With the blue China Mobile sign seemingly on every storefront in China, you would think it would be a simple process to add minutes to our cell phone. However, such is not the case. We purchased an unlocked phone in Malaysia and all along have been purchasing SIM cards and adding minutes to it (topping off), in every country we’ve been to. Even in the backwoods of Laos, we were able to purchase extra minutes.
In China, we struggle to add minutes to our SIM card. It seems that when you travel between provinces, the old SIM card stops working, as if China Mobile is not efficiently networked throughout the country. At least, that’s the best we could figure out, after repeated efforts in many of these stores.
We enter the store, show the phone, show the SIM card, and gesture that we want to add more minutes. We even display the old ‘top off’ cards we bought along the way, and exclaim ‘same-same’. We would undertake to do this ourselves, except for the fact that the instructions are in Chinese. This requires someone at China Mobile to scratch off the serial number, call it in, and follow the instructions. More times than not, the people behind the desk shrug or shake their heads – ‘no no’ they say – cannot do, with no further explanation. Eventually, we do find someone who understands, and they manage to add minutes, though sometimes I doubt it’s worth the aggravation.
We do use our Skype service quite a bit, and it’s a bargain rate of two cents a minute back to America. Although certainly cheaper than the calling cards, the quality of the call is generally not as good, as you occasionally lose the connection. Besides, sometimes it’s just not convenient to have an internet connection, and the freedom of a cell phone is preferable. Moreover, our mother has a number to call in case of an emergency.
Nanjing (‘Nan jing’) is a comfortable and worthwhile city (population 5.2 million), famous in prior years as a former capital and seat of power. At one time, the city was surrounded by a Ming wall, much of which remains in place, with some of the original Ming gates intact. There are enough interesting sites to keep you occupied for a few days, and we never lacked sightseeing opportunities the five days we were in town.
Most importantly, we were able to stop at the Public Service Bureau (PSB), where we successfully acquired 30-day extensions for our Chinese visas at the inflated price of $130/each. Even though it’s just another piece of paper glued into your passport, they still required the keeping of our passports for three days, something that’s always worrisome for me, since I don’t like to see our passports sitting on a shelf in some government office for that long.
Negotiating visas over the last few months has been relatively painless, although the costs do add up quickly. Our advice is get the longest amount of time on your visa as you can up front when you apply. It may cost more, but it’s more efficient that way, and they certainly don’t care if you leave the country early.
So, what’s to do in Nanjing? For starters, the must see site is the newly opened ‘Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre’ (free admission), a sprawling and well designed site detailing the horrific events of 1937, when the Japanese invaded China, seized the town of Nanjing, and proceeded to cruelly slaughter 300,000 innocent civilians. The most shocking aspect of this memorial is the site placement. Built directly on top of the actual killing grounds, the burial pit is exposed and hundreds of skeletons are strewn about, a grim testament to this senseless act of savagery.
Chilling photographs archive the horror of the siege, the events leading up to it, and the trial of those responsible after the war. The cruelty perpetuated by the invading Japanese is particularly offensive, with victims killed for sport (daily kill contests to see who could kill the most people), or used for bayonet practice, while many of the women were consigned to comfort stations where they were repeatedly raped. It’s no wonder the Chinese hate the Japanese – this memorial gives 300,000 reasons why.
On a lighter note, there is a wonderful wooded park just on the outskirts of town – Zijin Mountain - that contains the mausoleum of Dr Sun Yatsen, the George Washington of China. Early in the 19th century, he led the movement to overthrow the feudal dynasty that had ruled China for hundreds of years, replacing it with a new government for the people, with many forward thinking projects, including building of canals and reservoirs, transportation networks and public schools. Spend a few days wandering around on the well signed paths and check out the other sites – Linggu temple, and the Beamless Hall, all easily accessed by local bus. Nearby is the 14th century Ming Xiaoling Tomb, the only Ming emperor to be buried outside of Beijing. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovation, although they took my nine bucks and did not mention this fact.
In town is another free attraction, the Nanjing Museum, containing a notable collection of antiquities, including earthenware, porcelain, bronze, silk, gold and jade objects. We are impressed by the amount of cultural history that China possesses (and wasn’t destroyed by the revered Chairman Mao), with many articles dating back to 5000 BC. After taking quite a few pictures throughout the museum, a guard sternly shook his finger at me and told me ‘no photo’. Honestly, I did not see a sign saying ‘no pictures allowed’. Well worth spending few hours at, just don’t take any pictures.
Next stop was the historic town of Suzhou (‘Sue joe’), famous for its centuries old gardens and nearby canal towns. We spent three quality days here and could have stayed longer. In fact, if I had to choose, I would stay here instead of Nanjing. It’s more condensed, has a nice downtown area, lovely canals, and intriguing examples of Chinese architecture. Moreover, it seemed to have fewer tourists. Not to mention the unusual character on the bike who rode around with stacks of tiny cages, each containing a single grasshopper, all chirping away. Obviously, for sale, we were not sure why people bought them. Do you let them go for good luck?
Throughout this lovely city are many old gardens, previously owned by the wealthy citizens of the town. At one time, there were many hundreds, while today only a few dozen survive. The most impressive is the ‘Humble Administrator’s Garden’, set amidst thirty acres of wonderfully manicured gardens and bamboo forests. Water lily ponds are tucked next to traditional pagodas, and granite bridges span tinkling ponds packed with colorful carp. If only you could have the place to yourself. The trails are impressively packed with visitors, somewhat detracting from the peaceful atmosphere.
There are many other smaller gardens around town, but choose carefully. Honestly, after a while, they all look the same and few are free. What is free is the fresh and modern Suzhou Museum, right next door to the ‘Humble Administrator’s Garden’, containing a lovely and immaculate collection of ancient artifacts from the 3rd-5th centuries BC. Impressive and well signed in English.
Tongli, a colorful and popular attraction just outside of Suzhou, contains an interesting assemblage of old buildings built on a series of canals. Centuries ago, Marco Polo - this guy really got around – fairly observed that it was the ‘Venice of the Far East’. Here you will find the notorious yet fairly tame ‘Chinese Sex Museum’, containing a collection of erotica through the ages – statues, and porcelain paintings depicting various sex acts.
One of the local artists in town was quite delightful and thrilled to be talking with American tourists. We searched through his large selection of silk paintings at dirt-cheap prices, and bought four of them. He then painted our name in Chinese characters, followed by a welcome sign, all the time laughing and giggling.
China sits amidst unparalleled prosperity. Editorials in the Chinese paper extol their new place in the world order, and sympathize with a decaying America. There’s a certain smugness in the Chinese papers that irritates me, that suddenly America is second rate and China is the new leader of the world. Why then, can I not access my blog in this modern country? Why do I have to pretend I’m in Argentina by using a fake IP address?
Next stop Shanghai, home to the best shopping in Asia, where we plan to stock up on souvenirs and purchase a couple of fake Rolex watches. Then we finish our last month in China, with stops in Xian and Beijing, and a side trip to another one of China’s sacred mountains – Hua Shan. I just hope and pray we added enough minutes to our cell phone to last another month.