Category Archives: China Trip

Beijing – Part 3

The last two days in Beijing were overcast and much colder than the days before. At least, the weather appeared stable enough to do a bicycle tour to all the important sights in the center we had not been so far. Since our hotel only offered city bikes without gearshift and hardly adjustable saddle, we chose a decent route and started with the Yonghegong Lama Temple nearby, one of the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world. As a short lunch break, we rested in a small café offering surprisingly good cappuccini and sandwiches next to the Bell and Drum Towers, which were both used to announce the time. In the Beihai Park – we only got there because of the White Pagoda – Franz and I insisted on renting a pedal boat. In the afternoon, we rode all the way south to Tian’anmen square, the impressive National Grand Theater and even further to the Temple of Heaven, which is surrounded by an extensive beautiful garden we only caught a glimpse of during a 25 minutes’ walk around the temple.

Later on, we met Su Shi and once again headed for the Houhai lake area with hundreds of bars of all imaginable kinds. We ended up in a tiny cocktail bar, made friends with guys from Seattle and Exeter and tried a few interesting flavors of beer.

As Su Shi had suggested the evening before, we temporarily stored our luggage in his student dorm room while he showed us around his campus. First of all, we were stunned by the privacy-lacking proximity the students cope with. In the bedrooms of approximately 5 by 3.5 meters, rows of two elevated beds on both sides with desks underneath form a narrow aisle from the door to the window, accommodating four students in total. The residents of two of these rooms each share a pair of washing basins directly in the vestibule as well as two small bathrooms. This way, barely 100 people are quartered on a single floor. I extrapolated there must be around 15,000 students (!) living in the ten dorm towers just fitting in a standard city block. The university itself (Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics) appeared – apart from the really old buildings – similar to the other one we had already visited. Especially the new main building appealed because of its imposing architecture. For our last dinner, Su Shi invited us to a nice Hot Pot restaurant, before we took a taxi to the airport.

Due to the massive delay of six hours, we’ve had enough time on the plane to look back at the past three weeks. In retrospect, our time in China was wonderful, and I wouldn’t want to miss a single day of it. Having experienced exactly the right balance between city sightseeing and countryside “adventure” holidays, I was able to gain a much more diverse impression of a country that still remains mysterious to some extent. Many thanks to our fellow students Jacqueline (plus family), Aaron and Xuanli as well as their friends Yan (plus family), Brian, Elaine, Alex, Bob, Clover, Su Shi, Cindy and Andy – without you the trip wouldn’t have been half as awesome! 🙂

Beijing – Part 2

image

Mr. Liang punctually knocked on our hotel room’s door. He was our driver to the Great Wall, couldn’t speak English, but at least seemed to be a funny guy. Due to his audacious driving style that somehow resembled a Hollywood car chase it took him only an hour to steer his vehicle through the congested roads of Beijing to Mutianyu.

Naturally, the Wall followed the terrain on mountain ridges so that the enemy could be seen as far ahead as possible. Thus, we needed to ascent to one of the many watchtowers by chair lift. The weather couldn’t have been better, and already on the way up I was astonished by the easiness the surprisingly broad barrier was meandering across complex terrain. We decided to walk along the Wall in the direction where we expected fewer tourists, often climbing steep steps and only sometimes passing plane sections. Cheekily ignoring two “no admittance” signs, we left the well restored parts of the Wall behind and entered a strongly decayed, nearly impassable segment, which was vegetated by many bushes and trees.

Having collected not only many photos of the impressive Wall embedded in a magnificent landscape, but also a small graze (and lacerated underpants), I returned to our starting point. There we lay down in the mild sun on another watchtower’s roof – without wearing sweaters or even jackets – before we adventurously took the summer toboggan run (Sommerrodelbahn) back down again to the parking lot. Remembering the Great Wall as one of our trip’s highlights is definitely justified.

On Thursday we met Andy, who took Chinese hospitality to the next level: Only being a friend of a friend (Clover) of a friend (Bob) of one of my fellow students (Aaron), he treated us to a full lunch menu including Beijing duck as a matter of course and declined even the tiniest financial contribution of us. He is enrolled as Master student at Tsinghua University, one of the most renowned universities in China, and showed us around the spacious campus. Founded 101 years ago as prep school for students going to the US, the institution comprises several buildings from the early 1910s. Ironically, most of these old ones resemble buildings at North-American universities striving for Ancient values and virtues, and therefore also make use of e.g. Ionic columns or pseudo-Latin inscriptions such as “SCIENCE BVILDING”. Andy, thank you so much for this half day!

In the late afternoon, we finally agreed – the idea had already come up during the first week – to have an extensive full-body massage. Since we were lying on massage beds in the same room, easy chatting was possible while we were treated by trained masseurs. The day couldn’t have ended more relaxing.

Beijing – Part 1

image

Very similar to our arrival in Shanghai, we were picked up at the railway station. Su Shi, a friend of Xuanli, brought us to the hotel that was strongly recommended by the American opera singer we had met on the ferry from Hong Kong to Macau. It was decent, cheap enough for a week’s stay and offered – for the first time during our trip – an actual triple room, which was equipped with heating and an incredibly water-saving shower. The taxi driver dropped us off a few hundred meters away because it’s located in a narrow Hutong, nearly inaccessible by car due to lots of one-ways. During the walk to the hotel I did not only realize the temperature had certainly fallen below 0° C, but also that I was able to see stars in the sky – unbelievable in a city with heavy air pollution and omnipresent illumination. We were told the weather had been very windy recently, blowing the smog away and enabling unusually far sight.

Mentioned first in every travel guide, the Forbidden City probably remains Beijing’s most well-known historic site. We met with Su Shi in the early morning (meaning 09:30) and took the metro to Tian’anmen square, the place of the events in 1989 at the very heart of Beijing nowadays constantly kept under surveillance. The actual palace grounds are entered through a series of impressive gates and a broad bridge over the wide moat around the complex. The ceremonial buildings including the Three Great Halls (Halls of Supreme, Middle and Preserving Harmony) lie on the north-south axis and provided in a partly repainted form an original experience of the imperial style of architecture as well as plausible imagination of how the City would have looked like in former centuries. While the official front parts of the palace with an obvious absence of green plants create a stony atmosphere of seriousness, the emperor’s garden and the countless minor buildings often surrounded by calming trees seemed much more friendly and illustrated the luxurious life at the imperial court. After a long stay inside the fascinating complex we climbed up the hill of the directly adjacent Jingshan Park, where we could enjoy an amazing view over the Forbidden City in the south and the endless building area of Beijing stretching towards the horizon in all directions. I already mentioned the cloudless sky and the clear dry air, allowing nearly as perfect sight as from Alpine mountain tops in mid-autumn.

In the evening, we met Cindy, another friend of Aaron. She and Su Shi led us to a popular restaurant offering Beijing duck, one of the most delicious meals so far. Subsequently we moved to a nice bar with live music and spent a wonderful time with our two new friends who definitely confirmed our impression of outstanding hospitality once more.

Requiring a break from the exhausting day before, we decided to skip breakfast yesterday and gain a few additional hours of sleep instead. Starting with the Dongyue temple, a big Taoist facility, we discovered the diplomatic area of Chaoyang district with many tall office towers and arbitrarily shaped western glass buildings. Since we had to transfer no less than three times, it then took some time to reach the Olympic Sports Center in the north. The stadium nicknamed “bird’s nest” was certainly worth a short visit but the entire area looked quite empty apart from several groups of bus tourists.

Today’s sightseeing target was the imperial Summer Palace at the western border of Beijing. Upon entering the enormous site we found ourselves at the shore of a beautiful lake strongly reflecting the sunlight due to its half-frozen surface. On our right there was a tall hill holding the Tower of Buddhist Incense we would later climb up to, looking down to a cute island connected to the garden’s entrance by a 17 arch stone bridge. The entire complex is beautifully designed like traditional Chinese gardens and comprises lots of pavilions, rocks and guided trees. Not only the view from the top but also the experience of walking through the relatively quiet park was magnificent and served as ideal revitalization.

In the late afternoon we spent some money at the Yashow clothing market on fake shirts and sweaters before returning to the hotel.

I’m really looking forward to our daytrip to the Great Wall tomorrow and better finish writing now – Susi and Franz are already asleep..

Hangzhou

Although the distance between Shanghai and Hangzhou is roughly 200 km, travelling between both cities often takes less time than the transfers from and to the railway stations. Hourly non-stop high-speed trains connect the two hubs (a ride takes only 50 minutes), thus making a convenient daytrip possible.

Bob, another friend of Aaron, first showed us the West lake with an extensive walk over the embankment, an artificial connection diagonally across the lake consisting of many islands and short bridges. Even though it was raining, we enjoyed its picturesque green design and the view of the hills surrounding the lake, which sometimes carried a small pagoda. Eventually, we reached a beautiful Chinese garden that would have encouraged us to lie down in the grass and soak up the rays of sunlight through the leaves of tall trees if the weather had been nicer.

The restaurant we headed for lunch was called “Green Tea” and located directly at (and partly on) the lake. Incontrovertibly, the meal was the best we had so far in China.

In the afternoon, we visited the Lijing temple complex that consisted of several huge halls with impressive Buddhist decoration. The biggest statue of a sitting Buddha in China still seemed to be a pilgrimage place for many people.

Later on – it was pouring with rain by now – we met one of Bob’s friends called Clover. As an expert of the next sight we were about to enter, she had offered to serve as a competent guide. The mansion of an incredibly rich businessman dating back to the Jin dynasty with its countless rooms and halls, extensive but yet cozy gardens, and sophisticated architecture was definitely worth a visit.

After a nice dinner with Clover and Bob in a big restaurant close to the railway station, the daytrip came to an end as we boarded our train back to Shanghai. Thanks a lot for a really nice time!

Shanghai

image

The train, it seems, offers the best opportunity to write. Sitting in the high-speed train to Beijing (currently 305 km/h), I summarize my impressions of Shanghai.

Alex, one of Aaron’s former schoolmates, was already waiting at the railway station, holding a handwritten A4 sheet with my name on it. Together we took a taxi to the hotel we would be staying at for the following five nights. Located only a few metro stops from the city center and rated with four stars, it only became affordable because Alex knows the manager well. For the first time here in China, breakfast was included, so we started the following days with eggs (sunny side up), coffee and much more.

In the evening, Alex led us to the jaw-dropping artistic circus show “ERA – Intersection of Time”. Most parts, especially the high wire acrobats and the seven (!) motorbikes in a steel ball, were so thrilling that I completely lost track of time. And some other parts inspired with beauty in its purest sense, combining romance with ever-so-light dancing in mid-air.

On Tuesday and Wednesday we had a lot of time for sightseeing. Since we wanted to follow recommendations of local people, Alex created a list of a few must-see places and accompanied us to the Shanghai Museum in the morning. His explanations soon rendered very useful in helping us to understand the various exhibitions about Chinese culture and art. Through a nice pedestrian shopping street – I resisted the temptation – we approached the Bund, the famous left boardwalk of the Huangpu river that allows a nice view of the city’s skyline on the other side.

Before we left Germany we had agreed to pack only clothes for half the trip, assuming there must be self-service washing salons in all major cities. A mistake, as it turned out: After more than an hour trying to find one of the potential salons we had previously looked up on the internet, we gave up and decided to entrust our clothes to a normal dry cleaner.

The Yuyuan Park’s famous old buildings shaped like pagodas are a marvelous example of traditional Chinese architecture, but unfortunately, the vast majority of tourist shops deprive the place of its unique atmosphere. Later on, we visited Pudong, the town’s financial quarter with lots of skyscrapers. Jin Mao Tower is not the tallest, but there is a nice bar called “Cloud 9” on the 87th floor. Despite the smog, the misty weather in general and the dimmed windows, the view over the city and the well illuminated skyline was definitely worth taking pictures.

The time in Shanghai was interrupted by a daytrip to Hangzhou on Friday, which I dedicate a blog post on its own.

We started our last day – the weather was mild and sunny – with a walk through People’s Park. Childish as I am, I suggested a ride with a small rollercoaster for children, earning fancy looks from the locals sitting nearby, probably also due to the exaggerated screaming 😉

After lunch in an exquisite Taiwanese restaurant, a ride with the Maglev train (based on German Transrapid technology) was obligatory. Cruising with outstanding 430 km/h, the landscape outside was rushing by like we were flying close to the ground. Going back by metro took us roughly six times as long.

In the meantime, Alex was busy at university, writing exams and attending seminars. We were glad to be able to say goodbye face-to-face – thank you so much! We spent our last hours in the city in a bar street with newly renovated, traditional small cute houses. Somewhere between my first and my second cocktail I promised myself to come back to Shanghai once again.

Yangshou – Part 2

image

The day before yesterday, our last full day in Yangshou, was a lot of fun. We visited the Great Water Cave nearby, a magnificent treasure of underground karst hydrogeology. Its first few rooms are full of beautiful stalactites and (this time, real) stalagmites. If this cave was in Europe it would be thoroughly protected by dozens of environmental laws in order to prevent irreplaceable damage, but the Chinese prioritize the visitor’s entertainment over enduring conservation. Thus, we could touch the funnily shaped and colorfully illuminated stones, crawled through tiny holes, and took an underground mud bath, which was, despite its coldness, really fun. In the last chamber, we regained normal body temperature in a relaxing hot spring bath, only faintly disturbed by the tour photographer playing Counterstrike on his desktop computer – directly in the cave.

After a small meal I made myself for dinner (the Chinese pendant to our Chefkoch dishes – just pour hot water into the disposable bowl prefilled with meat and noodles), we only discovered on the last day there’s a really nice bar at our hotel’s roof top. I played table soccer against Franz and, naturally, lost twice.

The alarm clock went off early yesterday, in fact much earlier than we were used to. We had to get ready for the boat trip back to Guilin, and the packing of luggage was far more difficult since all of us used the opportunity for cheap shopping, Susi and Franz more than I did.

The boat we eventually embarked was supposed to be sheltered, but as it slowly made its way up the Li river towards Guilin it became draughty and quite chilly. However, we were once again rewarded by a beautiful landscape: fantastic mountains and hills reaching to the sky on both sides of the narrow valley. Especially the locals’ creativity to name some of the formations was amusing, e.g. “tortoise climbing mountain”.

Only a few minutes before reaching the final stop, we were surprised by a heavy thunderstorm. Our clothes soaking wet, we arrived at the railway station in Guilin by bus.

Altogether, I enjoyed the trip to Guilin and Yangshou very much. It seems, after some cultural acclimatization, we have finally “arrived” in China. The people are mostly friendly, helpful and seem to forgive us our incapability of speaking Chinese. Domestic tourists are curious where we’re from and want to take photos of us, especially of blond Susi. After some days we even managed to understand a few simple characters.

Right now as I write this blog entry, I’m sitting – actually it’s more lying than sitting – in the sleeping coach of the overnight train to Shanghai. We have booked second class tickets, the so-called “hard sleeper” category. The compartments, each comes with six beds, actually resemble booths because all of them are open to the wagon’s aisle and there are no doors.

It’s half past seven in the morning. We’ve just been woken up by calming piano and flute music through the speakers. Since the lights were turned off at 10 p.m. sharp, an unmistakable signal for all passengers, I was able to enjoy a good amount of sleep. Of course, I slept with all my important belongings (money, passport, cell phone) right next to me, but security concerns don’t seem to be an issue here. Other passengers are putting out iPads from their bags stored freely accessible over the aisle right now to read the newspaper. And yesterday I observed a man using sellotape to fix his two bags together as if cruel thieves were probably too scared to rip them apart again.

We boarded the train at 7 p.m. yesterday and will arrive in Shanghai around 3 p.m. today – with 20 hours my longest train ride so far. Including the boat trip and the waiting time until the train’s departure, we’ll have travelled for nearly 30 hours. Enough time to read more than one book.. 😉

Yangshou – Part 1

image

The journey to Yangshou was adventurous: First, we took the ferry from Macao directly to the airport of Shenzhen and boarded the Airbus to Guilin, where we stayed overnight in a decent hotel. In the morning, we were happy to find the public bus to Yangshou.

Already upon entering the People’s Republic of China, we realized that we’ve arrived in a completely different country. English is not of much help, neither in its spoken nor its written form, and the fact that we can’t read Chinese characters like we could read words in other languages written with the Latin alphabet complicates a lot. Used to western traffic regulations, we were surprised to find that obeying signal lights, “give way” signs or even the well-established convention to drive on the right side seems more like a suggestion. Also, we immediately missed the British willingness to form queues, which was a matter of course in Hong Kong.

Finally (and probably worst), there are many sometimes really annoying hawkers in public areas, trying to sell stuff or advertising their taxi company or travel agency. In Guilin, it was hard to find the bus station and the correct bus to Yangshou; in the end we required the help of one of those guys and paid a little bit more for the ticket than all the locals did. By the way, the term “express bus” doesn’t necessarily mean the bus won’t stop at literally each corner picking up passengers, thus taking about half an hour for a few kilometers.

Personally, I felt relieved when we left Guilin, but the breathtaking scenery around Yangshou was completely worth the detour. The landscape, which is also featured on the 20 Yuan note, looks like giant, rounded and beautifully bewildered stalagmites randomly dropped onto the plane, forming deep valleys and steep hills while still allowing shippable streams such as the Li Jiang, minor rivers and small lakes to emerge. Due to the great humidity, fog constantly veils the hills farther away than a few kilometers into misty shadow, suggesting the hilly landscape continues to infinity. Only far visible cell phone towers at neuralgic places once in a while irritate the impression of untouched nature.

Our hotel was on West street, directly in the middle of the small and very touristic city. After arrival, we decided to walk through the narrow streets full of shops down to the Li Jiang, which passes through both Guilin and Yangshou. In the evening, a splendid dinner and a drink in a nice bar completed the first day.

An extensive, five hour bicycle tour on the following day confirmed my impression of the marvelous scenery. Our hardly any English speaking guide showed us breathtaking places otherwise only known from postcard motifs: the omnipresent hills, rice and vegetable fields, rivers, an ancient tree (1000 years), small villages and isolated farms. Furthermore, although it’s only March, we bought self-picked strawberries and oranges. As dusk drew closer, we had a snack in a Chinese fast-food restaurant and played a few rounds of billiard.

Hong Kong & Macao

image

The days in the special administrative regions Hong Kong and Macao were amazing. I’m currently onboard the ferry from Macao to Shenzhen airport, here’s a short summary of the last few days:

Due to the delay (3.5 h) of our flight from Beijing to Hong Kong and Jacqueline’s serious spine injury, which had to be treated in a hospital directly after arrival, it was impossible to meet at the airport. However, we were told to take the train and bus to one of her friends called Yan, were picked up by her father and were surprised of their great hospitality. Subsequently having spent a wonderful evening with Yan and her friends in Kowloon (including the Avenue of Stars and an awesome bar on 20th floor), we learned how to eat with chopsticks correctly and caught a glimpse of a city that never sleeps.

All three of us spent the night at Yan’s place in the living room, merely bigger than the hallway of my flat in Munich, but even though we enjoyed long and comfortable eight hours of sleep. On the second day, Yan was so kind to show us around in the Central neighborhood and lead us to the Peak, the highest point in town. Despite the fact it was really foggy, the view over the entire town was magnificent. The day ended once again in a superb traditional restaurant, where we finally met Jacqueline and found out that the Chinese form of soup fondue is not only much fun to eat but also tastes astonishingly good.

We used our last day in the city mainly for two things: First, it was necessary to plan, book and prepare parts of our remaining trip, including the purchase of Chinese SIM cards for our cell phones. And second, we went shopping in the Mong Kok area. Traditional markets, boutiques in pedestrian shopping streets and a really huge mall with more than 15 floors provided all kinds of shopping experience. Unlike Susi and Franz, I couldn’t find anything nice for me – a pity.

While Hong Kong seemed a lot like other western cities, Macao is unique in many different ways. The old town invites to a journey back into the last century: Classical western architecture is randomly combined with Chinese elements, there are many Catholic buildings, some of them only as ruins such as St. Pauls cathedral (only the half Chinese, half baroque front facade is left), and all the street signs are in Portuguese only.

However, the enormous contrast between the original buildings with only a few floors and the huge casino skyscrapers were definitely the most impressive part. We walked through the Venetian hotel, a place ruthlessly combining sterile copies of Venetian houses, canals and gondolas with shops and poker tables. Not even the gondoliers’ “buona sera” greetings can prevent that the place remains a disappointment to visitors who had been to the real Venice before.

We enjoyed a few drinks in the Lisboa casino, the biggest and oldest one, and before the departure to the ferry we extensively convinced ourselves of the Westin hotel’s spa 😉

Especially Hong Kong was great, but also Macao was worth a day’s visit. Thanks again folks – Jacqueline, Yan & Co – for accommodation, showing us around and your patience! 🙂

An Endless Flight

It’s around 02:30 a.m. Hong Kong time, some minutes after half past seven p.m. back home. Usually, I switch time zones on all of my clocks directly after take-off in order to start getting used to the new rhythm at the destination, hopefully avoiding jetlag as much as possible. And so did I a few hours ago. It’s the middle of the night and our next day is going to be exhausting. My only problem: even with earplugs (they’re Susi’s, I forgot mine, of course), I cannot sleep.

Thus, I’ve got plenty of time to think – to think about what we may be experiencing during the three weeks in the Far East, enough time to imagine how the numerous places we’re going to visit may look like. I’m really looking forward to getting an impression of Chinese culture, habits, cuisine, architecture, and maybe even a bit of the Mandarin language.

And yet, I haven’t completely realized I’m sitting in a plane that’s carrying me with 900 km/h towards a country I do not know apart from romantic documentaries, narrative fragments of fellow students, media reports on the current political situation and delicious dishes in local restaurants. I’m only beginning to leave Europe behind, embracing anticipation of awesome holidays to come. Let the adventure begin! 🙂

T-1: Bye-bye Europe, Hello China!

Tomorrow at 9 a.m. we (Susi, Franz and I) will be already sitting in our train to Frankfurt – I can hardly await our three-week trip to China. Visas are issued, travel and language guides prepared, important addresses & stuff printed out, and my suitcase is (nearly) packed.. well, I still don’t have my rucksack and I’m quite sure I’ll forget something really important anyway.. 😉

Globe with Coarse Schedule

China Trip - Coarse Schedule

Here’s our very coarse schedule: We’ll spend our first few days in Hong Kong & Macau, before we’ll be going up-country and heading to Guilin, Zhangjiajie, Huangshan, Hangzhou and finally Shanghai, where we’ll be happily awaited. Finally we’ll take the high speed train to Beijing and spend the last week there. Only the first days are already precisely planned in terms of accommodation and transfer, but we’re trusting in our friends’ help and guidance as we want to be flexible and spontaneous throughout the journey. Thanks in advance to our fellow students, especially Jacqueline, Aaron and Xuanli – this trip would be literally impossible without you!

I don’t know how often I’ll be able to share my impressions with you via this website, but I promise to provide some news at least once in a while. Have fun at home in Europe and enjoy your holidays 😛