Categotry Archives: Trip 2011

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In Transit – Beijing to Xi’an

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Categories: Rants, Trip 2011

We’re currently sitting in Beijing’s second airport, Nanyuan, which is located in the south of Beijing proper.  Unlike the premiere airport, this second class citizen – a former air force base – has all the charm of a brick to the head, with a brusque and even unapologetic attitude from staff and generally a grim and unpleasant atmosphere.

Sure, we might be a tad bit sensitive and jaded after a nasty experience we had last night with a Beijing taxi driver who drove us (eventually) to our overnight accommodation near Nanyuan airport. 

Let me preface this rant by saying that in the majority of cases, we’ve had excellent experiences with cabs in China, even outside of Shanghai and HangZhou. 

Of course there are times when drivers will take the long route, or go slow (when on a timed meter) which you get in any country; and given how inexpensive taxis are here, we usually don’t mind that much – this guy was a serious exception.

In preparation for departing from this rather unusual (and as we now know, unpleasant airport) we booked accommodation just off one of the major ring roads, about 15 minutes drive to Nanyuan airport.  The route from Beijing Capital Airport (where we landed) to the hotel was pretty much as simple as it can get.  Airport expressway to the ring road; then following it south and west, exiting and taking a major road to the airport.

This $^%&% of a driver took us on an unwarranted cook’s tour of Beijing, including a drive by of downtown, and past the same freeway twice (!) and most of the time he was driving at around 40kms/hr, with cars passing us at twice the speed.  At one point he must have sensed that we had cottoned on to his little scheme and he started to speed up once we started talking in Mandarin.

Eventually we found the street the hotel was located on (somehow), but he didn’t know where it was.  Instead of calling the hotel with his phone, he asked us where it was (no idea what international visitors with no mobile phone would have done).  We motioned to our mobile phone, which was in our bag in the boot, but he wouldn’t let us retrieve it; instead he got out and started asking random passers by on the street. 

Not long afterwards, with no help from the street people, he unlocked the boot and we called the hotel.  A good 3 minute conversation between this ass and the hotel and it turned out we were about 300 meters from the hotel – he must have been able to see it from the driver’s seat (huge illuminated letters on the side of a very tall building)!

All-in-all it took one hour and fifteen minutes (conservative estimate) or more for a trip that should have taken at most 40 minutes.  Not only that, the time wasted on the street, and the unwarranted slow driving speeds – and the wrong directions – he was all class this guy.  The meter read over 100 RMB for the fare, Toni paid the guy 113 RMB (the metered amount) and the guy asked for 10 RMB more for some mystical road toll (which is only paid inbound to the airport).

We refused to pay him anymore, and went into the hotel.  However, the greedy bastard followed us inside demanding his 10 RMB ($1.40) and showing receipts.  He asked the hotel clerk to translate for us, and we related our journey at the same time.  I asked the clerk how much one would expect to pay for a trip to the airport from the hotel and he replied not more than 100 RMB (which I assumed would have been in peak time).  This driver wanted almost 130 RMB and took over 90 minutes for a 40 minute trip conducted late at night!

In the end Toni pulled 10 RMB out in 1 RMB notes and threw them at the driver.  We were quite incensed.  Toni told him (in Mandarin), politely – albeit somewhat tersely, that he had his money and he should now leave.  He just stood there, and didn’t move (great loss of face in front of the hotel staff). 

The awkward situation was ended when, rage surging, we told him to piss off in insultingly fluent Mandarin.  At first he hesitated, and then was shocked that we knew this level of Chinese, but in the end the snake left the hotel, leaving us to apologize for bringing the drama into the hotel.

As I said earlier, this is not in any way representative of the majority of taxi experiences in China.  You could just as well have this experience in any country, regardless of how well you speak the local language. 

We’ve been living in China for almost a year, and this was our first bad experience.  We will try not to let this upsetting event tarnish the remainder of our trip, we are scheduled to be in Xi’an in a few hours and then hopefully by evening back in beautiful HangZhou.

That leaves us sitting here in this pitiful excuse for an airport waiting for a flight out, whilst the people around us stare and talk about us in Mandarin right in front of our faces.  It is almost safe to say that most of people travelling out of this airport are every bit as rude and unintelligent as the staff who work here. 

Pitiful, ugly.. China is better than this.

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Xi’an – Day Trip

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Categories: Asia, China, Trip 2011

Today we bid adieu to our brief, baffling and unsettling stopover in Beijing and continued our way back towards home.  Our final destination before returning to HangZhou is the old city of Xi’an, one of the older inland former capitals of China.  It is home to the world famous Terracotta Warriors, and much, much more.

Realistically, you need at least two or three days to see what Xi’an has to offer.  As it turns out, we didn’t plan this leg of our trip particularly well; we should’ve flown from Harbin directly to Xi’an, instead of stopping extremely briefly in Beijing.  At any rate, and at some cost, we managed to pack in a visit to four attractions around Xi’an’s greater area.

As you may have read in a previous post, our adventures last night in Beijing were not positive.  We left early this morning still in quite a bad mood, and by the time we arrived in Xi’an our mood had somewhat lightened.  Faced with the prospect of battling our way downtown, and finding a taxi to take us out to the famed Warriors was a daunting prospect in light of the previous evening’s events.

When we went to buy a map of the Xi’an area, we were offered a car and driver plus entrance fees to three attractions for 850 RMB, which sounded somewhat fair to  weary travellers.  The admissions cost to our first stop was 20 RMB/person, the Warriors 90 RMB/person, and another 40 RMB/person to the third attraction.  We estimate the total admissions cost would have been at least 300 RMB, so for roughly 550 RMB (less than $100 AUD) we had a driver and car for eight hours.

So, our itinerary had us missing downtown Xi’an altogether – a bit of a shame, but given the geography and the time constraints, it was unlikely we would have had much time there anyway.  We were taken to a booth where Toni paid using her Bank of China card, then we were walked up to the departure roadway and were put into a car.  There was a bit of a delay while our driver waited for the money for entrance fees, then we were off.

After a brief stop for fuel nearby, we hit the freeway to the north east of Xi’an towards the area where the Terracotta Warrior museum is located.  Our first stop we misheard as a ‘bamboo museum’, but it turned out to be the Banpo Site Museum.  I remember watching Toni searching through the Museum Tour guide we’d been given trying to locate the non-existent Bamboo Museum Smile

The Banpo Site Museum turned out to be quite interesting; the original excavated site of a Neolithic village from about 4000 BC.  They have managed to extract quite a collection of Neolithic-era pottery as well as funeral urns, and human remains buried according to ancient ritualistic ceremony.  The physical evidence supports a number of theories about the structure and layout of the village as well as providing an insight into how the village was constructed.

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Neolithic Era Village Site

The main building covers the majority of the museum and contains three distinct areas; residential, pottery making and burial and occupies about 50,000 sqm.  We did a brief walkthrough of the main attractions, though you will see from some of the photos, there were only scattered features in the main areas.  There were additional display areas off the main site which showed the remains of various Neolithic inhabitants of the village, the bones still oriented the way they were buried over 6,000 years ago.

Once we had finished, we returned to our driver, and continued on to the next location.  The Terracotta Warriors and Horse Museum is one of the main attractions in Shaanxi province, and is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site.  As we arrived we were greeted by an English speaking tour guide who offered his services for an outrageous 150 RMB.  I wasn’t really sure how much he could really add to the visit because I was already fairly well versed on the site and its history.

Eventually, for reasons surpassing my understanding, we agreed to hire him at 100 RMB.  He led us into the site and took us to the vehicle transit (an additional 5 RMB per person) to make our journey to the main site faster.  Lord knows why the entrance is located so far from the main dig sites!  The transit should have been free.  The entrance is built to accommodate the various retail outlets and restaurants which are on site and form the way out when you are finished later.

Anyway, we arrived at the main site (separate from the mausoleum, which is 1.5 kms away) which contains four main buildings of interest (and one building full of retail evils).  We started with the main museum, which was simply a two storey building containing many artefacts from the dig site.  It was somewhat interesting, but our guide was a bit boring and obvious.  He didn’t really add much to the knowledge I already had, although he was able assist Toni while I took some photos.

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A kingdom of underground warriors – facing East

After briskly charging through the museum, having some quite obvious points made to us (yes, it was starting to annoy me already) we finally made it into the main dig site.  Here we were able to take our first view of the famous Warriors, lined up in their original locations.  At this juncture our guide did something useful – he snapped some photos of Toni and I together, before filling in some blanks in terms of details about the dig site.

The dig site is presently located underneath a large full enclosed roof.  There is a viewing platform located right around the circumference of the site with an elevated platform at the entrance.  It is really built to handle very large numbers of tourists; we were visiting in the low season, so there were not great numbers of visitors.

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More warriors at the rear of the first site

Some brief history – the site was originally discovered in 1974 by a couple of farmers who were sinking a well.  The Warriors and associated terracotta belong to the Qin dynasty and date from around 220 BC.  The entire site is much, much larger than what has been excavated to date; it extends for kilometers and most of the site has not been unearthed yet.  The site represents a copy of the Imperial capital at the time of the Qin Emperor, complete with his army, horses and armour.

The reason that the site has only been partially excavated is that during the initial digging, they found that within hours of exposing the terracotta to air, the lacquer on the Warriors dissolved and the brilliant statues lost all their original colouring, which had been perfectly preserved in their air tight compounds.  China has been patiently (and wisely) waiting until technology is developed to prevent this destruction of the lacquer before excavation of the main mausoleums.

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A picture of a picture of the statues with colour

It takes approximately six months for a single Warrior to be fully excavated and rebuilt.  All but one Warrior are found in pieces, the result of time and compacting of the Earth.  The one lone Warrior found completely intact has been dubbed the “Lucky Warrior” and resides today inside the second site. 

Some of the Warriors were taken on a journey overseas where they were exhibited in many famous museums – Australia was one such country to receive the Warriors for a brief period, however this was in 1983 when I was only four years old!

We walked around the perimeter of the first dig site viewing the un-excavated sites as well as seeing first hand the remains of many broken soldiers, who will remain unworked as an example of how they were first found.  At the end of the first complex stood a small battalion of soldiers representative of a cross section of different unit types, some found in other locations.  Included were crouching archers, officers and infantry.

After taking a few photos, and posing for some extra shots, we moved onto the second site which only opened in 1995.  This site is a lot less well lit, to preserve the contents of the site.  It is not as large as the first site, but contained a more uniform layout and some better preserved remnants of the city’s construction and design.  It is quite deep into the ground, at least 10 to 15 meters and the original entrances are still intact – 9 in total.

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The “Lucky Warrior”

Here we visited the “Lucky Warrior” as well as one of the nine Generals which have been found thus far, and an officer.  We then made for the exit, and moved across to the third site, which houses the command bunker.  Slightly deeper than the previous sites, the bunker contained the bulk of officers and generals found to date.  There were also remnants of representative sacrifices, and a special sacrifice chamber for this purpose.  The third site is the smallest of the three main dig sites, but also contains interesting symmetry.

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A Photo of the Second Site

Finally, we found ourselves inside the shopping complex (we were not told what the building contained) where, no doubt, our affable tour guide would’ve made a nice little percentage on anything we bought.  One of the original farmers who found the site all those years ago was present and signing copies of books, but the pricing was outrageous – 200 RMB for a signed book and some post cards.  Everything was over priced and I personally dislike the Chinese habit of tricking tourists into these traps; so we declined to buy anything.  Honestly, we really don’t have much room for new things anyway and I can get books on the site easily enough elsewhere (and cheaper).

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The Command Bunker

Our guide was quite dour after this, and basically just guided us to the exit, where we paid him the promised 100 RMB.  On the way out he collected stamps from shops, which I presume was some sort of system for extracting money for sending tourists in the direction of said shops.  I honestly dislike this strategy, if we had been able to roam freely (and not led), I might have bought something.

Once outside, starving, our driver drove us to a local Shaanxi style restaurant where we dined on some beef, eggplant and YangZhou styled fried rice.  The cuisine was so-so, nothing to rave about, and moderately priced.  The rice was the highlight, which tells you something.  The restaurant was fine though, clean and tidy and the staff were friendly enough.

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Lunch!

After lunch we were driven to our third destination, a hot springs resort called ‘Huaqing’ which is also the venue for a key moment in Chinese modern history – the Xi’an incident.  For those of you who did not study modern Chinese history (unlike me) then you may not know much about the Chinese civil war.  It lasted for over ten years and took place before the outbreak of World War II.

At the time China was a republic led by Chiang Kai-Shek and his party the Kuomintang (KMT).  During the civil war, Chiang’s forces pursued the Communist party led by Mao Zedong, the father of present day China.  The Xi’an incident involved Chiang when he set up a military command post in Xi’an (at the hot springs) whilst pursuing the Communists.  Two of Chiang’s generals made a plea for the KMT to join with the Communist party to rebuke a Japanese incursion from the north.

He chose not to listen to them, so they took matters into their own hands and arrested Chiang.  This led to a standoff between the Communist Party and the KMT and eventually led to a peace accord and joint co-operation against Japanese incursions in Manchuria.

We arrived at the location, and were taken with the age and style of the resort.  Again we were harassed by an English speaking guide, but this time we strenuously turned her down.  The location really spoke for itself – and there were plenty of signs in English explaining key locations and events anyway.  The previous guide really sapped our tolerance for ‘helpful’ guides.

Entering, we took a less obvious route (instead of heading straight for the springs) and instead found ourselves at the location of the famous Xi’an incident – Chiang Kai-Shek’s command center.  Sometimes I wonder if Chiang isn’t more popular on the mainland, the way his former residences are converted into museums!  You hardly find similar locations for Mao or Chou En Lai, yet I’m sure they had refuges, command locations etc etc.  Weird.

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Chiang’s Office / The Five Room House (scene of the Xi’an  Incident)

Anyhow, we eventually did walk around to the location of the springs – located underneath the only Imperial bathing houses left in China.  These structures dated to the Tang dynasty and were frequented by Emperor Tang Ming and his lover Lady Yang.  Although the bath houses are not in use anymore, they are still quite impressive, especially the main building which is huge.

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Imperial Wash House

We managed to find a section where people were washing their feet in the mildly warm water, as well as several other locations where the springs were either previously in use, or currently used. 

NOTE: Photos and more coming soon – check back!

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Harbin – Day 2

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Categories: Trip 2011

We began the day at the Harbin Shangri-la hotel in downtown Harbin in the north east of China, north of North Korea and to the north west of Vladivostok, Russia.  Our room was in the Horizon class, so we were able to experience use of the excellent Horizon Lounge, where we took breakfast this morning around 9am.

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Horizon Lounge

Once suitably prepared, we checked out of our room and left our bags with concierge.  On our way out of the hotel we stopped by the hotel’s signature ice bar and restaurant, attached to the rear of the building.  It was actually quite large and contained an ice bar, four separate dining rooms and a large group dining area.  The bar was even complete with a piano made out of ice!

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Ice bar with ice piano

P1064810We hired a taxi to chauffeur us around two attractions in north Harbin at a rate of 70 RMB per hour.  At 10:20am we departed the Shangri-la for the Harbin Tiger Wilderness Park across the Songhua river and not far from last nights’ adventures at the Harbin Ice and Snow World.

The park is very big and is home to over 800 pure tigers (Siberian or Manchurian), not to mention additional lions, white tigers, lionesses and panthers.  So it is a really big place, and contains many open fields for the tigers to roam and run.  There were a number of different “parks” where the tigers were enclosed, some were specifically for tiger breeding, for example.

Admission was reasonable, about 90 RMB ($15pp) per person and included a trip in a fortified us through the tiger park.  We bundled ourselves into what could kindly be considered a minibus with armour and began our tour of the various areas.  The entire trip took approximately 40 minutes and we saw quite a number of tigers.

The highlight would have to be the ‘feeding’ of the tigers; a special 4WD vehicle would speed into an enclosure/park beeping it’s horn attracting the attention of the tigers nearby.  Once in position, the car door would open and the driver would release a duck (or something similar) into the wild.  The assembled tigers would then charge to the game and make short work of it.

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Tigers on the hunt

Although it sounds quite cruel and unusual, the prey did not suffer long at all.  The tigers, quite practiced at their hunting, were apt predators.  Well, except in on instance.  On the second feed, the duck (or something similar) flew onto the roof of the car (instead of trying to get away).  This seemed to puzzle the assembled tigers and instead of attacking the prey, they seemed to form some sort of cabinet or conclave.

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A tiger convention? / Eventually a sucker..I mean.. volunteer came forward

My guess is that none of the tigers wanted to be the one to scare the prey off the top of the roof – because whichever tiger did so would almost certainly miss out on capturing the food.  Eventually.. and I mean literally a good five minutes or so later.. one of the tigers must have volunteered, and the chase was on.

P1064925Once we had finished our tour of the park, we were let into a series of above ground corridors which were built on top of various caged areas and led to a platform above one of the main park areas. 

Here we watched the feeding again, from a different vantage point.  Although further away, it was possible to see the tigers working together – and against – each other in pursuit of their prey.

We continued around the enclosure and at one point we saw a tiger sleeping peacefully.  We both leaned in towards the outer cage bars when all of a sudden a tiger pounced upon the bars from underneath the platform.  You could call us officially scared!  Eventually we found our way to the exit after seeing a collection of black panthers, lions, white tigers and little cubs.

 

Our next stop was the Sun Island Ice Sculpture park, which was a bit further south, opposite where the Ice and Snow World is located.

Sun Island is a year-round tourist attraction, located north of the Songhua River.  In winter it is turned into a park full of massive ice carvings and landscapes as well as a few rides, such as a large slide.  There are other things worth seeing such as a native bear park, although we restricted ourselves just to the ice carvings as we had a taxi on the clock.

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Ice and Snow World by Day – Not as impressive as at night

After paying the admission cost, and depositing the plastic ticket into the turnstile approximately 5 meters from the ticket office, we entered the park.  Initially you have to cross from the mainland to the island by way of a wide bridge.  People were trying to entice the few tourists to pay for rides in enclosed vehicles, but we declined.  Walking onwards, at the end of the bridge was our first carving  -a very tall copy of the Mona Lisa.

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Sun Island Entry / Sun Island Bridge

There would have been a small number (for China) of people walking about shooting photos, but generally a lot of workers were still working on many of the larger structures which I guess means it was still a little bit under construction.  We decided to go straight ahead and found ourselves between two very long and tall sheets of carved ice leading to a roundabout on which was perched a permanent work of art.

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Ice Mona

Rounding the roundabout, we noticed two coffee shops made entirely out of ice (hollowed out) which must be the world’s coldest coffee shop!  We continued straight until we reached the logical end of the path, shooting pictures as we went.  There wasn’t too much wind, so it was comparably tolerable to not wear gloves.   At the T-intersection we turned left and headed down to where the path was blocked off, admiring the workers on the right still working on some two storey sculptures which were still in progress.

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Large Landscape (with me for scale) / Work in progress

We doubled back and continued down to the riverside where we walked along to find the equivalent of the “adventure park”, though you had to pay to use the attractions.  By this stage we’d sort of had our fill of sculptures, so we started to make a line back towards the main area, stopping for the occasional staged picture, such as reclining on huge hammocks or posing for photos on a large wooden (snow covered) bridge.

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Cold Coffee Shop / Under Construction

The footing was quite slippery in places, and we lost traction more than a few times.  We eventually returned to the main boulevard and made our way back to the bridge, and across to the waiting taxi.

He took us back across the river, back to the Shangri-la where we had left our two backpacks.  He made 260 rmb (about $43 AUD) for three and a half hours of driving and waiting for us, so not too bad on our end.  We might have been able to wrangle transportation more cheaply, but it would have been difficult. 

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Massive Ice Landscape

We ate a really great late lunch in the Shangri-la’s main dining room, which consisted of tangy shredded potato, eggplant and a local pork delicacy involving cabbage with rice and tea.  The potato in particular was really memorable.  Afterwards, with a good hour to kill before making our way to the airport, we circle the block around the hotel and walked along the riverside.

As the sun started to set, we took sunset photos of the river and managed to find a few more ice sculptures dotted around Youyi road before heading back to the hotel to collect our bags and find order a taxi.  The rest of the day is rather uneventful until we boarded our flight.  We met some fellow Aussies on the plane and had a good chat as we headed back to Beijing.

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Ice Carving Near the hotel

When we arrived back in Capital Airport we bid adieu to our fellow countryman, who were also overnighting before heading out, and took what turned out to be a really bad taxi ride to our hotel in south Beijing, close to the southern airport (Nanyuan).  If I decide to write about that incident, it’ll be in a separate post.

Tune in next for highlights from Xi’an!

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