The Wild Great Wall of China

Near the public Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, I had an exciting chance to visit a beautiful, unrestored, mountainous area of the Great Wall. A few years ago the Chinese government made the “wild” areas of the wall off limits to the public. However, it is not enforced very well. There is a village near the wall and they actually sell an entrance ticket to the village, but no mention of the wall since that would be illegal. The villagers have no problem telling people how to get to the Great Wall since they are making some money off of it.

From the village, it is a one or two hour walk up the mountain. The trails aren’t labeled, except for the sign “This section of the Great Wall is not open to the public.” Suddenly there is a massive wall of stone, 7-8m high. There is a break in the wall so you are able to climb onto the wall and then you see it is 4-5m wide, all stone and brick, built in 1368.

Walking from watchtower to watchtower of the ridge of these mountains there are some dangers. I saw one area had some metal stairs, but below the stairs was a rock slide. Some of the steps are 70-80 degree angle. At one point, some of these steps were washed away, making a 90 degree angle. I tried to climb down and couldn’t find a place to put my foot. Then a man below said, “Stop! Too dangerous!” and continued to say there is a path around this point. Maybe he saved me.

The Great Wall of China continues on and on into the distance. Later, it was fascinating to see the area I visited on Google Earth and to see how much farther you could walk if you have time. Maybe some other time. (photos)

Qinghai Province, China

 

Xining

The capital city of the province. Here I got to try a buffet style hot-pot, which I’ve never seen anywhere else in China. You pay a flat price and then you can go look and carry back all the different foods you want to cook. Then you put them in the hot-pot for a few minutes and then eat.

Xining is the last stop on the train before Tibet. My original plan was to go to Tibet and continue on through Nepal and India. Unfortunately, that requires you hire and car and a tour guide for each day in Tibet and that gets expensive. Chinese people aren’t affected by these rules, only foreigners.

Kumbum Monastery

My first taste of Tibet was Kumbum Monastery. Well, not actually Tibet since this is in Qinghai province. I did get to see a fair number of Tibetan people plus this is one of the famous Tibetan monasteries, the place where a famous teacher, Tsongkhapa, was born. They did have a lot of rules on photography here. (photos)

Gansu Province, China

Dunhuang

The Mogao Caves were a at the end of a long overnight train ride. The caves are famous for its paintings and art, well preserved in the dry desert air for over 1000 years. Unfortunately, I have no photos to show since cameras and bags were not allowed inside the caves. I’m not sure it was worth all the trouble and the high ticket cost. All visitors are forced to go with a tour and I had to wait for an English speaking tour guide. I was the only person in the tour group. What I saw inside was pretty incredible. The colors were so bright and clear. Perhaps it was most interesting to see the hidden room where thousands of rare and ancient books were rediscovered 100 years ago.

Lanzhou

Not too much here except the Gansu Provincial Museum and a lot of noodles. This is supposed to be the best place for “la mian” hand pulled noodles, so I ate a lot. The beef flavor is the most common.

Labrang Monastery

I arrived here after Xining in Qinghai province. The bus ride was interesting on a winding road along the Yellow River and then through grasslands and finally arriving in the town of Xiahe which holds the Tibetan monastery. This place holds the most monks in China at the moment: over 500. Everything looks different from the rest of China: roads, buildings, people, clothing, food. It seems more poor here. Many of the roads are dirt, monks don’t use toilets but instead use the road. I was able to meet one monk. He has been undergoing a punishment of bowing for many hours each day for a few days because he missed a meeting. They are strict here. (photos)

Maijishan Grottoes

The last place on my tour of caves. Not as impressive as the caves near Dunhuang, but it is interesting how these ones are built on the side of a cliff. Today there are stairs allowing easy access to all. Inside are various statues. (photos)

Shaanxi Province, China

Two years ago I visited Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province. That time I was sick and I didn’t get to see everything, so I’m back for 2009.

Han Yanling Museum

I missed the tomb of Emperor JingDi (188BC-141BC) last time since it was a little too complicated to get to. I’m glad I went because it was impressive. When arriving, one sees two large pyramid shaped tombs. One is believed to be for the emperor and the other for his wife. JingDi’s tomb is surrounded by over 100 pits filled with models of animals and people. The famous Terracotta Army has life-size versions, but these are scaled down to around 1:3 scale. Only a handful of the pits are excavated and on public view, but it is quite unique how it is presented. There are glass walls and floors that go past the pits allowing you to walk right over and along all the treasures. The center of the Emperor’s tomb has not been excavated. (photos)

Shaanxi Provincial Museum

I did visit here last time, but the entire museum has been through a renovation since then. I enjoyed learning about the Tang Dynasty’s Da Ming Palace, which is the counterpart of the famous Forbidden City in Beijing. The Da Ming Palace, built over 1000 years ago, was about 5??? times the size as the palace in Beijing. Unfortunately, it is all gone today. It is also interesting how the capital city here during the Tang Dynasty  had a city wall larger than any other Chinese capital in history. That’s why this city is interesting since it was home to the golden age of China. (photos)

Water Fountain Show

I was reading my old log and I mentioned a water show that I would have to save for next time. This time I got to see it. The free show started at 9PM and lasted about 20 minutes. It combined music, water, and colored lights. It was not just one area of fountains, but about ten. In order for so many people to view the show, it was designed so people could walk in between each section and see the fountains on all sides. (photos)

Mt. Hua

Known locally as Hua Shan, this mountain is in the list as one of the five famous mountains in China. The few days prior to the mountain there has been so much rain and fog, but I was lucky to get a clear day on Mt. Hua. It is over an hour by bus from Xi’an. I had hoped to climb up and down, but I only had time for one way. I took the cable car to the top for the amazing views. There are many stairs and chains guard rails around the five peaks (highest is 2160m). The stairs get very steep here. There is one section they label the most dangerous, but I decided to skip that (I don’t have any insurance after all). There was a local Shaanxi Television crew on the mountain. They decided to interview me and now it is the second time I’ve been on Chinese Television. After the whole day of walking the peaks, I descended the mountain all the way back to the village and made it back to Xi’an at night exhausted. (photos)

National Day in Beijing

October 1st is the National Day of the People’s Republic of China. It is the equivalent of July 4th in the US. This year, 2009 marks the 60th anniversary of the current government and the highlight is a military parade in Beijing. The only other times a big parade was performed was in 1984 and 1999. This time I was in Beijing.

The highlight for me was actually not the parade but the new subway line that opened a few days before. It was only the afternoon before that the new Line 4 opened. I got pretty excited because this kind of thing is unheard of in my hometown. The new line stops at Zhongguancun electronics market, The National Library, and the new South Railway Station among other things. The city is going to have one of the largest metro systems in the world only a few years from now.

As for the military parade, no one is allowed to see it in person. It seemed like half the city’s roads were shut down, a few subway stations shut down, buses diverted. People in buildings next to the parade were not even allowed to look out the windows. At least I got to see one of the relics of Communism on TV. Troops from the various divisions of the military marched in front of Tian’anmen Square, followed by vehicles and tanks, followed by missiles including ICBMs, followed by aircraft (I did get to see some helicopters and airplanes flying outside the windows).

After all the military they have a civilian parade. This included floats from each province of China. Of course you expect China to do things big. In this case they had 100,000 people marching in the parade.

Later that night, they have another entertainment portion of the day which included a lot of fireworks and pyrotechnics. I remember they had one huge “screen” stretched across Tian’anmen Square made out of pyrotechnics and it was drawing out images such as mountains.

Travel Hardware Update

By far, the most useful device I brought on my trip this time has been the Nintendo DS. Of course, it has been modified so I can do more than play games on it. The most basic thing is text files. For example, I can copy a timetable of a train and reference that while I’m traveling. I tried copying in an entire chapter of a travel guide (converted to JPEG) and then using ComicBookDS to view, but that was not as successful due to the limited RAM in the Nintendo DS. I did use it a few times to reference some maps though. It is nice to use your finger (on the touch screen) to scroll around a map.

Of course the best thing about the DS while traveling are the games. I picked out about 70-80 games to put on my 8GB Micro SD card. In addition, some emulators work quite well, such as NES and SNES. In America, I don’t have much of a chance to play these games since I’m usually at home and cannot play when I’m driving a car. But when I’m traveling abroad, it is perfect for all the hours in buses, subways, and trains. Plus the battery life on mine is about 8 hours. Much better than my laptop, which is maybe 1 hour currently. To charge the battery, I have a USB cable I plug into my PC, so I don’t have to worry about any additional adapters.

This time I also bought a new music player: Sansa e200R series with 4GB. This has been modified too with Rockbox software. Now I have a flashlight, calendar, and calculator among other things. The latest update includes time-stretching so you can listen to talking (like radio programs or audio books) up to 2.5x speed without changing the pitch. Well, you can change the pitch independently too which is interesting.

There’s one more thing I bought along: a 1TB 3.5” hard drive. I brought along a copy of everything from my home PC in case I got a job and have to stay long term. Once I arrived in China I bought an enclosure for the drive. It does come in handy sometimes when I need to get some rarely used items or for backing up photos. However, it is so heavy to carry this big drive, the enclosure, the power supply, and all the cables. If I’m going to travel this much again, I’ll stick with a 2.5”.

China Notes

Traffic

Every time I arrive here I’m shocked by the traffic and driving rules. I read a little about the Chinese driving rules (if you can call them that) and they explain right-of-way as “first is right.” So whoever gets to a part of a road first owns that part and other people must get out of the way.

Camera Market

Last year I broke my 50mm lens, so I decided I needed a new one. The camera market in Beijing is a good place to buy one. Inside this building are about 50 stores selling professional equipment such as Canon, Nikon, and Leica. There are some stores that specialize in lighting or tripods or books. The Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens cost $96 new here.

Second Hand Market

I was asked before coming to China if there are garage sales here. It made me realize I’ve never seen a place that sold second hand things, until now. In the southeast corner of Beijing is a market that is supposed to sell used items, so I went to go look. After getting off a bus, it was a long walk down a road next to an open sewer. Kind of a fitting location, I suppose. There were no sidewalk, restaurants selling dirty food, and old houses. I had mixed feelings about the market because half of the things there were new and there were no prices posted anywhere. It was mostly furniture and equipment from restaurants and hair salons. The things that were second hand looked like they were pulled out of the trash. There are no used clothes in Beijing, I looked everywhere for those.

It was not until a few weeks later when I was traveling in a Tibetan area of China that I found something second hand: shoes! Tibetans go through shoes like crazy since they are walking everyday circling the prayer wheels and they are mostly poor. Incredibly, I had to go all the way to this small dirty town to find some kind of second hand clothes.

Food

Bones:  I’ve learned Chinese people are crazy about bones in their food. After eating the Americanized version, you’d think the opposite. A big cleaver is used to chop up the meat/bone into around one inch sections. It is done for better flavor, but I don’t really like the side effect of some tiny bits of bone breaking off and getting in your mouth and requiring you to spit them out.

Fish: At a Tibetan/Yunnan style restaurant, I was able to try a fish meal. In order to show the customer that the fish is fresh, it is carried out alive in a bucket. When the customer approves, it is fried and then cooked in a soup with garlic, onions, mushrooms and bamboo. The second cooking step is done at the table. The fish is split in half before cooking; the head and tail remain. There are also cuts along the side of the fish to allow the soup to penetrate the meat. You can also order additional vegetables to add and cook yourself.

Interestingly, fresh fish is the only food Tibetans are not allowed to eat. It is because the fish is killed specifically for them, which is against the rules.

Goose: Roasted goose was served at a Guangdong restaurant and I thought it was a good opportunity to try. I’ve had roasted duck before and it tasted similar but this had much more meat. It actually tasted like beef steak. It was cut up into pieces with a layer of skin, then layer of fat, and finally the meat.

Dog: I didn’t realize how important dogs were in China until visiting a 2100 year old tomb of an emperor near Xi’an. Buried with the emperor were small figures of animals. In one pit there were about 400 goats, 400 dogs and 100 pigs. I don’t think the emperor had plans to have that many pets in the afterlife, but instead for food.

It took me weeks and weeks to find a restaurant that served dog meat. It is more popular in far-south China, but I wasn’t planning on going there. In Beijing there is a restaurant that specializes in dog meat and I had a chance to go. The scariest part is the menu. There are photos of the dishes and some dishes are specific parts of the dog including feet and genitals. I tried to order something simple and it tasted OK except there was skin attached to almost every piece which I think was too fatty. At least every time someone asks me if I’ve eaten a dog I can say yes now.

Job? No. Travel? Yes.

When I left China in March 2009 and kept hearing how depressing the job market is back in Michigan, I bought a round trip ticket to get back to China for my Plan B. And on August 17, 2009, I used it. The reason for that date is because the last date I could enter the country on my visa was August 20.

Other than looking for jobs in the US, before I left I applied for some jobs in China. One school in Beijing did get back with me but when I said how much money I wanted, they were not interested in me. So I left my suit at home. Once I arrived in China, I applied for some more (mostly IT jobs) and one or two called me but again they all asked me about salary and everyone said “too high.” Each time I’ve lowered it until reaching Michigan Minimum Wage levels. I think that’s the maximum level acceptable in the big cities of China.

Through a friend, I was able to get one job interview in Beijing (my first in 5 years). The first time the company called, I was on a bus in a city 600 miles away. Although I couldn’t really hear, I arranged a “meeting” for a couple weeks later. The interview for part-time luxury men’s clothing store manager lasted 5 or 10 minutes. He interviewed me because they were looking for someone who is an American and someone who is a man. He asked me to send him my photo and my height (only things I forgot to include in my resume). He asked if I’m interested and I forced myself to say “…yeah.” The main problem is the store doesn’t open until December 2009. Due to my visa, I have to leave the country in November 2009. I felt the job is more like a model job to stand in the store to lure in customers to this classy store more than a management job.

Since I was not having too much luck with jobs in China, I spent most of my time traveling and then made plans to visit some other countries. I’ll write about some highlights later. I have updated my map.

Back home in Michigan

On March 23, I took a flight back to Detroit, Michigan from Beijing, China. Last time I flew out of Beijing in 2007 it was with Continental Airlines and I complained how old the 747 was. This time I also used Continental and I was happy because it was a 777. Everything was new, except the flight attendants.

The main thing I liked on this flight was electricity in every seat. I could use my laptop for the 14 hour flight. In addition, every seat had a entertainment system which included 250 movies plus other videos. I left at 4:00PM Beijing time, saw a sunset, sunrise, then arrived in Newark, New Jersey in time to see a second sunset at about 5:00PM the same day.

It wasn’t too exciting to arrive in New Jersey. The airport was so old compared to the new Terminal 3 (world’s largest) in Beijing. My next flight to Detroit was delayed, so I had to wait in this airport four hours.

My last two hour flight to Detroit at least was not very full, so I had room to bring all my luggage comfortably. My dad picked me up at 11:00PM Detroit time.

Beijing Subway System

While construction has slowed down in Michigan, it was hard to notice any slowdown in Beijing. In addition to the countless apartment buildings and shopping malls being built, I was impressed with the subway system.

There was a major upgrade to the subway last year for the Olympics, but that was just the start. There are roughly 13 lines under construction this year. The goal is to build the largest subway system in the world in the shortest amount of time (561km running by 2015). I was able to observe one line being built while in Beijing. One week the land wasn’t even cleared so I was not sure where it was being built exactly. Another week, fences were placed up. And another week the foundations for the elevated line were being built. It is supposed to be running a year and a half from now.

It is exciting to see all these changes happening, one of the reasons I keep coming back to China.