Permanent Vacasian

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. – G. K. Chesterton

Pingyao

December 16, 2008
by Stuart
1 Comment
2,006 views

Typical courtyard - with coal cyilanders for heating.

Courtyard with coal cylinders for heating.

Because Pingyao is a little town on the train line between Xi’an and Beijing, it’s hard to get tickets – especially on the day you want to travel. So when we got off the train we went back into the station to try and get tickets. When we were in line, a woman came up and said she was from a hostel and could help us get tickets if the agent couldn’t.

Kid's drawings on the side of a wall.

Kids draw the same thing around the world.

Doorway.

Doorway.

When we asked the agent, she looked at the woman from the hostel, then typed something into the computer and said she could only get standing tickets – no guarantee of a bed or seat. The woman from the hostel said the would give us a free ride to the hostel and she’d see about getting us a ticket. Having nothing to lose, we took the offer.

something.

something.

Little marketplace along the road.

Little marketplace along the road.

At the hostel she said it was impossible to get tickets for that night and suggested we try for a few days. I said we would be leaving that night regardless, even if we had to take a bus to another town and get a train or bus from that town. Once she knew we weren’t staying in the hostel no matter what, she said she’d make a call.

Rooftops seen from the Drum Tower.

Rooftops.

Building in a fancy courtyard.

Building in a fancy courtyard.

While checking in other guests, the owner came over and said it was hard to get tickets, and asked if we wanted breakfast. I said we had stuff to eat but if she could get us tickets, we’d order something. In about ten minutes, she came over and said we were in luck – should could get us tickets for that night and to come back at 5:30 and they would have them. And trying to be a man of my word, Tina and I ordered some pancakes and hot chocolate.

*     *     *

Pingyao is a small town that has kept it real. All the streets look like movie sets, but it’s authentic and untouched. However, to get into the courtyards and museums, you have to by a ticket for $20 that’s good for everything. So even if you just want to see one museum or go on the wall, you have to buy the ticket. But since we started walking around early, there weren’t people manning the entrances so we got into most stuff for free. Then later in the day we tried to get on the wall, but was told we needed the ticket.

Writing on the wall.

Writing on the wall.

Another fancy courtyard.

Another fancy courtyard.

Since we didn’t want to buy the ticket for just the wall, we tried to try a bribe. We walked around until we found another entrance to the wall and I got out 20Y bill and folded it up nice and small. I went up the guard house and said we wanted to get on the wall. He asked were our tickets was, and I said, “You mean this?” and slyly offered him the 20. He looked at it, and at me, and said we needed a ticked and closed the door in my face.

Archway.

Archway.

A typical resturaunt front.

A typical restaurant front.

We also tried to get into a museum without the ticket by saying we only wanted to enter that one museum, and didn’t want to buy the ticket for everything. The guards were funny about it and wanted to let us in, but then they pointed to the security camera and shrugged. Then a street vendor came over, and at this point there was a whole crowd around us, and started saying things that everyone thought was really funny. Then he led us over to his store.

More rooftops.

More rooftops.

Streetlife seen from the City Tower.

Street life seen from the City Tower.

Having had success with the breakfast-for-tickets deal, I offered to buy something if he could get us into the museum. So we haggled a bit for some stuff, it was going to be really expensive still and I would end up with some bronze piece of junk. So no deal.

*     *     *

When we arrived back at the hostel to get our tickets, we discovered that the two tickets were not just for different train cars, but for different departure cities! We were told that it didn’t matter what city was on the tickets, just as long as you area getting on after that city and not before. When I pressed him on it, he got huffy and said I needed to trust him. I almost went into how it’s been really hard to trust people in China when it comes to information and procedures – and because they see dollar signs and not people – but thought better of it. Good thing, too. Turns out he was right – we got on the train with no problems.

The City Tower.

The City Tower.

Chinese checkers?

Chinese checkers?

Alleyway with bike.

Alleyway with bikes.

Gratutus picture of Tina and me doing things.

Gratuitous picture of Tina and me doing things. Happy now?

Xi’an, Wal-Mart And The Terracotta Warriors

December 16, 2008
by Stuart
3 Comments
9,464 views

Pit 1.

Pit 3.

While waiting for my visa extension, we went down to Xi’an to see the terracotta warriors. After checking into the hostel we hopped a bus to the site of the warriors which was about an hour away.

The not-so-grand Pit 3.

Pit 1. The hype made it seem like there should be 10x as many warriors.

Every one has a different face.

Each one has a different face.

I have mixed feelings about the warriors. The warriors themselves are really fantastic. They have unearthed thousands and no two are the same. And the complex that houses the excavation sites is quite neat – very modern buildings and plaza. And there was even a unintentionally humorous film – in Chinese – about the events leading to the creation and discovery of the warriors. But this is a case where the parts is greater then the whole.

The Bell Tower in the heart of Xi'an.

The Bell Tower in the heart of Xi

Making filled pancakes at the night market.

Making filled pancakes at the night market.

A vendor selling chicken's feet and heads.
A vendor selling chicken’s feet and heads.

The complex is three main buildings containing the “pits” where the excavation is taking place. The first two pits don’t have much going on, and the third pit has the collection you see in all the photos. But when you read the information signs you learn that they have found over 6,000 warriors. So I kept wondering where they all had gone. Even though pit 3 had the collection, there must have been a couple thousand at the most.

I'm feeling lucky!
I’m feeling lucky!
Pagoda in the Great Mosque.

Pagoda in the Great Mosque.

The best part was when we walked out the gates, sellers of warrior statuettes and other kitsch descended on us who reeked of desperation. Prices fluctuated wildly. One guy even ran out of the woods and came up to me all panting hoping for my sale. I felt bad he’d come all that way for a rejection. Now that I think about it, there were more people selling things then warriors.

In the Great Mosque.

In the Great Mosque.

That night back in Xi’an we walked around the Muslim Quarter at the night market for dinner. The food was pretty similar to what the markets in Western China had – lots of kebabs, naan, pulled noodles. There was also fresh sugarcane juice. As a kid, at this Native American festival at home, I used to get sections of sugarcane to chew on – so I was excited to get some juice. They made it to order with some grinder that took the cane and shredded it and squeezed the juice from the pulp. There was also fresh plum juice that was good and more of that naan with the chili oil that I can’t get enough of.

*     *     *

We noticed on our map of Xi’an that there was a Wal-Mart in town not far from our hostel. So the next morning we went on a hunt getting briefly sidetracked by a smoothie place. Tina had seen a documentary about Wal-Marts in China that sold live chickens so we had to see it. It turned out to be buried in some mall, which as we got closer to the Wal-Mart, progressively replaced the shiny Madison Ave. stores for typical mall rat nests. Turned out that they didn’t sell live chickens – or like you taking pictures.

Neightboor hood next to the wall.

Neighborhood hood next to the wall.

After lunch at a street stall, we walked around the Muslim Quarter again, this time perusing at the street stalls and the Great Mosque – which looked much more like a Chinese temple and nothing like a mosque. There was a call to prayer while we where there so all the men showed up wearing white skullcaps and one brought a sheep which was taken around the the back and never heard from again.

Tina in front of one of the watchtowers on the wall.

Tina in front of one of the watchtowers on the wall.

Dubblement fun.

Dubblement fun.

Clowns.

I need to shave.

After lunch we rented a tandem bike and toured around the top of the wall surrounding the heart of the city. I knew the walls were long, but it took us over and hour to do the complete loop – including a break to eat a bag of Doritos Tina brought me from home.

*     *     *

Hankering for a pizza we headed over to Pizza Hut – the only pizza place in town. But this was no ordinary Pizza Hut. It was more like a Cheesecake Factory – big menus, fancy furniture and silverware. The pizza wasn’t as good as back home, but at least it was pizza.

The wall at dusk.

The wall at dusk.

Looking towards the Bell Tower from the wall.

Looking towards the Bell Tower from the wall.

Along the wall at night.

Along the wall at night.

We then headed to the Big Goose Pagoda for a light and water show. On the way, I though we had taken the bus too far so we got off and took one going the other way until I saw a street sign and realized that we hadn’t gone far enough the first time. So we got off and crossed the street to get back on the bus going the other way again.

At the hight of the water and light show.

At the height of the water and light show.

Big Goose Pagoda after the show.

Big Goose Pagoda after the show.

While crossing the street, a Russian woman started talking to us – she was a dentist and just moved form NYC back to Saint Petersburg. But she hadn’t been there in over 15 years and felt like she didn’t fit in anymore. While she was talking, I saw several buses we needed to be taking driving by, then I started checking my watch. After a few minutes she got the clue and asked where we were going. We told her about the show and she asked to join us. So we got on the next bus and arrived at the pagoda right as the show was starting.

China Visa Extension Tension

December 10, 2008
by Stuart
1 Comment
2,263 views

Once I got back to Beijing I headed over to the visa office to start the extension process. I had my passport, photo, application filled out and a receipt from the hotel proving I was staying in Beijing. But when I got up to the counter the woman helping me asked where my birth certificate was. Stunned, I repeated, “birth certificate”? She affirmed that was correct, so I asked where in the heck I get a copy of my birth certificate in Beijing?! From a bank, I was told. She then pointed to a sheet of paper that was a certificate of deposit from a bank. Turns out she was saying “bank” and not “birth”. When I asked if she wanted a “bank” certificate – accentuating the “k” – she gave me a glaring “yes” then moved to person next in line.

I went to the information officer and asked what the bank certificate was about. She said that in order for me to extend my visa, I needed to have $3,000 USD in a bank account in China – $100 a day for 30 days. This was to prove that I could support myself while in China. I tried to explain that currently I was living off of about $25 a day, but she didn’t seem impressed with my thrifty self.

There were so many problems with this bank business. 1) how was I going to get $3,000? You can only withdraw about $250 a day from an ATM, so it would take over a week to get the money. 2) wiring money internationally would be really expensive, plus I have no idea how that works. 3) can I even open a bank account in China? 4) I only had two more days left on my current visa.

So after calling my mom to ask if she could transfer money from my account to me if needed, I called Tina to come up with a game plan. We decided that Tina would bring over $3,000 in cash and I’d put it in a bank. Dang she’s smart.

Then I went to some banks to find out if I could open an account, and more importantly, get my money out without penalty and in a timely fashion. The only catch was that if I opened an account in Beijing, I’d have to close it here, too. That would mean at some point I’d have to come back here just to close my account. And I still was clear on things because I was never sure they understood what I was asking, and I kept being transferred to someone else.

After talking to the banks, I went online to the official site of the Beijing police and read that they also accept traveler’s cheques. Sweet! Tina thought this would be a safer option so we decided on that. But when she got here, and we went back to the police, they refused the cheques and demanded a statement from a bank.

So we went down the block and opened an account at the Bank of Beijing and asked to deposit the money. This took an hour. They said they would accept the cheques and asked me to sign them all in front of the cashier (I had 30 $100 cheques). Then she said I could only deposit $500 unless I had the receipt for the cheques – and if not, I could take the cheques around to other banks and resign them, get cash, then come back and deposit the money. Oh, and I needed to use the hotel’s address for my account.

After explaining that for security reasons you don’t carry the cheques and the reciept, and that since I signed them in front of her, I could only cash them with her, they let me deposit all the money as long as I returned the next day with the reciept. She then asked when I wanted to close the account. I remembered that the infromation officer at the police explained they need a certificate because during the approvial process, lots of people check to make sure I have the money, and if I took my money out too soon, I won’t get my visa extended. So I said I’d like to get my money out the same day I get my visa – in a week. She then informed me that until then, my account was frozen.

Wasting My Time In Lanzhou

December 10, 2008
by Stuart
13 Comments
21,090 views

Snowcapped peaks of the Qilian Shan range.

Snow-capped peaks of the Qilian Shan range.

Wanting to save time, I decided to fly from Kashgar to Lanzhou. This cost a bit more then taking the train, but gave me about three more days to see things instead of sitting on the train. As a bonus, the airline, In a effort to increase customer goodwill, included a free night’s hotel stay with my flight from Kashgar to Urumqi (the most inland city in the world, btw). But after our baggage took two hours to come out, and the bus ride to the hotel took 45 minutes, we arrived at the hotel around 2 am. Then the clerk wouldn’t check me in until the locals all got taken care of, leaving me to share a room with some businessman. He was nice enough, but it was kinda awkward. Especially when he said we would be waking up at 7 am for the bus but turned out it was actually 6 am.

The flight to Lanzhou was nice – we got tons of food and because I had a window seat, I got a good view of the city and the dunes when we flew right over Dunhuang and then some beautiful mountains and snow-covered valleys.

Some of the foothills near Lanzhou.

Some of the foothills near Lanzhou.

But my mood that morning was quickly changed when I started trying to check into a hotel. I must have checked five or six hotels and the only room they would give me was an expensive double. They all had dorm rooms and singles listed, but I was told I couldn’t have one. At the last hotel I checked, I was so frustrated that I asked what room I could have if I was Chinese. The clerks blushed, and kinda look at the floor – one couldn’t even look at me anymore – while the other sheepishly pointed to one of the less expensive rooms. So I went back to the first hotel – the cheapest option – and checked in, determined to get my money’s worth by taking the world’s longest shower that night.

*   *   *

There isn’t much to do in Lanzhou. My purpose in going was two fold: extend my visa and take a bus to the town of Xiahe which has the Lebring Monistarty – the biggest outside of Tibet. The travel desk at the hotel said it was closed to foreigners because of some political problems and recent events had put tourists at risk. But the British guys I hung out with in Jiayuguan were going and that was only a couple weeks ago. Even all the forums I checked online said it was closed and tourists were stopped by police and turned back. Then I found a random AP story from a week earlier that said it had been opened for a month.

The only way to be sure was to go to the bus station and try to get a ticket. Since it was late at night, I could only find out the times (7:30am, 8:30am, 2:20pm) and was told to come back in the morning and I could get one – but since I wanted to get my visa extended first, I decided to try for the next day instead.

Farmland just outside Lanzhou.

Farmland just outside Lanzhou.

On the way home I stopped at a hotpot place for dinner. No one spoke English and the menu wasn’t in English but it did have pictures. So after trying to figure it out I ordered the one with the smallest stack of sliced beef I could get – 18 pieces. I know that seems like a lost, but once they cooked down, it wasn’t all that much meat. The waitress help me order more food which turned out to be a mistake. When they brought out the broth, it had about six different kinds of peppers floating around, and the dipping sauce had a few more.

As I started eating the beef, they just kept bringing food – carrots, cabbage, quail eggs, noodles – stuff I’m not even sure I even ordered. But I was hungry, so what the heck? Part way through the meal they brought a glass of this warm milk-like substance. But it was a bit sweeter – like tapioca flavored – and I think used to calm the fire in your mouth. I’m glad I didn’t drink that much because when I went to use their bathroom before leaving the restaurant, all three urinals were filled with puke that looked and smelled exactly like that drink.

*   *   *

The next morning I decided that I needed to get my train ticket to Beijing as well as get my visa extension done first. I researched some times for the trains then went to the train station and got my ticket then took the bus over where the local PSB (police) branch that handles visa extensions. The LP guide said they can do it in one day – turns out the need five. And the extension starts the day you apply, not the day your current visa runs out (so when you apply for an extension of 30 days, the first five are spent waiting for them to process your extension). But since Tina wasn’t going to be back for a week, I didn’t want to use up a week of my extension without her so thanks, but no thanks.

Street vendor cooking up some noodles.

Street vendor cooking up some noodles.

After stopping at a bookstore, getting bus insurance (which the British guys needed before they could get bus tickets, and the RG guide mentioned), then having some steamed beef dumplings for lunch, I went back to the hotel to spend the rest of the afternoon reading and watching Chinese TV – which I am addicted to. There was a night market a few blocks from the apartment so I went  to a little stall and had some noodles while watching some gory Chinese war movie with the staff.

I got up to catch the 8:30am bus down to Xahie planning to come back the next afternoon then catching my train to Beijing the next day. So I checked out, got the station only to find out that I needed multiple copies of my passport and visa (which I didn’t have) and that I didn’t need that insurance after all. So as I was being handed off to person after person – none of whom spoke English, and the bus leaving in about five minutes – I pointed to my watch and said I didn’t have time to make all these copies (not sure where to do that) and make the 8:30am bus.

Pig's feet? Clams? Some weird parts of chicken?

"If it comes from a pig, I got it".

Not to worry – turns out there wasn’t an 8:30am bus that day anyway! – the next bus wasn’t until 2:30pm. And since it takes about four hours to get there I would be getting there at night, only to have to leave early the next day. Totally not worth it. So tired of wasting my money and time in this town, I walked out of the bus station, and took the bus back to the train station, begged them to change my ticket to Beijing to that day, and got the last bed on the 12:20pm train.

I did learn the most valuable travel advice for China: the only actable information is from the person you are dealing with at the moment. Not something you read or that someone else told you before. And even then, it’s wrong because they don’t really know either.

Lake Karakul, Upal, and the Karakoram Highway

December 10, 2008
by Stuart
7 Comments
10,661 views

Haulin' rug.

Haulin' rugs.

After spending time the past few days looking for someone to go to the lake with me to cut down costs, I talked the driver down to an amount that I felt was still too expensive, but I didn’t have much choice. I wanted to see the lake, so I had to pay more. The trade off was that we got to stop off a big market on Monday in Upal, and I could have the driver stop whenever I wanted to take photos.

Every kid dreams of having a donkey.

Every kid dreams of having a donkey to beat.

Before we left, the driver told me I needed to get a foreign alien travel permit from the police. Since we would be taking the Karakoram Highway that goes to the border, there would be police checkpoints along the way, and if I didn’t have that permit, we would be turned back.

Something

Shoe guy.

Funny
These guys thought it was funny to have their photo taken.

We packed up the car and headed to the police. I went in to get the permit and was told that there would be no more permits this year. I asked if someone else could help and was told that the permit guy worked long hours the day before and would be in this afternoon. I said we were leaving that morning, and after looking at the other guy in the office reading the paper with his feet up, I asked if anyone else could take care of this. Of course not.

The scarf section.

The scarf section.

The officer made some calls and said to come back in an hour. Clearly it wasn’t a matter of not giving out permits, it was just this guy didn’t want to work. When I went out and told the driver, he went in to talk to the police and was told to come back in the afternoon. So we headed back to the hotel where he said that he could get a permit from a friend for twice the price. Of course. We’re only talking another like eight bucks here, but still…

Produce

Produce guy.

Making a fresh pot of pulled noodles.

Making a fresh pot of pulled noodles.

With permit in hand, we headed to the lake stopping at the market in Upal. The driver kept referring to it the “country market” and once we got there, I could kinda see why. It was a bit smaller but just as lively. But the people were more country and less city  – it didn’t feel as shiny or commercial. The people were also nicer – some tried to talk to me, or they liked me taking photos.

This man fought the law. Not sure who won.

This man fought the law. Not sure who won.

Sheep's head stew, anybody?

Sheep's head stew, anybody?

The best part was the old vendor who was arguing with some police. He was yelling and kicking his stuff around and the police were just yelling back. He got so angry that he took off is coat (which took about 15 seconds) and grabbed the policeman’s hat and threw it. Then people gathered around and sided with the old man and turned it into a shouting match.

You gonna

You gonna by this rooster, or you all talk with a wispy beard?

After Upal we started getting into the real country side. Large farms and nothing but mud brick houses with donkey carts as the primary form of transportation. The highway soon started climbing up into the mountains, going along a dried up river bed that was quite wide. The driver said that in the spring and summer, when the snow is melting, the river is raging. Currently it was just a trickle with some wandering camels getting their bi-monthly fill up.

Heading up to the mountians.

Heading up to the mountains.

Glad this dude gave me a deal.

Our sweet ride.

The pass

The Pamir Plateau.

After about five hours of driving through the mountains and stopping to take photos, we arrived at the Karakul Lake around sunset. I walked around a bit then we headed to my host families’ house where I was welcomed with some fresh bagels and a warm bowl of yak’s-milk tea. Good stuff. Might be the only kind of tea I actually like.

Sand Mountain.

Sand Mountain.

Stuart Hill.

Me.

The house was a duplex of sorts – but both sides were just one room with clay brick floors with an elevated section for sitting and sleeping. We spent time around the stove keeping warm and communicating while the wife made dinner – rice with yak meet. After eating, we got blankets and pillows out and made beds on the elevated section and settled in as the stove’s heat began to wane. My first slumber party in years.

Mountains around Karakal Lake.

Mountains around Karakul Lake.

Early morning walk to pasture.

Taking the herd out to pasture... by way of downtown.

Getting some good thining time.

Early morning walk.

The village where I spent the night.

The village where I spent the night.

Karakul Lake had frozen over for the winter.

Karakul Lake had frozen over for the winter.

A blizzard hit us on the way back over the pass.

A blizzard hit us on the way back through the mountains.