Written by SeenThat on 11 May, 2011
Unexpectedly, The Cross of Bethlehem begin and ends in China. This was one of the very few changes during the editing stage, since the original manuscript ended in Vientiane, on my dramatic escape to China. Any other of the countries mentioned in the book -…Read More
Unexpectedly, The Cross of Bethlehem begin and ends in China. This was one of the very few changes during the editing stage, since the original manuscript ended in Vientiane, on my dramatic escape to China. Any other of the countries mentioned in the book - even Switzerland - would have been a more obvious choice. After all the book is not about Asia. Moreover, despite a lifelong desire to see the Middle Kingdom, my first and largest visit was unplanned - as good journeys always are.In one of my trips between Bangkok and Vientiane, I was reading a china guidebook. An acquaintance in Vientiane "Sam" in the book - had asked for it it. Once there, I found myself at the Chinese embassy asking for a visa. Shortly after, I entered china through its backdoor without any specific plans for the visit, just a long list of must-see places. Xishuangbanna was painful, too similar to Southeast Asia, yet distinctively Chinese. The details were wrong, the culture was different, and the spicing was different. It was less Buddhist, less polite, more materialistic and convenience oriented. There was also that distinctive feeling of knowing for sure foreigners were closely watched.A few days later, I was standing in front of Kunming’s railway station and took a fast decision: a railways tour of the Middle Kingdom. Modern China marks the rebirth of railways technology. Its vast population relies on iron roosters for fast transport along the huge distances. During the Chinese New Year, migrant workers - in the many tens of millions, the largest seasonal migration on earth - return from the megacities along the seashore to their hometowns. China railways can to the herculean task.I didn't hesitate, first, I traveled northwards through the incredible Kunming-Chengdu Train which crosses over a hundred tunnels and bridges and then continued to Beijing. There, I almost froze. It was the middle of the winter and I was wearing clothes bought in summery Singapore.After taking a quick look at one of their walls and eating an imperial duck, I moved a bit southwards and warm-wards to Shanghai. From there began an awesome journey westwards all the way to Urumqi and Kashgar. Finally, I left the kingdom via Guangdong, Macao and Hong Kong. Later I returned for shorter trips.Despite not being very fond of China, this trip was the best journey I ever had. It was possible only due to the railways which let you travel efficiently while still enjoying the landscape, human and natural as one.Oddly for a communist paradise, the cars were divided into classes. Most Chinese trains include several kinds of cars, the main ones being first, second, and third classes and the dining cars. The difference between the first and second classes – called soft and hard-berth for historical reasons – are minimal. The first class compartments include just four berths while second class ones have six, beyond that there are not significant differences able to justify the big difference in the fares. Most significant are the differences in the berths, despite the lower ones being more expensive they are a bad choice since during the day they are used as coaches by everybody in the area. Moreover, the quality varies with a specific line importance. A second class car in the Beijing-Shanghai line is much better than a first-class one in the secondary connecting Kunming with Chengdu.The third class ones are the sitting cars, which display several subcategories. They are definitely not recommended for long trips, though for short ones they offer interesting encounters with the locals. If traveling in such a car, the dining car becomes an important addition, since once food is purchased there the traveler is allowed to spend as much as he wishes in this less crowded space. Toilets exist at one end of each car. Those in the third class are definitely not recommended; regardless the class the traveler is traveling on, nobody would question a foreigner using the first class toilets. For obvious reasons, toilets are closed whenever reaching a station, thus some planning is required. At the opposite end of the car is a samovar with hot water, free for the use of passengers. The ones at the third class cars get sometimes empty, but walking around the train with an empty cup and searching for hot water would raise no questions. In long trips – like the line connecting Xian with Urumqi – women with hot water thermoses approach the train windows each time it stops and sell hot water.I didn't care about classes and tried them all, my only concern being just to keep moving. Crowded sitting, 3rd class cars and comfy beds in shiny new cars, dingy samovars and classy dining rooms, hawkers standing in the middle of nowhere attempting to sell hot water through the windows and chatty members of the communist party all of them provided me with delightful sights and experiences.Here are a few Close
I woke up in Boten, Laos and, waiting for the bank to open, ordered a coffee at the shop next to the guesthouse. First, they served me a cup of green tea, then a big bowl of noodle soup with fresh sliced tomatoes and, after…Read More
I woke up in Boten, Laos and, waiting for the bank to open, ordered a coffee at the shop next to the guesthouse. First, they served me a cup of green tea, then a big bowl of noodle soup with fresh sliced tomatoes and, after I complained for a second time, they served a diluted coffee with too much condensed milk. The small village consisted of some shops and buildings that housed the officials. The only people staying overnight were shop owners in their adjacent houses, officers in the closed compound next to the border and truck drivers in their vehicles with noisy whores. Its single street had some twenty buildings scattered along it and ran parallel to the narrow road leading to Udom Xai, northern Laos’ main traveling hub, almost four hours south from here.Two of the buildings were guesthouses with simple rooms. A double bed with a mosquito net in a wood structure with small neon lights was all the furniture featured. The toilets and the cold shower were shared, but at the time there were no other guests. At slightly less than two dollars per night, it was a little overpriced considering the location, but the rarity of tourists made the high price necessary for the guesthouse owner. However, I stayed to allow an early start in China, because an hour would be lost when crossing.My intention was to return to Thailand once my trip in China was over, but now it was time to cross to the Middle Kingdom.Zhongguo means the Middle Kingdom in Chinese and is their ethnocentric way of reminding foreigners of their country’s position in the world. "Zh," the strange couple of consonants in pinyin, their Romanized script, is pronounced like the English "j," Jong-guo. The planned highlights of this visit would be my travels along the Silk Road, Kashgar and Xian. Sightseeing and the book business were not the main attractions on this trip. I was more interested in the train trips west. At 8:20 AM the Lane Xang Bank was still closed, but a tourist entering from China exchanged some money with me, leaving me with just enough Laotian kips for the tuk-tuk to the China immigration office at Mohan, a couple of kilometers after the Laotian exit point. Mohan was a big town in Laotian terms, but a negligible one in Chinese terms. There was substantial construction work going on; a deep layer of rocks was being laid for a new road along the town’s center. Many buildings were built with diagonal layers of bricks. Sometimes one or two were missed and created holes. The method saved construction materials but it didn’t seem stable. Still, we negotiated the road. Immigration gave us no problems and I picked a small minivan to Mengla. At the station I had a mute argument with a Chinese couple over the seats in the front row, the only ones with windows. I won when I signaled with my hands that I needed the window since everybody else smoked. After an hour and a half delay while they worked on another part of the road, adding a new layer of pressed ground before the re-pavement, the driver argued with the people at the barrier. Finally, they let us move forward to the actual construction site, where we waited till the ground was flattened enough to let us pass. Around us were rubber plantations. Each tree featured a black ribbon spiraling down and leading the precious liquid to a bucket. An hour after noon, we reached Mengla’s southern bus station. It was a featureless city, except for the bright orange tiles on the roofs. After a short walk to the long distance bus station, I bought a ticket on a minibus to Jinghong. A heavy-set woman in a uniform checked the passengers’ tickets against a computerized list and we left on time in a half empty vehicle, an unthinkable thing in Laos. The road north passed left of the Xishuangbanna Natural Reserve and more rubber plantations, but I was thrilled by the road signs, which were made of pure cement and molded in one piece. However, photographing them while traveling at full speed proved to be a difficult task. At the passing villages we picked up people until all sixteen seats were full and then, no standing passengers were allowed.People ignored me whenever I was looking around, but couldn’t take their eyes off me and my writing, whenever they thought I wasn’t looking. A man across the aisle kept spitting on the floor and smoking, the cigarette’s ashes dispersed over the spit with great care. Outside the window, a man was leisurely smoking and holding a big bag open, while a woman next to him was shoveling earth inside. At the different stops, women sold pomelos, sticky rice, peanuts, eggs and maize; fruit stalls bordered the station.I had already seen the sun set in Jinghong, after crossing the Mekong River. China was the sixth country where I met this giant. Here it was known as the Lancang River. Next to the terminal was the Hong Feng Hotel. In the big room I secured there, the hot water was a dream. There were two beds to choose from, a television, a phone, lots of working lamps and mirrors, and a thermos with hot water. After the trip in Laos, this was a close replica of paradise. The television showed CCTV9, the Central Chinese Television English Channel, and documentaries accompanied me until I fell asleep.Early in the morning I gave my laundry to Mei Mei Café, in the backpackers’ area, a typical Southeast Asian all-in-one service center for tourists. Then I went for a walk. Jinghong was a small and compact city. It felt more like an extension of Southeast Asia than like a Chinese province. Thais called it Chiang Roon (several Roman transliterations of this name exist) and considered it the cradle of the Thai culture. It was re-baptized by the Chinese, following the annexation of the Yunnan province to their empire. Food stalls sold Thai Som Tam, a spicy salad of green papaya, peanuts and chili. The food ingredients all around were similar to those in Thailand with the addition of yams and carrots. However, the spices were different with less chili and more pickles.Hungry for traditional Chinese sights, I bought a bus ticket to Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, in a sleeping bus. The upper berth was slightly cheaper, so I took it. While boarding the bus, I was asked to take off my shoes and put them into a bag the driver gave me. In the bus were three rows of short beds, each one with a mattress, a pillow and a thick blanket, to protect the traveler from the strong air conditioning. The bus left seventeen minutes late, with only one third of the beds occupied. Two movies were shown in a row, both of them dubbed in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles, because of the different spoken dialects; all dialects used the same written language. With Chinese subtitles any Chinese person could understand the movie.The first restroom break shocked me. The toilets were constructed of cubicles over an open ditch, with no doors. To flush, a water hose was used at the beginning of the ditch, allowing the water to flow out the other direction. An hour later we reached a military checkpoint. Everybody had to show the soldiers their identification cards. When I asked the soldier if I need to show my passport, he said "Thank you" but refused to take it. Some people were asked to step off the bus for a luggage check, but everything ended well. After dark, we stopped at a bus station for food. We received a ticket from the driver, which we used at the restaurant to get food. A small metal tray was filled with soup, rice, two kinds of vegetables, and two kinds of meat – a reasonable variety. The taste was a bit strange, but I attributed that to my tongue being unaccustomed to the spices. However, after midnight my stomach started to rebel and I spent most of the night vomiting. Maybe that was the reason I was handed an empty nylon bag while boarding…(Excerpt from Chapter 53. The Back Door to the Middle Kingdom) The Cross of Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle edtitions. Close
A bit before 8:00 AM I arrived at Kunming, the city of a million bus stations. With no trash bin in sight, I took the nylon bag, filled it with my last dinner and spent a few minutes in the station searching for a place…Read More
A bit before 8:00 AM I arrived at Kunming, the city of a million bus stations. With no trash bin in sight, I took the nylon bag, filled it with my last dinner and spent a few minutes in the station searching for a place to dispose of it. There weren’t any signs around and I couldn’t find my terminal. Worse yet, the streets were marked only in Chinese and my map wasn’t very good. Feeling too sick from the earlier food poisoning to search for a hotel, I took a taxi directly to the Camellia Hotel, the backpackers’ headquarters. I sank into bed and kept my electric kettle busy all day, while increasingly developing a taste for CCTV9.Next day, still worried about the food poisoning and thinking that I might be forced to shorten my trip in China, I decided to speed my way north. Kunming was the southernmost place reached by the Chinese railways, so I walked to the train station, at the southern side of "Beijing Lu" Road. The ticket windows were more difficult to locate and deal with than in the other countries I had visited. The first cashier refused to sell to me, and the second called a third who spoke some English. Finally, I bought a hard sleeper ticket, a code that means a second-class berth, to Xian for the same night.I spent the next day touring the sunny city and ate in places serving tourists, which I assumed to be safer. Later, while waiting at the train station, the open windows in the waiting rooms left me cold and shaking, but at least free hot water and instant noodles in big plastic bowls were available. Two girls selling rice meals at a wheeled stall wanted to finish the day and were giving double rice rations to the happy clients.The train was considered "K" class, meaning it was the second fastest in the system and boarding it was quick and efficient. An officer changed my ticket and put mine in a well-ordered file. The second-class cabins featured six beds in two rows with a small table in the corridor between them, and soon I felt glad to have requested a cheaper upper berth; the lower ones served as benches for the public’s benefit. Even before the train left, a vendor with a moving stall approached us selling fruits and drinks. Another one sold comics. A little later the wagon attendant passed with hot water. A man standing next to me said "Hello" and started to speak Chinese. I responded in English and he continued in Chinese to the others. They laughed. After the train began moving, I found the hot water samovar at the car’s entrance. The discovery allowed me to make coffee at will. The small table was next to the heaters where I spent a relaxed evening writing notes.The train stopped in several stations during the night, once for a full hour, and people went in and out. In the morning the view consisted of the same mountainous terrain, but dryer. The leading color was brown and all the agricultural fields looked abandoned. There were brown, naked terraces and small vegetable parcels with half-dead cabbages. We crossed uncountable tunnels. At 8:00 AM the food vendors made another pass through the train cars, but I decided not to eat.Half an hour later frost appeared around us and light snow fell in the mountains. In a deep valley an old woman with a black hat stood still, holding a pole on her shoulder with a substantial pile of food in buckets that hung from each side of the pole. In the car, a man was eating a fat round bun with a dark molasses filling and looked in my direction from time to time. In the following hours we traveled alongside a river flowing in a deep valley. Around noon the landscape finally became green, although it was still foggy.A woman named Nana kept me entertained. She was born in Shiplin, was studying in Kunming and was traveling to some professional exams in Xian. Other neighbors came to talk as well: an aging music teacher, a young couple with an unfriendly husband, and a few others. After a while, I lost count. Writing while speaking with them became impossible. The talks took the expected routes and the many repetitions for the sake of the changing crowd tired me. In the afternoon, we stopped at Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and a huge industrial center, and Nana asked me to go down with her to the station. Once there, it seemed like she wanted to tell me something, but she didn’t. A few moments later, back in the train she said, "You know, that man is a member of the Communist Party. You are very lucky to meet one." She pointed at the man with the bun. He was short, well fed, and had a certain air of authority about him. The music teacher added something in Chinese to him and he approached me. After the introductions, he asked, through Nana, why I wasn’t eating. Tired of that question, I told Nana, "Please repeat the story to him."She did so, received a reply and added in English, "He says you should eat one of his breads. They have molasses inside and will make you healthy.""Xie Xie," I thanked him, in my rudimentary Chinese.After I finished another cup of coffee and the bread, he hung around, looking at me. Not knowing what to say, I asked Nana to translate. "Tell him that I did my secondary school in a kibbutz in Israel, which is a communist community." Finding a common background would create the opportunity for an interesting conversation I hoped...(Excerpt from Chapter 54. Running Out of Lines) The Cross of Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle edtitions. Close
The next morning Xian was covered with snow and frost. My new beard helped me to cope with the cold. Rooms around the main road in front of the train station were expensive, maybe due to the many tourists. I decided to try my luck…Read More
The next morning Xian was covered with snow and frost. My new beard helped me to cope with the cold. Rooms around the main road in front of the train station were expensive, maybe due to the many tourists. I decided to try my luck elsewhere and began walking in ever increasing circles. Shortly after, I discovered the red light district which was surprisingly active at this hour. Women sat inside small rooms next to coal heaters and invited passersby to enter. Nearby were many hotels. In the one I chose, the receptionist didn’t speak English, and after some unsuccessful attempts at communication, the receptionist took out a paper and showed me her scribbled Chinese, thinking that I simply spoke some weird dialect. For them, their characters are universal and it was hard to conceive an adult unable to read them. I signaled that I could not read Chinese characters and next to them wrote the number sixty. She understood the message and I received a very good room.After the long train ride, I wanted to take a walk to stretch my legs and the unusual beauty of the city was an additional incentive. Subzero temperatures during the day were new to me. The snow was piled away from the sidewalks at the base of several trees. From there, people shoveled it into special trucks. The central plaza was a masterpiece, with a classical Chinese bell tower at its center, surrounded by disguised shopping malls. Magnificent pagodas were scattered throughout the city’s center which was delimited by restored city walls. Their main staple was a bread resembling a pita pocket. Some were sold filled with meat and vegetables in them. All around were ambulant sellers of sugared fruits and of solid blocks of nuts and raisins, which were sold by weight.I dedicated another day to the city center and walked to the temple of Eight Immortals, one of the best Taoist temples in China. In front of it there was a small antiques market offering books, coins, stamps, stones, jewelry and other useless items. Later I crossed through the city’s Eastern Gate, where at the surrounding canal an old man was standing to his waist in freezing water to fish. From there I advanced to the west, through the central plaza until I found the Muslim quarter, populated mainly by Hui people, the name with which Muslim Ethnic Chinese distinguish themselves. I entered the big mosque at its center, Daqingzhen Si, for free since my beard and salutations in Arabic confused them into believing I wasn’t a tourist. The interior was surprising, as it looked completely Chinese with concentric yards and no central dome as in a classical mosque. Since it was the time for prayer, a time when the temple is closed to tourists, I snapped a good picture of the muezzin calling to the believers, but at this stage my actions drew their attention so I left before being approached. Hungry from the walk, I found an excellent Hui place to eat Yangrou Paomo, a soup made of thin rice noodles, mutton meat, oil, some vegetables and a big round loaf of bread, which was added into the soup in small pieces. I exited the quarter through a market aimed at tourists. The most colorful shops there were selling bilingual name chops, one of them even a Hebrew - Chinese version. One house caught my attention because it had a classical Chinese look with a stone lion at each side of the door and it was well preserved. I could see through the open door that the interior was constructed in the local courtyard style and that the wood was carved in exquisite detail, albeit there was no furniture at all. From an unexpected direction a young woman appeared and walked towards me while smiling."Hello, come in please.""Hi, to where?""Come and see the house. It has been restored. Don’t worry it is safe."Her English was good, and I felt certain this was a tourist trap, but I wasn’t sure how. Reluctantly, I entered and followed her across two yards to an empty inner room on the way to the final room in the back of the house. Paintings of traditional Chinese themes on silk and paper hung on all the walls."We are art students and here we work and sell our art. You see the signature?" she asked pointing to a red square filled with Chinese characters."Yes.""That is our teacher’s signature. It shows that the works are original. Do you want to buy some?""Your teacher made them?""No, it’s our work, but he backs it.""But they are all the same, the four seasons or the three ladies," I protested."These are our traditional themes, but we painted them, I can give you a good price" she said and began to quote prices...(Excerpt from Chapter 55. A Casual Encounter) The Cross of Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle edtitions. Close
Next morning, train tickets to Beijing were still unavailable at the train station. An agent nearby wanted a forty-Yuan premium over the ticket price. Hoping to find something better, I wandered around and spotted an office selling tickets for the same day. There, the touts…Read More
Next morning, train tickets to Beijing were still unavailable at the train station. An agent nearby wanted a forty-Yuan premium over the ticket price. Hoping to find something better, I wandered around and spotted an office selling tickets for the same day. There, the touts returned their tickets at noon, since that was the last opportunity to get a refund. Then the ticket seller sold me one at the regular price. A fast "T" class train took me to Beijing, and in the freezing morning, I had no choice but to take a taxi to the town center, since the final train station was at the western terminal, not the central one. All the dormitories listed in my guide were closed and after a long search, I found the Saga Hotel, which transformed two of its rooms into a dormitory and was close to the Forbidden City.Beijing Duck was the natural choice for the first lunch, and Qianmen Quanjude Roasted Duck, in front of the Qianmen Gate at Tiananmen Square was the place for that. The duck was roasted on wood from fruit trees and treated so that no bones were served while each piece contained meat, fat and skin. Although the meat was excellent, the huge amounts of fat spoiled the experience. Afterwards, I checked the subway and found it to be antiquated with humans selling tickets and humans checking them. The train’s coverage of the territory was minimal. On the way back to the hotel, a familiar voice called, "Hello, do you remember me?""Umm, did we meet at the train?""No, I am Carla and you saw my paintings in Xian, I came to Beijing to visit my professor, do you want to join me?"Intrigued by the seller’s perseverance spanning such a long distance I agreed and we entered a nearby apartment. There, sitting by a huge pile of paintings was the aging teacher surrounded by two young women who later I found to be his latest pupils. Carla presented me and mentioned my country of origin. The teacher, in the same unusually good English that Carla employed, asked, "Do you like the pictures?" "The limited variety and the lack of freedom of expression concern me," I said, only to hear once again about traditional themes."Next month I am going to an exposition of my works in Tel Aviv," he said casually."Really?" I said, while weighing different possibilities of what was going on here."Yes, there and in Cyprus. The Chinese embassy invited me. Can you tell me something about the situation there?" By now, I didn’t buy the story that Carla and the professor were casual encounters. "Well, I haven’t been there for a while and I don’t follow newspapers here. But I’m sure the embassy at Tel Aviv will be able to give you good and accurate advice, and since they have invited you they’re sure to keep a close watch," I said, wondering if they got the double-entendre. Somehow that was not the expected response as he started to speak about the prices of the paintings and offered a price lower than the girl offered in Xian. "The paintings are nice," I told him, "but I can’t carry them due to the nature of my trip." (Excerpt from Chapter 55. A Casual Encounter) The Cross of Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle edtitions. Close
Written by pabrams52 on 28 Apr, 2011
There are many revelations to behold in China. As this was my first visit, I was in complete awe of them all. I could, and probably will, describe the usual suspects to which all visitors flock with great curiosity: the seemingly endless…Read More
There are many revelations to behold in China. As this was my first visit, I was in complete awe of them all. I could, and probably will, describe the usual suspects to which all visitors flock with great curiosity: the seemingly endless Great Wall, the imperious Forbidden City, the now historic Tiananmen Square and so forth. But there was something more impressive that hit me almost literally between the eyes – its massive population. The CIA’s official count puts it at near 1.4 billion. You will not hear me drone on about there being too many people and that China’s "One Child Policy" was a good idea – it was not! China is paying in more ways than it imagined for that dreadful attempt at managing human behavior.
No, I was simply trying to mentally absorb the reality of the numbers. Everywhere we went, there were masses of people. Yes, one expects to find them at major sites, particularly since China has moved quite near the top of favored countries to visit. Anyone who has made the trek to China understands why that is – it holds much fascination in the West and is rapidly rising on the world scene. If you easily feel claustrophobic or just don’t like crowds, this is not the destination for you. I would urge you though, to reconsider and try, as the undeniable pluses far outweigh the negatives. Yes, China has its challenges, not the least of which is their population. They have nearly four times the amount of people that the U.S. has, yet their land mass is nearly the same as ours (being only a bit smaller than the contiguous United States). But, one has to consider that much of their land mass is uninhabitable, being either desert or mountains, compressing their population onto a smaller area of land in proportion to ours.
Another interesting aspect of this great population is watching human behavior. On several occasions, I heard comments by other visitors that were surprised and occasionally put off that the Chinese do not stand in orderly and equitable queues. Though it was a little startling when it first happened to me, what came to mind was that 1) we’re in THEIR country and 2) it is a very different culture. Those are important facts to remember as visitors travel throughout China, particularly Americans, who (like it or not) think that everyone should abide by the same "rules". I saw it as a valuable learning experience and only perceived it as an essential observation during our short time there. It can be quite the eye-opener, but that is a good and necessary thing.
With such a large population, it is not surprising that the Chinese are as assertive as they are. But even with that necessary behavior, it was always civil. I never witnessed open hostilities in spite of the tight spaces. I also continually saw their genuine interest in and curiosity about us – us, meaning Westerners. One has to remember that until recently, much of the population lived in the rural areas and simply did not have the means to travel. But as China develops economically, many of its people are moving to the major cities where industry holds the promise of better economic opportunities. That transition has occurred in the history of many Western countries over time, as they developed. The same holds true for China. As a result of their economic development, many Chinese now have the ability to travel within their own country. I dare say, it won’t be long before many more of them are traveling internationally. I remember when I saw the first wave of Indian tourists in Europe and thought to myself, "this is a good sign – it’s proof of growing prosperity". One of the most vivid examples that occurred to me was during my visit to The Great Wall. Our savvy tour director took us early in the morning so as to avoid the peak visitation time and minimize the crowd impact. Nevertheless, we weren’t the only people there. In the one section of The Wall that we visited known as The Badaling, there were several thousand other people there too. The tourist count grew steadily throughout the morning. As my husband and I climbed a section of The Wall, unbeknownst to me, I was being watched by some Chinese tourists. They seemed utterly fascinated by my light skin and blonde hair. Before I knew it, they eagerly maneuvered me into a photo being taken of them by their friends. No doubt, I will end up on someone’s living room wall or in someone’s photo album as a novelty of sorts. But I can tell you I didn’t mind a bit and it was a pleasant, if not humorous experience! Though we could not share any conversation, they smiled graciously and we tried to communicate with facial and hand gestures as best we could. It was a lovely moment I’ll long remember.
In closing, without a doubt, the best part of all this people watching, were the children. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They were sweet and curious and when the opportunity presented itself, I took photographs, always being mindful of their "space". As a tourist, I personally try to consider the privacy of others and make an effort to gain the consent of the subject(s) before snapping away in close range. One does not like to be guilty of committing what I call "animal in the zoo" syndrome. To my joy, many of the mothers of children I wanted to photograph were honored that I wanted to take their child’s photo. I would show the resulting image to them with appreciation. I could have made my entire trip out of this delightful venture, but alas, I would have needed far more time than our tour allowed. Now there’s an idea – a photographic study of the children of China. I fear, I will not be the one to take those precious photos, but it is lovely notion and certainly a bridge into another culture.
Written by pabrams52 on 27 Apr, 2011
Who needs Calgon, when one only has to sign up for Tauck tour to see the world. The many adventures that Tauck offers are truly some of life’s more pleasurable experiences. If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford such a…Read More
Who needs Calgon, when one only has to sign up for Tauck tour to see the world. The many adventures that Tauck offers are truly some of life’s more pleasurable experiences. If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford such a vacation and experience the wonderful skills of this highly seasoned tour company, you are in for a treat. That is what my husband and I discovered when we recently completed our first Tauck tour to China. We had first heard the name Tauck on a recent cruise, which came up in conversation by some friends we made during that sailing. They had taken several Tauck tours and raved about the company. I consider myself fairly travel-savvy but had never heard this name. So, I was highly intrigued to find out more.
Tauck’s website is well-organized and reflects the level of professionalism they bring to each of their tours. Whether you are looking for a small group experience, river cruise or in-depth educational tour, there is something for everyone. Their 86 years of experience has helped them hone their approach to a fine art. It didn’t hurt that they began on the right track and have gone on to perfect their formula to "beyond perfection". Anyone who has taken one of their tours will tell you that it felt seamless and amazingly organized. The traveler is never aware of all the arrangements that go on behind the scenes, both before and during the tour. It is a comforting feeling being in the hands of tried and true professionals.
So, by now, you’re itching to know about the Tauck experience. The traveler is greeted at the arrival airport by one of their local representatives. This was particularly reassuring for us as neither my husband nor I speak Mandarin. She made sure that our bags arrived and walked us to our private car that took us to our first hotel on the itinerary. I would like to add that all Tauck hotels are either five-star or the best available. In the first city on our tour, we stayed at the Regent Beijing, a gorgeous and unquestionably comfortable hotel in the center of the city. Another great touch is that Tauck makes every effort to reserve rooms at hotels that have popular amenities such as a generous-sized swimming pool, spa and fitness center. These services can be more than welcome upon arrival after a long flight or after a long day of touring. This was especially important to me, as I love to swim, and find it most relaxing doing laps to either start my day or wind down after being on my feet. On all Tauck tours, there is always a director that manages all details and keeps a very close headcount on the group at all times. He or she is literally the "go to" person for just about any issue you can imagine. Once the problem is conveyed to them, they take responsibility to follow up to the best of their ability. An example from our trip: one of our participants discovered that someone on an intra-China flight had taken her backpack from the overhead bin by mistake, thinking it was his. His was left on the plane. This was immediately reported to our director, who in turn reported it to the airline as well as the local guide in that arrival city. Every effort was made to make an exchange while we were still there. Though I do not know the ultimate outcome (which of course depended on the other passenger returning her backpack for his), I have no doubt that Tauck went to all possible lengths to insure this could be transacted.
After many years of experience, Tauck has developed a wide network of professionals in the cities they tour. The bus guides in each of the cities we visited were local, highly informative and easy to understand. They select the best restaurants that convey the local cuisine and ease their tourists in/out of highly popular sites without lines, delays or any frustrations. The locals know the Tauck name and respect it for its repeat business and appreciative clients. Another example: in one point on our tour, I was seriously contemplating a rather expensive purchase of Chinese embroidery. On a prior vacation, with another company (cruise line), I had been "burned" by a merchant on one of the cruises recommended shore excursions, and ever since have been skittish and have since used great caution when making such purchases. But, I found some pieces in China from which I simply could not walk away. I went to the Director of our tour and asked him, point blank, "do I have any reason to be nervous about this investment or suspicious of the merchant?" He reassured me with a "absolutely not!". Tauck has a reputation to uphold. Though we may never go to China again, other tourists will, and Tauck cannot afford to have their good name sullied by mishaps that can ruin vacation memories and could otherwise have been prevented. Word of mouth travels FAST and both Tauck and the merchants with whom they do business know this fact well.
Tauck takes pride in each and every venture. At our farewell dinner, on the last evening of our itinerary, we gathered to enjoy each other’s company one last time. Our Director revealed to us that it is one of his personal joys watching the wonderment on our faces and listening to the pleasure in our conversations as we discover new places. My husband has long had a favorite motto, which I still believe rings true: "the first day in a new city is magical". I think that was what our director wanted to enjoy as he shared his love of travel with us. Some participants got up and spoke of how much they enjoyed the tour. I had to ring in with my own observation. At the opening dinner, we were mere strangers - 37 people from the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Mexico and England. But as we said our goodbyes, we were no longer strangers. We had formed friendships, exchanged helpful information and lively conversation, and had enjoyed a great adventure together. We left the tour better for it.
No doubt, there are many more examples of Tauck’s exemplary professionalism, but I dare they must be too numerous to mention. I encourage you to view their website and save up for one of their adventures. It is money well spent! Bon Voyage.
Written by Shady Ady on 05 Apr, 2011
Hand on heart, if there’s one thing I can say I hate with 100% certainty, it’s Chinese train stations. I swear, if you sent all the rapists and paedophiles to a Chinese train station for a week, they would never re-offend for fear of similar…Read More
Hand on heart, if there’s one thing I can say I hate with 100% certainty, it’s Chinese train stations. I swear, if you sent all the rapists and paedophiles to a Chinese train station for a week, they would never re-offend for fear of similar of a similar retribution. Even in Chengdu, a place regularly frequented by tourists and independent travellers, I had to face the unenviable task of fighting elbows with elbows to make my way in to the waiting hall. Here I immediately became the number one source of amusement for other commuters . Migrant workers, returning home to their families for the Spring Festival period, sat next to me. Picking their noses, they played with their newly acquired booger like a toddler. Once bored of this act, they blatantly stared at me, as if I was a million dollar painting in an art exhibit, a price tag they could never justify. When I made eye contact, gummy smiles were exposed, full of stained and eroded stubs. Youngsters with ‘trendy’ bouffant hairstyles , so big they could topple their owner in a second if their heads tilted too far, soon realised I would make the perfect candidate for their entertainment. In their best English, they shouted; "If I have a face like yours I will kill myself."Pretending not to hear the insult, they continued louder and more abusive. There’s not a lot one tourist can do in a waiting hall of five hundred Chinese people. With their train departing they gave it one last shot to gain the angry reaction they wanted:"F*ck you, fat sh*t short man." I’ve been called numerous slurs in my time, but few have given way to spontaneous chuckles as this one did. Making eye contact with these verbal offenders, with their garish coloured jeans and dangling fake diamond earrings, I shook my head in shame that it would probably be these people running the world in my lifetime.The journey from Chengdu to Xian had the potential to be as harsh as a first date with a vegetarian in a steak house. Thirteen hours might not sound a lot. But only having standing tickets, I would have to put in the elbowing performance of my lifetime to reach the carriage before anyone else, in the hope there were some unreserved vacant seats. A long night of constant standing and no sleep could still be on the cards even if I was the first on the train. Getting near the front of the queue, I realised it would be a direct run-off against the same migrant workers that had been so keen to stare earlier. Carrying bags bigger than their frail bodies, containing enough pot noodles to survive on for several years, they were no match for my nimble legs. Reaching the carriage first, I snapped up the only two unreserved seats for my wife and I. After scoffing a never-ending supply of alcoholic chocolates offered by a polite student sitting opposite me, and nervously watching his intoxicated friend continually stab an uneaten sausage with his penknife, I fell in to an accomplished sleep. Xian, one of the four great ancient capitals of China, and one of only a handful to retain its entire city wall, is famous throughout the world for one thing: The Army of Terracotta Soldiers. Coming to China and failing to see this or the Great Wall, is like going to Thailand or India and only eating western food; a travesty. With such a billing of being one of the wonders of the world, I never expected these high expectations to fall so flat. After ignoring the forceful tour guides fighting for my business (who didn’t take too kindly my words of using Wikipedia instead of their highly inflated services) I entered the first of three exhibit halls, hoping the first glimpse of these warriors would be as enlightening as seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary. When you look at photos of the Terracotta Soldiers and read there are 6,000 of these figures, horses and chariots located here, my first impressions were a little negative. The world’s most disappointing army wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Most of these soldiers still remain hidden under soil, waiting to be excavated, even thirty years after their initial find. Those that have been excavated, were found in numerous pieces, making quite possibly the world’s most difficult jigsaw puzzle. Only a few hundred have been glued together in enough pieces to make them truly recognisable, and it’s only these you will ever see promoted through photos. Interestingly though each soldier is different, with unique facial features and all were originally painted, like the marble statues in art museums. I never even contemplated these looked so bland because the paint had worn off!Once you see the few hundred complete statues, it makes the rest of the exhibit, little more than mounds of earth, almost pointless. It’s almost as if the Chinese government has done enough to bring the tourists in, and realise they don’t have to waste valuable resources excavating more to enhance the attraction and visitor’s experience. Some local tourists seem to have had the same feeling, spending more time taking photos of my wife and I and following us around the exhibits than enjoying the world-renowned soldiers. Acknowledging their antics only seemed to encourage them more. Before we knew it, we were being forced into a number of obligatory peace sign poses. Taking in Xian’s city wall (where entrances located on unpedestrianised highway roundabouts meant taking your life in your own hands to enter) and enjoying a few too many lamb kebab and freshly baked flat bread meals in the city’s frantically paced Muslim quarter, my wife and I were left with far more free time than we were expecting. Surprised by this, we did something we have done little of since leaving our teaching posts in Benxi. We frequented bars and drank alcohol. Watching numerous Westerners rely on the "I’m ugly but I’m foreign," technique to attract local prey, I realised it had been a ridiculously long time since my wife and I had visited a bar without other company. It felt like we were dating again. After buying her favourite tipple, a pint of Hoegarden, a move that cost more than a nights accommodation, we sipped our pints a lot slower than usual. Deciding not to waste more of our tiny budget on overpriced beverages, we were ready to move on to our next destinations: Nanjing and Shanghai. Close
Written by Shady Ady on 03 Mar, 2011
Travelling on trains in China during Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is something which brings only stress and frustration. It has been said that during this national holiday, the busiest on the Chinese calendar, there will be three billion journeys made across the train network.…Read More
Travelling on trains in China during Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is something which brings only stress and frustration. It has been said that during this national holiday, the busiest on the Chinese calendar, there will be three billion journeys made across the train network. This works out to three trips for every inhabitant. It was still close to a month before the Chinese New Year and I was shocked to find out that tickets from Lhasa in Tibet to Chengdu were solidly booked a week in advance. To leave on the train I would have to wait another week before I could purchase a ticket. Lhasa is nice, but spending another week with a hangover-sized headache from altitude sickness was the last thing I wanted. This left two alternative options. Either take a three day bus journey over some of the most treacherous roads in the world, or fork out extra money for a two hour flight. Convenience was the deciding vote and within hours I was buckled in to my Boeing 767 seat, scraping over the Himalayas. Outside Mount Everest looked pathetically small and weak in the distance, barely poking through the cloud cover. By the time the plane touched down in Chengdu, the altitude sickness that had been troubling me since arriving in Tibet had unsurprisingly evaporated. Journeying in to the city centre from the airport, the polluted yellow haze covering the city was probably the worst I’d witnessed in China. Street cleaners hosed down dirty pavements before sweeping them clean by hand. Chengdu is at the forefront of panda protection and conservation and no trip here is complete without a trip to the Panda Breeding and Research Station. With public buses reaching the breeding station after early morning feeding time, the only substitute to arrive in time to see the pandas do more than sleep was to join a group tour. Thanks to the time of year, this group tour consisted of only my wife and I. Quite a contrast to peak season where such groups can total fifty-plus tourists.Racing around the various enclosures at break-neck speed, our guide allowed just enough time to marvel at these placid, docile creatures getting their daily bamboo fix. Recently born babies walked around like a toddler taking his first steps. Compared to other animal orientated attractions and breeding centres visited in China, the professional set-up was refreshing and it wasn’t surprising that the tour ended with an educational documentary about pandas.Being the face of WWF, most people are aware the future of the giant panda is perilous. Expecting the documentary to focus on current conservation methods, I was slightly horrified to realise I was watching a detailed brief on the sex lives and procreation of these creatures. The images of which were nothing short of disturbing. A male panda’s pride and joy is often too small to get where it matters, which is why reproduction rates in the wild remain critically low. Researchers have come up with a new technique to enhance conception chances, which I watched in graphic detail. Under sedation the male panda is ’pleasured’ by a friendly, helping hand and the contents of the encounter is inserted via syringe in to the female’s baby making part. Through squinted eyes I watched, like a fifth grader in a dissection biology class. This certainly didn’t seem an enjoyable occasion for either future panda parent, but from the success rates achieved, these panda ‘masseurs’ were certainly doing something right. Seeing such animal organs up close and personal didn’t deter my appetite and after returning back to the centre of Chengdu I decided to sample some of the Sichuan spicy hot-pot food Chengdu is renowned for. Like a vindaloo in India , hot-pot in Chengdu can be a painful experience. Adding raw foods to a communal pot in the centre of the table until cooked, the water is hidden by red-hot chillies. At first it doesn’t seem so spicy, but after several mouthfuls, my mouth was numb. Each additional mouthful ate was painful and with taste-buds eradicated, devoid of any flavour. Local restaurants in Chengdu are aware of the interest in hot-pot by foreigners and to cash in on its popularity, have menus in both Chinese and English. Apart from the obvious language discrepancy, the only other difference is the price, with English menus set at double that of the Chinese. Even with communicating solely in Chinese, they refused to give a Chinese language menu, knowing they would lose out on an easy profit. With the tingling subsiding and it being a good few hours to spare before I became reacquainted with my hot-pot, I thought it would be a romantic gesture to whisk my wife off to the opera. I’ve only visited the opera once before in Russia, and even though the play was in English, I had little clue to the words the high-pitched singers were saying. Chinese Sichuan opera is slightly different, using a variety of performance styles to keep the audience entertained. Containing short performances including slapstick, puppetry and dancing it’s most famous for its face-changing and fire-breathing.Reaching the theatre unnecessarily early, my wife and I were forced to sit in a darkened mice-infested theatre for half an hour before other guests arrived. Having one mouse run over my shoe moments after sitting down, I spent the rest of the evening shaking my legs like a victim of epilepsy in the hope the rodents would leave me in peace. After coming from Tibet, the temples in Chengdu paled in significance and I soon found myself walking through the city’s parks people-watching. I watched a woman somehow lock herself in to a public toilet next to the Tomb of Wang Jian. Two hours later when I wondered back through the same park, she was still there. My Chinese capabilities aren’t up to the levels to free a trapped woman, and from the silent crowd watching as the toilet trembled from her fierce knocks of help, I thought I would allow one of her compatriots the chance to carry out their good deed for the day. I saw elderly men practising the art of writing with water on the pathways of Huan Hua Xi Park and groups of tracksuit-donned women practising tai-chi in Bai Hua Tan Park. But it was the activities in Renmin (People’s) Park that proved the most interesting. Next to a group of pensioners practising the moon-walk was a section of the park designated to personal adverts. Not the kind of adverts you can find in public telephone boxes around Soho in London, but advertisements left by parents trying to find suitable spouses for their child.Mothers, fathers and grandparents shuffled around the bushes and trees from where the adverts were hung, jotting down the names of potential matches, alongside their average monthly income. From time to time they conversed with each other, swapping phone numbers and arranging meetings. It should come as no surprise in a country full of ‘little emperors’ that parents go to these extra lengths to play matchmakers. Not only do many Chinese adolescents lack the social skills needed to find relationships easily themselves, but needing a good income from their child to support them in retirement, for many parents this is a necessity for a poverty-free retirement. With my time in Chengdu already at an end, I made my way to the train station to catch my onward train to Xian, home to the Army of Terracotta Soldiers. People pushed and shoved outside the station. Inside every inch of space was taken by Spring Festival travellers going home for the holidays. The pandemonium was too much for one mentally challenged adult. Covering his ears, he screamed incessantly until his train arrived. A policeman confronted a drunk man without an onward ticket. After slapping him hard across the face, the policeman grabbed his ear like a naughty child and escorted him off the premises. I did what all other Chinese were doing. I stared and watched the proceedings in silence. Close
Written by Shady Ady on 13 Feb, 2011
Lhasa is home to some of the most important Buddhist sites in the world. There are enough monasteries, temples and palaces to keep even the most avid of pilgrims happy, another thing Lhasa isn’t lacking. For some it’s the Potala Palace, once the seat of…Read More
Lhasa is home to some of the most important Buddhist sites in the world. There are enough monasteries, temples and palaces to keep even the most avid of pilgrims happy, another thing Lhasa isn’t lacking. For some it’s the Potala Palace, once the seat of the Tibetan government and the spiritual home of the Dalai Lama that they come to see. For others it’s the Jokhang Temple. Wherever you go in and around the city, pilgrims are in abundance, constantly spinning their prayer wheels or prostrating.I have to admit, I’d heard virtually nothing about prostrating before. Hearing the word out of context for the first time, I’d suspect it was something that youngsters do today in the privacy of their own bedrooms. I would be wrong. Prostrating is an act of worship. After praying with both hands to the sky, the person throws themselves flat on the ground while reaching their hands ahead of them as far as they can go, like a yoga move for beginners. After returning to their feet, the process is repeated again and again. The most devoted prostrate all the way from their homes to Lhasa, taking one or two steps between each prostration. It’s not uncommon for such a journey to take upwards of two years or even more. To see such devotion for an agnostic like me, is one of the most striking memories I’ll take from my time in Tibet.As I darted through the spinning prayer wheels and over the prostrating pilgrims to Potala Palace, the first destination on my itinerary, I was like an excitable child knowing a trip to the funfair was imminent. As we walked around rooms full of Buddhist statues and tomb stupors containing the remains of previous Dalai Lamas, I listened intently to the guide’s dialogue. Around me, pilgrims offered money, yak butter and alcohol to the various gods. It’s hard to imagine that in a place where religious freedom is hard to come by, such devoutness can take place unhindered. Reaching the upper levels of Potala Palace and looking out across the city, smoke from juniper branches (used as incense) covered the old town in a thick haze. Below me, pilgrims prayed, shuffled, walked and prostrated around the base of Potala Palace, an act that many do on a daily basis.In the middle of Lhasa’s old town, next to the souvenir-filled Barkhor Street, the Jokhang Temple sees the highest number of pilgrims, most of whom continuously walk around its walls, similarly to Potala Palace. Like a sinister tornado, standing too close to the continuously moving pilgrims will see you sucked in to the vortex, swept along and spat back out further around the temple. With so many pilgrims, Jokhang Temple sees the highest military presence. Groups of armed soldiers patrol the streets while on the surrounding roofs, snipers scan the crowds, their fingers primed to pick out any potential political trouble-makers. Scouring over the crowds, even the beggars and drunks were the epitome of peaceful.I have nothing against temples, monasteries or palaces, but after several days of nothing but, my enthusiasm for these religious dwellings started to wane. My images began to blur in to one. Was it the Sera Monastery where the child vomited down his mother? Was it the Drepung Monastery where many pilgrims were treating themselves to ice cream? Was the religious ambience of the chanting monks in Ganden Monastery taken away by the fire-fighters and fire-engine teaching visitors the importance of fire-safety? Was I sure it was the Jokhang Temple where monks painted ill children’s noses black, like evil clowns, in the hope it would ward off future illness? After visiting my last monastery, the Sera Monastery, I decided to take time out from trying to remember the different Buddhist gods and which Lama ruled for how long. Noticing a pool table outside a local shop, I asked my guide if he fancied a game. Accepting my offer, the pool table was soon surrounded by pilgrims, taking a breather from their prostrating activities. Only one thing has the capability of stopping a pilgrim’s devoutness to Buddhism, the opportunity to stare at a foreigner. After sealing a comprehensive victory, the pilgrims were back on the floor, prostrating slowly away. Local interaction is always the best part of any trip and my time in Tibet finished with a stay with a Tibetan family, who lived in a tiny village, high in the hills around an hour’s drive outside of Lhasa. Along the main road out of Lhasa, regular groups of nomads could be found prostrating their way to the province’s capital. Cars, trucks and buses whizzed past them, inches from their heads. Their clothes and skin were soot black. Behind them a lawnmower powered tractor edged along, carrying their tents and rations. Once arrived at the unheated, traditionally built Tibetan home, I was constantly plied with yak jerky and yak butter tea. At first the salty drink (made by mixing yak butter and hot water together) tasted refreshingly different. After several cups, the saltiness made me want to gag. Across the valley, perched on the side of a mountain, the Ganden Monastery glistened through the perplex window. Part of the experience of staying with a local family was the opportunity to go horse-riding through the Tibetan hills. With only one horse between my wife and I and with the family unable to track down a yak tame enough to ride, I had no choice but to offer the mule to my wife and attempt to keep pace with her four-legged transport using my own steam. Within seconds I was a wheezing mess, my head feeling like a jackhammer was pounding against it. Reduced to crawling pace, I was soon to regret my act of chivalry by allowing my wife to ride the horse. Crossing a frozen stream, full of jagged, protruding rocks, the horse performed a dive Christian Ronaldo would be proud of, toppling over on top of my wife, pinning her on the rocks. By the time my lungs had the capacity to inhale enough oxygen to reach her, the horse was already back on its feet as though nothing had happened. Luckily the only damage recorded was superficial. That evening, as the horse mockingly neighed outside, we sat discussing all things Tibet around the living-room table. Home-made barley wine flowed freely, something I would regret the following morning. It was interesting to hear the resentment of Han Chinese by these Tibetans who are colonizing their land in ever-increasing numbers. Treating the Tibetans like second-class citizens they make little effort to learn the Tibetan language or adopt local cultures. On many of the most influential Tibetan buildings, the Chinese flag is now flown. Actions speak louder than words. This notion is very symbolic. As the family elaborated on their belief of the yeti (abominable snowman) and the story of a boy in a nearby village who was attacked and killed by a bear, the conversation turned to Tibetan marriage. In the south of Tibet, one practice that’s dying out will be relief to most girls’ ears. It is common tradition for only the eldest son in a family to choose his wife. When he marries her, she becomes the wife of all his younger brothers too. When she gives birth, her child can only call the eldest brother ‘daddy‘, no matter who the real paternal father is. If I was a younger brother I would pray and prostrate every day in the hope my eldest brother had good taste in women! With a lack of entertainment once night time falls, rural Tibetans go to bed at an early hour. Leading my wife and I by the hand to the bedroom, the owner’s elderly wife beckoned me to lie in bed. Once I had done, she placed heavy blankets attentively on top of me, before tucking me in. The weight of the blankets was so constricting, I was unable to move. The bedroom door, unable to lock, banged to and fro, as the howling wind outside made its force felt. Night time temperatures in Tibet fall well below zero degrees Celsius, and with a head now doubling as a block of ice, I thought back on my time spent in Tibet on ‘the roof of the world.’ The only regret I had was not seeing a sky burial, the traditional method of disposing of a deceased body. Believing in the importance of a man’s relationship with nature, it is customary in Tibetan culture to allow your body to be eaten by vultures. I’d originally expected bodies to be stripped and just left out in the open until only bones were left. Instead a designated person takes on the responsibility of a butcher and cuts the body in to smaller, more manageable pieces. These are then left in a specific place were the birds know there is a regular feed. Thinking about it, I’m happy this chance past me by! Close