Monday, June 17, 2019

A trip to China - Day 4 - It's time to leave Beijing and go to Xi'an

 This is the bus we had in Beijing

 Beijing train station.

This place is huge and there are so many people here, perhaps the other half of Beijing's population that wasn't at the forbidden city.

Getting into the station looked like it was going to be fraught with danger but the tour guide got us into the right queue and then arranged for a separate scanner for the group to help keep us all together

Then we decided to take the VIP service and got to waiting room no 13, the VIP service waiting room which was full to overflowing.  Everyone today was a VIP.  We got the red hat guy to lead us to a special area away from the crowd.

Actually, it was on the other side of the gate, away from the hoards sitting or standing patiently in the waiting room.  It gave us a chance to get something to eat before the long train ride.

Departure is at 4 pm, and the trains leave on time.  As it is a high-speed train, stops are far and few between, but we're lucky, this time, in that we don't have to count stations to know where to get off.

We're going to the end of the line.

A train ride with a difference

To make the 5 and a half hours go quicker we keep an eye on the speed which hovers between 290 and 305 kph, and sitting their with our camera waiting for the speed to hit 305 which is a rare occurrence, and then, for 306 and then for 307, which happened when we all took a stroll up to the restaurant car to find there had nothing to eat.

I got a strange flavoured drink for 20 yuan.

There was a lady manning a trolley that had some food, and fresh, maybe, fruit on it, and she had a sense of humour if not much English.

We didn't but anything but the barrel of caramel popcorn looked good.

The good thing was, after hovering around 298, and 299 kph, it finally hit 300.

We get to the end of the line, and there is an announcement in Chinese which we don't understand and attempts to find out if it is the last station fall on deaf ears, probably more to do with the language barrier than anything else.

Then, suddenly the train conductor, the lady with the red hat, comes and tell us it is, and we have fifteen minutes, so we're now hurrying to get off.

As the group were are scattered up and down the platform, we all come together and we go down the escalator, and, at the bottom, we see the trip a deal flags.


This time we have a male guide, Sam, and have a few hiccups before we head to the bus.  Some of our travellers are not on his list, but with the other group.  Apparently a trip a deal mix up or miscommunication perhaps.

Then it's another long walk with bags to the bus.  Good thing its a nicely air-conditioned newish bus, and there's water, and beer for 10 yuan.  How could you pass up a tsing tao for that price?

Xi’an is a very brightly lit up city at night with wide roads.  It is very welcoming, and a surprise for a city of 10 million out in the middle of China.

As with all hotels, it's about a 50-minute drive from the railway station and we are all tired by the time we get there.

Tomorrow’s program will be up at 6, on the bus 8.40 and off to the soldiers, 2.00 late lunch, then train station to catch the 4.00 train, that will arrive at 2 hours later at the next stop.  A not so late night this time.

The Grand Noble Hotel

The Grand Noble Hotel, like the Friendship Hotel, had a very flash foyer with tons of polished marble.  It sent out warning signals, but when we got to our room, we found it to be absolutely stunning.  More room, a large bathroom, air conditioning the works.

Only one small problem, as in Beijing the lighting is inadequate.  Other than that it's what I would call a five-star hotel.  This one is definitely better than the Friendship Hotel. 

In the centre of the city, very close to the bell tower, one of the few ancient buildings left in Xi’an.  It is also in the middle of a larger roundabout and had a guard with a machine gun.

Sadly there was no time for city centre sightseeing.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

A trip to China - Day 4 - The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City

Now we're walking to the Forbidden City, and it seems like we're walking for miles and we're practically exhausted before we get started on the main tour.

There are tour groups everywhere in the large courtyard outside the gate, most likely getting a lecture on the last of the Chinese emperors about that time Sun Yat Sen proclaimed the new China around 1912.  It was a tale of intrigue, interwoven with a 3-year-old emperor, and a scheming concubine who becomes the Emperor's favourite, enough to bear him a son and successor.

Bribery and corruption at its best.

But, back in the courtyard, we are ready to go in and follow the tour guide who has switched from her amplified microphone to a whisper device we all wear in our ears.  She talks and we listen.

We all make it through and regroup on the other side. This is where the fun begins because we are about to meet a large percentage of the 80,000, they let for the day.

It seems to me they have all arrived at the same time, although by the time we get to the entrance gate, it is very well organised, bags are scanned, people are scanned, and you're in.  

From here, we have to cross one of the seven bridges leading to the outer courtyard.

From there it is one pagoda after another with buildings that surround the edge of the whole Forbidden City, as does the moat.

By the time we get to the second courtyard, it was time to have ice cream as a refresher.  Others head up to another exhibit, and it's just too many stairs for us.

After this, it's a walk through another courtyard, heading up and down some more stairs, we go and see the museum, with priceless relics from past emperors.

There are areas like the outer courtyard, the inner courtyard, yet another courtyard, and the gardens where the concubines walked and spent their leisure time.  It is not far from the emperor's wives living quarters, though there's precious little left of the furniture, other than a settee and two rather priceless so-called Ming dynasty vases.

We get into the bad habit of calling all of the vases Ming dynasties.  Above is one of the inner courtyards there were living quarters, and that tree is over 300 years old.

Out through some more alleyways and through an entrance that led to the area where the concubines lived, very spacious, bright, and filled with trees, plants, and walkways through rocky outcrops.

The whole area was made up of living quarters and waterways, rocks and paths, all very neatly set out, and it looked to be a very good place to live.

This is an example of the living quarters, overlooking the gardens

 And there were several pagodas

From there its a quick exit out the northern entrance, and another longish walk to our bus, which arrives at the meeting point shortly after we do.

That done, the Beijing tour guide has completed her section of our China experience, and we're ready to move onto the next, but not before getting onto the high-speed train and head for X'ian.

And a new tour guide by the name of Sam.

Friday, June 14, 2019

A trip to China - Day 4 - Before going to the Forbidden City, it's time for TCM

Day 4 - The Forbidden City

This morning I get up early and get a few photos of the hotel grounds before breakfast.  After all, it is advertised as being spread over 335,000 square metres of which 200,000 square metres are of gardens in the traditional Chinese style

Roads through the hotel grounds were wide enough for the bus to reach our building

Even to the point where there was a roundabout

Tongrentang – Traditional Chinese Medicine

Before we arrive at the Forbidden City we have an appointment with the doctors at the centre for traditional Chinese medicine, or T C M.

It's the same people who tended to the emperor way back, and scored some land to build a facility to bring that medicine to the people.

The prices they charge, there is no way 99 per cent of the population could afford it, only us gullible westerners.  Still, it looks might work so I joined the list of gullible people to give it a go.

What was the diagnosis?  Heart, liver, apparently the same as everyone else, but he did mention thyroid which is not a common problem, so it looks like there might be a grain of truth to it to his medical wisdom.

We shall see.

What worries me is that all the pillboxes look the same, and as the writing is in Chinese there's no way of telling if they are or not.

There was a chart on the wall that accompanied the introduction to Chinese Medicine given by a Professor, or a Doctor, I was not sure which, who told us how everything was linked in groups, as shown above, what ailments were related, and how treatments were formulated.

I was glad, in the end, my problems were only related to the Heart and the liver, mostly because of my type of arthritis.

So much for T C M

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

A trip to China - Day 3 - Hutong, and a genuine Chinese meal


The brochure says: In the afternoon, take the opportunity to join an optional tour (not included) to see Beijing’s 700-year-old Hutong’s (narrow lanes) area by old fashioned pedicab. You will also visit a local family living in a courtyard style home to experience the local customs including a delicious home-cooked dinner. 

The optional tour also includes a visit to Shichahai, a historic scenic area consisting of three lakes (Qianhai, meaning Front Sea; Houhai, meaning Back Sea and Xihai, meaning West Sea), surrounding places of historic interest and scenic beauty and remnants of old-style local residences, Hutong and Courtyard.  

First, we had a short walk through the more modern part of Hutong and given some free time for shopping, but we prefer just to meander by the canal.  

There is a lake, and if we had the time, there were boats you could take.

With some time to spare, we take a quick walk down one of the alleyways where on the ground level are small shops, and above, living quarters.

Then we go to the bell and drum towers before walking through some more alleys was to where the rickshaws were waiting.

The Bell tower

And the Drum tower. Both still working today.

The rickshaw ride took us through some more back streets where it was clear renovations were being made so that the area could apply for world heritage listing.  Seeing inside some of the houses shows that they may look dumpy outside but that's not the case inside.

The rickshaw ride ends outside the house where dinner will be served, and is a not so typical hose but does have all the elements of how the Chinese live, the boy's room, the girl's room, the parent's room, the living area, and the North-south feng shui.

Shortly after we arrive, the cricket man, apparently someone quite famous in Beijing arrives and tells us all about crickets

 and then grasshoppers, then about cricket racing.  He is animated and clearly enjoys entertaining us westerners.

I'm sorry but the cricket stuff just didn't interest me.  Or the grasshoppers.

As for dinner, it was finally a treat to eat what the typical Chinese family eats, and everything was delicious, and the endless beer was a nice touch.

And the last surprise, the food was cooked by a man.

Friday, June 7, 2019

A trip to China - Day 3 - The Great Wall of China, or part of it

The Great Wall of China

The brochure says, [After the Jade Museum], Afterwards take a scenic drive through the countryside and mountains to reach China’s most renowned monument—the Great Wall. You will visit the less-touristy and more original Juyong Pass, avoiding other sections which are the most accessible and consequently most crowded. The Great Wall meanders through China’s northern mountain ranges from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert - a distance of more than 3500 miles. 

This is in a very scenic area and on the first impression; it is absolutely stunning in concept and in viewing.

As for the idea of walking on it, well, that first view of the mountain climb when getting off the bus, the first question was where the elevator is?  Sorry, there is none.  Its walk on up or stay down the bottom.

Walk it is.  As far as you feel you are able.  There is quite a few who don't make it to the top.  I didn't.  I only made it to the point where the steps narrowed.

But as for the logistics, there's the gradual incline to the starting point, and what will be the end meeting place.  From there, it's a few steps up to the first guard station no 7, and a few more to get up to the start of the main climb.  The top of the wall is guard station no 12.

Ok, those first few steps are a good indication of what it’s was going to be like and it's more the awkwardness of the uneven heights of the steps that's the killer, some as high as about 15 inches.  This photo paints an illusion, that it’s easy.  It’s not.

If you make it to the first stage, then it augers well you will get about 100 steps before you both start feeling it in your legs, particularly the knees, and then suffering from the height if you have a problem with heights as the air is thinner.  And if you have a thing with heights, never look down.

This was from where we stopped, about a third of the way up.  The one below, from almost at the bottom.  One we’re looking almost down on the buildings, the other, on the same level.

It requires rest before you come down, and that's when you start to feel it in the knees, our tour guide called it jelly legs, but it's more in the knees down.  Descending should be slow, and it can be more difficult negotiating the odd height steps, and particularly those high ones.  You definitely need to hang onto the rail, even try going backwards.

And, no, that rail hasn't been there as long as the wall.

While you are waiting for the guide to return to the meeting place at the appointed time, there should be time to have some jasmine tea.  Highly refreshing after the climb.

Lunch, today, is included, back at the jade factory

It is also a restaurant, and here we are being served Australia Chinese dishes that lean towards Chinese cuisine, but, it's definitely not authentic Chinese food.

I won't say it's disappointing because it tastes delicious, but I think it would have been more important to continue the Chinese experience.  Maybe that will come with the Hutong tour, which will be tonight.

With dinner included this should be the authentic Chinese food.

The trip back to Hutong was through the Olympic village where we saw the cube, for water sports and the bird's nest used for the opening and closing ceremonies, and several other stadiums, including the tennis, and archery, though this has been removed and is being replaced with an indoor ski centre.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

A trip to China - Day 3 - We're off to the Great Wall, via a Jade Factory

Day  3 - We're off to the great wall

The trip to the Great Wall is going to take a while and since we are leaving early, about 8:00 and the time for peak hour for traffic, it gives our guide some time to talk us about China, history and current day, and answer questions about everyday life in China.

It seems they do not have it any easier than we do when it comes to house prices, cost of living, taxes, petrol, cars, which are considerably more than we pay, children, education, though it might be rather less, child minding, and the usual government services like pension, hospital and other medical care, and the typical retirement age, which like in Australia, is increasing in age.

And it seems that life coexists somewhere between socialism and capitalism, which seems best for the country and its people.  Oppression and lack of individual freedoms doesn't match the impression we are given in the media, or from the odd case of infringement that occasionally hits our newspapers.

My view of China has changed significantly since being here. Of course, the internet is here, but without the usual social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook and the government might be responsible for making it impossible to use the internet in this hotel, but, I think its more of a bandwidth issue, and needs someone more qualified to fix it.  People don't look oppressed, they just look like you and me, dressed in formal wear or designer casual, and nearly everyone I saw under the age of 30 had a cell phone.

So much for social history, we are within a short distance and we are getting an introduction to the next place we're visiting.

On the way the Great Wall we are going via the jade museum, so called, but more a small factory and a very large sales showroom.  It's owned we're told by the government so there should be no problems with quality and after-sales service.  I doubt the Chinese government would want to have complaints levelled against it when this tour is a key part of many, many groups arranged by Trip a Deal.

Negative publicity has a way of destroying something very quickly, and the internet outside China is a very powerful determinant of what people will spend money on.  And Trip adviser is only too happy to help spread the word.

The Jade Factory

The brochure says today we will, after breakfast, on the way to the Great Wall, stop at a Jade Museum to learn the history of jade. In Chinese, jade is pronounced as “Yu” and it has a history in China of at least four thousand years. Observe the skilled artisans at work as they create their intricate designs.  I can’t wait.

But, first, you are dazzled by the ship and is nothing short of magnificent.

So, armed with the brief introduction, on the bus ride, and a story about how a jade bracelet saved a friend from serious harm by the tour guide, she hands us over to a local guide, read staff member, and she begins with a discussion on jade and we watch a single worker working on an intricate piece, sorry, there are two workers, and the second is working on a dragon.

Then it's into a smaller showroom and we are taken through the colours, and the carving process in the various stages, without really being told how the magic happens, then it's out into the main showroom where the sales are made, and before dispersing to look at the jade collection, she briefly tells us how to tell real and fake jade, and she does the usual trick of getting on of the tour group to model a piece.

Looks good, let's move on.  To bigger and better examples.

What interested me, other than the small zodiac signs and other smallish pieces on the 'promotion' table was the object tour guide told us about on the bus while stuck in a traffic jam, the good luck bangle.  If anyone needs one it is my other half, with all the medical issues and her sometimes clumsiness.

There are literally thousands of them, but, they have to be specially fitted to your wrist because if it's too large, you might lose it if it slips off and I didn't think it could be too small.  Nor is it cheap, and needing a larger size, it is reasonably expensive.  But it is jadeite, the more expensive of the types of jade, and it can only appreciate in value, not that we are interested in the monetary value, it's more the good luck aspect.

We could use some of that.

But, just to touch on something that can be the bugbear of travelling overseas, is the subject of happy houses, a better name for toilets, and has become a recurrent theme on this tour.  It's better than blurting out the word toilet and it seems there can be some not so happy houses given that the toilets in China are usually squat rather than sit, even for women.

And apparently, everyone has an unhappy house story, particularly the women, and generally in having to squat over a pit.  Why is this a discussion point, it seems the jade factory had what we have come to call happy happy houses which have more proper toilets, and a stop here before going on the great wall was recommended as the 'happy house' at the wall is deemed to be not so happy houses.

Not even this dragon was within my price range.  Thank heaven they had smaller more affordable models.

After spending a small fortune, another bonus, free Chinese tea.  Then it's onto the Great Wall experience.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

A trip to China - Day 2 - On the way to the show, via the remnants of the wall around Beijing

Leaving the Square to go to the show, we pass remnants of the wall that used to surround Beijing

This wall was built in the early 15th century and was about 24 km long, up to 15 metres high and about 20 metres thick, and had nine gates, one of which still exists today.  In 1965 most of it was removed so that the second ring road and an underground railway line could be built.

Next, we're off to the show!

Billed as the best live show in China, described as a large scale dramatic musical, “The Golden Mask Dynasty” it lived up to its reputation and was thoroughly enjoyed by all.

It was not just singing dancing and acrobatics, it had a story and it was told so that language and cultural issues aside, it worked.  There was a narration of the story running beside the stage, but it was hard to divide attention between what was happening, and what was being related.

Then came the peacock dance, with live peacocks

And this was followed by a waterfall, well, I don't think anyone in that audience could believe what they were seeing.

I know I was both astonished and in awe of the performance.
What a way to finish off our first day in Beijing.
Oh, sorry, that high was dented slightly when we had to go back to our room.