakes on the terrace overlooking the city. The pancake was good, but I can live without congee. To get to the Stone Forest you need to take a bus to Shilin, a little town some 70 kms from Kunming. Shilin is home to the Sani minority people, who use the Forest to extract every last yuan from the Chinese tourists who flock here. And flock they do! After we forked out the extravagant 175 yuan entry fee we beheld, not so much a natural wonder, but a theme park filled to overflowing with 'black headed commoners' (a Chinese expression).
It sure was an insight into Chinese mass tourism. The main forest, which is basically a limestone karst outcrop, seems almost totally artificial, with the concrete paths almost melding into the the natural grey rock. Some of the rocks had carved and painted slogans on them. Tour guides marched columns of tourists through this obstacle course explaining the significance of certain outcrops - 'this is woman waiting for husband... this is old man sitting for fish' and some such pap. It was a little disappointing. But the park did have impressive auto flushing toilets (essential in China!) featuring a small 7 inch TV screen showing a documentary on the geological formations of the park!
We got back into the city in the late afternoon and found a really flash restaurant for dinner. After a veritable feast, during which we congratulated ourselves on having eaten so well without any ill effects to date, we wandered the three blocks back to the hostel. A block from the hostel though there was an omnious rumbling from within. Oh no, spoke too soon! We picked up the pace but only just made it in time. We chilled at the hostel with a beer while we waited for the taxi to the airport, but I was feeling decidedly off now. There was a repeat performance at the airport (which had the worst stinking toilets I'd encountered on the trip to date). Although Shelly was fine I had a terrible flight fighting the shivers and a fever. It was an inauspicious welcome to Guilin.

Posted by paulymx 09:59 Archived in China Comments (0)

The Terracotta Warriors

Toilet star rating = - 10

It was an inauspicious morning. The nights antics had left me with a shocking hangover, although, Shelly seemed to have bounced back okay. We had opted to do the half day tour to see the Terracotta Warriors as we had no interest in going to the Banpo neolithic village, the hot springs or other tombs in the area. None of the tombs, including that of the First Emperor have been excavated so there is really nothing to see at any of them. We also hoped that we'd be able to get back early to squeeze in some more sight seeing in the city before we flew down to Kunming at 10.30 that night. There were seven of us on the tour, excluding our driver and guide - a young English couple, the two Kiwi ladies we did the panda tour with, and a lone American. The English couple had arrived at the train station the night before and been caught up in the chaos caused by the demonstration. It took them five hours to get from the station to their hotel near the southern gate! Not an auspicious welcome!
The first stop on the tour was the obligatory visit to a ceramics factory where they made replicas of the warriors, ranging in size from 3 inches high to larger than life size. It was interesting to see the replicas being made. It was quite a manual process. Of course, there are cheaper mass produced versions available at every tourist market in China. We all hoped to get through the sales pitch as quickly as possible and be on our way, but R from Arizona decided he wanted to buy a lifesize warrior to ship home to his mother. Then he wanted to buy a carpet. Then he wanted.... and so it went. We spent over an hour at the shop waiting for him to make his selections and do the paperwork while we all stood around in the carpark impatiently.

Underway again, it took us almost an hour to drive to the site. Our guide, Sunny, asked if we wanted to stop for the lunch stop now, as it was almost twelve. We all agreed we did not. Time was certainly ticking on this tour and it was increasingly apparent this was not going to be a half day tour at all. Sunny escorted us through the massive shopping complex and hawker city that has grown up around the Terracotta Warriors, got our tickets and then we entered the site. She wanted to lead us straight to Pit One, the enormous hanger sized complex that covers the largest of the warrior pits, but we all said we'd rather look at the museum first to get some context, then start at the smaller pits two and three before the grand finale at Pit One. Sunny thought this was a little unorthodox as it was against the usual order of the tours, but we got our way.
The museum had some interesting exhibits, especially the bronze chariotteers that were found in a pit some distance away from the main warrior site. The half size figures are incredibly detailed. The museum also displayed some of the civilian terracotta figures and artifacts from the workers' camp, including some of their own grave goods.
Work on Qin Shi's mausoleum began the moment he ascended the throne at the age of 13 in 246BC. At that stage he was only king of the leading Chinese state. Under his leadership the Qin state progressively swallowed up its rivals and he proudly declared himself First Emperor. Just so everyone was clear about his status he invested untold resources expanding his tomb to monumental proportions. Historians of the time talked about a gigantic underground palace complex of audience chambers, halls filled with gold, painted ceilings set with stars, and surrounded by a model ocean of liquid mercury. All of this was covered by an enormous artifical mountain. They also made a brief note of a huge buried army to guard the tomb. Sadly for Qin Shi, his legacy didn't last and within a decade of his death the empire had shattered into waring factions. A rebel peasant army had ransacked his tomb and burnt the complex to the ground. Centuries later, when European historians read these tales they scoffed at them as totally prepostorous! And that was pretty much the end of the story, until in 1967 a group of peasants was sinking a well shaft into a field and pulled up some broken pieces of terracotta. At first they thought nothing much of this; old pottery gets found all the time. But then they discovered a terracotta human head. That was something to report! The amazing thing is if the well had been only one foot over it would have completely missed the entire site - a site as large as a city block.
The rest, as they say, is history. Archaeologists investigated the find and found some terracotta soldiers, all badly smashed. The more they dug, the more they found. Pit 1, the largest pit, is absolutely enormous and it isn't even fully excavated! But here's the thing - they don't really know what it is they have here. A large relief map of the area shows that the terracotta army is situated on the right hand side of what would have been the ceremonial way leading to Qin Shi's tomb. I would warrant there's another army situated on the left hand side of the ceremonial way too, just as there would have been in life.... But no one is digging. Instead, shopping malls, hotels and theme parks are filling up the landscape.
The discovery of the army of course meant that many of the other 'myths' around Qin Shi's tomb could no longer be dismissed. Ground penetrating radar has since revealed that there is a huge complex beneath the hill marking his tomb. It also shows that there is toxic levels of liquid mercury in the ground. Unfortunately, until a way is found to neutralise the mercury, Qin Shi's resting place is going to remain undisturbed.
So now it's 3pm. So much for a half day tour. Just after we all meet back and set off to the bus, R suddenly realises he didn't visit Pit 2. And off he runs. So we wait again.... He comes back about 5 minutes later and we set off again. We end up at a run down looking restaurant, filthy tables, peeling paint, water stained ceiling, empty... it all looks very auspicious. R and I and the New Zealand ladies all need to go so we duck out the back to the restrooms. We all return looking pale and shellshocked having witnessed visions of unspeakable horror. Someone said, "This might not be the best place to eat."

"Once more into the breach dear friends! Once more.."
Chinese toilets get a bad rap. We have been fortunate in our experience Yes, they are mainly squatters which can be a little unpleasant. Some can be decidedly communal, with either low 3 foot doors or no doors at all. It's not a very comfortable situation to find yourself crouched down next to a perfect stranger wrestling with an inner demon. But most toilets have been quiet passable - even on the trains! BUT, every now and then you do come across a toilet that simply takes your breath away. It's even more frightening when it's at a restaurant. I mean - what must be the state of the hygiene in the kitchen??
Well, we did eat and no one died. Yet. We finally got underway about 4pm and then hit the afternoon peak hour. Traffic into Xian was banked up for miles and slowed to a dead crawl. We got back to our hostel about 6pm. All in all, visiting the warriors by a tour was a waste. We found out later that there is actually a regular bus from the local bus station that will take you to the Terracotta Warriors for about 10 yuan. If we'd done it ourselves we could have been there and back by about 2pm at the very latest.

Posted by paulymx 09:06 Archived in China Comments (0)


Toilet star rating = +5 to -5 stars

The train from Datong to Xian was supposed to take 14 hours, but sometime in the early morning hours the train was stopped on a siding for at least two hours. Instead of arriving at 8.30am we didn't get in until nearly 11. Xian train station is right in front of the northern gateway of the city and it's the first thing you see. The walls, the only completely intact circuit in China, are absolutely huge and put to shame the castles and fortifications of Europe. We were surprised to see a man standing in the massive crowd outside the station holding a sign with our name. We hadn't requested anyone to meet us. It turned out to be a CITS travel agent that Mr Gao had tipped off. At any rate, we followed him as he led us to the 7 Sages Hostel, just a few streets south of the train station. 7 Sages advertises itself as one of the ten most spectacular hostels in the world. We laughed when we read that as the Chinese do have a tedency to exaggerate. Every temple, shop or scenic feature is described in the most elaborate terms ("Do Not Step upon the Luxuriant Fields", ie, grass). In this case it proved not to be an exaggeration. 7 Sages is set in a Ming era complex which was once used as a revolutionary army barracks and a school, was absolutely wonderful. All the staff were friendly and exceptionally helpful.
The presence of the travel agent however did cause some concern at the hostel, who wanted him to leave while he was politely insisting that we follow him to his shop to organise our travel. A few stern words in Chinese were exchanged so we decided we'd check into our room and freshen up and leave them to it. We were quite shocked when we came back over an hour later and the agent was still there waiting for us to go with him. We finally managed to shake him off by going to lunch.
The heart of the old city is marked by the Bell Tower, a massive gateway from which bells were rung in the morning to mark the start of the day. It now sits in the centre of a traffic roundabout. Just to the west is the slightly smaller Drum Tower, from which drums were beaten to mark the end of the day. West of the Drum tower is the Muslim Quarter and to the south is the Southern Gate, the ceremonial gate of the city. All of these buildings are enormous and impressive because Xian was once the capital of China. Xi'an itself means West Capital (or literally 'Peace.' Beijing means North Capital and Nanjing means South Capital). We opted visit the Southern Gate and Xian's massive walls. We'd seen heaps of castles and city walls in Europe of course but Xian's walls were on a whole other scale. The top had been built wide enough for eight chariots to be driven side by side. Little electric gold buggies now take tourists for rides around the walls. We walked along for a bit before deciding this was a bit insane and decided to hire a bicycle. It only cost 20 yuan per person (maybe $5?). After an hours riding we'd only covered about one eighth of the whole circuit.
From the Gate we wandered through a cultural market area filled mostly with paintings and artwork supplies. We didn't make it over to the Muslim Quarter though as we intended to head out to the Large Wild Goose Pagoda just out of the old city to see the fountain show that evening and we were beginning to feel the affects of a lack of really restful sleep over the past two nights. A quick power nap back at the hostel was called for.
When we arrived the girl on reception grabbed us and advised that we had an opportunity to visit an animal rescue centre the next day to see some pandas. The rescue centre was officially closed but they had obtained permission for a private visit. Would we like to go? I was a little dubious as China has a bad reputation as far a zoos go and besides, we'd just paid for a half day tour of the Terracotta Warriors for that very day. The girl said not to worry, they could rearrange the Terracotta Warrior tour. There would be four of us at a cost of 200 yuan each - 100 each for the driver and 100 for the entry. It was a good price. We said we'd have to think about it and left it at that, but the long and short of it was we eventually decided to visit the pandas. It would mean rearranging our plans for the next leg of our trip, but that was scarcely an issue as we didn't really know what we planned to do next anyway! As we needed to be up by 6am we had a quiet night that night.
The next morning we up and on our way towards the Qinling Mountains. As it was Saturday and early the traffic wasn't so bad so we made good progress and arrived at the animal rescue centre around 9am. The old town around the centre was in the process of being redeveloped so the bulldozers had been in. It looked like a war zone. The rescue centre looked pretty run down too. Aparently it was officially closed for redevelopment until June 2011 but they let us in. We passed by a cage filled with blue faced monkeys, red pandas, various types of deer and a leopard. The enclosures weren't any different to those you'd find in any western zoo, but the facilities were in poor condition and the grounds were overgrown. In a large open air enclosure we were delighted to see five baby pandas. They had just been fed and were pretty excitable, running about and wrestling with each other. They look exactly like teddy bears. We all took a ridiculous amount of photos. One panda is an albino. We stayed about an hour and a half before heading back to town.
We were surprised to find traffic in Xian was at a standstill and we crawled along at little more than walking pace. We decided to jump out near the Muslim Quarter and explore and left the driver to take the others back to the hostel. Muslim traders arrived in Xian in the 7th century and have maintained a presence here ever since. The Great Mosque is one of the oldest and largest in China. It doesn't look like a mosque though, being very Chinese in style. It was a pleasant and leafy retreat in the middle of the city.
Around the mosque is the bazaar, now a bustling tourist market. The target audience for all this stuff though is Chinese tourists, who make up by far the largest proportion of tourists in the country. Once the Chinese used to restrict travel for their citizens, now they encourage mass tourism and consumption that stimulates.
We stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant with no English menu (but pictures) and using charades ordered possibly the best meal we've had in China. Chicken in black bean (but it was red) and some noodle dish.
The traffic hadn't let up so we walked back to our hostel. The girl on the desk grabbed us a again and said maybe it wasn't a good idea to go out tonight because there was a parade. We both thought, "hey, a parade. Sounds great! Where?" She tried to explain discretely. "It is the students. They are wanting the government to do something about the Japanese." Ahh, we realised. It was a protest march. There are a tiny bunch of islands in the ocean between Japan, Korea and China called the Spratleys (western name - each country has its own name for them). They are uninhabited, occasionally visited by fishermen, and are all claimed by Japan, China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Of course, while they were all just a bunch of rocks, no one in this dispute really gave two hoots about them, but... in the last few years exploratory drilling has revealed they are sitting on an enormous oil field. Now everyone is seriously interested in them. Japan sparked an international incident recently when one of its warships fired on and sunk a Chinese fishing boat in the area. China demanded an apology and Japan refused. The attrocities committed by the Japanese during their occupation of China are still a very living issue in China, especially as Japan still refuses to apologise for its actions then. All across the country student demonstrations were held to demand the government to take tougher action against Japan. Apparently a Japanese shop and some Japanese cars were burnt during the demonstration.
But we didn't let that stop us. We set off by an alternative route to the Goose Pagoda. We attempted to take a trike-taxi (as all the buses were stopped and cars were banked up) but the driver kept changing his price on us. It must have been a good night for the trike-taxi guys! We jumped out and decided to walk. We thought we'd negotiate with another driver but none came past. In the end we walked for one and half hours and got to the Pagoda in time to see the last five minutes. Damn! We assumed by now the demonstration would be over and could catch a taxi, but we were wrong. As we waited in a queue the road ahead cleared and the queue disolved around us. Up ahead we saw the marchers coming straight at us, waving their banners and shouting slogans. Oh no! A trike-taxi pulled over near us and we rushed over. He asked 50 yuan to take us back to the city (crazy overpriced) but we said yes! It was an auspicious night for him!! Just as the police arrived to wave us away he spun the trike around and took us on a wild ride back to Bell Tower. It was crazy fun as he weaved around traffic and pedestrians, up curbs, on footpaths. At the walls of the city we encountered a second march but he just drove straight through it, forcing the marchers aside. What a ride.
We settled down in Bar Street and had a few drinks. It was pretty mellow. About 11pm we started walking back towards the hostel. We passed the Song & Song nightclub and decided to pop in. It was fantastic. Nightclubs are very different in China and everyone is assigned a table. We were the only westerners in the place. We were about to order drink when two Heineken were deposited on our table. They'd been sent over by table behind us. There was lots of "Welcome to China!" an toasting done. And so it went. As soon as we'd finish a drink, another round would arrive and someone would be clinking glasses and "cheers!" It was a great night.

Posted by paulymx 19:24 Archived in China Comments (0)


Toilet Star Rating - 3 stars

A hard sleeper berth has six bunks to a cabin and no doors. It's a pretty cramped affair and we didn't really expect to get much sleep on the 6 hour journey, especially as Shelly has never enjoyed sleeping on trains. But it wasn't as bad as we thought and we both managed to doze off for a couple of hours.

At 7am we stumbled out of the train station and straight into the arms of Mr Gao of CITS, China International Travel Service. Mr Gao speaks excellent English and meets all the trains as they arrive and pretty much as the foreigner tourist market sewn up. He led us to his office in a street around the corner. A German couple were already there, waiting for their tour and another German couple arrived while we were there. There are four important sights around Datong - the Yungang Grottoes, which contain the oldest Buddhist carvings in China, the spectacular sited Hanging Monastery, the wooden pagoda, the oldest pagoda in China, and some crumbling sections of the Great Wall. The caves and the Hanging Monastery are the most visited. Datong itself isn't particularly exciting, covered in dust and grime from nearby coal mines, so we decided we wouldn't stay but would tour the sights and then take the overnight train to Xian. Mr Gao arranged the train tickets, booked our hostel in Xian and organised a taxi to take us to the caves and Hanging Monastery.
We went first to the Hanging Monastery, some 75 kilometres south of the city. We were amazed by the astonishing amount of development going on in Datong. Everywhere massive apartment buildings were being thrown up in their hundreds - no joke! It was incredible.
The Hanging Monastery is situated high up on a cliffside overlooking a narrow valley. We had an hour here to look around and walk up to the Monastery. It's all build of wood, some of it very old and shakey. Shelly was very nervous as the railings were very very low and flimsy, and Chinese tourists are very very pushy. Any slight slip and you'd plunge hundreds of metres to your death.
The Yungang Caves are only 30 kilometres north of Datong so we had to retrace our steps and drive back through the city. It was now about lunch time so the driver recommended we stop for noodles. He took us to a tiny little cafe in an alleyway in the backblocks of Datong; we wouldn't have even known it was a cafe from the outside. There were startled looks from the locals when we entered. They don't see many foreigners in there. They only had one dish - noodles with an egg and some unidentifiable things in it. Oh my, we thought. This might not be good. But the noodles were lovely but we both passed on the black looking egg.
The Yungang caves has experienced some major investment recently. A huge new complex, convention centre, temple and restaurant has been built there. Fortunately these were set back from the actual caves so we could enjoy them without the theme park atmosphere. The caves were occupied by Buddhist monks from the 7th century and the Buddha carvings here are the oldest in China. Caves 5 & 6 are lavishly painted and were truly breath taking. We took a quick couple of photos even though we weren't supposed to. There are almost 300 caves but only 50 are open.
We slept much of the way back to Datong and made it just in time for the train. This time we had a soft sleeper - a proper 4 berth cabin with a door. We slept really well that night.

Posted by paulymx 06:27 Archived in China Comments (0)

The Great Wall

Toilet star rating = 3 star

We took a "No Shopping" tour to see the Great Wall at Mutianyu, about an hour or so north of the capital. The tour went straight to the wall, allowed us about two and a half hours to explore, stopped for a buffet lunch and then visited the Ming Tombs on the way home.

This was our first experience of Chinese driving so I should probably explain the road rules. In China they drive on the right hand side of the road. Or in the middle. Or on the left. Okay, so they aren't actually road 'rules' per se. People just seem to drive wherever they can see a space. Within the city there is a bus and bike lane that runs alongside the footpath that is supposed to be reserved for buses, motorbikes and bicycles, but it seems like everyone uses it, driving both with and against the flow of traffic. And if things get a little congested, the bikes, scooters and and motor tri-shaws have no hesitation to jumping the curb and riding on the footpath.
So the drive to the Wall was a real eye opener, as in wide-open in terror kind of way. Our bus driver liked the middle of the road especially, swerving back into the right lane whenever an oncoming bus or truck forced him to. Pedestrians too are a constant danger on the road. Out in the country the roadway is pretty much just an extra wide path and people wander across the road and stop in the middle to talk without looking out for traffic. Country people also use the road to dry their produce - corn especially - and to prevent damage to their crops, they place rocks in the road to force the drivers around them. Drivers have to be extremely cautious.
But we arrived safe and sound at our destination. All in all it wasn't too busy at Mutianyu. We took a cable car up to the top and set off walking. The wall itself is an amazing feat of engineering. It runs along the spine of a mountain range that used to separate the Chinese and Mongol kingdoms. It must have involved hundreds of thousands of workers, labouring endlessly to quarry the stone and transport it up the steep mountainsides. The Wall was originally started by the emperor QuiShing, the imaginatively titled First Emperor (he decreed that every subsequent emperor was to named in numerical sequence only - no names or titles. It didn't catch on) as one of his monumental state building exercises. He also built the Tomb of the Terracotta Warriors so more about him later. The Great Wall isn't really one wall, but a sequence of walls built at different times and for different reasons and then linked up later.
Some of the sections of the wall were extremely steep, almost like stairs. The last section was too steep for me with my fear of heights but Shelly continued on while I waited at the bottom like a little girl. Some of our group went down via a tobogan run but we took the chair lift.
After the Wall we visited the Ming Tombs situated in a valley some kilometres away from Beijing. The emperor Yongle, who moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing in the 15th century built his tomb out here and there are some 13 tombs in the valley, Only one has ever been excavated and that was the one we visited. Inside it was like a concrete bomb shelter and not very exciting. We could safely have skipped this excursion.
That night we chilled around the bars at Beipan Lake, just north of the Forbidden City before we picked up our bags at the hostel and headed to the train station. We had booked a hard sleeper berth on the train to Datong.

Posted by paulymx 06:04 Archived in China Comments (0)

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