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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Country Recap: China, Part 2

On our second visit to China, we stuck more to the big cities of the north: Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Beijing. These were very different than our stay in the more rugged, rural south. Of course, there is plenty to see in the north of China, including some of the most iconic and historic places the country has to offer. Here are some closing thoughts on the second half of our jaunt through China.

Top three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Visiting the Great Wall. One of the best parts of our entire trip.
  2. Relaxing in the city of Qingdao, my favorite city in China.
    Walking along the Bund in Shanghai.

Brad:

  1. Walking on the Great Wall
  2. Qingdao. With the ridiculously cheap beer, good food, and relaxed atmosphere, this was my favorite city in China.
  3. Olympic Park in Beijing. The Bird’s Nest is an amazing sight, and just seeing it brought back memories of the 2008 Olympics, which was a really good one. It’s getting me excited for this year’s Olympics, which we’ll be in Italy for.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Getting stuck in traffic on a crowded bus in Hangzhou.
  2. Dealing with Chinese cab drivers. I’ve decided that, as a whole, they are terrible people.
  3. The usual “China annoyances,” e.g., spitting, staring, pushing, smoking, etc. 

Brad:

  1. Our first day in Hangzhou. I was excited to see West Lake, but after an hour bus ride to the west bus station, another hour standing on a city bus to get to the train station, stuck in traffic, then waiting 30 minutes at the train station to buy tickets, I was in a very bad mood. The weather was hazy and cloudy, and then it was a couple hours back to Lin’an, where the taxi drivers refused to take us across town so we had to walk.
  2. The big Chinese cities. They’re very noisy, crowded, and dirty. The people didn’t seem especially nice either, especially compared to the people in Yunnan.
  3. Public buses in cities. (See #1 above.) Knowing where the buses go is difficult, especially since there’s no English on the announcements or signs. Plus the bus stops are very far apart, sometimes about a kilometer, so it’s hard to know where the bus even stops or what route it’s taking without having taken it before.

Best meal?

Nikki: The donkey burgers we ate in Beijing.

Brad: At a small market in Qingdao: a tortilla-like thing with an egg, which is wrapped around chicken, spicy sauce, and lettuce. With a bag of Tsingtao beer for 25 cents. Then a pastry pocket filled with spicy chicken. And finished with a couple bite-sized cream puffs for dessert. All that for under five US dollars, both of us.

Worst meal?

Nikki: Our chicken gristle dinner on Tai Shan.

Brad: Dinner up on Taishan. There was barely any edible meat in the chicken bones and it was very expensive. We also think the overpriced beer didn’t have any alcohol in it.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: Once again we were lucky to meet so many nice people through Couchsurfing. I’ll say Sofie because she showed us the donkey burgers.

Brad: We met some really cool people in China. Since Julie was my answer for Southern China, I’d have to say Sofie and Leo who took us out to donkey burgers in Beijing.

Worst disaster?

Nikki: None that I can think of.

Brad: Nothing disastrous this time around, fortunately.

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: Our hostel in Qingdao. It was older and didn’t have the nicest facilities, but it was a fun place to hang out.

Brad: Kiyuae in Qingdao. It has a good bar/restaurant, and the prices weren’t outrageous. It’s also in a perfect location.

Worst place we stayed?

Nikki: The hotel on the summit of Tai Shan.

Brad: Our room up on Taishan. The bathroom was disgusting. Honorable mention to the hostel in Tai’an, which was overrun by hoards of mosquitoes.

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: Seeing the Bird’s Nest and the Cube from the 2008 Olympics! I loved watching the Beijing Olympics and visiting the stadiums was really cool. It was one of my favorite parts of Beijing–I can’t believe I forgot to mention it in my blog post!

Brad: Huixin took us swimming in a pond in Lin’an. The water was so fresh and clear, and the surroundings were rugged and beautiful. After Shanghai it felt great to get back to a bit of nature again. 

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: On one of the overnight trains, the sound of a camera woke me up. When I opened my eyes, some Chinese girl had her camera phone shoved right in my face. I gave her a “WTF?” look and she pulled the camera away, but she kept on staring at me. I’m just wondering what on earth she’s going to do with that picture. Put it in a scrapbook? “And here’s me in front of West Lake, oh and here’s a blonde girl sleeping on a train…”

Brad: The creatures on sticks in Beijing. We saw crickets, silk worms, giant spiders, scorpions still kicking, sheep penis, baby sharks, sea urchins, centipedes, and even sea horses. I didn’t see anyone actually eating this stuff, so maybe it’s just there for the tourists’ shock and spectacle.

Statistics for China, Part 2

  • Days in the country: 20
  • Places we stayed: 6
  • Rainy days: 2
  • Blog posts: 6
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 6
  • Photos taken: 1,149
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 261, 23% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 3
  • Hours traveling overland: 96
  • Overnight trains and ferries: 3
  • Yuan banknote scenes visited: 41, 5, 20, 100)
  • Distance travelled on train: 3,150km, or 1,957mi
  • Subway systems used: 2

Statistics for the Trip

  • Countries visited: 13
  • Days on the road: 269
  • Places we stayed: 123
  • Rainy days: 51
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 28
  • Photos taken: 12,525
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 2,934, 23% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 23
  • Hours traveling overland: 555
  • Overnight buses, trains, ferries, and planes: 15
  • Subway systems used: 12

Beijing

I always pictured Beijing as this dirty, cramped, polluted, and crowded ??jumble of a city. Basically, I thought we were going to hate it. As it turns out, I actually enjoyed the place. The tourist attractions were crowded, but the rest of the city wasn’t. It’s big in the sense that it covers a large area, but the individual neighborhoods didn’t feel imposing or intimidating. And we were there right after a big rainstorm, so it wasn’t even smoggy! (In a way, that kind of disappointed me, since all I’ve ever heard about Beijing is how terrible the pollution is. Not seeing it was like going to Seattle and not having any rain. You know you should feel lucky, but it seems like you missed out on the main experience.)

First we visited the Great Wall, which was an amazing experience and one of the highlights of our entire trip. After a lot of??hand-wringing and worrying, we decided to just go on our hostel’s tour to the Jinshanling area of the Wall. I’m so glad we did because the area was incredible, there were hardly any tourists or touts, and it would have been very stressful to try and figure out our own way there and back. The “tour” wasn’t even a tour, either, they just took us there and told us when to come back for lunch. The weather was perfect and we could see the wall winding along the mountains way off into the distance. Parts of Jinshanling have been restored and other parts are very ancient, so we got to see what it would have looked like back then, but also walk along the actual wall. If you’re thinking, “It’s just a wall, big deal,” you really have to go there and see it for yourself. It’s unbelievable.

In Beijing we saw??Tiananmen Square, the largest square in the world and the site of infamous protests of 1989. Today the square is under intense security and monitoring. There are police and video cameras everywhere. Then we moved on to the Forbidden City, which was home to many emperors over the years. I couldn’t believe how big it was. I guess the name “city” should have tipped me off, but I was expecting just one large building. Instead it’s an entire complex with hundreds of buildings. We rushed through it, because it was hot and crowded, but if you wanted, you could spend all day walking around. Several days, if you were really interested.

Another day we got up very early to see the Summer Palace. There are actually two Summer Palaces in Beijing; the “old” one was destroyed by the British and the French in 1860. This is the newer one and it’s very beautiful. Most of the grounds are along the man-made Kunming Lake. You have to pay extra money to go inside some of the buildings, so we just paid the minimum and stayed in the garden areas. I liked it a lot more than the Forbidden City. After that we went to visit the Lama Temple, which we had read was one of the most beautiful Tibetan Buddhism??monasteries??in the entire country. Maybe I’m just sick of temples, but I wasn’t very impressed with this one. (There weren’t even any llamas!) They did have a 26 meter tall, rather menacing Buddha statue carved from a single piece of sandalwood. There was also an interesting collection of small Buddha statues from all over the place, so the Lama Temple did end up being a good stop.

In addition to all that, we also spent time with some very fun people. One night we met up with Sofie, a French artist that Yoshiko in Tokyo introduced us to. Sofie and her Chinese boyfriend, Leo, took us out to try donkey burgers. I was skeptical, but the donkey was actually delicious! After dinner, we ended up at a bar that was celebrating a major Russian holiday. The owner of the bar was a Frenchman who had lived in Russia for over ten years, so he was very excited when we told him that we were going there. He gave us the ins and outs of drinking in Russia (there always has to be a toast!) and, at some point, a gigantic bottle of vodka appeared. It was so big, it had one of those pumps that are like shampoo dispensers. It was hilarious.

On two other nights we met up with Julie, the girl from Florida that we went bike riding with in Dali. She is teaching in Beijing now and showed us some fun areas in town, including where the crazy street food is. We saw fried scorpions, spiders, sea horses, centipedes, and more! (And no, we did not try anything!) On our last night in China, we walked around Houhai Lake and ate hot pot for the very first time. Hot pot is pretty famous in China, so it’s kind of hard to believe we didn’t try it until the very end. The process is kind of similar to fondue; you put raw ingredients into a boiling hot water pot, then take them out when they’re done and eat them. It was really yummy and we had a lot of fun. Then on our way back to the subway station, we saw a beautiful sunset over the lake. It was a great way to end our time in China.

Qingdao

We found a magical city on the coast where the beer is cheaper than water and the streets are filled with delicious, cheap food. Qingdao is definitely my favorite place in China. It’s very quiet and relaxed. Drivers don’t even honk at each other all the time. Fresh draft beer from the brewery is available everywhere. There are kegs just out on the sidewalks and you can get a mug of beer or you can get it poured into a plastic bag to go. They’ll even give you a straw to drink it.

Our first two nights we couchsurfed with Sunshine, an alternative-type roller derby chick with blue hair and facial piercings. She has lived in tons of different places, including, oddly enough, Wausau, so we had fun chatting about the Midwest. There was a big market and lots of yummy little food shops very close to her apartment and she showed us her favorite spots. I’m not sure what they’re called, but Brad and I both loved these wraps where they put an egg right inside the tortilla when they make it.

Qingdao was a German colony for a short period of time, so there’s lots of interesting architecture and historic buildings to check out. The Badaguan historic neighborhood is almost all German buildings and is a very nice place to walk around. Many couples have their wedding pictures taken there. The large Catholic church with its twin red towers was under renovation, but we did go see the Protestant church. It’s pretty plain and boring on the inside, except the bell tower. We climbed up there and saw the mechanism used for running the clocks and ringing the bell.

Another part of Qingdao’s German heritage is the Tsingtao Brewery. Tsingtao is China’s most popular beer, so we decided to take a tour. They have a large museum about the history of the company and they have old photos and documents from way back when the Germans started it. There were also many old beer advertisements, which I love, and some pretty hilarious captions and explanations for the displays. They had exhibits of the old machinery and then we got to see the current machinery at work. We couldn’t believe how fast the labeling and capping machines move! There are thousands of bottles and most of the time they’re moving so fast, you can’t even see them. Crazy to think of how much beer they produce each day. It was very cool to see.

We also walked along the coast and saw some of the swimming beaches. I guess they’re pretty good for China, but nothing compared to Southeast Asia. There’s a German lighthouse out on Little Qingdao Island and a Navy museum that looks more like a junkyard for abandoned guns and ships. It was just nice to be by the ocean and get some fresh air. We ended up liking Qingdao so much that we stayed there a few days longer than we had planned. I was really starting to dread our next stop: Beijing.

 

Nikki say: “A visit to Qufu is a worthwhile endeavor.”

The day before we climbed Tai Shan, we took a day trip to Qufu. I’m happy to say we managed to go there, get around, and come back all on local buses without much trouble. We’re getting pretty good at this traveling thing! Anyway, Qufu is a small city about an hour away from Tai’An. It’s the hometown of Confucius, the extremely influential Eastern philosopher. I didn’t know this until we were there, but apparently he didn’t get much done during his lifetime. It wasn’t until after his death that his ideas became popular.

When we first got into Qufu, I thought it was just a big tourist trap. The town was very loud and dirty (even for Chinese standards) and the streets were lined with vendors selling all their same-same junk. And to top it off, we had to pay a pretty high entrance fee to get into the Confucius cemetery grounds. (Luckily there was a local woman there selling black market tickets at a slightly lower rate.)

The cemetery ended up being really nice, though. When I say cemetery, don’t picture a Western style one with hundreds of graves in a neat little grid under a manicured lawn. This cemetery is a giant woods with graves poking up randomly between the trees. The gravestones themselves are large slabs, most of them about five feet tall. It was one of the most peaceful places we’ve been in all of China. Yes, there were big tour groups, but the forest is huge, so it’s pretty easy to lose the crowds. Confucius is buried there, along with over 70 generations of his family. Isn’t that incredible? There are graves there that are over 2,000 years old. I don’t even know where my family from five generations ago are buried. I can’t imagine being able to trace my entire family tree in one place. And the cemetery is still being used today, so who knows how many generations will end up there.

We paid our respects to the big man himself, as well as his son and grandson. Then we went for a long, quiet stroll along the paths. Like I said, it was a very peaceful area, and a great place to reflect on life, the universe, and everything. I probably could’ve spent the entire day ambling between the graves, but we didn’t want to miss the last bus back to Tai’An. The other major sites to visit in Qufu are the Kong family mansions. We had to choose between the cemetery and the mansions, and I think we made the right choice, but I would’ve liked to see the mansions as well. We probably should have just spent the night in Qufu instead of doing it as a daytrip. Oh well! At least we were well-rested and ready to go for our hike up Tai Shan.

“I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge. I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there.” –Confucius

Stair Stepping up to Heaven’s Gate

Last week we climbed Tai Shan, one of the five sacred Dao mountains and a World Heritage Site. There were many, many, many, many steps! It was more or less four hours of??stair-stepping. The beginning was fine. The stairs weren’t so steep and there were long stretches of level ground between them. After we stopped to eat lunch at the Halfway Gate to Heaven, the climbing got really tough. My lungs were burning and for some reason I couldn’t take a deep breath without coughing. We had to take quite a few breaks on our way up.

We only saw four other Westerners on the entire mountain. Many giggling Chinese girls got their pictures taken with us and many more people said hello to us. When we finally reached the summit area at the South Gate of Heaven, we could only find an expensive four-star hotel. After wandering around, we did find a cheaper one and luckily there was a guest from Beijing there who spoke a bit of English. The staff led us on a fifteen minute walk away from the village (up more stairs!) to a different building. It was all under construction, so there were boards, cement, and dust everywhere. Our room was pretty dirty and the bathroom was one of the worst we’ve had. At least it had hot water!

We went walking and took some pictures during sunset when the lighting was really great. It was too hazy to really see anything in the distance, though. Then we went to a restaurant and paid a fortune (a Chinese fortune, not a Japanese one) for inedible chunks of chicken bone and gristle. You would think that by now I would know not to order chicken in China. We also tried a special type of jian bing. They use what looks like a potter’s wheel to make a very thin pancake, then put thick soy sauce on and wrap it around a green onion stalk. It was pretty good and even Brad tried it.

We had decided not to get up for sunrise (even though that was why we were spending the night) because it would be cold and too hazy to see anything. Well, at four in the morning, the hotel staff woke everyone up by banging on every single door. And I don’t just mean a simple knock and a yell, this was literally door pounding and screaming for about ten minutes. Since we were awake, we decided to just get up and see it. Outside there was a beautiful full moon and it was dawn already, so it was fairly bright. It wasn’t too cold, but all the Chinese had rented military surplus coats. It looked like we were hanging out with a detachment of the Chinese Army.

About ten minutes later we all marched up to a good spot to view the sunrise. I think it was the best spot on the whole mountain, actually. The sunrise itself wasn’t much, except for the brief period when we could actually see the bright red sun. When it appeared, the crowd went into a photo-taking frenzy. The most popular picture is to stand with your hand out, so it looks like you’re holding the sun. I don’t think the concept of “cheesy” exists in Asia.

After we had our fill of the sunrise, Brad and I headed up to the actual summit at the unimpressive Jade Emperor Temple. We got a fried dough thing for breakfast, then went back down, this time on the cable car.??All in all, it wasn’t my favorite hike, but I don’t regret it. The sunset and full moon were cool. And they say that if you climb Tai Shan you live to be 100, so that should be good.