My reasons for that were vast. It gave me a chance to meet with three friends currently living in China, learn a lot about the history and culture of ancient China and after reading countless news paper articles centered on China, to see what this country and its people is really like with my own eyes. Of course I was also interested in censorship and how the government is able to influence and control its citizens.
My travel lasted from 24.4. until the 5.5. Also I did not go alone, two of my intern friends went together with me and as I said we met friends in China as well.
Our flight took us first to 香港 Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a very recent part of China, since it was part of the British Kingdom until 1997. It is treated as a special administrative area, which means almost like an independent country. Which again means that Europeans for example do not need a Visa to enter Hong Kong, but need a Visa to enter Mainland China. Also 1997 Hong Kong citizens could decide whether to keep their British passport or take a Chinese one. Citizens holding a British Passport then face the same trouble of getting a Visa for Mainland China, like other people.
Other differences include that English is to most people living in Hong Kong like a second (or third) mother tongue. With the first mother tongue being Cantonese most citizens are able to speak three languages perfectly (Mandarin being the third one). Also Hong Kong seems not to suffer from the censorship, which you will encounter in Mainland China. That means the internet is still free and the nightmarkets will try to sell you porn and sex toys otherwise prohibited in Mainland.
We checked into a Youth Hostel in Kow Loon one of the centers of Hong Kong. Although Hong Kong resembles a bit European cities, it is still very cheap. Actually you can get a dormitory bed in a Youth Hostel for as less as 8 HK$, roughly translating to 1 Euro.
Our Youth Hostel In Kow Loon
Hong Kong at night
All over China construction is done with bamboo instead of steel
We only spent 1,5 days in Hong Kong and therefore could not visit much. I think the city would have earned a longer stay having enough interesting things to offer to fill your schedule for at least a week. What we have seen was:
Taking the Hong Kong City Train and cable car/bus you can reach a Buddhist temple complex centering like a half moon around a gigantic statue of Buddha on a hill. The statue is so big, that you can actually go inside, where you will find a small museum. I recommend you to buy this museum ticket, because it is not very expensive and you can get a lot for free with it afterwards in one of the Cafes around the temple complex. We actually got one coffee, two pieces of cake and one pasta meal per person with this ticket. Also on a nice side remark everything in the complex is vegetarian following Buddhist ideals :)
If you go at night to the Hong Kong Bay facing Hong Kong island you can see a marvelous display of eccentric modern building culture. On the other shore you will see buildings of big banks, brokers, car companies and other huge well known trade marks. Every night at 8 pm the symphony of lights will synchronize the countless lights of those buildings with some classical music played at the shore. The buildings appear to be dancing in accord with the music and the whole city comes alive. It is truly spectacular and worth seeing in my oppinion.
One of the coolest things we have seen was the night market in the center of the city. In it you can find a huge number of seemingly never ending little stands and stores selling about all you can imagine to Hong Kong prices. Even though you can bargain a lot of discount with almost everyone, if you feel like it. It is a great spot to get some presents for friends and family or some cool gadgets and souvenirs for yourself.
After our stay in Hong Kong we continued our journey to Shenzen. Shenzen is the gate to Mainland China and is a very young city having been built in the 1970s as an economic center for China profiting from its geographical closeness to Hong Kong and with Hong Kong being the gate to the Western World. To get to Shenzen you have to pass an airport like train station, where you need to show your passport, visa and have your luggage checked. You are entering another country here.
On the other side despite its youth, a large city with gigantic sky scrapers awaits you. It is amazing what mankind can build in less than 40 years. However because of Shenzen's youth and purpose, there is not too much to see here and we spent only half a day there browsing a bit through the streets, getting first impressions of Mainland China. We also met our first friend Wendy (Wu Yan Zhu), a former intern at our company. We wanted to get an overnight train ticket to Wuhan, but they were all sold out. The reason is that Shenzen as a young economic business center makes/forces a huge amount of people to commute and because booking in advance is no option at train stations in China; so you can only buy tickets the same day the train will depart. So we took a slightly bigger route first arriving in another city from where we would then take a bus to Wuhan.
Our 2 days stay in Wuhan had basically two reasons. While there were two things we wanted to see "near" Wuhan, we also wanted a stop between Shenzen and Xi'an, since a direct train ride would have taken over 30 hours.
Therefore, although Wuhan is surely one of the centers of China with a fascinating story to tell, we have not really traveled the city itself. Nonetheless our stay in the main city (actually Wuhan consists out of three cities Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang) showed us China's most crazy traffic. For example cars would without hesitation use the opposite tracks of a highway to be faster only to get back to their own tracks in the last moment to avoid a crash. Also pedestrians are not afraid to walk on highways were cars drive as fast as 180 km/h and just trust the cars to evade in time not to be killed by them. Highways have a security stripe, like in any other country, yet unlike other country it is just used as another track to get in front of cars. I was really frightened every time we took a cab in this city, but somehow we survived. What is worse is that you should not use the seatbelt in a cab. Using the seatbelt is seen as an offense to the taxi driver, basically saying you are not trusting his skills. It might thus actually be safer not to use the belt to not enrage the driver and have him keep his cool temper to maneuver through the traffic jungle.
Oh yeah also pedestrians cross highways without warning or notice, trusting the skills of the car and bus drivers not to kill them.
In Wuhan we initially wanted to visit a friend of a friend, but since the bus took us to the wrong city in Wuhan (Wuchang) and the friend's city (Hankou) was about 1,5 hours away, we had to give up on that and go directly with another bus to the three gorges. The bus ride from Wuhan to the gorges takes about 2 hours. Arriving there you can easily find an affordable hotel and stay there for the night. Since we arrived too late for any tours, this is what we did.
First thing in the morning then we toke a tour bus to the Damn. This was the first time we saw other foreigners in China. So far we have been the only foreigners, who naturally met a lot of curiosity among the people we encountered. The Three Gorges Damn is one of human kinds most monstrous projects. Monstrous both in size and what it took to build it. It might likely the world's biggest dam ever conceived and built.
On the positive side it serves now as a gigantic water plant producing as much as 16 nuclear plants (project leaders) or 9 nuclear plants (critics) covering Chinas power supply for many years in the future. Because of its huge size and truly magnificent view, it has become one of China's highest tourist spots gaining AAAAA, the highest grade among scenes in China being equally important than the Great Wall. Last one wonderful thing has been realized in this dam: A ship elevator conceived by Leonardo Da Vinchi ages ago. In 5 levels a ship can be lifted or lowered by increasing or decreasing the water level accordingly. Then if the ship has the required level of the next step a gate is lifted and the ship can enter the next level covering a height distance of 200 meters total!
However the criticism of the project is huge. Two big groups of critics were effectively made silent by the government: environmentalists (since it is an incredibly huge intervention into the nature of whole China, since the affected Yangtze river is incredibly important for whole landscapes in China)
and surprisingly the second group: the military (the dam with its sheer size is a very convenient easy attack for long range weaponry, while its destruction would cause unimaginable havoc and the destruction of many cities and countless lifes. Thus it is considered the number 1 target for terrorists or other countries threatening China).
But there are more problems than that. Although there has not been an earthquake in this area for maybe a millenium, that does not mean no other earthquake will every occur at this spot. Yet the damn was not built to be able to withstand earthquakes, meaning an earthquake could cause the same as a military attack on the damn.
The biggest criticism in my opinion adding to the term monstrous is the the re-settlement of over one million people and many entire villages and cities around the damn area, because of the rising water level. While the government promised to give the people enough money to buy or at least rent a living space in one of the nearby bigger cities, it none the less meant the loss of their home, jobs, history, culture, animals, farmland, ancestor's graves, roots, and more...
the first place on our journey where we found a bunch of tourists
the ship elevator
inside the dam I helped cultural understanding by beating bored employees in Counter Strike
After seeing the damn, we wanted to see the Yangtze River itself and decided to hire someone for a little motorboat ride on it. The scenery was wonderful, maybe the most wonderful nature scenery I have ever seen.
With the sun reflected on the water and the water stirred up by the boat cooling us together with the wind we crossed on of the three valleys seeing huge rock walls to both sides shining in different color. On the sides there were also a lot of forests and spots inhabited by nature.
Eventually however we saw a destroyed village on the side and could not resist in asking our boat driver, why the village was destroyed. He reluctantly answered that although the government paid the people in this village a lot of money to move to the city, they still remained in the village, since it was still barely above the current water level. Therefore the government had no other choice but to send the military and forcefully destroy the buildings of the people, so that they could no longer live there. He also added that the same happened to many other villages, which are actually right below us under the water at this very moment.
When we told him our sympathy for the people of those villages and told him that we were very sad about it, he replied there was no need to. Since it was the best for the people to move to a big city. You cannot live on the land nowadays and the government was correct in letting them go to the city and live there. It will be much better for them this way. The government is very good that it cares so much for its people to move them to the city.
That is all he replied, I think he didn't really mean it. Maybe he was too afraid to tell his true thoughts about the whole matter.
After the motorboat ride we had to hurry back too barely catch the last bus back to Wuhan. This time we took a bus too Hankou. However we arrived really late around midnight and the friend I wanted to visit was already asleep, so once again we had to take a hotel.
The next day lead us into the heart of the Romance Of The Three Kingdoms. The Three Kingdoms is an actual historical period of China, where the country was split into the three kingdoms Wei, Wu and Shu. With its respected leaders CaoCao (Wei), LiuBei (Shu) and SunQuan (Wu). Even without the romanticizing made in the novel, this period is known for its incredible intelligence, wits and strategies of its kings and their generals. Also alliances between two kingdoms against another highly shifted during the time and diplomacy was as an important weapon as any other. I recommend everyone to read the above linked historical romanticized book, not only because the happenings are largely true, but because it is simply fascinating to follow the ideas and stratagem of these men.
One of the most decisive battles in this period was made between CaoCao and an alliance between Liu Bei and SunQuan. Despite the alliance CaoCao had a quarter million troops on his side, while the combined forces only accounted for maybe 50.000 (Incredible numbers compared to their time 200 CE). So CaoCao was still superior and likely to conquer Shu and Wu. He had but one weakness, an inferior navy. Coming from the north of China, neither him nor his men had ships or knew how to navigate them. Even worse they tended to get seasick and were afraid of the water. But in order to attack he had to sail on the Yangtze river, so he invaded and conquered the small kingdom of a warlord called LuBu and took over his entire navy. With this he sat sail with all his troops.
However LiuBei and SunQuan knowing their weakness in numbers had to make it up with wits and sent spies to CaoCao. One very clever spy wounded himself so bad, that he was actually close to death, promising CaoCao secrets about river navigation and loyalty, if he would take him into his forces. Because of the severe wounds he gained CaoCao's trust. Thus he was able to convince CaoCao that in order to avoid his troops falling seasick (and thus unable to battle) he should tie all his ships together with chains. The ships would get stabilized. CaoCao did as the spy suggested.
However all this was according to plan of the alliance. They had a great skill in weather forecasting and expected a heavy wind westwards on the day they thought of attacking CaoCao's troops. On the fateful day, they attacked him with ships laden with grease and easy to inflame materials. Once those ships were close enough they set fire to them with fire arrows. Because of the wind the fire quickly spread to CaoCao's ships and because of the chains the ships could not escape quickly enough and soon his entire navy was cast in fire. The fleeing troops encountered LiuBei and SunQuangs prepared troops and ships and were no longer a match for them.
This battle is truly remarkable because an at least 1/5 minority was able to win over a majority using wits and skills over power.
The place the battle took place can still be seen today and reached from Wuhan in about 2 hours. But although the place has started to be developed for tourism, it is not yet. That means it is a little hard to get there, which made us eventually take a taxi for 2 hours there and back for about 800RMB (including highway tax, gasoline and cigarette tax). The ride will bring you to China's true country side. That means bad roads (if any), really old cars, bikes with gigantic load space, a lot of people carrying things and a small city with old houses. Also you will see nice nature and countless rice fields with workers on them. In the end we were lucky to see also a bit of this aspect of China.
Eventually we reached the spot. Since it is developed for tourism the area around the red cliffs itself has already a lot to offer. Since most of it has been rebuilt (not much remained, since the battle took place 2200 years ago) it now resembles more the romance or a Disney movie than the actual battlements of that time. Still it is interesting to see where the west wind was summoned and of course the view from the cliffs on the Yangtze River were the battle had took place.
Even if it is a little hard to get there, I recommend a visit with some additional time in the city/village nearby as long as it is still largely untouched by the tourism upcoming right now.
I summoned the wind, just like in the story
there is a house telling the story of the three kingdoms with paintings
the original fortifications are gone, but they are currently rebuilding them for tourism
the famous spot, where the battle happened
in the area around the red cliffs you can see China's countryside
where people play MahJong all day long
The night we came back from the Red Cliffs we took another night train towards 西安 Xi'an. Night trains are a really convenient way to travel in China. For a 15 hours train you pay around 100 RMB (10 Euro) for a seat and twice as much for a bed. We always got beds and they are really nice, so that we always awoke refreshed and regenerated in the morning at our destination. Also since you share the train with Chinese, you will arouse curiosity, since not many tourists travel by train, and maybe get some interesting conversations. The trains also offer small bathrooms where you can clean yourself and procure hot water for instant noodles.
One more tip. Beds in the train are usually sold out quite quickly, and since you can only get a ticket on the same day the train is scheduled, you will often end up with a seat or even standing. However there are always some beds left for emergencies (someone getting an injury on board, or a pregnant woman getting contractions) and train personnel. There are quite a large number of these beds and the train officials are allowed to redistribute them as soon as the train departed from the station. That means once the train started you can search the wagons for a train official sitting somewhere with a large number of people circling her/him. It means this official is redistributing beds and with some bargaining skills and vehemence you usually can get a bed. :)
Now Wendy did that for us every time using the argument, that her three friends were foreigners and thus should be treated special. The other Chinese would protest that foreigners are no different from Chinese and humans are all the same (to which I totally agree and I am even happy that Chinese see the world like that). But probably out of hospitality to visitors the official always gave in and gave us beds :)
And thus we arrived refreshed in 西安 Xi'an, which is the old capital of China. The city looks really interesting and I enjoyed staying there a lot. The city wall is huge, vast, long and still intact. But there are also a lot of modern buildings mixing with the old. The city seems in spite of its large size quite convenient to get around by bus or walking and there is a lot to see. In Xi'an we also met with Ini, a friend who studied with me Japanese in Germany and is now doing a foreign year in the university of Dalian.
Our first stop was the city wall itself, since there is a nice touch and buy museum and the possibility to drive on the city wall by bike or tandem bike. The city wall is so long that it takes 3 hours to walk it by foot. The bicycles can be rent for 2 hours, but you can make it in a lot less if you go fast ^_^. The view from the wall offers you nice insights into the city inside and outside and on a windy day you can see people playing with kites (They will also sell the kites to you, but you can get them cheaper at the night market).
If you walk from the city wall you can easily reach a lot of other interesting things like the history museum (see below) or a temple complex centering around a huge pagoda. The pagoda can be visited and hosts some pieces of taoist Buddhist history. The interior is not that spectacular, but the pagoda offers a wonderful view on the city of Xi'an. Looking out of the windows you realize that the pagoda was once a very important center of the city since four huge streets lead towards it.
Since all of us were very interested in Chinese history our next stop was the history museum of Xi'an. It offers a really nice well ordered way through the different dynasties of China and is definitely worth a visit. It was fascinating to see when one Chinese guy (with a large number of troops given to him by the king) first made the incredible journey to Europe through the whole of Asia then reigned by the terrible Huns and Turks crossing countless mountains and perils and thus laid the ground stones for trade between Europe and China having created the legendary silk road.
It is also exciting to see just how much advanced early Chinese culture was 2200 years ago. For example did you know China had cross bows back then? They were only discovered in Europe almost 2 millennia later and lead to the downfall of the knights (since now even a peasant could kill a knight without much training). You can also see more well known Chinese inventions like gun powder, paper, the compass or printing (although this one is disputed, probably the first printing was done in Korea, followed by Gutenberg in Germany).
Often referred to as the eighth ancient world wonder, close to Xi'an you can find the excavation sites of the mysterious Terracotta army. A movie explains how the great and mad emperor Qing (Qing dynasty), who unified China, took a whole city with himself into the grave, burying concubines, family, servants, peasants and the persons who built the grave city. He wanted to take the whole kingdom into the grave with him. And to have a suitable army after his death he forced a large number of workers (historians estimate 700.000 workers) not only to produce his mausoleum but also a vast army of terracotta (pottery) soldiers including archers, infantry, cavalry, chariots, generals and many weapons.
However since the emperor was understandably largely hated by almost everyone, as soon as his empire fell after his death, his grave was plundered, partly destroyed and a large number of terracotta soldiers destroyed (and most of the weapons taken). However people, still very superstitious 2200 years ago, suddenly became really afraid of the sheer number of the army and eventually escaped the grave site and never returned. It was only rediscovered 1974 by local farmers using the grave site as farmland and then slowly excavated by archaeologists.
Till now only three pits have been opened, with one's army still partly covered by earth. If you decide to pay the excavation site a visit you can see these three uncovered sites and the army now standing again where it stood 2200 years ago.
One more word of advice: We found a cheap taxi that drove us to the Terracotta Army, however they drove us to two tourist stores first. This is very common, taxis and buses will try to trick you, offering you to take you to the Terracotta Army for a reasonable price, but then drive you to tourist stores first, so that in the end you arrive at the Terracotta excavation site really late and loose a lot of time. Our driver was honest to us and told us, they get a lot of money from the stores for doing so. He said otherwise he could not have offered to take us so cheaply. He then asked us kindly to tell the shops that we were American tourists, because he gets twice as much money for American tourists. So we faked an American accent and pretended to be from the states when we visited the Terracotta Soldier factory and the Silk factory.
Next we drove to a nearby hot spring reservoir which hosts one of the saddest Chinese love stories. Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty had 1000 concubines to choose from, but he was not content and his heart hurt. One day a mere peasant girl named Yang had the luck to be promoted to the palace service because of extreme beauty. And it happened that the emperor fell in eternal love with her rediscovering his lost emotions. She also fell in love with him and from now on he would spend as much time with her as possible. He built a palace on a hot spring spot as a haven for both of them to retreat from the world. He made her peasant family rich and gave them education and high offices. Their love was perfect.
However because of their perfect love the emperor neglected his duties and did not care much about the affairs of his country. Even if his ministers could convince him to meetings, he would end them as quickly as possible to return to his love. A lot of quick and bad decisions were made and in neglecting his offices finally he brought war to his country with an army invading from the west. His ministers made a final approach to him and told him to restrain from his love and dedicate his attention to the crisis. When he still didn't want to hear and even planned to restrain his kingship to be equal with his love, his ministers tried to kill his love but failed. With a lot of convincing and brain washing they finally made him reach the conclusion that either she has to die or the country would die. Thus the emperor fell the impossible decision of killing his true and eternal love for the sake of the country.
She however found a way to escape and found a haven at the house of a rich Japanese salesman in Japan and spend the rest of her life watching China from afar. The king managed the crisis, but it was said he grieved so much upon his lost love that he eventually retreated from office remembering his love in everything he saw or touched.
At Huaqing palace near Xi'an you can relive this love story and follow the lovers through their haven built on a hot spring area, gradually discovering how the story proceeded.
the hot springs
a model of the palace
back then, because of the silk road, there were already diplomats from Arabia and Europe on the court of the emperor
war threatened his neglected empire
If you are up for a little hill climbing and hiking, there is an old mountain nearby Xi'an city, which was used for signal/alarm fires for the surrounding areas. It would offer a nice view on the city if not for the pollution. Although we had a sunny day without clouds, it looked like the city was clad into fog. However the fog was not natural but a result from all the pollution the city daily creates...
the path up the mountain is really beautiful
but the lazy us took cable car
the pollution is really bad
Afterwards we walked to a nearby Buddhist temple, which dates back almost until the beginning of the modern year counting. Its interior has been made into a museum showing some origins of Buddhism in China.
However the displayed items are not that interesting and alas there is little information telling you about this time or the origins. If you are not nearby, you certainly don't have to come here.
Like Hong Kong Xi'an also offers an interesting night market, where you can enjoy wondrous and tasty local sweets mostly created from the local Muslim Chinese community. But you can also find all kinds of souvenirs and funny items or a good meal.
Alas we also had to see how a little girl tried to sell roses to us. Wendy later translated that the girl said: If I sell all the roses mommy says I will be allowed to go to bed. If I cannot sell them she will hit me again. I am very tired, please buy my roses. Wendy said this is normal and you can encounter many places were some scrupulous adults exploit children like this...
we browsed the market
we ate good food
we looked at the stars
and watched locals play some street games
On our last day in Xi'an it was time for some parting. While I had only 2 more days in China left, Youngki and Marco had one more week. Thus they went with Wendy to see Shanghai, while I preferred to see the current capital of China with my last two remaining days. Ini decided to come with me, much to my joy, because it is a lot more fun to travel together with a friend, and because she is fluent in Chinese ^_^.
Thus we boarded yet another night train and arrived in Beijing. There we actually met with Amyko, another ex-intern from my company in Japan, and she showed us around a bit, helping us to check in and book tickets for the end of the next day, where we intended to leave Beijing again. At this point I had to realize my miscalculation in planning, that I tried to ignore for so long. My plane would leave the 5th of May 3 pm in Hong Kong, but a train from Beijing to Shenzen takes at least 24 hours and from Shenzen to Hong Kong Airport another 2 hours, that meant with trains departing from Beijing to Shenzen every day at 8 pm I could never reach my plane in time. With great help and many phone calls from Amyko I found out that I cannot delay my flight by even one day and that the only option seemed to take the first plane from Beijing to Shenzen in the morning of the 5th for 1500 RMB (150 Euro). This was quite unfortunate, because at this point I was already out of money...
So I had no choice but to borrow a lot of money and use the 1000 Hong Kong Dollar my Shikoku travel companion Hong Lun gave me for emergencies back in Japan to pay for the flight.
北京大学 Beijing University
We waited for Amyko at her university and thus were able to spend some time there. What we noticed and what Amyko explained later is that every compound of the university is surrounded by a large park with a statue of Mao in the middle always with another gesture. The one we saw was called under the students "Mao is calling for a taxi". Also in the garden we could see a lot of elderly Beijing citizens practicing all kinds of martial arts, including swordsmanship. But also Qi Gong and more modern forms of sport like Diavolo. In any way we had a lot to see, when waiting for her, and these activities of the old people looked really interesting, I guess I would join them in the morning before the university lectures start, if I would live here.
Afterwards we went to have some nice lunch together and then Amyko had to leave for a job related meeting. She graduated from school and found a job and just started working there, when we met her.
Our first stop in Beijing was the forbidden city, where once the emperor of China dwelt with his family and household. It is a large area in the middle of Beijing and quite impressive to see, although instead of emperors, it is now inhabited solely by tourists and merchants.
When we saw the huge walls we had to realize that the emperor actually could not see the outside of his city and was in this area a bit like a prison. Ini then imagined then how horrible it must have been for him, when he heard the screams and noise of the people outside the walls screaming for his head for a long time. I never felt much sympathy for the last Chinese emperor, but then I realized that I knew nothing about him and that he also was a human being. Ini recommended me to watch the Last Emperor, a movie dealing with the very person.
As soon as we left the forbidden city we immediately saw the biggest square in the world, the Tiananmen Square. Since 1989 this square can not be separated anymore from the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Actually you can still see a bullet hole in one of the lions surrounding the square. The massacre is kept secret within China and included in the censorship of internet and other media (You cannot access the above linked Wikiaddress in China). However friends in China told me, that most Chinese students still know about the massacre and have their own means of finding out about it.
Mao built this square opposing the forbidden city to impress the people and later his mausoleum was built on the other end of the square to signify his superiority to the emperor, as he is now lying in front of the emperor. You can also see a gigantic image of Mao on the outside wall of the forbidden city itself symbolizing his triumph but also his de facto status as new emperor (or emperor replacement).
There is a lot of military patrolling the square ever since 1989 and they developed a shift change ritual not unlike the one in England in front of Buckingham palace, maybe one more spot to mock monarchy? Ini told me last time she's been here she saw two soldiers exchanging and reloading weapons, while they gladly helped a Chinese tourist asking for the way. A very strange but funny sight, she said.
Mao hanging over the entrance of the forbidden city
the founding father of the modern Chinese state with high ideals: Sun Zhongsan
Next Ini showed me the Wangfuhing street, Beijing's and maybe China's most known and expensive shopping street. It is like a symbol to the west that Beijing is not behind other cities concerning luxury and eccentric shopping. It was interesting to see at first, but of course quickly boring, since it was not much different from other cities, except the nice sweet stores.
However in front and next to this street you can find a nice street market with cheap prices and interesting souvenirs you don't need, but want. The street market offers a lot of delicious food including Beijing's famous traditional sweets: caramelized fruits on a stick. Same as anywhere else you will have to bargain a lot if you intend to buy something here ^_^
At the market Ini remembered a small nice and cheap Beijing opera from her trip in February, however as you can see alas the small opera buildings has changed since then...
Our journey through the capital lead us through a couple of little Hutongs. That is were the real Beijing lives. That means all the stores and restaurants here are for locals and not for tourists, meaning the prices drop significantly compared to the rest of Beijing. Most interesting however are the people living here and spending a lot of time outside in the street and the ancient buildings itself, which give you an idea how Beijing looked before it was modernized into the current metropolis.
I mentioned stone lions before and when you ever come to China, you will see them all over the place. They are often even seen as a symbol for China, but what about their origin? When we were walking on through the city Ini was so friendly to narrate the story to me.
As you might know or not know, in the history of China there was one outstanding woman who managed to become the single empress in Chinese history. Now many people say she was one of the most intelligent leaders of the country, however she could not do both reign over the country and be a good mother. Eventually she even killed her own son in fear of usurpation.
Anyway that woman was once in her palace garden to relax from important decisions that had to be felt, when she suddenly shrieked and panicked, because she mistook a tree liana for a snake.
Her palace guardians came for the shriek and comforted her, but they were afraid her empress could no longer relax in the garden and felt pity. One clever guardian, who loved his empress dearly, thus devised a plan to make her feel comfortable again. He placed two stone lions in the garden, who seemed to talk to each other and told her empress that they were guarding the garden and would never let any snake inside. Since they were talking they easily could oversee the whole garden and she could feel comfort in the garden again.
Later after this story was known among court and clergy many people placed two stone lions in front of gates as guardians. Usually you can always see them talking to each other.
By chance we found a big lake a little lake north of the center of Beijing. I don't know the English name of this lake but in Kanji it is separated into three parts named 前海 后海 西海 from south to north (look for the Kanji on a Beijing map slightly above the center).
Walking on the shore of the sea at night is truly wonderful and romantic. There are a lot of dim lights and you can see the lights of the pubs on the north end of the lake as well as some small ships and gondolas swimming on the lake itself. The walk takes about one hour and is a nice rewarding walk for night time, since you end up at a nice area with lots of pubs and night life activity. The prices at the pubs are a little expensive, but if you ordering only one drink doesn't hurt. Be ware however that you ask and best pay before you accept the drink to avoid scam.
Behind the pub area surrounding the lake, we found an amazing market with lots of really interesting things. Much more interesting than the usual souvenir stores we encountered so often already. We found a store selling matches with motives, a store dedicated to Japanese Anime/Manga/Game toys, music stores, Communist propaganda stores and much more. We found a lot of interesting stuff we bought and toke with us there :)
the walk on the shore of the lake is really romatinc
at the end of the walk you will find a lot of pubs like this
One thing you do not want to miss when you are in China is of course the Great Wall. Although large parts of it are not accessible and destroyed by time and weather, there are some parts you can walk on.
It is very convenient to get there, but be careful not to trust just anyone to take you there. Many people will trick you and drive you to tourist shops instead, since they earn a lot of money by doing so. The safest, easiest and cheapest way is to use the Beijing Bus lines, since one line goes directly to the wall and back for 12 RMB. Ask a local friend or at any hotel counter (even if it is not your hotel) for the nearest stop of this line. I think the number was 910 or 911 or something close.
Thus we arrived at the wall and had a nice 1-2 hour walk on it. If the weather is nice, it is really fun and interesting to see what people built so long ago. However if you are unlucky the wall will be crowded by tourists, which spoils the fun a little. I heard however the government is planning to restore large parts of the wall, which would effectively reduce tourism at one spot.
We also had a related interesting encounter, when the whole "traffic" was jammed due to a guy opening his tourist shop in the middle of the wall. People got really angry not being able to move forward and eventually one guy started screaming. Ini translated that he first screamed "This is against the law!" "You cannot do this!" "We demand you close this store!".
When the store guy did not react, the screamer got more vigorous and shouted "Listen, the people want to cross here, and your store is in the way!"
This time he got applause from many people, and many people screamed after him. When the store guy still didn't want to listen, the screamer got violent and screamed "You are an enemy against the people of China!" "You are an enemy of China!" and then some people lifted the shop guy and Ini and I looked horrified as they tried to pull him over the wall. That what have been his certain death. At the last moment however some other people run across the border of the wall and jumped into it to calm the people down and made them put the guy down again.
After you walked for 1-2 hours on the wall you can find an exit, behind which, of course, you can find a lot of tourist stands One word of advice. All the stands here are heavily overpriced for the items they sell. But at the very end of the line of stands, there is a store inside a building where you can all the items the stands are offering for very few RMB. For example Ini bought a T-Shirt. The shirt was 85 RMB but with a lot of skill she bargained it down to 25 RMB. However when we found the store at the end, it sold the same T-Shirts for 10 RMB...
The 13 Ming Tombs
Our next and last stop in Beijing were the 13 tombs of the Ming emperors. Since the tombs are far spread, you will have to decide to visit one or a few of them. The one we visited was called Ding Ling. It is the only tomb that has actually been opened and is open for the public to visit.
That does not mean the other tombs are not interesting, since all tombs host a large fortress like area with a lot of interesting buildings. If we could come again, we would visit another tomb, because there is a walking path leading to the tomb fortress with all kinds of mystical stone creatures watching over the path from both sides, which looked really dreamy and fantastic on the images.
The path is called Spirit Way, and you can find more information about it on the tombs' wikipage.
However we also did not regret to have chosen Ding Ling, because we could enter the actual tomb and see how the emperor was buried with his concubines and servants. The emperor got a huge red coffin, the one for the concubines were half the size and the servants' ones were so small, that you have to fold, cut or burn a person to fit inside.
Most Ming tombs seem to be built in the same manner with a large wall surrounding the tomb. The weather was really perfect and we enjoyed a long relaxing walk on the wall. Also most tombs have one building called the soul tower, helping the soul of the emperor to ascend to the heavens.
outline of Ding Lin, looking like a fortress
the inside of the soul tower, you saw on the outline above
Finally the Ding Ling tomb had a museum (entry fee included in the general ticket) were we could learn about the other tombs, and saw the Spirit Way with the mystical stone creatures leading to another tomb.
the whole area around the tomb is really nicely decorated, both by stones
but the best was the nice walk on the wall
When we left the tombs, Ini started to worry about catching her Beijing -> Shenzen train at 8 pm. So when we waited for the bus, we were tempted to accept the offer of a taxi driver, because we didn't know which bus to take. But the offer was quite expensive, so we hesitated and seemed a little at a loss. The driver tried to force us into accepting, when suddenly a young Chinese girl stepped to us and asked us in perfect English "Excuse me, do you need help!". She recognized that the taxi driver could not understand English and explained us, that he is trying to trick us and further what bus we would have to take. In time the taxi driver realized what she was doing and got really mad on the brave girl, but she did not retreat and helped us further. When he even made a step towards her, suddenly three other uninvolved elder women saw what was happening and stood next to the girl forcing the driver to retreat.
I felt both great gratefulness and admire for the cool girl. It is one thing I noticed about Chinese, they certainly don't lack self consciousness and courage.
This girl also gave me a lot of hope for the future China. If the government overuses his powers too far or starts planning wars, I trust that it will be courageous girls like her, standing up against power and overthrowing the tyrants and leading China into a new future.
Although we have not visited things related to the Olympic Games, they are unable to miss. You find actions and advertisement everywhere and the people are so excited about them. What surprised me is the view on the games the advertisements spread. They were talking about One World One Dream and how the games would help the world coming closer together solving problems and becoming friends. They talked about how the games would proof each year that all humans are equal and help to overcome stupid ancient racial ideas and prejudices. You might argue that the government does not stand for this ideas and even uses the games to cover severe problems and shortcomings, but the ideas certainly reached the people in China and that is so much more important. They are filled with excited expectations of the games and hope for this ideas to come true and China to become a little bit more a part of the whole world.
Before I came to China I admit I thought the claims of western media or governments to boycott the games because of Tibet and human rights violations would be a good thing. Now I had to realize how wrong they are. After you have come to China and see how much good they have already done to the people, no one with a heart or dream could ask for a boycott anymore. A boycott at this time would achieve the exact opposite of what is claimed. The people would be disappointed the advertised dreams of openness, unity and friendship of the world shattered. People would retreat more from the world than before and the government could restrict human rights even further than before...
On a nice side note, it is really nice how Chinese TV currently explains how the single Olympic sports work, explaining the rules and what you have to do in order to do this sport. They even dedicated a whole TV channel solely to the games.
Ini was able to catch her train and gave me one more 100 RMB so I could take a taxi the next morning to the airport. Thus I ended up with 220 RMB and 100 HK$ left in my wallet (I gave all my remaining Yen to Ini to account for the money she had lent me until this point). Amyko recommended to me earlier to sleep in the Guest House of the university for as less as 14 RMB per person (1,4 Euro).
However as soon as Ini parted from me, I realized
I have to get to the airport at 4 o'clock in the morning, but how should I be able to get up without alarm clock.
I have to get to the airport at 4 o'clock in the morning, but there are no taxis on the street at this time!
Walking to the university I suddenly heard two guys talking German. I followed them and asked them in German: "Hey guys, may I ask where you are sleeping?". They were startled being talked to in German, but answered: "Right across the corner is a Hostel called "The Red Lantern", it is a truly wonderful place and only 55 RMB a night.
I checked it out, and they were right. The Red Lantern really looked incredible and dreamy. I asked for a bed in English and were glad that they could speak English. They had one left in a grils' room for 55 RMB, if I wouldn't mind ^,^. I took it and asked whether they could wake me up at 4 o'clock. They said they can.
I asked whether they could call a taxi a 4 o'clock to drive me to the airport. They said they cannot, but they have a taxi service, which can take me there.
However not below 200 RMB because of the weird time.
I had only 165 RMB left. I tried to bargain, but in vain. Anyway I first left my back bag in the room and went for some dinner. I found a cheap restaurant with pictures and eat a really good grand dinner for 14 RMB.
When I returned I found the other Germans, whose number increased to four in the wonderful lobby and asked them for advice. We exchanged some stories and they eventually told me to try and bargain again with the lady at the counter and maybe even offer my HK$. So I did, and when she saw that I offered HK$, she realized I was not bargaining to save money, but was really desperate, because I did not have more money left. Then she agreed and said 150 RMB will do.
Thus I went to my room, apologized to two surprised girls from Iceland on a world tour, that the counter gave me a bed in a girls' room and went to sleep. At 4 o'clock someone knocked on the door, so I got ready packed my belongings and the one guy from the red lantern drove me to the airport. I was able to catch my plane to Shenzen.
On the plane however I realized
While the train station in Shenzen was right to the Hong Kong border, I had no idea where the airport would be and doubted that I could reach Hong Kong on foot. I tried to ask the stewardesses on the plane, but none of them could speak English. However I could make myself understandable, I think, and one girl tried to imitate a ship with noise and gestures. However I doubted a ship would be the fastest way to Hong Kong airport.
When the plane was landing and I grew very desperate again, because I doubted my remaining 1 RMB (10 cent) could take me to Hong Kong, I remembered having put an emergency 5000 Yen bill somewhere in my backpack at the beginning of my stay in Japan. Luckily it was still there.
Arriving at the airport, I asked for a bus to Hong Kong airport and found one with 2 hours, enough to catch my plane in Hong Kong for 200 RMB.
I exchanged my Yen to RMB at the foreign exchange in the airport and got the bus ticket. I entered the bus and relaxed a little. However when the bus reached the Hong Kong border already 1,5 hours had elapsed and I worried again. At the border the bus had to stop and all the passengers including one other German guy were sent to the immigration office. Just when he asked me whether I could speak German or English and both of us calmed down when I said "Ja", the woman of the bus, grabbed my T-Shirt and held me back.
Of course she could not speak English, but she said something in Chinese and would not let me go to the Immigration Office like all the other passengers. I thought
OMG WTF is happening?
I was really afraid and could not think of a single reason they would hold me back. I have not showed them my passport or anything, so they didn't know anything about me, so why would they treat me different than the other passengers. 20 minutes elapsed and all my efforts to find out what is happening were in vain. However the woman seemed quite friendly and I tried to talk a little in Chinese, the few things I had learned in 2 weeks, but of course was never able to understand the answer.
After the 20 minutes a black car arrived and the woman pointed at the opening door and made me go inside. Now I was really worried. I had no idea what all this is about, and I did not know whether the car would kidnap me, make me disappear (you have heard the stories) or drive me to the airport. I stepped inside anyway calming myself this time with the fact, that they could not know who I am and should have at least no motivation to kill me, right?
My luck would hold and the driver (also no English) drove me directly to the airport. Now I finally could make sense out of it all. I was wrong, they did know a single thing about me after all! I remembered that I have told the woman at the bus counter at Shenzen airport the departure time of my flight, and whether I'd be able to make it by bus. Apparently she must have passed the information to the other woman (without me noticing), who was now worried I would not get my plane and thus called a friend or college? to drive me there directly.
The car was really good and fast, and the driver calm and secure and we made it to the airport in time. At the airport I checked in, and the woman said (in Japanese ^^)
"The plane is almost full, I will have to give you a seat at the very end of the plane, I am sorry." (The seats at the very end of the plane are uncomfortable, since you cannot stretch your feet. But that also meant, if I would have come 5 minutes later, I would have gotten free business or even first class, damn!), but
"I am sorry again, the plane is being boarded in 30 minutes, but the gate is very far away, you will have to hurry a little bit to make it".
Although I was exhausted and tired from the exciting day and lack of sleep, I thus run to the passport and security check and onwards to the gate, which really was far away. But I made it in time and boarded my plane.
I sat next to a guy from the US Navy stationed in Japan for three years close to Yokohama. We exchanged experiences about Japan and China and became friends. I am glad that I try never to let prejudices influence my thinking, because that guy was so unlike everything I would expect from a US Navy Marine. He was quite shy (even to talk to me at first) and open minded and really friendly. Eventually he told me that the average marine however does more fit the conservative image I had, and thus for the last three years, he did not really feel at home there and did not make much friends there. That is why he intends to change his job, now that he will leave Japan after his three years stay has already passed (he had one more week in Japan).
I relaxed again in the flight and watched the movie Jumper on the flight (I do not recommend watching it) and read a lot in a book I brought (Xenocide, the third part of the Ender's Game series) (I do recommend reading it because it is full of interesting philosophy, yet I liked the two prequels better), when I suddenly realized
Now that I spent all my Yen, I had no more money to get back to Atsugi, once I reach Tokyo. Oh man, will this day never end?
At the airport I quickly was led through, because of my re-entry permit, I applied in advance. Be sure to apply for one at your nearest immigration office, before you leave Japan, otherwise you might get real trouble reentering Japan.
Having left both my bank card and my train card at home, so they could not get stolen in China, I was left with no choice but to ride the train for free. It is not that difficult, especially at the airport, but I still don't feel comfortable about it.
All you have to do is basically walk beneath someone's suitcase (you know that ones you can pull on a extractable handle. Like this the gate's sensor will mistake you for luggage of the previous person and you can enter and leave without problems.
With a little of a bad consciousness I thus finally reached my apartment in Atsugi, smelly and sweaty from the long day spent in travel, fear and excitement and with all the adrenaline having been pumped into my veins throughout the day. So instead of sleeping immediately I first too a shower and then collapsed into my bed, my hair still wet...
What a journey!
What is funny is, that as soon as I am on my own, the world always seems to break into Chaos and my only chance of survival is incredible unprobable luck.
Yet I would not want to miss this trip to China. I was able to get a better view on country and people, then western media could ever have given me. Don't base your view on China solely on newspaper articles, otherwise it will be as distorted as the view on western countries given by state controlled Chinese media and in no point better.
Instead now I have quite a high view on the Chinese people and I have no doubt that the government either has to change its tyrannical policies or sooner or later the people will overthrow it - hopefully to create a better one. China's steps towards the world, were the Olympic Games there year represent a whole leap, will inevitably lead to this process, since the people get more and more interested about the world and can no longer be completely blocked out.
Also this trip would have not been possible and far less exhilarating and interesting, if not for my two brothers Youngki and Marco, my big sister Wendy, my little sister Ini and my friend Amyko. Without them I could not have talked to local Chinese persons, could not have enjoyed the wonderful Chinese food, could not have traveled like Chinese travel, could not have seen the country side, basically could not have done much. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart!