Thursday, November 19, 2009

Chengdu & Cheng-don't

So, Chengdu has a reputation for being a very large but very relaxed city and I have to say that for the most part it has lived up to this reputation. I arrived here with Sarah, Dave, and a bunch of other backpackers after a 16hour train ride from Xi’an. The train wasn’t too bad though, as I pretty much slept for more than half of that time.

We arrived at ‘Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel,’ which I might say… Is quite nice!! Very large, friendly staff and all the necessities one might need in a hostel. Didn’t seem like there was a lot of people staying there though, which was a surprise, because these “Lonely Planet our picks” tend to stay quite full for the most part. Anyway, didn’t really do much on the first day. Just took it easy and ate some Sichuan style food (which I found much better than the northern stuff).

The next day a bunch of us got up early and went and to the panda research centre to see the pandas. This is the best time to see them, as they are very active early in the morning and no just lying around sleeping. They were very active and a lot of fun! I got a lot of good pictures. I also met a man from Korea, who I practised my Korean with. It was really exciting for the both of us! My favourite part of the tour though was at the end there was a place where you could eat some panda and buy some genuine panda fur. Some people think this is very cruel but I think that this is just one of lives finer things! Don’t judge me!! I bet you eat meat and you wear leather… you do, don’t you! Cannibal!!

Anyway, I was totally joking about panda cruelty before… Though I have punch one or two in the face back in the day. But all jokes aside, Chengdu is a really relaxed city. Even though there are about 4.5 million people living there (and another “something something” million living on the outskirts) everyone just sits around drinking tea and taking it easy. So… “When in Chengdu…”

I’ve been pretty much just relaxing here. Spent a bit of time in teahouses, plus been cycling around town and trying not to get hit by cars and buses. There is a people’s park here that a bunch of us went to see and it was quite a site! People just hanging out, dancing, flying kites and drinking tea. It wasn’t all that big, but it was full of older Chinese people just doing their thing!

At night, the local ‘Sichuan’ speciality is ‘Hot Pot.’ And yes… it’s pretty much as the name suggests!! A big pot full of hot stuff! Its quite good though and I had it couple of times during my stay in Chengdu. The first time that I had it I didn’t realise that you were meant to put you meat in a “cool off” dish after taking it out of the pot. This dish has coriander, garlic and sesame oil in it and it’s used to flavour the meat after its been in the fiery pot. So… I took the meat out of the pot and put all of it into my gob. After this, my face resembled a similar colour to the broth in the pot and I literally could not speak. It was definitely an experience and every bite after that was somewhat tame.

On the 3rd day in Chengdu, some of us rented a driver to take us out to the Leshan Buddha, that was about 2 hours drive from where we were. The Buddha is really something impressive! It’s more than 70m tall and over a thousand years old. It has been carved out of the side of a large cliff and he is positioned in a straight-legged sitting position. The annoying thing about this trip was that we went on a Saturday and half of China came on a weekend trip. These tourists weren’t your regular city folk either. No! They were out-of-towners that were incredibly fascinated by foreigners/white people that don’t look like them. A bit of staring is fine… I’ve been living in Korea!! Those guys wouldn’t stare any more if I were naked. But these tourists would stare for minutes (with half minute intervals) and what made it worse was they were all armed with cameras! ARGHHH!!! Leave me alone!! They were not at all shy about sticking that camera in you face either. But luckily none of us were intimidated by this and we would stick our cameras right back in their face or just cover our face like we were criminals. I mean seriously… Why would they won’t to take pictures of foreigners? Are they going to get home and show their friends the pics? “Here is me standing at the entrance, here is the Buddha, and oh… Here are some white guys that I saw standing in a line, Aren’t they weird looking?!”

Anyway, apparently on the way home our taxi driver nearly fell asleep while driving. I say apparently because I too was asleep and I was in the front, so everyone blames my sombre state for his drowsiness. But we made it back safely and that night, Anton and Anna (the German Couple) checked into our hostel. This was totally by chance and it was cool to see them again. We all played Mah Jong and hung out for the evening and talked about what we’d been doing for the past week.

Xi'an-Attack... GO!

After a relatively easy (9 hours) train ride, I arrived in Xi’an and I went to my Hostel (Shuyuan), which a lot of people had spoken about in Pingyao. The hostel was really big and there were tons of travellers there. There is a nice cafĂ© there as well as a huge bar downstairs in the basement.

I spent the first day just walking around the city inside the city walls. My first impression was that the city was a little polluted, and very big. Looking around the history was very evident and there are some impressive structures in the centre of town. When I got back to the hostel I met up with a couple that I was rooming with (Clare and Owen). Clare was from Melbourne and Owen was from London but they had both been living together in London for the past couples of years. They were both really cool and I ended up eating and drinking with them that night. We went to the bar downstairs, which was large, busy and very very smoky! We had a good time though, and we really didn’t spend too much money, which was nice.

The next day, I met up with Gerald and Anette again and we had breakfast together. They were leaving though and were heading to Chongqing, so I may not see them again. Also that morning I met up with Sarah again; she had just gotten the train in from Pingyao. Anyway, I ended up heading up the city walls with Clare, Owen, Sarah and an English guy called Dave. We rented bicycles and rode them all the way around the city walls (14km). It was a pretty cool experience, though it does get a little redundant after a while. I ended up saying goodbye to Clare and Owen, as they were leaving in the afternoon and Sarah, Dave and myself wandered around Xi’an for a bit. We headed over to the Muslim quarter in search of the Great Mosque, which was actually really hard to find! Eventually, we found it and we paid to go in. It was a little disappointing, but it was cool to see a Chinese style Mosque and it was also interesting to see Chinese Muslims hanging out and doing things that were not typically Chinese.

That night I met up with another Dutch couple (Dennis and Chantel) and Sarah and we hung out and had dinner and drank for a bit. The Dutch couple were incredibly funny and we spent most of the night laughter at their antics.

The next day we all went to see the ‘Army of Terracotta Soldiers.’ They are located a little out of town, so we had to take a couple of buses to get there. Once we got there we organised a guide so that we could have someone explain everything and we wouldn’t be just looking around and potentially becoming unimpressed. The soldiers are really very impressive! They have excavating them for years and they are still doing so as well as piecing them all back together. I was a little annoyed at how the place seemed to be a very large shopping complex though. There were so many souvenir shops and they were scattered in and outside the complex and really could not be avoided. But if you come to Xi’an you really have to see the Warriors and I was very glad that I did it! Also, the Dutch couple again were very entertaining and gave us a bunch of laughs throughout the day.

That night we all ate and drank together again, but this night seemed to go on a lot longer than the others and some people drank a little too much. We all had a good time and we met up with some other fun travellers too, so it was a pretty good nigh!

On the last day in Xi’an everyone seemed to be a little hungover, so many people just stayed in the hostel. It was also raining very hard, so doing stuff outside was not exactly an appealing thought. Sarah and I did venture out however and we headed over to see a large Pagoda (Big Goose Pagoda) and we checked out a free museum (Shaanxi museum. The museum was boring though… So if anyone tells you it’s good, SLAP them in the face and say ‘Ian says you’re a liar!! . But we did have a pretty fun time walking around Xi’an outside the walls, even though it was raining for the most part.


The train ride into Pingyao was relatively placid. I had a hard sleeper that was really nice and I slept nearly the entire way (8 hours). I was also in a berth right next to Gerard and Annette and we chatted a bit, which was nice.

We arrived in Pingyao at 6:30am and it was cold and dark, but there were little bike taxis waiting to take us to a hostel nearby. We all (Anton, Anna, Gerald, Annette and I) hopped in the taxis and went to ‘Harmony hostel’ which is the “our pick” in the Lonely planet. Driving into the city was quite cool. It was a very hazy and the sun was starting to rise. We drove up to the city and the first thing I noticed was the large and very impressive city walls! We drove through as if heading back in time and entered a city that looked as if it had been left the same for 500 years.

When we arrived at the hostel we discovered that it was not that busy and we all got our rooms upgraded. I had booked a dorm room for 25RMB a night and ended up getting a twin room by myself for the same price. Once I got into my room I immediately fell asleep again. I woke at about 10:30 and went out to explore the town. The town was really incredible! It really did look like it had been left untouched for 500 years! The only sour part was that the main streets were lined with tacky souvenir stores selling the same fake crap that you can find all over China. I walked around for a couple hours weaving in and out of the Hutongs (alleys) and walked along side the city walls. Back at the hostel I met up with my friends again and we organised to do a tour together the next day to a near by village and an underground castle that was supposed to be quite cool! For the rest of the day we all just chilled, played cards and relaxed.

The next day a van came and picked us all up and took us to a nearby site called ‘Wang family courtyard.’ This “courthouse” was more like a massive city and neither one of us had read or even heard anything about the place. We were all really impressed however and we spent about 2 hours exploring this cool residence. After that we went to a nearby village that had a bunch of old temples and some other cool things. The coolest thing about the village though was a castle that was underneath it. The Zhangbi Cun is a series of really fascinating tunnels that are under the village that apparently go for about 10km (only 1.5 are opened to the public). But they don’t know how old these tunnels are as there is no real written record of them, but they do know that they are at least 2,000 years old. We really enjoyed exploring these tunnels and our guide was pretty interesting for the most part.

That night I had dinner with Gerald and Annette and we were pointing at the picture of dog on the menu board and I guess the waitress thought that we wanted that. So, we ended up getting some dog… oops!!

On my last day in Pingyao I met a Dutch girl named Sarah, who was really nice and her, the German couple and myself all rode bicycles out to a temple that was nearby. We also spent the day cycling around Pingyao, which I really enjoyed and overall I had a pretty good experience in Pingyao.

Arriving in China

So, after the flight into Beijing I was feeling a little strange. I guess it was a mix of nerves and anxiety really, but I was also very sad to have left Gwangju and everything and everyone that I had become familiar with and become attached to. However I braved through the nervous and began the journey through China.

First, I hopped on to a train that took me to the main long distance train station. This train station (Beijing station) was absolute chaos! Tons of people everywhere just running around mad, so I felt a little nervous trying to order my first train ticket. Anyway, I sucked it up and headed to a random ticket window and tried my luck. The first angry ticket lady pointed me toward another window and then that angry ticket lady found my train but informed me that I had to go to another train station. Anyway, I headed to ANOTHER ticket window where that angry ticket lady sold me a ticket! After that I hopped into a taxi and went to the other crazy and big bus station (Beijing West). Eventually, I got onto a train headed for Datong. I had purchased a seat (rather than a sleeper) as it was much cheaper and the train ride was only about 6 hours long. The seat was quite uncomfortable, but bearable and the people around me seamed very curious about me being on the train. The trip was made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that I was sitting next to a couple of young Chinese guys who didn’t say a word the whole trip, they just sat there and stared without a word. But it was an experience and that’s what travelling is all about!

When I arrived in Datong my body went into a numb state of shock! It was freeeeeezzzzzzzzing! I walked straight to the nearest hotel and paid the stupid prize that they were asking. I kind of wished I had looked around a bit because other people mentioned cheaper places that they found right next to the station. But anyway, I had a nice shower and a good sleep and the next day I felt awake and ready to take on the city!

The main reason I came to Datong was to see the Yungang Grottoes, which are famous Buddhist carvings located in the mountains near Datong. My main objective for the day was to find a way of getting to these caves. This goal seemed to be harder than I thought! Firstly, I need to mention that the Chinese really like to burn coal (for heat, energy and maybe just for fun) and Datong is known for having many coal burning facilities right in town. And let me tell you… They did not disappoint!! The town seemed incredibly polluted by this crap and it also stunk like hell! So while holding my breath I wandered out of the hotel and found a bus to take me into town. The bus was so packed that it could hardly move under that weight of all the people, but it eventually got me into town. When I was in town I walked around looking for another bus but eventually gave up and got a good deal on a taxi to take me to the caves.

The caves were really cool! They are all about 1500 years old and they are still in immaculate condition. There are about 20 or so different caves and some are really mind blowing and others are quite simple, but none the less they are all nothing short of amazing! There are some huge carvings of Buddha that were incredible and there were some very fine carvings on the walls that had very good detail.

While at the caves I met a German couple named Anton and Anna, they had organised a taxi to pick them up from the caves and take them back to Datong. I managed to share the taxi with them and get back into to town. We all ended up having lunch together and while doing so we discovered that we were headed to the same destination that night on the same train. I ended up hanging out with these guys for a while and walked around the town with them for a bit.

That night I went to the train station and hung out and waited for my train. While I was there I met a Dutch couple (Gerard and Annette) that I mad bumped into previously when I was checking out of my hotel. They were very nice and they too were heading to the same place I was that night. The place we were all heading was called Pingyao, Which is an ancient city surrounded by city walls.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Farewell my Han-gukans!!

So, I'm just sitting at Incheon Airport now taking advantage of Naver's free wifi... Kick arse Naver!! Way to go!!
It feels really strange to be leaving Korea! I don't feel like I've been here over a year and I am really not ready to leave! I guess I am comforted by the thought that I will be coming back here next year and that anything (or anyone) that I will miss will only be missed temporarily and that I will be back at it again soon. Everyday that I have been here I have had some kind of experience and I have really learned a whole lot in one year and Korea really does feel like my home at the moment.

Anyway, totally of topic.. I would just like to note that I have witnessed a 'matchy matchy' record here at Incheon. Within the hour I have counted 20+ 'matchy matchy' couples and about 200+ white masked surgeons wandering around the airport. I'm going to miss Korea!!

I am really looking forward to this trip that I am undergoing... It's going to be sweet! Firstly I am flying into Beijing, where I will immediately hop onto a train and head for a city called 'Datong.' This city itself is apparently nothing special, but nearby there are some famous Buddhist grottoes that get a real 'Lonely Planet hype up,' so I will trust their judgment and check out the place for myself. Next I will be heading to 'Pingyao' which is a famous ancient city surrounded by some cool city walls. I will spend a day or two there and then head on down to Xi'an, and after that... who knows! I will make it up as I go!