Archive for the ‘China’ Category

Ferry to Korea

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

We wrote some postcards over breakfast, and planned to ask the hotel to mail them for us. We had purchased stamps yesterday, so all we needed was a mailbox. This turned out to be more of a challenge than we planned. The hotel reception had no clue what we were asking of them, so we decided to find a post box ourselves. Fortunately, Scott had a keen eye and spotted the China Post sign, and a long line up of people waiting for it to open. Since we had stamps already, Scott went over and asked several people if they would mail them for us. After many puzzled looks, someone who spoke a little English pointed out the post office box. It was on the street and lacked any English signage and was a different colour than the standard China Post boxes – white with red instead of green with yellow. It have what appeared to be a postal slot though, so we hope the postcards get to where they belong.

With the postcards successfully mailed, we headed to the ferry terminal. Upon arrival, Scott checked us in and we were assigned bunks. Becky looked at them and noticed immediately that they were in two different cabins. When Scott went back to ask, he learned that he was in the men’s cabin and Becky was in the women’s cabin. Not exactly what we had planned for when we upgraded to business class! By this time, Becky was definitely feeling more stressed out than she should have been – she guesses it was related to not enough sleep (the ATM issue yesterday meant a late dinner and an even later bedtime).

The next step involved getting our bags screened twice. The first time was to enter the terminal building – so everything had to come off the bike and be run through the metal detectors – the bikes were allowed to just roll through. Then when Customs opened, we again had to go through another metal detector. After completing the second one, we were ushered to the front of the customs line (not sure why) and were signed out of China. We found it interesting that China customs does not recognize us as a “family” unit. When we entered and when we left, we were required to go through customs separately. China is the only country where we made to separate.

Loading the bikes onto the boat posed yet one more challenge. They allowed us to ride the 200 meters to the loading stairs, rather than load onto the bus, which would have been painful and inefficient. Once at the stairs, we had to carry the bikes and gear up three flights of stairs to the boat. On the boat, the bikes and most of our gear was stored in the disembarkation gangway, which was locked during the voyage. We were not charge any extra for the bikes.

The Tanggu/Tianjin port was massive, with huge bulk handling berths as well as many container berths. This is the largest cargo terminal we’ve seen, and it appears to be still growing. Apparently it is the third largest port in China, and fifth largest in the world. Singapore is apparently larger, but not the part we saw. Most of the bulk cranes and container gantries were idle, with only a few ships docked. Scott thought this was due to the economic slowdown, but apparently year-over-year volume is still increasing.

Once on the boat, Becky asked at information about being moved into the same cabin. Shortly before the ship departed, they reassigned us to a cabin for just the two of us. The ship was rather empty, with many of the sleeping areas closed and locked off. We were very happy once the rooms were rearranged, and Becky quickly took the opportunity to take a much needed nap.

There was a cafeteria that was open only during meals that served three options for each meal: Chinese, Korean, and Western. The prices were pretty reasonable (about equivalent to tourist areas in China and quick food in Korea). We ate one mediocre meal at the cafeteria and decided to see if there were any other options. We discovered the second restaurant which looked more like a bar – which included karaoke rooms for small groups. The menu was listed in Korean and Chinese only. We had a struggle at first trying to order food, since we had no idea what most Korean food was called. Becky has never been to Korea and Scott has only been once. We haven’t found a good Korean restaurant in Ottawa, so the food is almost entirely unfamiliar. Scott remembered Bulgogi (BBQ beef)and Bibimbap (rice, vegetables, egg and meat) but that was about it. Once we managed to order something, the food turned out to be wonderful. We ate the rest of our meals in the bar – a little more expensive than the other, but the food was much better.

For the entire journey, the sea was covered in a hazy fog. It was very similar to our journey in the Indian Ocean. The hazy fog meant that there was very little to see. We passed the occasional fishing boat, but otherwise, it was not particularly exciting. We noticed that the ship carried neither a South Korean, nor a Chinese flag. Rather, it carried a Panama flag. In our experience, it is odd to see a ferry carrying a flag of convenience.

We had been told the crossing was 25 hours. Although that is technically true, it does not account for the 2 hours of maneuvers necessary to dock in Incheon. The Incheon ferry terminal is located inside the Incheon port, which requires entry and exit via a lock. So, the ferry is ushered into a lock, and the water is raised, such that the internal port has a consistent water level (i.e. it is not subject to tides). So, dock-to-dock it took 27 hours.


Onward to the coast

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

31 km, 2h 20 min

We got packed up quite quickly this morning, and the front desk guy helped us to figure out the correct bus station to get to Tianjin. The staff at the New Dragon Hostel have been very helpful whenever we’ve asked them for something, even when it has been strange requests like phoning a travel agent to figure out about the Incheon ferry. We suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised, but the reviews on TripAdvisor had us expecting the worst.

We made it down to the bus terminal after a longer ride than planned, and initially we were afraid that we would not be allowed to bring bikes on the bus with us. Unlike the bus stations in Yunnan province, here we found a separate Baggage Check area, different from the waiting room for the buses. Fortunately, with the help of the baggage staff, and a friendly woman who spoke fluent English, we ended up with tickets to TangGu (the Tianjin port city) for ourselves and our bikes, and were quickly on a bus. So quickly in fact that we didn’t get a chance to get lunch. Oh well – Oreos and water it was. We had thought we would have to take a bus to Tianjin and then ride 45 km to Tanggu, so we were lucky to have found the helpful staff and friendly English translator.

The baggage check had a drive on scale so Becky tried it out while Scott was buying tickets. Becky’s loaded bike 50 kg, Scott’s unloaded bike plus panniers, 58 kg. Guess Becky isn’t carrying that much less than Scott after all! She thinks we may need to do something about that 😉 Scott thinks that since Becky’s bike was loaded, and his had the panniers scattered around the scale, they read differently. Certainly when we push them up an incline or over some steps, Scott’s feels much heavier!

After arriving in Tanggu our first stop was for lunch – we were starving. We spotted a sit down restaurant and pulled up. As Scott was preparing to bring his bike up the stairs, three staff from the restaurant came running outside to assist him. They helped both of us get our bikes up the steps and ushered us into the restaurant. Ordering food posed a challenge, but they had some samples out so we could point. After pointing and struggling a bit with the phrasebook, we discovered that one woman spoke a bit of English. We ordered what she called “Garlic chicken” which turned out to actually be curry chicken – yummy and something totally different.

The people in Tianjin are much more interested in our bikes than those in Beijing. We guess that in the smaller town, they do not see many cycle tourists.

We found the Tianjin Passenger Terminal without difficulty, and confirmed with a woman sitting outside that the Incheon ferry is scheduled to leave at 11am tomorrow. (To be completely honest, we said “Incheon”, “duchuan”, and we think she said “mingtian” and “shiyi dian”. “Incheon Ferry”? “Tomorrow 11 o’clock”. With that sorted out, we went searching for a hotel. We found the Today International Hotel, only 2 km from the port with several restaurants across the street. It is a 3-4 star property for 268 Yuan a night. One of our thoughts was that an International Hotel would be able to help us find an ATM or be able to change money.

Our initial search for cash was a complete failure. The two Bank of China branches nearest the port lacked ATMs, and the offices were closed before we arrived, so there is no place to exchange Euro or USD. There were 6 or 7 other ATMs along the street, but none of them accepted foreign bank cards. Becky checked at the desk for either currency exchange or an advance on the Visa, and the hotel could do neither. An Internet search told us that the ferry would only accept Chinese Yuan or Korean Won, so we had to get some cash or we would get very hungry on the boat!

After some more Internet research we had a potential answer. An HSBC ATM at the Marriott Renaissance hotel, only 4 km away as the crow flies. Scott left Becky at the hotel, and headed out. Looking at the map, he saw a railway line between us and the centre of town where the Renaissance was. There were a couple of ways to cross, so “no problem” he thought. He soon proved himself wrong. Shortly after turning north, the street lights vanished, and he found himself on a large dark avenue, among many partially-complete apartment buildings. The road soon filled with throngs of people, and he found himself in the middle of a night market. A few oncoming cars advanced slowly through the crowd, and even laying about with their horns they couldn’t move very fast. He was able to sneak between crowds mostly unscathed.

Once through the market, there were pockets of people everywhere around the sites. He wondered if they were construction workers and their families, living in a semi-legal slum near the construction. He travelled along the railway for a bit, then noticed people entering the road. He turned off, and found an unofficial path across the tracks. Carefully placed stones and piles of dirt made an easy pedestrian path, but he carried his bike.

When he arrived at the Renaissance, his first observation was the contrast between the port area where we are staying and the typical plush Marriott interior with more Western businesspeople than we’ve seen since Singapore. There were lots of tall modern buildings and huge sculptures in the centre of the roundabouts. It is like this was “expat” China and we are staying in “local” China.

On the way back, he decided to take a different route, again crossing the tracks at an unofficial crossing and carrying his bike. Unfortunately, he got his water hose caught in the chain again (oops). Fortunately, no apparent damage. Heading south again, he passed many more partially-complete apartment buildings, then found a lady kneeling in the middle of an intersection tending a small fire. It looked like a bunch of papers, and all the traffic drove around her without a second glance. He wonders if she was burning “ghost money” to send to a recently dead ancestor? Note to self – bring a camera when going out on little jaunts like this!

Every mouthful is a different taste sensation!

Every mouthful is a different taste sensation!

Little Sheep logo

Little Sheep logo

When Scott finally reappeared at the hotel, Becky was starving. We planned to go to the Seafood restaurant across the street. When we walked over, we noticed that no one was in the Seafood restaurant, but the “Little Sheep” restaurant next door was packed – always a good sign. The staff found both an English menu, and a fluent English-speaking waiter for us, but then we got concerned. Lamb, lamb and more lamb! (With a name like Little Sheep, you’d think we would have recognized the possibility, but no…) Our friendly waiter reassured us that there was no lamb in any of the broth choices, and that the beef contained no lamb, so we decided to try anyway. In the end, we had the best hot pot meal ever! Apparently, it is an international chain and we were told there is at least one branch in Canada – we’ll need to figure out where (anyone know?). The hot pot was divided into three different sections, each with a different flavoured broth. You then ordered the various items to cook in the pot. We got lots of vegetables, and some beef and mushrooms- very yummy and the price was less than a third of what we paid in Beijing!


A Great day at the Wall

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

When we arrived in Beijing, Scott was pretty touristed out, and wasn’t that enthusiastic about going to the Great Wall. Becky insisted, and by day three, he was feeling much more excited about the idea. We decided that rather than taking a tour, we would try to get to the wall using public transit. Scott did a lot of reading and research on the Internet about the Mutianyu section of the wall, since this was the section Becky had been to before, and she really enjoyed it. She also remembered that it wasn’t too full of tourists.

We had a plan:

  1. Take the subway to Dongzhimen metro station, and walk to the Dongzhimen long distance bus station nearby.
  2. Take bus 916 from Dongzhimen to the town of Huairou, near Mutianyu.
  3. Stay on the bus until the Huairou terminal, ignoring the taxi drivers who jump on the bus part way, and tell you their taxi is the only way to get to the wall.
  4. Find the nearby bus stop for the smaller bus to Mutianyu.

Our plan lasted until step 1, the Dongzhimen metro station. As we were looking around for the signs to the long distance bus station, and a friendly English-speaking Chinese lady decided to help us. She pointed us in the direction of the bus station (where she was going too), then when we said we were planning to go to Mutianyu, said “No, No, Mutianyu very small, Simatai very big!” After a bit more convincing, we threw our carefully researched plans to the wind, and hopped on the 980 bus toward Simatai.

Once we got on the bus, our trusty Lonely Planet Beijing guidebook told us the 980 bus only went about half way, and we needed to take a minibus or taxi the remaining 70 km. The bus attendant told us to get off at Miyun, as we expected, but when we looked around, there was no minibus (or bus station) in sight. Instead there were several taxi drivers surrounding us like vultures…

To stall for time, we asked about a toilet, and the “lead” driver pointed us at some nearby bushes. We went and did our business, and quickly discussed our tactics. We wanted to try to find the minibus station, but knew we couldn’t get away from the taxi drivers without some negotiation. Unfortunately, the driver came to join us, notebook in hand, before we had time to agree on a top price. Scott decided our top price would be 150 RMB (about $30 CAD, and a bit more than the 2007 Lonely Planet listed as typical). The driver started at 250 RMB one way, or 400 RMB round trip, so we figured this wasn’t going to go very far. After a bit of back and forth, Scott said 150 RMB was his top price, and asked where the 980 bus back to Beijing stopped. As we started walking there, the prices dropped dramatically. First 250, then 200, then finally 150 RMB. At this point we were fed up, with no minibus in sight, and no information where it might stop. We were about ready to give up on our Great Wall goal for the day (and this trip), since part of the fun was to get there by public transit. Unfortunately, when the driver reached 150 RMB, Becky felt honour-bound to accept. Another change in plans!

We got in the taxi, and started driving toward Simatai, when the driver received a phone call. Around we turned, and returned to near the bus stop. Another 980 bus was there, and several white-looking bodies were piling out. Another car pulled up, and our driver unceremoniously ushered us into it, and roared off to meet the new bus. We guess he was the driver with the best English or best negotiating skills, and was needed with this new group.

Our new driver spoke absolutely no English, and Scott’s attempts at Mandarin were met with either bafflement or rapidfire Chinese which we couldn’t understand. After a few attempts, we chatted between ourselves, and looked at the (admittedly spectacular) scenery. After 90 minutes or so, we could see the Great Wall. It did look impressive, but we weren’t there yet. Our driver mimed hunger and food, and when we agreed we were hungry (reasonably so, since it was just after noon), he pulled over, and brought us into a restaurant. We sat, and were presented with a menu. Great! It has English! At second glance, it also had the highest prices we’ve seen in months, with entrees at 50 to 80 RMB, instead of 5 to 15! We quickly picked two of the cheapest things on the menu, order drinks and wait. Another woman came out, pulls the driver over, and tried to convince us that we want the expensive stuff. We used our handy phrase book to indicate stomach distress (which was at least slightly true), and stuck with our bland order of noodle soup and plain rice, which turned out to be quite delicious.

After all this buildup, a few minutes after lunch, we were at the Great Wall. Now our driver wanted partial payment for our trip. At first he asked for 100 RMB then 50 RMB later, but we finally agreed on 80 RMB, and 70 RMB later.

The wall looked spectacular from the ticket office, and we decided to take the Cable Car up, rather than walking. It turned out to be 30 minutes on the worlds slowest cable car (a re-purposed ski lift), but it did give us some nice views, and got us to the top both faster and with more energy for the wall itself. At the top, Becky decided to take the Funicular up the next steep stretch, but Scott wanted to walk. It turned out to be 15 minute either way, although Becky did get to the top first.

This left us about 10 meters below the wall, so we started to climb. Within a few minutes, we had picked up a friendly guide – an English speaking woman who started to follow us and chat. Could this be another good Samaritan? No, as it turned out. Although she was very friendly, she was clearly most interested in selling us souvenirs. Once Scott foolishly said we would buy something on the way down, she became inseparable. No complaints though – she gave us a guided tour of the wall, and chatted with us about life as a farmer in Northern China. She has two children, which was apparently permitted because the first was a daughter. Perhaps a way around the female infanticide problems caused by China’s “One Child” policy?

We could not have asked for a better day for our climb on the wall. Beautiful blue sky with no haze, a light wind, and comfortably warm temperature. Absolutely perfect. We took a pile of photos, and Scott was very happy with his. Becky was complaining about the colour of hers, and wondering if her screen was going. Finally, Scott asked if she wanted him to look at it, and did. It was set for indoor (Tungsten) white balance, instead of the Automatic White Balance she normally uses. Scott had switched it to take some dinner photos two nights before. Whups! Anyone know a good way to correct the White Balance on JPEG files? (We did try with a few of the photos from Olympic Park, but the results were not outstanding.)

The wall itself was spectacular, seeming to go on forever, climbing over knife-edge peaks. We wouldn’t want to have been building it! There were a few flat stretches, but in many cases the wall climbed steeply, following the ridge-line. There were battlements so we could walk along the wall most of the time, but in a few places we had to hide behind the wall instead.

Becky remembers the awe she felt the first time she visited the wall, ten years ago at Mutianyu, but didn’t feel the same awe this time. Scott was pretty impressed though. Her knee started bothering her after the first two hours, so it’s good we didn’t do anything more strenuous.

As we were contemplating the long walk down to the parking lot, we came across someone selling tickets for a zip line. The zip line would take us all the way down to the river where a boat would take us back to the parking lot – all for 40 RMB each ($8 CAD). With Becky’s knee acting up, this was an ideal way to get down – and a lot of fun too! On the boat, we met Ann from Holland (although we didn’t know her then). At this point, it was already 30 minutes after the time we had agreed to meet our driver, so we hurried back.

Our driver was waiting for us, and we hopped in and both quickly fell asleep. Our typical reaction to car rides, but it may have caused our driver some anxiety. With us sleeping most of the way back, we were a bit disoriented when he said we were here, at a different spot than he’d picked us up. After a bit of mimed communication, we figured out we were around the corner from the Bus Terminal. We walked the 100m to the station, and got on a 980 bus about to leave. Here we met Ann again – she had a taxi of her own, and had beaten us by a couple of minutes. We got to talking, and invited her to join us for Peking Duck, since more people allows for more choices.
We arrived back in Dongzhimen, and agreed on a restaurant.

Unfortunately, we felt quite ripped off by the Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant (on Wangfujing Dajie) – we ordered a half duck, expecting the full treatment – skin course, pancake course, stir-fry course, soup course. Instead we got only a small amount of skin and meat (most of the meat was still on the carcass). We separately ordered some pancakes, so were able to make the duck wraps, but it seemed very expensive for what it was. Being frugal about our choices and leaving a still a little hungry, 330 RMB ($66 CAD) for 3 people is a bit excessive! If we’d gotten all 4 courses and actually received the meat from half the duck, the price would be have justified.

Anyway, the company made up for it. Ann and Becky chatted constantly, which should give Becky her “people” fix for the next few days. Ann is interesting – she just finished her undergrad in Health and Public Policy, and is planning to go back for a Masters in Urban Planning so she can design and build healthy communities. Interesting career plan! She has been in China for 3 months, on an ISIC grant working on HIV/AIDS in Shanghai, but that’s now finished, so she is touring around China for a bit, then heading to Vietnam shortly to meet up with a friend. Scott remembers looking into ISIC when he was in university, but doesn’t remember any opportunities which were that interesting.

We talked about how to eat better when we get back to Canada, and one idea is to make and eat lunch ourselves, making sure to stop for at least 30 minutes, and to ensure we eat something as soon as we get off the bikes. We have found that when we eat in restaurants, it’s difficult to get a good nutrient balance, but when we pack lunches, we never really stop. Scott suggested that we plan to record what we’re eating and how we’re feeling, so we can get a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. We’ll see if we can manage that!


How hard can it be to buy ferry tickets?

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

At first we thought it was the sound of an Espresso machine as the steam bubbles through the coffee. Then we realized it was coming from a person. Every few minutes, we would hear the sound again, at such a volume that we could hear it from a distance. It echoed through the corridors of our hotels and the bowels of the subway stations, and was audible through closed doors. In the hotel restaurant, we heard the sound, and it took a moment to realize that it actually was an espresso maker! It isn’t that many people do it, it is just that those that do, do it with such volume and force that is brings up the taste of bile into the back of our throats. It is that nasty Chinese habit of horking[1] and it is one aspect of China that neither of us will miss when we leave this country.

We have a much better appreciation for the draconian anti-spitting laws in Singapore. We are a little surprised that the SARS and now Swine Flu scares haven’t caused similar regulations to be enacted in China to stop this practice. To be fair, unlike our previous visits to China we are seeing more people spitting into garbage and cigarette disposal containers than onto the street, so the public education campaigns which do exist seem to be working. There is hope yet.

Our morning began with the task of finding a Starbucks, although they had an espresso machine at the hotel, their coffee was pretty mediocre. With all our wandering around yesterday, we had yet to see one, but Becky knew they existed. Scott could not believe that they did not have a map on the web, only a listing of addresses, which, when plugged into Google or Yahoo Maps, produced no locations near us. Eventually Scott did find a website for someone who drew a crude map of the Starbucks locations, and with some further research, guided us to what we believe was the nearest one – just around the corner!

Our main task for the day was to purchase a ferry ticket (or at least make a reservation). Our initial thought before arriving in Beijing was that we would find one of the many travel agencies in Beijing catering to tourists, and they could help out. Unfortunately, there were no international travel agencies to found – just a few tour companies offering tours of the city and the Great Wall.

After much frustration, We made contact with Jessica and Terry from Incheon via Couchsurfing, and asked if they could help since the ferry website was only in Korean. Terry sent us a couple of phone numbers for travel agents in Beijing, so we asked the folks at our hotel to call them. The staff at the New Dragon Hostel continued to be helpful, and with their assistance, we confirmed that they did indeed sell tickets for the ferry in question and we were given their address and directions on how to find them.[2]

A Starbucks stop and subway ride later, we found the travel agent only to learn that the only person that could help us was on a lunch break and would not return for 90 minutes. D’oh!

We had also hoped to also visit the Pyongyang Art Studio, a museum, gift shop and travel agency for North Korea, so we hopped back on the subway and walked to the Red River Hotel, only to learn that the museum had moved. A further 30 minutes of walking, and we found the museum, which was small but mildly interesting. We did pick up a set of interesting North Korean propaganda post cards though,

We stopped into a shopping centre for lunch, which turned out to be the Yashow Clothing Market – filled with busloads of German tourists. Becky’s sharp eyes spotted a Spider jacket along with the other ski jackets for sale. She asked how much and was told 400 RMB (about $80 CAD) – note that these jackets (the real ones) go for about $500-750 CAD back home. We were not buying anything – what good is a ski jacket on a bike? As we left the price decreased to $40. Real or not, we were sorely tempted to pick up a few for our friends back home, especially if we could get the price down to $20 each, but alas, carrying jackets on a bike unnecessarily isn’t much fun.

We returned to the travel agent and successfully purchased tickets for the ferry. We opted for the extra $20 per person for the business class cabin. The economy price was 760 RMB ($150 CAD), so the extra $20 each did not seem like much at the time. Business class would guarantee us a cabin with only a couple of other people, rather than a bed in a room with 40+ people. This is another example of where we might have chosen the less expensive option earlier in the trip, but we are too tired to contemplate sharing a room with 40+ strangers from a totally different culture.

To end the day, we enjoyed a traditional Chinese hot pot dinner at a place that had the fancy cone shaped hot pots. Becky first experienced this type of hot pot when she was in Taiwan on a business trip about 10 years ago. Unfortunately, we found the particular restaurant to be expensive and the broth to be rather bland. Oh well, that’s what you get for going to dinner in a tourist area!

[1] hork – (slang, offensive) To snort from the sinuses. (Similar to hocking.) “I felt something plugging up my sinuses, so I horked a big loogie.”

[2] For future reference, the numbers for the “Kook Je Travel Agency” were (010-6512-0507) and (010-6515-8010). The agency itself was located just south of the Jianguomen metro station. If we recall correctly, the instructions to reach it are: Leave the metro station through exit 2, take the pedestrian underpass south under Jianguomen road, then keep walking south for another 100 meters. The agency is on the first floor of building no. 28, a highrise set back behind a large hedge, just north of one hotel, and south of another.


Biking around Beijing

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

54 km, 4 hours

For our first full day in Beijing, we decided to take advantage of the nice weather and the bike lanes and head out for a bike ride. The Lonely Planet mentioned a nice ride out to the Summer Palace along a canal path. We thought we would give that a try. Every time we found the nice canal side road, about 200 meters later, it intersected with a major road (4+ lanes). This posed a problem because there were no tunnels, bridges, or overpasses. There was no way to cross the crazy intersections, rather you had to follow the road for a bit until you could find a place to cross it and then backtrack. It took us 27 km of riding to find our way out to the Summer Palace, which the Lonely Planet says is a nice 15 km ride! We aren’t sure if we did something totally wrong, but our best guess is that the Lonely Planet author has never actually ridden or even attempted the canal route on a bike, and indulged in some poetic license.

Once we found the Summer Palace, we followed the outside wall for awhile, and then decided to go seek out the funky Olympic buildings. When we did make it to the Olympic Park, we were very sad. At all the Olympic Park entrances there were security gates, with big signs saying “No Bicycles!” It was such a large open space, that would have been a pain to walk around in – the buildings are all so far apart. Alas! Instead, we chose to ride around the security guarded enclosure so as to not need to lock up our bikes.

We did see the “Bird’s Nest” a.k.a. National Stadium from a distance as well as the strange outer cladding of the “Water Cube”.

The Olympics definitely have had a few nice influences on the city of Beijing. All the major street signs now have both Chinese characters and Pinyin names, as well as cardinal markings (North, South, etc.) on them, so it is much easier to get around. Also, the city has well signed, clean, free toilets almost at every corner (you only pay if you need to buy toilet paper). Finally, most of the restaurants have picture menus (at least in the tourist areas). They certainly have made Beijing much easier and more pleasant to visit.

After 4 hours and much fun riding, we were happy to get back to the hotel and shower. Over the last few days Becky has been experiencing some stomach issues (yet again) and they were getting worse. Adding to the complications, Scott had gotten something in his eye while riding, and it had not cleared up. After an inspection by Becky and a call to our insurance company, we booked an appointment for Scott to see an eye specialist at the “Hong Kong Clinic”. At first, we planned to just pay for it ourselves, but they wanted over 1000 RMB ($200CAD) for a consultation, so we decided to use our insurance. The Hong Kong Clinic is in the Swisshotel, one of many 5-star hotels here, so we’re sure there are cheaper options. We decided to use them anyway, since finding another eye specialist at 7 pm appeared difficult, and we were hoping to go to the Great Wall the next day.

The specialist checked the inside of Scott’s eyes with a standard slit lamp, and diagnosed conjunctivitis (inflammation of the white of the eye). Some antibacterial eye drops and low-dose steroid drops, and we were on our way. Scott’s eye didn’t look nearly as bad as other conjunctivitis cases we’ve seen, so we wondered about the diagnosis, but figured better safe than sorry.


Welcome to Beijing

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

We arrived in Beijing expecting utter chaos but found the train station to be relatively calm. After searching and walking in a few circles, we eventually found the luggage consignment department and were able to claim our bikes. We reflected upon how in China we handed over our bikes confident that they and our gear would arrive safely, not worrying about theft for damage, and in the USA we did not even consider sending the bikes via Amtrak because they did not insure them! What a contrast after a year and so much travel. In some ways, we wonder if the lack of familiarity with the country allows us to have more faith in its mechanisms.

At first riding posed a challenge, as the road just outside the train station was big with eight lanes of traffic and no bicycles. We wondered if bikes were not permitted on this road? Becky spotted a bike lane sign on a cross street, so we made our way to it. Once we found the street with the bike lane, riding to the area of our hotel was much easier.

At one point we pulled up to the entrance to the Forbidden city and Tiananmen square. Becky knew where she was, recognizing it from her previous trip to Beijing eight years ago. Scott did not believe her at first, as the GPS had us on a different street – he did eventually realize that she was correct and that the GPS was showing that blasted 500m+ “security offset” such that the map and our current position do not line up! (To his credit, after that he navigated us right to the first hotel on our short list, notwithstanding Becky’s concerns that we were going the wrong way as she checked the map).

We rode around the streets finding the Hutong that had our short list of hotels on it. The first hotel no longer existed. The second one was much too expensive for what you got (200 RMB – $40 for a hostel room without an ensuite bath). We found a nice place at the New Dragon Hostel just down the street from the Saga Hostel (the expensive one). For 180 RMB (about $30) we got a nice clean room with ensuite, hot water, and air conditioning. Trip advisor reports that the hotel staff were rude, but we did not find this at all. The hotel staff were amazingly pleasant and helpful – especially given the large number of excessively rude tourists that we encountered there!

We noticed that Beijing is very dry compared to southern China and Thailand. We felt the need to gulp down water in order to keep our throats moist – this is likely caused by a combination of the dryness and the pollution. The pollution is visible, but does not seem to be having an adverse effect on either of us (to Becky’s great surprise, she is not experiencing any breathing issues here).

We went for a walk out to the park, which has a large hill made with the dirt from the moat around the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, it was rather dusty/smoggy and there was a storm in the sky blocking the sun – so the sunset was rather unspectacular. It was interesting to look over the rooftops of the Forbidden City though. As we were leaving the park we saw a bunch of people playing a game similar to hacky sack, except the “sack” looks more like a badminton birdie, with feathers attached to a weighted sack. What was especially amusing is that the people playing this game were all older people – age range 50 to 70 at a guess.

Another observation about Beijing is the distinctly longer days. The sun was up by 4:45 am and it did not set until 7:30 pm. After being in the 12-hour day tropics, the longer days and slightly cooler temperatures (it is still getting up to the mid 30s) feels much more familiar to us. Becky is especially enjoying the occasional cool breezes. Scott was surprised when he went out with long pants and a t-shirt and actually felt cold for a moment or two. We guessed that the temperature was 20 C at that point!


A train journey across China

Monday, May 18th, 2009

We paid the extra to ensure we had two bottom bunks in a soft sleeper (1st class, 4 person cabin) on the train from Kunming to Beijing. With any luck this would mean we had a private cabin for the journey, as the upper bunks in soft sleeper class are usually the last to sell – they are expensive and you are guaranteed to not have a private cabin since the bottom bunks sell first, most people would just buy hard sleeper (2nd class). If we were earlier into our trip would have welcomed the adventure of hard sleeper class, but we are mentally tired and the lack of privacy in hard sleeper class would have been even more tiring.

Our cabin is comfortable but the first night Becky felt like she had entered into her own personal hell. The toilets on the train were gross within the first hour and we still had 37 hours to go. As seems to be a problem with public toilets throughout China there is a lack of water, so it is difficult to flush things clean. Moving through the narrow hallway has been a challenge at times, and some people are incredibly rude – you step aside to let someone who is coming the other way through and the people behind you just barge through. Adding to this, the scent of cigarette smoke often pervaded through the hallways and seeped into our cabin. Becky’s worst nightmare for this journey would be the need to share the cabin with Chinese smokers, who don’t seem to understand the offensiveness of second hand smoke.

Fortunately, a night’s sleep seemed to relieve Becky of her feelings of being in hell and things began to look up. We awoke to a dreary rainy day, but the scenery was amazing. Rocks and mountains were jutting out of the landscape with valleys filled with terraced fields. There did not appear to be roads into most of the fields, so we would not have seen this area if we travelled any other way. At one point, Becky saw a valley that looked like it was right out of a model railway – with a small village, surrounded by terraced fields and stony mountains, and railway tunnels opening up to show a train running through on a track about 500m away. It was all very surreal. Unfortunately, the spectacular views were often broken up by the train entering into a tunnel. It must have been a real challenge to build the tracks through the area (southern China between Kunming and Nanning). Unfortunately, wet windows do not make for good photos.

Although the smoke occasionally seeped into our cabin, for the most part the air was clean. The conductors on the train seem to do a good job of keeping the toilets reasonably clean, such that their worst condition was in the first hour of our trip.

The food on the train ranged from very good to OK, but generally was quite acceptable. We ate in the dining car, where they had an English menu for us, as well as selecting food by pointing at the carts which went by. While in Kunming, Becky bought a cheap bottle of Chinese wine for us to enjoy with our dinner on the train. Upon opening the wine we discovered that it was truly awful – very sweet. Fortunately, adding orange juice (or 30% real juice orange drink) made it taste like cheap sangria – good enough to allow us to enjoy the wine if not savor it!

Every time the train stopped during the day, Becky got nervous. Several times people poked their heads into our door only to realize they were in the cabin next to us. This lasted right up until the second last stop of the day, where two men joined us in our cabin – an older man and a man about our age. Neither spoke any English. They were both very polite. Becky got worried when she noticed that both of them smoked, but neither even considered smoking in the cabin, rather they both went out to the smoking corridors of the train. The younger gentlemen climbed up into his upper bunk after his smoke and proceeded to watch a movie on his laptop. The sound was slightly annoying since it was in English but not quite loud enough to hear it – fortunately we both have iPods and earplugs. We setup for sleep and went to bed relatively early (9 pm). The older man was not quite ready for bed so he went somewhere – we guess the dining car to read his newspaper and smoke.

We had read that to Chinese people, white people have a particular smell – something akin to cheese. What Becky discovered is that some Chinese people – particularly older ones – have a spicy smell. When the older gentleman climbed into bed, the cabin was filled with his scent. Unfortunately, it was a little overwhelming for Becky, such that she did not sleep as well as she’d hoped. Scott’s less sensitive nose caused him to notice the scent as well, but it wasn’t enough to bother him or disturb his sleep. We wonder what we smelled like to them, after 24 hours on the train, and 36 hours since our last shower?

In the morning, both our cabin mates left the train at the 8:30 am stop. Although they were polite and better than we expected, we were happy to have the cabin back to ourselves for the last 3 hours of our journey. The train arrived in Beijing on-time, and we were happy to disembark after 38 hours.


Preparing for the train journey

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

In order to ship our bikes and most of our gear, we needed to bring the bikes and gear to the “luggage consigning office” at the Kunming train station a day in advance of our train. After some confusion and going to the wrong place, we were guided to the correct office by a friendly employee. We removed our bags and placed them all into a large tarp bag that we bought in Bangkok for just this purpose. They had a strapping machine that ensured the bag would remain closed and hopefully will prevent the zipper from breaking (it was awfully full). Once the paper work was completed, we were charged 454 RMB (under $100 CAD) for the lot of it. 31 kg in the tarp bag and 25 kg for each bike. Hopefully we will see it all when we get to Beijing!

Note, the paperwork does ask for a contact address and phone number in your destination city. Since we have not booked a hotel in Beijing and have not purchased a SIM for our phone here, we had nothing to give them. We recommend to other cyclists shipping bikes and baggage via train in China to book a hotel or find someone who can be the telephone contact person.

The rest of our preparations for the train ride involved spending a lot of time relaxing in our hotel room, updating the blog and doing some Internet research, and eating many different types of Chinese food. Of note, we tried the Yunnan specialty “across-the-bridge-noodles”, where you get a bowl of really hot broth and a bunch of items to throw in the broth. The number of type of items varies based on how much you pay and the restaurant. Our across-the-bridge-noodles were yummy. We are reminded just how good the food in China is – don’t even dare to compare it with North American Chinese food.

An interesting thing has occurred a few times now, with us not speaking any Mandarin (or whatever dialect they speak where we are) and waitresses at restaurants who speak no English. We often only have a slight idea of what we are ordering. Once we randomly ordered a beer once and what came back was a Budweiser! (that was quickly rectified with a trip to the fridge and to select something else) When the waitress asks us a question, and we don’t understand and end up giggling (smiling and giggling seems to work well when we don’t understand, it is exactly what the waitresses do when they don’t understand us) the immediate response is to write it down. Since the written language in China is the same regardless of dialect writing it down is an effective way to communicate with anyone who reads any Chinese dialect – unfortunately, we just end up giggling a little more, since it doesn’t help us at all. After some futile flipping through the phrasebook, eventually the waitress will just bring us to the counter and allow us to point at what we want. So we are successfully eating well, but it is a little bit mentally draining.

Welcome to China!

Friday, May 15th, 2009

For our first morning in China, we returned to the noodle shop we visited the night before, to have another bowl of the best rice noodle dish we have had on our entire journey. It was especially yummy, and Becky took a picture of the noodle lady (although she did not smile). She remembered us from the night before and prepared our orders as before.

Arriving in China, a couple of things hit us immediately – it is much noisier here with cars and buses constantly using their horns, and young children belting out karaoke songs from loud speakers on the streets in order to make money. It is also much smellier here: the smells of burning coal, cooked meat, flowers, and human waste hit you separately and mixed together as travel through this country.

Upon investigating buses to Kunming, we learned that it was a 10-hour ride and that we could book beds in a sleeper bus that evening. We chose the 8 pm bus, and then headed out to find a place to hang out for the day. The weather wasn’t the greatest, with intermitted rain showers. We eventually made our way to Meimei café, which had free wireless Internet and a variety of western and local foods – oh ya, and an English menu and a couple of staff that spoke excellent English. They allowed us to place our bikes under an umbrella, and we found a dry seat under the veranda. We spent the whole day there eating and drinking a bottomless cup of Chinese tea.

Now, spending all day drinking tea before getting on a 10-hour bus ride where the bus does not have a toilet was not one of the brightest things we’ve done on this trip! Becky spent the first 2 hours of the bus ride in agony waiting for the bus to make its first pit stop. The sleeper buses do not have seats, rather they have three rows of pretty narrow beds. Laying down with a full bladder was not an option, so Becky propped up her bedding and sat listening to her ipod and waiting for the first stop. Unfortunately, the roads on the first section were really bumpy, which certainly did not help her predicament. When the bus stopped, Becky followed a Chinese girl to the ladies room (this became a pattern with every stop, Becky following the same person to find the ladies room). We officially vote the bus station / gas station toilets in China to the most disgusting we have ever seen! They were much worse than Syria and that says something! Part of the problem is that it appears that in the evenings / overnight they turn the water off, so there is no way to flush toilets. This of course does not stop the folks on buses with full bladders and runny bowels from doing their business, so needless to say, by 3 or 4 am the places are pretty gross. OK… enough about that, we think you get the picture.

After a long night on the bus, neither of us having slept particularly well, we were both exhausted when we arrived in Kunming. Now that we have done the long-distance sleeper bus in China, we’ll try to avoid that experience again. Hopefully, the train will be more restful, as we’ll have at least 38 hours on the train from Kunming to Beijing.

After arriving in Kunming, we quickly loaded our bike having gathered a large audience. We do get much bigger audiences here whenever we stop. It is common to have 20-30 people stand around the bikes gawking and asking us questions in some dialect of Chinese, and us having no clue what they are saying. With miming and our experiences so far, we gather the two most common questions in China are “Does it convert to a regular bike?” and “how much does it cost?” We expected riding on the streets in the city to be a lot more chaotic than it is. Both Jinghong and Kunming are not as busy as we expected, and as a result the riding hasn’t been that difficult. The biggest challenge is the roundabouts, because they have a bike lane on the outside, but cars and scooters completely ignore it, so you must be constantly watching for the guy that will cut you off as you go around. Once you are on a street, there is often a bike lane that is separated from the main road, so cars cannot access it, and most scooters avoid it. There are occasionally pedestrians which you much avoid, and slow moving bicycles, but for the most part it is an efficient way to travel through the city streets.

We found ourselves a nice three-star hotel on the main street close to the train station. We are amused at how all the hotels we have stayed at provide condoms in the room (either free or as part of the minibar). Our room here even has female condoms! Neither of us recall this from our previous business travel to China. We wonder if it is a combination of HIV/AIDS awareness and the one child per family program here in China.

The lady at the travel desk in our hotel spoke pretty good English, so we asked her to help us get train tickets. With the help of Yahoo translator, we were able to get most of our questions answered, and purchase tickets for the train leaving on Sunday at 8:43 pm. We purchased the most expensive class available, two bottom bunks in a soft sleeper. The soft sleepers are in 4-person cabins, so by purchasing the two lower bunks, we are more likely to have a cabin to ourselves. After our experience with the second class sleeper in Thailand, we knew we did not want upper bunks, as you don’t have anywhere to sit when the folks on the lower bunk are sleeping. Plus there are no windows visible from the upper bunk (at least on Thai trains).

We also learned that we must bring out bikes to “consignment” a day before. Here we will pay 5 CNY (about $1 CAD) per kilogram for baggage. We plan to ship both bikes and one large bag containing most of our panniers. Hopefully they will arrive in Beijing by the time we do!


Cruising up the Mekong

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

Our short night at Gin’s Guesthouse was restless. It was quite warm, and the wood floor was very squeaky in places. Every time Becky got up to go to the bathroom, Scott awoke thinking she had fallen because of the loud crack.

We arrived at the dock at 4:30 am and met another western couple – unfortunately they didn’t have tickets yet, and so hadn’t officially exited Thailand. The girl at the port pressed Scott into service to explain that they had to wait for the next boat. Luckily, this week there is a Friday boat. Scott talked briefly to them about their trip, but was soon urged to get our luggage down to the boat – a steep set of stairs, then across a larger boat and onto the fast ferry. Fortunately we were in enough time that it wasn’t too rushed.

The boat was quite nice, although the seats are fixed in position. Fortunately we were two of only four passengers, so there was lots of room to spread out. The crew of 6 or 7 actually outnumbered us.

The boat stopped several times along the Laos border, never stopping on the Burma side. Our first thought was, are we in the middle of something illegal? We aren’t sure why they stopped the first time, but the second time was to re-fuel, and the third time was to buy some fish from a local Laos fisherman. This must happen frequently, as the fisherman had a scale ready. Each time we stopped the boat dropped off a bag or two of fresh produce.

We were surprised by how much of the Mekong River shoreline is undeveloped. For much of the ride along the Laos and Burma borders, there is nothing. Occasionally, we saw some cleared forest where crops are planted high up on the steep sloped and some small villages. The Laos side seemed to be a little more developed than the Burma side. Once we reached the Chinese border, the amount of cultivation drastically increased, but there were still sections of jungle. We both expected to see many more people living along the Mekong.

The river is much rougher than we expected – fast moving with rapids along the way, and very narrow points. The water level is also clearly much lower than it used to be, since there’s sand and bare rocks up 2-3 meters from the current level. There was one place where the water level sign went up to 14 meters, and we were down below 2. Even with the rough conditions, the river still carries a fair amount of cargo. We passed at least 10 cargo ships along our journey. One of them had a cage full of water buffalo on its upper deck.

We were given a breakfast of a bag of sweet pastries and some soy milk. For lunch, we had a nice tray of rice, fish, and two vegetable dishes. We do recommend that if you take this boat you bring along a few snacks. Becky was happy that we still had some granola left, so she had a bowl at 5 pm when hunger hit again. Supper was not served on the boat.

Around 6 pm we arrived at a China Customs and Immigration post. This was well before Jinghong at Guan Lei. Several Customs officers came on board and did the most thorough search of our bags we’ve seen on the trip. They were very intrigued by our camp stove and pots, but didn’t ask us any questions. Just before they arrived, some CIQ (China Immigration Quarantine?) officers came on board, one spraying something on the deck of the passenger compartment, and the other two taking each person’s temperature. They used a handheld device which focused a red dot on our foreheads – perhaps using IR sensors? We guess that CIQ people probably got them in response to SARS, and have dusted them off in response to the Swine Flu.
After all this, we climbed many steps to the Immigration hall, where our passports were stamped, then we returned to the boat. All the officials we talked to spoke at least a bit of English, which made things a bit easier – perhaps part of the pre-Olympics training?

We continued upriver, and noticed everything is much more intensively cultivated here, with what look like tree farms planted on huge terraces going all the way up the mountains. Before we reached Jinghong, the land flattened out – lots of gravel beaches, with people on motorcycles in the middle of nowhere, apparently taking picnics.

Shortly after dark, when we were about 25 km south of Jinghong, we arrived at a ferry crossing and tied up. A small 20-passenger bus was waiting to take us, most of the crew, and a big pile of cargo (food, plants, boxes of various shapes, plus our bikes and bags) into Jinghong. The bus ride was very bumpy until we reached Jinghong, and on very narrow roads – probably better that we didn’t ride. We had very limited communication with our boat crew, but ability to point to words in phrase book (like “hotel” when we saw they wanted to leave us in the suburbs across the Mekong from downtown) proved very helpful.

Becky found us a nice hotel for 140 RMB, much better than the 40 RMB place she looked at previously. The hotel has the ubiquitous Internet-connected passport reader, which means Chinese immigration knows where we are each night.

We walked down the street and found a hole-in-the-wall noodle stand where we had the best noodles ever! Fresh noodles, very tasty and spicy but not too hot, with a flavor combination we’d never experienced before – a wonderful introduction to China. All this for only 3 RMB per bowl (about $0.50 CAD)