Sunday, 29 June 2008

Day 310: Lamas and Trains and Bears, Oh my!

Okay, I know. But you see, my computer is broken, so I can't go online as much at the moment. So here's a massive update on the rest of travels and some of what has happened since then.

So, the train to Lanzhou was hell. It was a hard seat, and 24 hours. The people around us were really obnoxious and talking about us, and as soon as they relaised we speak Chinese, switched to Sichuanese, which we don't understand. Then the little girl opposite us was a horrible little girl, bullying her brother and annoying everyone on the train.

We extended our tickets to Xining, as to get back to Urumqi we had to go back to Lanzhou anyway, and we arrived in Xining mid-afternoon. We got to the hostel, and the door was locked. It was the only hostel we knew about in Xining (the capital of Qinghai (literally green sea, but as the Mongolian word for lake is like the Chinese word for sea, they used that word)), so we persisted in ringing the bell. Turns out, the door was locked because there aren't many tourists at that time of year. But they were really nice and let us stay anyway. Only problem: no water. Because it was around -20 degrees, all the pipes had frozen except for one toilet which flushed. I don't know how that worked and nothing else did, but it was really annoying.

Anyway, in Xining we did all the important bits: the Qinghai (the huge lake that the whole province is named for) which was beautiful and still frozen over - the ice was 4m deep. It was cool to walk across the huge lake, but as it was just scenery and there was nothing to do, we didn't stay long. Getting a bus back to a very long time, as you just stand by the road and wave down a bus, but the buses are very infrequent and the first bus we tried to flag didn't stop. But we made it back that evening in time for a really good dinner and an early night - being at high altitude and having been travelling for 5 weeks really takes it out of you.

The next day, we did the Kumbum monastery, famous for it's yak butter statues, which really weren't as amazing as I expected, but they were still incredible. Having seen that, we were ready to get back to Lanzhou to get the train back to Urumqi.

The train to Lanzhou was fairly uneventful, although there were loads of Tibetan people. The coolest part of Xining is seeing all the monks just walking around in their full-on monk clothes. It was quite weird, but cool.

So, we got to Lanzhou, and the plan was from there to go to the farthest west reaches of the Great Wall, see the caves at Dunhuang, and then head back to Urumqi. But by this point, we were just so physically exhausted and missed Urumqi so much we decided just to head straight back. Only problem: very end of spring festival holiday, so there were no train tickets for the next week. So we tried the bus station.

Hurrah! There was a bus to Urumqi. A sleeper bus, which is stupidly expensive, and takes a very long time: 31 hours to be exact. It should have taken around 26 or 27, but we kept making really long pointless stops. Just when it couldn't get worse, the beds are around 4'8 long. Now, I'm 5'10. This made for a very uncomfortable journey. Add to that the ice inside the window, and we were pretty miserable by the time we got back. By this time, it had been about 5 days since we'd showered, so we smelled rather unpleasant, so as soon as we got back we showered and then sat around doing nothing. It was great.

For lantern festival (the last day of Spring Festival), we went up Hongshan (red mountain) in the centre of Urumqi to look out at the city and watch all the fireworks. I took some photos, but because Urumqi's pollution in the winter is so bad, it's just a hazy glow, so I'm not putting photos on here.

A week or so later, classes started back, and it was back to normality until March 18th.

March 18th, 10:30pm local time, I went to the airport. To collect Nicki (my high school classmate and second year flatmate, also a fellow Invernesian). It was really weird to be in China with her, but it was totally awesome. We did the full tour of Urumqi, including places I'd never been to due to lack of motivation. We ate every type of food you can buy in this city, and we went to the Heavenly Lake.

The Heavenly Lake is astounding. We walked up to the lake from the car park, which took around an hour, and was amazing. It was so quiet and peaceful, the air was so clean you could actually taste it, and there were no people to be seen for the whole walk up. I personally think the walk is better than the lake itself (not that the lake wasn't amazingly beautiful). For someone who had just come from the UK, it was probably nice and all, but for someone who has lived in a grey polluted city for 7 months, it was amazing.

Wow this is an abridged version of events.

So after Nicki left, nothing interesting happened until the end of April, when Nikki and I went travelling once again. But I'll tell you about that in the next post, because I remember it more clearly and can post some photos. And also, a lot happened on that trip.

So until next time...

Friday, 9 May 2008

Day 260


MAI BIRFDEE! We had booked onto the panda tour at the hostel, to be collected at 7:40am, so by 7:30am I was ready and downstairs, feeling considerably better, but still not perfect. We were promptly directed onto the bus to the pandas, and 30 minutes later, we arrived. We had to be back at the bus by 10:30, other than that we were free to do as we pleased. So we went straight for the baby pandas (naturally), which were at the back, planning to get there before everyone else and then work our way back towards the entrance, stopping for some tat before getting on the bus.

But when we got to the baby pandas, there was nothing to see. They were all still asleep indoors. We were slightly disappointed, so we followed signs for the 'teenage' pandas, and were once again disappointed. We wandered around the various panda enclosures for a bit, seeing nothing. But then suddenly out of the blue, we saw one! A real one! An adult, asleep, but still, a real panda! We walked around the enclosure and a few others, seeing more and more pandas (clearly, they were having a lie in that day, normally they're active between 8am and 10am). After watching the babies playing for rather too long, we searched for the place to hold one. Right next to where we were.

But before I tell you about that, watch this:

We forked over vast amounts of money (1000 each) and donned sexy blue smocks, gloves and shoe covers, and waited for our panda to be brought in from outside. And it was well worth the wait:

Happier than words can express, we wandered around and saw lots more pandas, red pandas (cute, but slightly sinister - I think they're plotting something) and bought lots of tat (t-shirts, stuffed pandas, pens etc.)

From this point, I'm going to summarise everything we did, because I didn't write a travel journal for this part, and also it will bring me up to date quicker.

We went to the train station to get tickets for the next day to Chongqing, where the queues were phenomenal. You probably heard about the big snow that hit China this year - it brought down the Beijing-Guangzhou rail line completely, which is THE North-South train route in China (not the only, that is, I mean the most important). Which meant the trains were in chaos. Add to that Spring Festival (when everyone and his dog takes the train home) and you have a mess. Fortunately, the queues to get into the train station were only for non-foreign people, so we skipped through those and followed the nice people who let us past until we got to a different section of the ticket office, where we saw another white person pushing through a crowd and being let in to the hall. So we pretended to be with him, and chased him. Then we joined the queue adjacent, when he told us to join his queue. We got talking to him, and it turns out he was trying to get back to Yantai (where one of our teachers and some of our friends used to live), while his girlfriend was buying tickets for her parents back to Urumqi. Oh, and he went to our university, knows some of our teachers and lived around the corner from Nikki. Small world.

After tickets, we can't have done anything important, because I don't remember what we did. In the evening, we got all dolled up for a night out on the tiles. We went to an Irish bar that had come recommended in various places, and had a couple of drinks. However, after 2 drinks, our age started showing, and we were both just tired and needing our bed, so by midnight we were on the way back to the hostel, wondering how one goes about applying for a bus pass.

The following day, we were off to Chongqing, which experience. We got there and went to buy our tickets to our next stop, and had to wait outside the ticket office for ages, the whole time the two of us thinking that this wasn't where we got the tickets we wanted (it was Chongqing's North Station, and we wanted to go North, but China's weird like that), but we hung around anyway, and made sure we got in first, where we were sent to another station to buy tickets.

The central station was chaos. People EVERYWHERE all in huge queues. We found what we assumed to be the ticket office, and noticed the people sitting on the floor waiting. We wondered why they were sitting at first, but it wasn't long until we found out. Did you hear about the riots in Chongqing at Carrefour, when Carrefour had reduced price oil? And people died? Yeah, well, Carrefour weren't to blame. After a short while of waiting, suddenly everyone got up and surged forwards, in the same way that all Chinese people do when barriers open. But the barriers hadn't opened. They were just charging forward shouting and generally war-crying. Then it turned nasty, and people started using their arms, legs, heads and little plastic stools to beat everyone else around the head. At this point, Nikki and I rather swiftly got to a safe vantage point, and watched the carnage. In the end, it took 18 guards plus police back up to control 3 queues. They had to physically drag people apart, and when they tried to make the queuers sit down again, they had to resort to hitting them with truncheons to make them comply. It was quite scary actually. Especially when you realised that no one was safe - little old ladies were coming out with blood pouring down their faces and things.

Nikki went to look at another ticket-y bit to find out if we were indeed at the right bit, as everyone around us seemed to be heading south, and as soon as she got up, a woman from another queue tried to muscle in on her spot, but she was quickly dealt with. Turns out, we were in the wrong queue, so we went to join the right queue. By this point, we were quite sure that Chongqing people were in fact worse than small children, in fact, worse than animals. Add to that the constant staring, pointing and laughing at us, and you make for a not very happy Liam and Nikki. While queueing in the correct queue (where the people didn't riot, but they did still find it necessary to stare, point and laugh (which just makes us do it back (which then makes them annoyed, but if you can do it to us...))), a man approached us and started to speak to us. Wonderful, we think, another "I can practise my English on you?" But no, he was nice, and informed us that the ticket office didn't open until 7am the next day. This was sometime around 5-6pm. So we decided we would go back to Chengdu if we could, or to anywhere there were tickets and get out of there, because it looked like we never would otherwise. So we went back to the North Station and got tickets back to Chengdu for the next day, and then went to the find the Hostelling International place.

All this led to a not so great first impression of Chongqing. We were in foul moods and craved a little western, so went to the "Liberation Monument" (complete with Rolex clocks, and surrounded by Armani, Gucci, Starbucks, Rolex shop etc. (they're SO BAD at communism in China)). We wandered around for a while, searching for some western, and managed to not find it for really quite some time. Eventually, we ended up back where we started, and realised we'd started next to Starbucks, so we went and had coffee (real) and cake (also real). Our mood slightly improved, we went home to bed.

The next day, we got the train back to Chengdu and bought tickets to Lanzhou (a breeze (relatively)), and checked back into the same hostel for a night, and dossed about a lot. It's a shame we didn't get to see much of Chongqing, but from what we saw (lots of big grey buildings, pollution and not the nicest people), we don't know how much of a shame it actually is. Anyone who has good stories about Chongqing is welcome to share them.

As if you needed more proof that China is bad at communism - here is Mao, next to a huge department store, Starbucks, McDonalds etc.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Day 248 - Another long overdue update (I'll get better, I promise)

DAY 26 - XI'AN 西安 => LESHAN 乐山

In the morning, two incredibly irritating girls disturbed our technique to stave off boredom - sleep. They were screaming, running back and fore and constantly shouting mispronunciations of "mother," "father" and "sister." I was ready to throttle them. They were 20 as well.

On arrival in Chengdu, we didn't go and get tickets for our next stop (le gasp) - we got straight in a taxi to the bus station to do the trip to Leshan. Buses run pretty constantly, so we got one pretty much straight away. The journey was painless and uninteresting, although we did have a brilliant film about a guy that worked at Pizza Hut who was in love with a girl whose office he delivered pizzas to. Really cheesy, and made by China Mobile and NEC.

When we got to Leshan, my heart sank. It looked rather too much like Tangkou for my liking. We walked a little away from the people at the station ("Where are you going?" "Taxi!") and headed towards where we assumed the centre was, but due to heavy bags and things, we got in a taxi. We had no idea what to tell him, so Nikki asked him to go straight on, then that we were going to a hotel. He took us to a Lonely Planet recommended hotel, advertising standard rooms for 230. We didn't know what to do - that was far too expensive. At this point, the lady behind the reception desk informed us there were discounts - 120. Much better. We dumped our stuff and went pretty much straight out to see the Giant Buddha, 71m tall carved/built into the cliff of Leshan where three rivers meet. The story goes that that part of the rivers was really dangerous, so the built a giant Buddha to protect the mariners. There was nice scenery and things, although it was quite misty so you couldn't see far. We joined the queue to get the foot of the Buddha, which moved at a glacial pace and was full of people who felt the need to comment on our whiteness and giant noses. Rather annoying.

After taking photos and things, we decided to head home (the park was about to close and that was all that we had come to see - I couldn't cope with the thought of yet another temple). We walked along the road the bus went and ended up walking the whole way home. Not so bad actually it wasn't that far. We wanted to go to the recommended restaurant. When we got there, they had no tables. But then, it wasn't actually a restaurant, so no surprise there. It was a little side bit on the second floor of a hotel with some large group tables which were all taken apparently. It was also really far away and quite hard to find. It was on 嘉定中路, number 289. Which one would assume is near 嘉定南路 number 200, but no. When 南 (South) becomes 中 (Middle), the numbers go back to zero. We had some awesome kebabs though, some from a Uyghur guy from Kashgar(!). We saw some food places by the hotel, so we went to go there, but none of them could be bothered to cook two dishes and some rice. This is not an annoyed comment, they actually said this to each other in Chinese.

So we went to a kebab place just around the corner, where we had beef, mutton and rabbit (never had it before, 'twas rather nice actually). And I had a random bird which may have ben pigeon, which was far too much hassle to eat. The kebabs shrunk in the cooking process quite considerably, so they weren't enough, so we got more to go. Which included a bug one for Nikki (that's not a typo, that does say bug). And I ate a bug. It was alright actually, bit crunchy with pokey legs and feelers. Full of bug (and real food), we went to bed ready for a good night's sleep (haha).

(apologies for the darkness of the video, here's a photo of what I was eating (oh, and excuse the really bad hat hair))


Up bright and early (thanks to a delightful rooster just outside) and ready and packed, we checked out, left our bags with reception and got the bus to the 东方佛都 (Oriental Buddha Capital). We got the same bus out as the day before (it was very near the Giant Buddha), and once again the first bus that came said he didn't go that way. Well, he might have, he said 'no' (in English) and shook his head ambiguously.

We got there, saw the longest reclining Buddha in the world (which is a cheat - they carved the head and the feet, but not the middle - it's just a big blob of trees), and climbed far too many steps to see reproductions of major Buddhist sites from across Asia reproduced here (some bigger than the originals). Knackered, we got the bus back to the hostel to pick up our bags and go to the station, but not before getting still more kebabs (every single thing we ate in Leshan came on a stick) and some of the most amazing fruit in the history of time. No, really.

The bus back to Chengdu was equally uneventful (although there was a 老外(foreigner) on the bus), but on getting off the bus we got rather annoyed that all Chinese bus and train stations (with one or two exceptions) are on the outside of town, almost as if to let their rip-off merchants taxi drivers make more money. We were offered 30 to our destination, but I won't get in taxis to unknown destinations for fixed prices (been stung for that before). We flagged one on the street outside, and he got us to our hostel for 30 exactly. The amusing thing was, as we walked away from the guy offering the fixed 30, he changed his price - up. First 40, then 50 and then 60. Fool. In English though, so maybe he doesn't know the numbers?

We checked into officially the cheapest hostel in Chengdu (Mix Hostel - if you go to Chengdu, stay there), and the cheapest hostel we've been to in China (including dodgy operating basically outside the law guesthouses (fear not family, they're not dodgy enough to be classed as unsafe, they just don't bother reporting foreigners that stay there which is required by Chinese law)) (15 a night), dumped our things and booked tickets for the world famous Sichuan Opera. We got a taxi to a recommended restaurant (we wanted the quintessential Sichuan dining experience, given that Sichuan food is world famous (Sze-chuan to those who use Wade-Giles romanization). But said restaurant didn't exist any more, so we went to a different one, where the food was average and the service poor. The rice had only just arrived when we had to pay and leave so as to not be late for the opera, and not once did we get our tea refilled (to be fair, the manager did shout at one of the waitresses for ignoring us).

We got in the car to the opera and got talking to an American girl from California called Claire, who's a teacher in Shanghai. And then she said the one line I hear far too often from Americans: "Oh, I'm British too!" But this one actually was - born and raised in The Big Smoke 'til the age of 9, then the US 'til 14. Not sure what came after.

The opera was quite good, but the other bits didn't please me quite so much - puppets, erhu playing (to be fair, he was really good, but I'm not a huge fan), shadow puppets (utterly bizarre) and some minor acrobating.

The famous face changing is great, and while I think I've worked out the secret, I'm not convinced and have no way of finding out, as it's a state secret in China, and only 300 people know how it's done.

After the opera, we just went to bed for a rather disturbed sleep thanks to our charming fellow travellers.


In the morning, after a truly awful shower with pressure ranging from painful to drip and temperature from scalding to ice, I had some toast and awaited Nikki. Then, we walked to the Wenshu Monastery. Or rather, we tried to. But the directions from the girl at the hostel were rather vague (apparently they make sense to women and not men) and we ended up walking in the exact opposite direction for rather too long. We eventually turned round and walked back the other way, stopping to get Nikki some sugar cane. I had heard you can eat sugar cane, but had never tried it. I say eat, you don't actually eat in, you chew it then spit it out. It's not that great, it's got the texture of chewing on a branch (unsurprisingly) and not much of a flavour.

We found the monastery and the folk street it's on, and it was mobbed. It was one of the days of Spring Festival (which lasts for 15 days, not just the one like western New Year) when you are supposed to go to the temple and pray. We were somewhat bored of temples, so we had a wander through the grounds and the nice garden and then found the teahouse inside and sat there for quite some time. They say that in a Sichuan teahouse, time slows down. It kind of did actually. I drank lots of tea to see if it would make me feel any less unwell (I was starting to feel slightly ill you see). It didn't. After a walk around the grounds, we explored part of the Folk Street, which was old and full of tat and (surprisingly) Uyghurs selling Xinjiang style kebabs (although they were completely different to kebabs in Xinjiang).

We headed to the Cultural Park to see a Taoist temple "in the grounds," which is Guidebook for "outside the grounds." We found it, and as it was the first Taoist temple we'd seen, I was quite interested to see what it would be like. For those who haven't been, imagine a Buddhist temple but with different statues. Seriously. There are no other differences. Disappointed in that, we went to Dufu's cottage (Dufu was a poet in olden days who lived in a cottage in Chengdu for 5 years, and said cottage has been preserved and turned into a tourist attraction).

But just before we went into the cottage grounds, lots of boys in tarzan-esque costumes came out and performed a bad dance out of time to bad music. It was quite amusing to watch. I got given a red dangly new year thing with money on it, and a cow gave me a card saying 2008 - Ox (which it's not, it's Rat this year). Anyway, we critiqued lots of calligraphy (Chinese calligraphy largely looks scrappy and sometimes just plain illegible)., saw his cottage and it's really rather nice grounds (lots of green, the first real growing bamboo I'd seen and things), posed where Mao did then headed back to the hostel for a short relax.

Around dinner time, we decided to eat at the hostel, so we looked at the menu, but nothing appealed at all. So we went out, and found a restaurant called 老妈兔头 (old mother rabbit head) where the waitress very helpfully asked in English if we could speak China. At first, I thought she said cello. Fortunately, Nikki was slightly more logical and worked out what she was asking. We said yes, and ordered. First, a fried seasonal vegetable dish, some kind of meat strips and 鱼香茄子 (which translates to Fish Fragrant Aubergine, but isn't actually fish at all), all of which should be straightforward enough. But oh no. For the seasonal vegetable, we had a choice, but the choices were fired off at such speed I have no idea what they were. Eventually, she went to the kitchen and brought out some identical looking leaves (the difference was in one hand she had one leaf and in the other hand a bunch of them), so we picked one. Then did we want big or small bowls of rice. She was still going at great speed, so Nikki asked her to go slower, when the waitress got really embarassed and apologised a lot, and then carried on as before.

By this point, I was feeling even more rubbish, so I picked at some aubergine and we headed home to bed, praying I'd feel better for the pandas the next day. We had pegged feeling rubbish on exhaustion (4 weeks constantly moving, less fun than you'd think), and some sleep and a slower next day should see me right.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Day 229 - Long overdue next installment of travels :)


DAY 21 - WUHAN武汉 => XI'AN西安

As per usual we went to the train station first to dump our bags (I wonder how much we spent on left luggage?), then got a taxi to the Yellow Crane Tower. One driver offered to take us for 100, then lowered his price to 90. There's one price he could shove. We walked away from the train station a bit, and waited for a free even-numbered taxi (there is a restriction on which cars can use which bridges on which days in Wuhan). After about a million hours, we got one (for 25).

We decided we could do this one slowly (which was quite hard, I got too used to Speed Tourism(tm)), so we wandered around slowly, seeing pavilion after pavilion. We saw a stele featuring 2 of Mao's poems, and his "calligraphy," which looks like it was done by a blind person with their feet. Truly awful. But of course, it was Mao, so everyone had to tell him it was good.

We saw lots of things, including the Yellow Crane Tower, which had an exhibit showing it through the ages, and the current one looks nothing like the first one. Suddenly, it was 4:30, and it closed at 5:30, and I wanted to go to the little shop where they painted a picture using the characters of your name. But it was closed when we got there :( On our way, a Chinese girl who was sitting on the grass with her boyfriend ran over and asked "Can I help you? Thank you!" And gave me her camera. We wondered how long they'd sat there waiting.

Having seen all of that, we got a bus to where we had seen Starbucks (oops). But annoyingly, it didn't open until the following day. Rude. So we went into Theatre, a supermarket with loads of imported goods. Including spray deodorant (!!!). So we bought rather a lot. There were two streets we wanted to see at night, but we were both tired and not in the mood, so we just went to the train station to wait for our 10:12pm train. We got talking to a group of Chinese people, who kept telling me my Chinese was better than Nikki's, which I hate. I never know what to say. Eventually, they went on their way, and we waited. And waited. And waited. Nikki went to check the big sign to see if we were in the right room, as our train hadn't appeared on the screens above any of the gate at 9:40 (they let you on to the platform around 20 minutes before the train, and get you to queue a fair bit before that). Then I went a little later, and the signs had changed to 晚点:2302 (Late: 23:02). Poo. We waited some more. And more. The Chinese guy opposite clearly understood everything we said, given away by his laughing at my jokes (which I like, because my jokes are rubbish and really not worth laughing at). At 00:15, we finally got on the train. Nikki and I were separated (Nikki in car 16, me in 12). While on the platform, the Chinese guy starting talking to us in English, proving he did understand. He asked which bit of the train we would be in, and I said 12. So was he. He asked which bed I was in, so I said 18上, he was in 19中. Someone to talk to! But no, there's a wall between 18 and 19. So I just went to sleep until the morning. Exciting.

DAY 22 - XI'AN 西安

In the morning, nothing happened. Once we got off the train, we went for tickets (just for a change), but this time wasn't a simple as one might think. I saw a sign above a door that said 售票厅 (ticket hall), so we headed for it. But part way there, we were stopped by a guyard who asked for our tickets. We didn't have any as yet, obviously. So he very helpfully told us in English that this was a train station. So we had to go back the way we'd come and around a bit market-y bit to get to the ticket office (as he said we weren't allowed to go the way we were going for whatever reason - this is China, you learn to accept these things).

Tickets to Chengdu in hand, we went to get a taxi to the hostel. But at the taxi rank, none of the taxis sitting there empty would take us. But I knew that the hostel was right next to 钟楼(the Bell Tower), so we got a bus there. And found the hostel quite easily. We checked into a 10 bed dorm (hurrah for YHA card, it ended up really cheap :D). I gave them some laundry, and we went to the Muslim quarter. By quarter, I mean one street. Whilst waiting for Nikki, I stuffed my face, as I was bored. So we got to the Muslim bit (which Catherine would absolutely love) and wandered about, realising this was a prime location for procuring tat. Then, we went for food. We decided to try a local delicacy (which we had read about in our reading textbook actually) - 羊肉泡馍 (Mutton boiled flatbread), which was as good as the book said. The portions were huge though. It's basically a big soup with mutton, noodley things and torn up naan in it. Whilst in the restaurant run by the butchest woman in China, we had a bottle of amazing orange stuff, which is sold only in Xi'an, and is essentially orange coloured fizzy sugar water. Nummy.

Quite tired, we just went home and went to bed, planning to get up early and see lots of sights.

DAY 23 - XI'AN 西安

I got up at the crack of 7:30 and showered and got ready to go and see the world famous Terracotta Warriors 秦始皇兵马俑. Nikki slept in a bit, so I checked internet, had terst (toast for those not from Hull) and pretended to write some diary before waking her. We got the bus to the warriors, and battled our way through people telling us a guide was necessary as there were so many 'relics.' Pit 2 was closed, so we saw pits 1 and 3 and saw some exhibitions, one of which had some truly brilliant propaganda. It was amazing how good these things were, considering they were made over 2000 years ago and then lived underground before being accidentally discovered by some farmers digging a well. I would post photos, but see below. Having seen it all, we went to get the bus back to Xi'an, where we bumped into Zack (a guy from Guam who was in our dorm). On the bus, we then saw Lucy and Heidi, two Australian girls from our dorm. Weird.

The bus arrived at its terminus, the train station, where we tried to get a bus to 南门 (the South Gate), but the only gate south we could see was 和平门 (Gate of Peace), so we got that. Then walked through a tourist trap that was actually quite nice and on the way to the 南门. We climbedthe gate and looked around a bit. The views from there are meant to be the best, but all I saw was tall buildings, industry and an expressway.

We headed for the Bell Tower, in order that we might climb it, but it close as we got there (literally, the people one in front of us in the queue got tickets, we didn't) on account of it being New Year's Eve. Slightly disappointed but also quite tired, we went back to the hostel and had some dinner, then showered and got ready to celebrate New Year. Which meant Clean, Nice Clothes and No Hat (!). We went and sat with the Dutch girl from our dorm and had some coktails. 长岛冰茶 (Long Island Iced Tea) nice, XYZ not. We moved to sit with a big group and chatted a bit. We had asked the people in the hostel what was happening to mark the New Year, and we were told we could go to KTV maybe. Not a good sign. After a bit, we went to a club caled Salsa. They had dancers on a glass stage, and some brilliant western music to which we boogied a bit. Some of the people we were with were somewhat undesirable (smoking hash in the club, shouting at the non-English-speaking staff in English, refusing to let people take a chair we weren't using etc.), so we left them and sat with a Chinese guy who had lived in South Africa and was really, really sweaty due to his very enthusiastic dancing (which stopped only to take a swig from his drink). He was really nice, and bought us all a round of weird drinks (I'd seen all night people getting champagne style buckets with sparklers and weird blue and pink drinks in really long stemmed champagne glasses).

Around 2, I was tired so I headed back (via McDonalds (not called Maccas (and not nice either, not sure why I went)). Whilst there, Nikki and the Dutch girl (I wish I could remember her name) caught me up and we walked back together. Heidi came back just afer us, and Lucy was already there. They proceeded to very loudly discuss their nights and their need (mostly Heidi's actually) for "Maccas." They went as far as sticking a note on the door for Zack telling him not to come in without McDonalds. But he never did come back. The poor Korean guy in our dorm must have been getting really annoyed (after spending the new year on his own in the dorm) at the noise, as he was leaving that morning.

DAY 24 - XI'AN (春节 (spring festival, Chinese new year))

So, as we were slightly tired and thirsty, we got up later than normal and got ready. Breakfast at the hostel, where we saw Renée who hadn't yet been to bed as someone else was in it and he had her key, so she couldn't kick him out. Once everyone (us two, the Dutch girl and Heidi & Lucy) were ready (and we've given them yet more laundry), the Dutch girl, Nikki and I went out (Heidi and Lucy were AWOL). Nikki saw some people doing portraits and wanted one, so sat down. Several times the police came, so everyone ran, and Nikki was moved to a corner by a shop. I do always wonder why the police don't let people sell stuff on the streets.

While she was having her picture done, the Dutch girl and I went to get takeout 星巴克. Whilst there, we bumped into Heidi and Lucy who were getting sit-in 星巴克. We went back to Nikki and when she was done, we joined Heidi and Lucy, where we said we were going to go to the Big Goose Pagoda, because at the hostel they had said if anything were going to happen, it would happen there. So we all went to the Muslim bit to buy tat. But I had no intention of buying tat to take it to the pagoda and then back, so after one (painfully slow) tour, we went to find the bus to the pagoda. The bus took us to a big square next to the temple, where, surprise surprise, nothing was happening. We wandered slowly to the entrance of the temple, climbed the pagoda, and then as it was clear Heidi and Lucy didn't want to be there and were annoying us, we went to get the bus to 南门 in case something was happening there (they had built a big stage there, so we hoped something was going to happen). But of course, nothing. So we went back to the hostel and dossed about. We told the Dutch girl everything we knew about places in China to go (as she had no travel route yet for the rest of her trip), and then just went to bed. The whole day was quite the disappointment really.

DAY 25 - XI'AN 西安 => LESHAN 乐山

We had arranged massages for 10am, so we got up quite early and packed ready to check out before our massage. Whilst packing, I organised my things and went to put my wallet, translator, student card and camera into the small bag I use and realised I couldn't find my camera. I checked downstairs and it wasn't there. I thought about it, and came to realiseit had ben stolen on the bus from the Big Goose Pagoda to the South Gate by the horrible old (Han) man who was next to me. I was half raging and half gutted, it had over 700 photos from our travels on it. As I was waiting for Nikki, I went downstairs for breakfast. She has a lot of the same photos as me, which is alright, but some are unreplaceable (posing with a Shaolin monk for example).

When we checked out, about 98436189314897 people on a tour were checking in,s-l-o-w-l-y, and Nikki had to go and tell the massage man we'd be there in a minute (he was waiting for us outside - if we booked through the hostel, he'd only get 50% of the price, so we weren't to tell the hostel). We eventually checked out, put our stuff in the luggage room and went to the massage place. The massage was typically Chinese - fully dressed and not at all relaxing (in fact, painful at times). Afterwards, the woman asked if I wanted to try any other treatments, and I said no. Then they said I could try cupping for free. So I did. Ow. But then, not ow. It was a bizarre feeling, and my back had little round bruises all over it for about a week.

After the massage, we went to buy me a new camera. I wanted a 2GB to go with it to replace the 2GB one I'd lost, but it was hugely more expensive than the same card in the same shop in Urumqi, so I just got the one that came with the camera. New camera in hand, we went to Starbucks for breakfast. We'd checked everything off our Xi'An list except buying tat, so we figured we could take the day easy. After coffee and cake, I went to buy tat, but Nikki couldn't be bothered moving and I was hoping to make the post office, so I went alone. I managed to get a fair bit (bartering was so boring - I was willing to pay the prices they said first time. I obviously still bartered a little, but it hardly seemed worth it), then went back to Starbucks to find Nikki, who wasn't there. So I went back to the hostel, and found her. She wanted to buy tat, so we went back around, and bought a little more. We had no time for dinner before our train, so we got some street food and jumped in a taxi to the train station.

We got on the train and went to go to sleep. We talked a lot, and they turned all the lights off at 9:30 (really early for a train). After a bit, a girl came up to us and said, "Please sleep quickly." Confused. Nikki (after several attempts by this girl) asked her to say it in Chinese, and then we found out the guard had asked her to tell us to keep it down, as other people were trying to sleep (now, if only they'd say that to the Chinese people who sit shouting at each other (just holding a conversation - Chinese men seem to have one volume setting - L.O.U.D.) until 3am.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Day 185: Episode 5


What a terribly mafan day. In the morning, we got up and got the bus to Yanzhou (for the nearest train station), but tickets to Zhengzhou were sold out. So we got the 15 minute base back to Qufu to get the bus, but there were no buses. So we went to the train ticket place across the road to get tickets for Wuhan. But they had none. But Ms Simpleton said they had tickets for Zhengzhou, which was exciting. But she was wrong. So we went to the bus station again to try for tickets to Zhengzhou, but from another woman. Which she sold us. We weren't convinced the first woman had properly checked, and it turns out she hadn't. Shortly after, we were told the bus had broken down, we had to return or change the tickets. There were no buses to Wuhan either, on account of the huge snow storms that affected the south of China. But there was a bus to Jining, and from there you could get a bus to Zhengzhou. So we did that. BUT at Jining, she told us there were no tickets to Zhengzhou. But her colleague informed her there were. The incompetence of the staff in Chinese transport will never cease to astound me. Anyway. Finally, we were on our way. On the emptiest bus in the history of time. Full sized coach, there were us and two others. After a while, we pulled over in a little village and picked up 6 migrant workers. The journey was unevenftul, although at one point I was listening to my music with my eyes closed and the driver suddenly blasted music REALLY loudly, scaring the youknowwhat out of me.

At one point, we left the highway and went through some small villages which were really poor. The people were everywhere and the driver had to sit on the horn to get anywhere. It made me feel quite guilty to see their way of life, but then I thought they wouldn't want pity or anything, they were just trying to earn enough to get by. On the doors, they had hung an upside down 福 (the pronunciation of 'upside down fu') sounds the same as 'bringing fortune'), which I thought was sad - where a lot of people do it for tradition, and businessmen do it in hope of a good next year, these people were hoping for their old hut to stand another year, and for no water-borne illnesses to take their family. And I know some people say it's interesting to see these places because it's 'authentic' and not like all the other 'boring cities,' which I think is a horrible attitude, as these people were (largely) desperate to not be there any more.

Eventually, we arrived at Zhengzhou, and after getting quite lost, we got a taxi about ten yards down the road to the Home Inn (如家), which was amazing for 179 for a twin room. We had dinner in the restaurant, where Nikki was told off for taking photos of the amazing duck dish (with little crispy pancakeyish things that had a character for double-happiness (a traditional wedding thing) on them). Then shower and bed, ready for seeing the monks the next day.


Another rather uneventful day. Rather too many of these. The original plan was to go and buy tickets to Luoyang then go to the Shaolin temple and get back to take the train, but we decided to take the next train to Luoyang. But we decided to take the next train to Luoyang, see the Longmen caves then take the bus from Luoyang to Shaolin temple the next day. However, the next train was at 1:38pm. So we got that, had lunch then got the train, which was PACKED. And I mean that quite literally, even busier than the Christmas when the fog grounded all the planes in the UK. People also kept talking about the laowai (foreigners), which really boils my blood because they're just so rude, and talk about us, justifying it with "they don't understand." Well actually, we do. SO we tell them. After two hours and the loss of feeling in one arm, we finally arrived, which was a huge relief. I've never been so close with strangers.

We took a taxi to the hostel after buying tickets for Wuhan, but by this point it was too late to do anything, so we discussed the rest of our route (the joys of speed-tourism: CONSTANT map, book and internet checking to see where you have time to go), adjusted it (for timing, naturally), and went to find food. It seems nearly EVERYWHERE in Luoyang is a hotpot restaurant, but eventually we found one that wasn't. While hotpot is nice, I'm not a huge fan, as I always leave feeling still hungry, and it's really expensive for what you get (not if there's of people, but when there's only two of you...).

We've also recently learnt that young children in China like firecrackers even more than teenagers in the UK like fireworks and vodka. Lovely.

We half-heartedly looked for an internet placey, but not finding one we just went home, where we saw two computers. But they were broken apparently. So we decided to do our internet things the next day.


Today, we got up at a reasonable time, for once. We got ready quickly, despite an awful night's sleep and went to the bus station to get the bus to the Shaolin Temple. We tried to get a taxi and the driver (a woman, as they ALL seem to be in Luoyang) told us to walk. Quite grateful really, it was really close. We ignored the people shouting "Hello! Hello! Shaolin!" and went to get a real bus. But the woman in the ticket office told us to get in one of the horrible buses. So we did.

They tried to charge us 100 each, but we got it for 50 return in the end. As there were few tourists they have to charge more you see. After a bit, they realised there would only be three people, so we were put on a bus headed for Xuchang. We suspected we'd be dropped off miles away, and the bus was a frightful bore, with the woman in front of Nikki vomiting out of the window rather more frequently than is normal for a healthy person.

Eventually, we got there, aware of having been ripped off (everyone else on the bus had paid around 6-15 kuai (but to other places, not Shaolin)), and also thinking we would have to pay more to get back. Ah well, we went to get tickets after Nikki went to the little girls' room, which meant I got talked at by random people trying to sell me tickets and telling me I don't understand. After a fashion, we got our tickets and went to see the monks. Along the road were some brilliant Chinglish signs, so we took lots of photos of those.

Then, the temple. Which was a lot like any other temple really, just with a lot more monks walking around. After the temple and having our photo taken with a random Chinese man, we saw the forest of pagodas. There's something like 600+ pagodas, each one with the ashes of a notable monk, except for the "common pagoda" which is for the non-notable monks. We saw lots of them, including the common one and the first one. We wanted to eat before the show, so scarpered towards the restaurant where one is served by monks. No idea where it was though. We tried at the entrance bit, but we couldn't go out and back in. But there's a restaurant right where the show was, so we went there. It was 1:30 by the time we got there, so we bought postcards and t-shirts (the shame!) before the show at 2. What these monks can do is stupid. One threw a needle through a pane of glass and popped a balloon. One put the tips of spears on his throat and pushed against them hard enough to bend the handles, and another put two metal rods together and smashed them in half with his head. Which led us to wonder what would happen if someone tried to mug them.

After the show, we ate at a not vegetarian restaurant where the staff were not monks. Disappointing. But before eating we had a photo taken with a monk, which made it better.

We got the bus back to Luoyang at 4 (and yes we did have to pay - 15), and went to search for an internet placey, which we actually did this time. After that, we went to Carrefour to buy decent food for the train the next day (i.e. not chicken feet or pickled eggs). And they had real French bread. It was AMAZING. How I miss real bread.

After getting home, we had the worst night's sleep EVER (for me at least). A weird squealing noise kept coming from either the next room or in the walls. All night, at random intervals. It sounded like furniture being moved. Added to that, I woke up with a splitting headache, which made for a less than fun...


God what a crappy day. We grudgingly got up and got ready, feeling like death. We had hoped to go out between 8 and 8:30, but didn't make it out 'til 9. We dumped our bags at the train station and got a stupidly expensive taxi to the Longmen caves. The taxi driver kept pointing things out, like huge residential complexes, saying they were pretty. Bit of an eyesore if you ask me.

We were worried about time, as our train wa at 1:40pm, but the caves don't take up that big an area, inspite of there being around 2300, not counting niches (9000ish). So having finished quite quickly, in spite of exhaustion, we got a stupidly expensive taxi to the White Horse Temple, the first Buddhist temple in China. Turns out, it's actually not in Luoyang, but a nearby town named after the temple. It was rather like every other temple actually, and the current one is all new (relatively - it was rebuilt in the Tang dynasty).

Having seen that, we got back in the taxi to get the very uneventful train to Wuhan. I had expected it to be like the train to Luoyang, but it was relatively quiet. We had no seats, but we found a bit by the train door behind one of the doors at the end of the carriages, so it was quite private. We got constant stares, just for a change, and considered hanging something over the glass and charging 2 kuai a look. We'd be filthy rich if we had.

Eventually, we got to Wuhan, jumped in a taxi to the hostel, and went to bed. The hostel was run by a British guy and a possibly Swedish girl. The British guy was telling us about how when he went to get his Chinese visa, he ook his old passport as it had a previous Chinese visa, which they might have wanted to see. When he got the two passports back, they had stapled them together. How typical.

Friday, 22 February 2008

DAY 183: Episode 4

DAY 13 - HARBIN => CHANGCHUN => SHENYANG => DALIAN (or, the day of three provinces)

This was a rather dull day really. We got an early train to Changchun, had lunch in "Favourite Land," and a short time later we got on the train to Shenyang, where we did nothing much really, but we did buy noodles, which ended up going rather farther than expected. The noodles were because our journey was 8 hours, and there's a law in China that you're not allowed to get on a train without instant noodles. But actually, our train journey ended up being only 4 hours and 9 minutes. It was a nice train too, soft seater, which we had never done before.

On arrival at stupid pm in Dalian, we got in a taxi to the Jinjiang inn, and slept rather a lot. In a rather comfortable bed. Not that expensive, and really classy. Brilliant.


So, the day I had been dreading had arrived. It's also another day where basically nothing happened. We got up, got a cab to the ferry port and chatted loads to the driver, who showed us nice bits of Dalian. We bought our tickets for the ferry (which I assumed was the 3.5 hour one), had some lunch and killed some time (read: stalled) for a bit, then went to the waiting room. After a bit, we were put on a bus with the other 10 passengers, which led me to fear that we were going to be on a really small boat. We drove about 700 miles to the boat, when I was relieved to see it was a real boat. With about 3496873946791387698 people on it. We went to find out seats in the seating room, but there were none left. We were in seats 5 and 6, but the actual seats had no numbers on them. And they were all taken anyway. And not a single person in the room did not STARE. In a really obnoxious way. It was hardcore gawking and laughing at us. I'm quite used to staring, having been in China for 6 months now, but this was in a league of it's own, and was probably the worst I'd had up until that point.

So as we had nowhere to sit, we decided to sit in the corridor. Have you ever heard the stories about how the Chinese over fill their boats and they sink? Well, this one was quite full. Didn't sink, but was definitely overfull. At one point, this guy came up to me and just started blabbing (would a 'hello' or an 'excuse me' have hurt? Maybe not in China, but in the west we tend to start conversations with strangers with something other than just...mid-conversation), and as I hadn't been aware that he was talking, I didn't respond, and he assumed I didn't understand. Which annoyed me.

Well, as I really REALLY don't like boats, I just got stuck into my book (100 Years of Solitude by Gael Garcia Marquez - one of the best books in the history of time - read it).

Anyway, at just after 9pm we finally arrived in Yantai, and took the free bus to town, from where we took a taxi to the youth hostel and went to bed. There's rather a lot of posts where that features multople times.


Finally, a day we did things! Firstly, we went to buy train tickets and put our bags in left luggage, which was not the most exciting thing we did by far. Then we wandered around looking for Korean food, as we had heard that the Korean food in Yantai is some of the best in China, on account of all the ethnic Koreans there.

But after an hour, no joy. How bizarre. So we ate at a random Chinese place, where the waitress pointed out the western food, which I quite frankly did not want. We each go a set meal, mine Chicken Curry, Nikki's some kind of beef. We also ordered some Oolong tea, which was marvelous. Our food came as the main thing, rice, soup, kimchee-esque stuff, a green leafy veg in gravy and a weird yellow-ish substance. It had a texture between thick yoghurt and jelly that got waterier further down, and had crabstick, ham and possibly other delights. Needless to say, I didn't eat mine. The rest was really good though. The drink that came with it was weird though - cold and slightly sweet, with an almost tea flavour somewhere. No idea what it was.

Anyway, I talk about food too much. After eating, we had a look for an internet place, where we found Tracey had sent us loads of useful things about Yantai (she used to live there), so we copied it all down and went to find the number 17 bus from the train station. On the way to the train station from the internet placey, we went though a huge night market, which was cool. Loads of people were selling small (whole) squids on sticks that they fried right in front of you. Kind of gross. We couldn't find it, so we got another bus to the university. But it was the wrong university. So we got a bus to a stop labelled Train Station, and discovered that the train station currently in use is a temporary one, as they have demolished the old one and are putting a new one in its place. And the 17 didn't stop their temporarily, or so I thought. I realised after I had translated wrong, the sign said "temporary bus stop" but I read it as "temporarily stops being a bus stop." But anyway.

So we took a taxi to the Yantai university (working on assumption here), and ended up at the right place. The road the cab took had nicer views than from the bus actually. Anyway, we got there and found the Korean place Tracey had recommended. We had sea slug, a big pancakey type thing, some fried meat and possibly something else, I forget. Oh, and Kimchee of course. Problem is, by this point, my cold was at its peak, and I could nothing. But I still tried it all, and I think it was all nice, although sea slug is a small quantities food. The texture was not what I expected either - crunchy and stringy.

Anyway, having eaten, we went back to town to collect our bags and wait for the train.


So, at 5:45am we were woken by the conductor, our train getting in at 6:15. At Jinan, we went straight to the bus station and bought our tickets to Qufu. Jinan is a total dump, as we had been told and as we had seen in our short time there, so we were on the 7:30am bus out of there.

On arrival in Qufu, we got in a taxi with a woman who couldn't be bothered. She said her meter was broken, but then only asked for 5, which is the flagfall, so maybe it was. En route, she asked where we were going to go, and then pulled over, saying we were next to the Confucius Mansion, which I had said in response. I explained that we had wanted to go to the place that I had told her (the hostel) first, and she drove on.

After another short stretch of road, she pulled over and informed us it was down the road to the left, which had a big sign in the middle of the road, which I took to be a no-car sign. We walked right down the road without finding it. So we walked right back up. Back where we started, we discovered that the sign actually said no parking. We both instinctively veered left, and it was about 40 yards ahead. Lazy taxi driver clearly just couldn't be bothered.

We checked in and went to do laundry - life on the edge! But we couldn't find the machine. So we asked at reception, and she said to go to the second floor. We found it! We only had handwashing soap, so we soaped everything up, put them in the machine (this makes more sense than it sounds, Chinese ashing machines are both strange and look like they were made by Mattell). But we had no hot water. So I tried the shower 9in the same room), but it ran cold. So I went down to the bit labelled "hot water," but the boiler was turned off. SO we washed with cold water.

Clothes clean and drying, we set off. First, the Confucius Temple where we saw lots of nice things. Having seen that, we decided to go for lunch. We found a nearby restaurant and had Confucius style Chicken and Sweet and Sour Pork with Pineapple. Confucius style Chicken is actually just a whole roast chicken in gravy, and by whole I mean that quite literally - head, feet, the works. Nummy :D

Having eaten, it was off to the Confucius Mansions, where we didn't meet the 75th descendant of Confucius. That was at the Temple, and we were ripped off by him. One scroll was 180, the other was 100, so I offered around 200. He said no, he would go no lower than what he'd said: 300. So I said no, that was higher than the price, I decided to buy them because it was 280. He said: okay, 280's okay. I think that was his way of stopping me bartering. But then, instead of my change, they gave me a picture. Then kept trying to sell us stuff. The whole place (both the Temple and the Mansion) really annoyed me, because you couldn't move for people selling you things, and a good third of the rooms were shops selling tourist tat.

We took a walk down to Queli Arch, as the emperors once did, then took our first rickshaw in China to the Confucius Cemetery. It was rather an anti-climax, it was one mound in the middle of a (really quite nice) forest.

We walked from the cemetery to a road where we could get a taxi back to the hostel, and ended up back at the hostel. We decided to mail our scrolls and some other bits back home, so I took 3 books I had read and didn't want to carry any more. On arrival at the post office, I was informed one of my scrolls was too big and I couldn't send it. However, there were some very inventive and clever ladies in this post office (unlike the one at Hongshan in Urumqi (the one from where you can send parcels)), who managed to stick two boxes together and fit it. So my parcel (contents: 500; postage: 200) should arrive around the end of March.

By this point it was 6pm, and we didn't really know what to do. So we went to check out our plans to Wuhan to our trip, to see if it was feasible. Nikki needed more notebooks for her diary and I wanted postcards. Did you know there are no postcards in Qufu? Giving up on our quest for postcards (notebooks had been acquired successfully earlier), we went to eat two recommended Qufu foods - 阳关山叠 and 诗礼银杏. The first was alright, it was sort of a pancakey folded up thing. But the other one? Good GOD it was horrible. Little yellow balls (whose identity was revealed later) in a weird silvery translucent goop. I was eating the wraps while Nikki ate the goop, and she didn't like the wraps and I didn't like the goop. When she first tried the yellow things, she swore she tasted aniseed, but I didn't. But as I was eating the wrap-esque things, I suddenly got it rather strong. Fortunately I was already full, because aniseed is one of the worst anti-foods ever.

We went home and had I showered before getting into bed. Our room was cold so we'd had the a/c on heat all day, but it suddenly made a very strange noise and just stopped it, so we turned it off and went to sleep in the coldest room in the history of time.

Day 167: Episode 4

Bright and early we got up and took the train to Tianjin, after picking up laundry and our flight tickets to Harbin.  On arrival, we got a taxi to the hostel I had written down, with a driver who had the worst retroflex I have ever heard in my life (the retroflex is where they pronounce a word as if it ends in 'r' instead of whatever it should end in, or sometimes they drop the second syllable of a two syllable word and just pronounce the first syllable, but ending in an 'r.'  Completely incomprehensible.  Hate it).  Neither of us had any idea what he was saying most of the time.  He kept suggesting we go to places other than where we wanted to go, we think, but I told him I had a reservation at the hostel (a lie), and that shut him up. 
We checked in and went pretty much straight back out, to explore the main delights of Tianjin, starting with the Old Cultural Street.  It's essentially a tourist trap of shops trying to look like old China.  We had candy floss, and went to a jade shop.  I wanted a jade rabbit on a red string (2011-2012 is the year of the rabbit, and as I'm a rabbit, that will be an unlucky year for me.  So if you wear something red at all times, you're safe.  And why not have something tacky like a jade rabbit on it?  (And by the way, jade I always expected to be expensive, but it's really not.), and they had a really nice one here.  The lady kept going on about how we were friends, and then told me 300 kuai for the rabbit.  My haggling skills clearly need some work, I offered 200 (still slightly more than I'd like to pay, but I didn't want to start too low), and pulled a face, then whispered '220, we're friends.'  Then immediately shook her head and whispered '200, we're friends.'  Should have started at 150, the price I was hoping for.  She kept on about us being friends, and told us to come back and see her - we're friends after all.  After some more wandering and tour group dodging, we decided to head to 南市食品街, the food street. 
Which is not so much a food street as more of a mall that's made only of food places.  We went into one little place and tried the recommended local delicacies - 狗不理包子.  The guidebook translates that as the son of a restauranteur baozi (steamed bun type things, there's no decent translation), but I don't buy it, as the Chinese character for character means dog not pay attention baozi.  But anyway.  They were not unlike regular baozi to be honest.  In fact, I have no idea what makes them special.
Having eaten our fill and seen the bits of Tianjin we wanted to see (we also saw the Bell Tower on our walk, but if I'm honest, all bell towers look the same, and I no longer care if I see the, I've probably seen about 20 now).  We decided to go and sample some slightly less local delicacies at 星巴克.  By this point, we were absolutely knackered, so went home to go to bed.  At 8pm.  Life on the edge.  But when we turned off the light in the hostel room, we had the opposite problem to in Shijiazhuang - it was bright enough to read.
At ridiculous o'clock (about 4), we got up, got ready and checked out to get a taxi to the airport for our 7am flight.  Not much fun.  There were other white people on the plane, which was WEIRD, but what disconcerted me more was that the airline was called OK Air!  Wonderful.  Just sounds like the plane is going to drop out of the sky, doesn't it?
Having landed in one piece, we got the shuttle bus to the train station, where we were greeted in the standard Chinese way: shouts of "Hello!  Taxi!" (although taxi is more often pronounced like taxes, which I don't want, or tackus, which just sounds funny.)  Difference is, this was entirely in Russian.  Harbin is in Heilongjiang province, on the border with Russia in the far north east of the country, and there's a large Russian population there.  I refuse to get in taxis where the driver runs up and starts hitting my arm and shouting at me, trying to rip me off, (and regularly whistling and making other dog-calling noises - I realise I'm white, so look different, but I am in fact still a human) so we walked around the corner and got in the taxi of a guy who was just sitting quietly in his car.  At the hostel, we dumped our bags and went straight out.

We started with buying our tickets to Changchun, then tried to get a bus to Central Avenue.  Not as easy at it sounds.  At the bus stops were people telling you which bus to get, as the signs were apparently all wrong.  After a small road crossing hiccup (we managed to end up further from where we wanted to be), we were offered assistance by a young Chinese girl.  She took us on the bus which stoped a short distance away and walked us to the street.

We were very grateful, then she went on our merry way and decided to check the book to see if there was anywhere good to eat there.  At which point the girl came back and led us to the restaurant we had chosen, although we knew that it was around 20 yards away.  We went in, and there was some confusion over how many were in our party - was she with us?  Grateful though we were, we hoped not.  We sat down, the two of us, and ordered.  While we were perusing the menu, she pointed out chips, which I assumed meant "you're white, you eat these."  Then she went and sat by the door, moving between there and right behind our table for quite some time.  The Russian food was nice, although I was quite confused to be told they had no hot water, so we couldn't have the tea we ordered. 

When we finished eating we sat for a while, as most of the things we wanted to do were better after dark.  We also didn't know what to do about the girl.  But after around 20 minutes of us sitting doing nothing, she just left.  We walked the streets for a while, then went to look at the river, to se if there was anything interesting there.  There was.

First, a 10 kuai ice slide which was really rather good fun.  From the bottom, which was the river, we saw small seat trpe contraptions which you used two big sticks to propel on the ice.  The guys renting them out were incapable of speech, which got a sarcastic comment from me and an angry shout from Nikki.  Eventually, we worked out that they wanted 50 kuai as a deposit, and went for a whirl.  After a few minutes though, we were well and truly frozen.  Cue ten minutes of trying to get back to the 'desk,' as it was up a very slight slope.  Nikki even crashed into a stall in the process, which amused me a lot.  On our return, we tried to get our 30 kuai each back.  He gave us ten.  Together.  So we shouted at him, and we got ten each.  I asked if it was 20 for Chinese people and 40 for foreigners.  He laughed, and then told the Chinese people nearby that it was indeed 20 for Chinese people, 40 for foreigners.  So Nikki shouted a lot.  Then grabbed our money, which he accepted.  Nikki then promptly slipped and fell on the ice, and couldn't get up.

We walked along the river a little and came to another slide, which we decided to try.  It was 30 kuai, but instead of 1 go, you got 30 minutes of goes.  And it was way more fun than the first one.  It was on a <strike>tyre</strike> <strike>dingy</strike> round-thing, and the horrible horrible man kicked us down the slope, so we love him.  Toward the end, the evil balacavaed (is that a word?) man starting spinning us too, which was terrifying for the first few seconds, but immense fun.

After that, we were quite cold so walked towards the cable car across the river, stopping to buy a warm drink (of Sprite...only in China) on the way.  We could have walked over the river, and as we both hate cable cars, it would have been a much better idea.  But we're not very wise.  It was at this point I realised I had forgotten my Student Card, so I paid double what Nikki did.

In the cab;e car, after much fearful giggling and kchchkchkkchchhhkchh which was smoother than normal, some random Chinese people in one going t'other way waved, so we waved back.  Then waved at the solitary passenger in the next one.  From the cable car, we saw something that looked rather fun - driving on the solid ice.  They had a load of cars and a race track for you to drive round.

Eventually we landed, and went to go and see the snow sculpture competition, where again I was thrilled to be privileged to pay double what Nikki paid.  The sculptures were stupidly good, and in 30 minutes we'd seen practucakky akk if them, so we got the free bus to the thing we wanted to see most - the world famous ice festival.  Which was so good I could just wee.  But after having seen just over half the sculptures, the -30 was getting to me, so we went for a 20 kuai instant hot chocolate.  Which helped, but didn't fully thaw me.  But still, we managed to see the rest of the sculptures, and Nikki bought some tat.  Then we began the walk to the city centre, as the Cathedral of St Sophia was at the end of the road, but as we've noticed on rather a few occasions, the guidebook is wrong.  At the end of the huge bridge, we got a taxi (they weren't allowed to stop on the bridge you see), but the driver didn't know where he was going.  We got there in the end though, only for Nikki's last batteries to die.  Cut to a length (10 minute) search for bateries.  Photos taken and some oohing and aahing at the pretty church done, we had dinner and went home to bed.

But the taxi driver didn't take us to where we wanted to be (Xuefu lu 4 dao, for those in the know), but rather, dropped us at Heilongjiang Daxue, about a 15 minute walk away.  But it wasn't so bad, as we'd thawed over dinner and in the taxi.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Day 165: Episode 3

So, we got to the Taiyuan and went to the ticket office.  Or rather, we joined the 200 yard long line.  Literally.  Seeing how slowly the line was moving, we decided to try the bus.  On arrival at the bus station, we discovered that on account of snow, there were no buses running.  People in a taxi offered to take us for 600.  Fat chance.  So it was back to the long queue at the train station.  Only now, it was longer.  Like, an hour.  In the freezing cold.  After earning some chilblains, we were randomly pushed to the front of the queue.  Well, I say the queue, the first queue was a queue to join the queue to get into the ticket office, where you joined another queue.  We eventually got tickets for a train, but no seats.  Two hours?  Not so bad, we think.  But it was so crowded I could barely breathe.  How naive I was, that was not crowded (see day 18).  Anyway.
Eventually, we got there, where a seriously obnoxious man kept saying "Hello!" and "How many (hotel)?"  I don't know about any other white people. but one room is one hotel is usually enough for me.  Turns out, he was from the Harmony Guesthouse, where we had considered staying as well.  We got our tickets to Shijiazhuang, and went to find a taxi to the YHA China place.  But as we walked along the road, the obnoxious man followed us.  We told we we couldn't speak English, but that didn't stop him.  Eventually, we found a taxi, but the driver informed us that taxis weren't allowed into the old part of the city (true).  He suggested we get in the nagging man's rickshaw, but there was a bigger chance of a duck farting in church than us going with him.  This annoying man being the same one that actually got into our taxi, snatched my book out of my hand to read it, and seeing that I had written down his hostel, got even more obnoxious.  I was so close to removing his face when an unlicensed black cab pulled up next to us.  We paid him 20 kuai and he drove us as close as he could to the hostel, and walked us the rest of the way. The good thing about unlicensed taxis - they can take you into the bits taxis aren't allowed in.  But of course, it was a complete rip off.  We didn't care though. 
The hostel was brilliant, really old traditional house.  We went out to eat some traditional local food - we had these big flat noodles (cold) with a tomatoey spicey dip, some cold cured beef thing, and a hot chicken dish.  All lovely, names all forgotten now.  After eating, we went to bed as it was rather late and we had to be up early to see Pingyao before the train to Shijiazhuang.  Quite excitingly, our bed was a Kang - a traditional old style brick bed with a fire underneath (although ours didn't have a fire). 
In the morning, we once again slept in until 8, but got ready quickly and went out to see the sights.
We did the town tower, which was considerably less magnificent than the book made out (it said that climbing the town tower and listening to the sounds of the city below was a memorable experience - it was worth it, but not the best bit).  Then, the city walls, which apparently look like a turtle, earning the city the nickname "turtle city."  Clearly, these people have never seen a turtle.  On the city walls, I made my first ever snow angel.  And last, as it was so cold.  Not much to say about the walls really, although while walking we discussed 4th year, and I think I might take French now and just work a lot.  And Nikki's thinking about not taking a second year out.  All this got us rather excited about studying, which makes a nice change :D
After the walls, it was lunchtime, definitely.  We tried a few places on the main south street, but they were all either stupidly expensive or smelled really strongly of varnish.  We settled on our hostel in the end, and decided to go for western food, because we could.  So we had toast, followed by a Cajun Chicken sub for me and a Lasagna for Nikki.  It was nummy.  And the coffee was good.  Yay.
After eating, we went to Rishengchang, the first bank in China.  We saw some old things of which we weren't allowed to take photos, and some old things of which we were allowed to take photos.  As computers are all out to get me, I can't actually get the photos on to the internet at the moment, so you can see when I get back to Urumqi.  We then found a Tat Emporium and got our names written on grains of rice.  The woman just used a pen.  A PEN.  No magnifying glass or anything. So I got my Chinese name on one side and Pingyao 2008 on the other.  Nice and tacky.  Nikki got one too, and some cloth shoes (one of the recommended buys in Pingyao).  Then, it was off to the train station to go to Shijiazhuang. 
The train to Shijiazhuang was cold, cramped and just generally unpleasant.  Oh, and six and a half hours long.  There was also considerably more talking about us than I would have liked, but that's the Chinese for you.
We got off the train at Shijiazhuang North, and for the train to Beijing we had to be at Shijiazhuang station.  So we got a taxi there, bought our tickets for a frightfully early train (7am), and went to the "youth hostel" across the road.  Why it was called a Youth Hostel is beyond me, it was clearly just an average hotel.  We were checked in by Slowcoach McSlow, and went up to our room on the 10th floor.  After about 134 days of struggling with the lock, we got in (at least no one could break in).  We put the key in the slot for power, and turned on the lights.  Or rather, turned on the bathroom light.  The other lights didn't come on.  Oh well, we'll turn on the bedside lamp then.  No?  Okay, the floor standing lamp.  Still no?  How about the desk lamp?  Not that either?  We had no light.  By this point, it was gone midnight, and I had stopped caring, so we used my camera screen for light, and just went to bed, in the dark. 
As soon as we lay down, the announcements from the train station started.  And didn't stop.  6 hours later and feeling somewhat less than refreshed and raring to go, we got up and went to catch our train to Beijing, grateful to leave Hebei (the province of which Shijiazhuang is the capital) behind. 
At this point I should probably explain something - there are a lot of places we go where we don't actually do anything.  This is because there's either nothing to do (Shijiazhuang being one of them - it's known only for it's coal mining and industry), or we're using it to break up stupidly long journeys (of which some more will come).  Just so you don't think we're awful tourists.
In the waiting room at the train station, we saw Sir Staresalot, Miss Curious, the Duke of Noseyville and Lady Neverseenawhiteperson.  One girl stared so much I was on the point of shouting at her when we were allowed to get on the train.  The train was really nice, and apart from Mr Can'tholdaphonecallwithoutshouting, annoyance free.  We accidentally bought toys on the train.  Oops.  2 hours and 40 minutes later, we arrived at Beijing West.  We jumped straight into a taxi and headed for the Templeside (where we stayed when we first got to Beijing). 
On arrival, they seemed very surprised to see guests there, and we were then directed to Shop 2, but not before seeing the kittens (who are now not so much kittens, more cats).  We decided to stay in a dorm for financial reasons (60 compared to 200), and the place was really quiet, and so it was alright.  We dumped our things and went pretty much straight out.
We wanted to basically to Tian'anmen Square and the things around it, the Lama Temple, the Confucius temple and the Drum and Bell towers.  But first, some western in the form of Subway (yes, the sandwich place).  Which was far.  Bobby (the guy that owns the hostel) said we could get the metro there, but we couldn't find the station, so we just got a taxi (it was quite near Tian'an Men actually, so it was alright).  The Subway was brilliant, not quite like in the west, but it was real bread and nummy fillings :D 
We then went to the Friendship Store to buy books, but the collection was poor, and the books were not in great condition, most of them quite dirty and some with folded pages, ripped corners etc.  And it was expensive.  Having bought two tomes, we decided we had earned a break, so we went to Baskin Robbins, which was part of a little coffee place owned by a really nice Italian man.  I had ice cream and coffee, and it was possibly the best coffee I've ever had.  So if you're in Beijing, do visit the little shop next to the Friendship Store.  Right, so then we went back to tourism.
We got the subway to Qianmen, the gate at the bottom of Tian'an Men square.  We didn't know which of the two gates we saw was Qianmen at first, as we didn't know that the name refers to TWO gates.  It's actually a nickname for the gate, and I've forgotten the real name.  It used to be the south central point on the old city walls.  It's made up of the Gate Tower (climbable) and the Arrow Tower (not).  After crossing the road 1346089 times to try to get good photos (sun kept getting in the way), and after much confusion, we found the ticket office to climb the gate tower.  But not the entrance.  We walked a quarter of the way round, where we saw the path going through the tower, then half way round again, then back a bit, and eventually found it.  We accidentally skipped the security check (says a lot about the security check I feel), and climbed.  It was slightly disappointing actually, all museum and the top floor was a Rip Off Merchants.  You couldn't see out from the top either. 
So off we toddled to Mao's mausoleum.  But apparently, that closes at noon.  So we decided to come back the next day, and see the Hall of People and the Museum of the Revolution.  Both closed (until 2008...when in 2008?).  So we went to Tian'anmen, which was covered in scaffolding last time, but climbable this time.  We bought tickets, but the guy wouldn't accept our student cards, saying they were foreign student cards.  Last I checked, Xinjiang was in China.  Annoyed me somewhat, as the student ticket was a third of the price of the standard ticket, but whatever.  We went to climb...but first, we had to check our bags apparently.  But then, you couldn't leave anything valuable in your bag.  So I had to check in an empty bag (but for some tissues and an empty bottle).  We climbed up, took some photos across Tian'anmen square, and saw some propaganda.  All of this to a soundtrack of "Hello!  Five yuan!"  Last time, they were all selling Mao watches, which at the time I thought was awful, but now slightly wish I'd bought.  But this time, it was all Olympics stuff.  Which I don't want. 
We got back our empty bags and went to check out Wangfujing street, big for food and night markets apparently.  But there wasn't much of that (read: any of that).  So we toddled off to the Foreign Languages Bookstore (I'm desperate for reading material here), where I spent far too much on books, but it's okay, they're cheaper than in the west.
Laden with books, we headed back to the hostel in spite of the early hour.  But it wasn't quite that simple.  We took the subway to what we assumed was the nearest stop.  Turned out not to be.  Took us an hour to walk back to the hostel from there nearly.  But it was okay, we got to see the Financial District.  We ordered dinner and sat down to watch a DVD with a Canadian guy called Simon, who was in our dorm.  First, Evan Almighty, but on my review (one of the worst films I've ever seen), we decided to change it.  Da Vinci Code - poor quality, only in Chinese but the sound was so quiet that I don't know if I could have followed it.  We switched again to Swordfish, cliche ridden thriller, but alright.  The ending was annoying though, left me with quite a few questions.  Anyway, Beijing, important, DVDs I've watched, not.
After sleep disturbed by the late arrival of a Swedish girl and the very early departure of Simon, we got up, had breakfast with an Australian couple (Amy and...I never did find out his name), and set off to see Mao's mausoleum.  We got there at 12:01, just as they shut the gates.  So we'll see it in summer.
So to the Lama Temple.  Which was surprisingly hard to find, unless we were just being really thick.  We saw the largest Buddha carved from a single piece of Sandalwood (26m), and a lot of generic temple things.  Once you've seen as many temples as I have recently, they all look the same and you begin to stop caring.  So we went to the Confucius temple, about which I have equally little to say.  I did get really quite angry that they had translated the word for the UK to England though.  Morons.
We wanted to see the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, as apparently they're good sights to see, but not as touristy as other things in Beijing.  After walking rather a long way, I had the sneaking suspicion we had gone too far south.  So we searched out a map, and indeed we had.  So we righted ourselves, and went off to them.  Arriving at 5pm on the dot.  When they closed the doors.  Quite annoying really.  Well, we can see them in summer too (when we get to Beijing just in time for the Olympics (I must say, I intend to be very far away from the UK for London 2012).
As they were last on our list for the day, we went in search of coffee and real pastries at the nice Italian man's store.  Having demolished a chocolate croissant and a coffee, and armed with take-out pastries and Nikki's warm french bread, we went to the Restaurant of the Gods: Quanjude (not a translation by the way, the name means something like complete assembling of morals (correct me if I'm wrong)).  After eating so much duck I thought I would vomit, we walked (read: slowly waddled) to the subway to head home, and even managed to get off at the right stop this time). 
And I've already written far too much, and must go and see some Wuhan now.  So I'll write more in Xi'an probably (heading there on the train tonight, just in time for Spring Festival).
(an aside: I just ran a spellcheck on this, and I notice I spell Confucius wrong every time.  Why his name if Confucius is beyond me, the Chinese is pronounced Kong Zi).

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Day 155: Episode 2

Time for another installment in the Spring Festival extravaganza!


We had decided to get up around 7 to have our first shower since Yinchuan (icky) and head out early to see everything we wanted to see.  I didn't even hear Nikki's alarm, which she had turned off.  So at 10:20 or so I dragged myself out of bed to discover we had no hot water.  So no shower.  Icky.

We got ready and went to get a cab to 昭君墓, the mausoleum of a once imperial concubine.  She wasn't actually a concubine, she was a candidate who was left waiting and never got picked.  So when a decision was made to send one of the candidates to the Huns as a peace-making marriage, the emperor sent her.  He had never seen her, and at the wedding he was less than pleased, as she was actually very beautiful, and he thought her ugly, as the painter intentionally painted her ugly in return for her not bribing him.  Still, the marriage worked and they all lived happily ever after.  Anyway, as I was saying, the taxi cost 60 kuai as it was at the other side of a toll gate.  We saw the tomb and stuff, and that was nice, then tried to find the bus stop back.  But an unlicensed cab appeared and offered to take us to our hotel for 50 kuai.  But we weren't going to a hotel, we were going to eat 稍麦, a local specialty (which are essentially dumplings (although I have to say, dumplings is a bad translation)).  They were nice, but not as amazing as the guidebook had made out. 

The restaurant was conveniently right next to the temples we wanted to visit - 席力图, 大召 and 五塔寺.  The first two were nice and all, but there's not much to say about Buddhist temples  Photos were forbidden inside the halls, so I have very few, and I think even if they were allowed, I would have felt rude taking them, as it was an active place of worship with people praying in almost every hall.
After the first two, we tried to find the last one, the 5 Pagoda Temple.  They made a good job of hiding it.  When we eventually found it, we went to the south end to find the entrance, as the entrance is always on the south.  We went to the ticket office, but there was nobody there.  The door into the temple was also locked.  So, disappointed, we wandered around the building trying to find a decent place to take photos over the wall.  I got some bad ones, then we walked to the main road that runs past the north of the temple to get a taxi, and found a ticket office with people in it and an open door!  We bought a ticket and went in, saw the five pagoda pagoda (originally there were five pagodas, each with 5 pagodas on top of them, but only one remains), and then tried to look in all the rooms.  But they were all padlocked shut.  So we tried to find the astronomical map which is entirely in Mongolian, and is the only one of its kind.  After much searching, particularly of the south wall where it was supposed to be, I wandered around the back of the pagoda (at the north end) out of curiosity, and found it, as well as two other things (although I have no idea what they were).  It was a bit of an anti-climax if I'm honest.
One weird thing about the temples - all the mopnks have mobile phones and we saw a group of youngish monks messing around with a ball in trainers.  I realise they are people too, but it did strike me as somewhat strange. 
We went back to the hostel and sat under the covers to thaw for a while, before going for dinner.  The guidebook recommended a place for good roast lamb (another local speciality), so we tried to walk there.  We had walked quite a distance before we realised we had been walking the wrong direction.  So we jumped in a taxi.  On arrival, we were seated in a yurt and then tried to order a thing of sheep ribs.  The conversation went like this:
Stupid Waitress: This is ship, this is beef (pointing at the menu)
Us:  The sheep.
SW: This is sheep, this is beef.
Us: The sheep.
SW: This is sheep, this is sheep, and this is beef (she had been pointing at more sheep and saying beef the whole time)
Us: The sheep.
SW: You want the sheep?
Us: Uhm...yes?
Then she tried to force booze on us, but as I would rather drink stale pee than 白酒 and our train the next morning left at 8am, there was not a chance.  But she kept pushing it.  Even when we told her several times that we don't drink, she still wasn't having any of it.  Eventually, she took the hint.  The milk tea was revolting, and the weird milk things Nikki got were 'unusual.'  The cabbage and sheep were really good though.  Like, really really good.  I don't know how they do it, but fat on meat here is really really nice, better than the meat sometimes.  As was proved when I rejected meaty bits for fatty bits.  How the times have changed.
When we got back, we showered and packed, and while Nikki was in the shower, we got a phone call that went a little like this:
Me: Hello?
Mysterious Woman: Hello
Me: Hello.
MW: I'm a masseuse, do you need a massage?

At this point, I was tempted to say no I didn't, but that my girlfriend had been complaining of a sore back, and I would ask her (for the record, Nikki is not my girlfriend, but I figured the prostitute on the end of the phone didn't need to know that.).  I decided not to though, and just told her no.  I had heard before about prostitutes calling round hotel rooms looking for clients, but this was my first one. 
On the 8am train, Nikki and I were not seated together, which meant creating my own entertainment.  So I stared out of the window, ate some cookies, stared out of the window some more, tried unsuccessfully to sleep a little, and stared out the window some more.  Then loads of people suddenly got off, so I moved next to Nikki, where we were next to Chatty McChatterson, who kept trying his really bad English (which he had studied for 10 years).  He took a photo of us, then one of him with each of us.  He took my email and said he would send me the photos, but I'm not going to hold my breath for that, it's been 10 days now.  Nikki started feeling unwell, so when we got to the hotel (not the one I had found on the internet, whose prices were hugely greater than the ones online), we just lazed about for a while.  Which turned into all day.  End of Day 5. 
In the morning, Nikki was feeling much better, so we went to the Yungang Caves 云冈石窟.  We got a taxi to the bus station with a really friendly driver, and took the number 3 bus (for 1.5 kuai - really quite glad we didn't book the 100 kuai tour).  The caves were cool, lots of big impressive stone carvings, but there's not much to say about them really.  After a scout about there and an unsuccessful search for the Zhou Enlai memorial hall, we got the bus back to town.
We got a taxi to the Huayan Monastery 华严寺 with a really nice driver, who informed us there were two right next to each other, and gave us directions to the 9 Dragon Screen 九龙壁.  The first part of the monastery was a con, there was nothing there.  So we went to the second part, not hoping for much, and it was much much better.  And half the price. 
After exploring there for a bit, we did the 9 Dragon Screen and Drum Tower (which was disappointing, it was surrounded by a big fence). 
Frozen to the core, we headed back to the train station, several hours early.  We sat in an internet placey for 4 hours or so, then went to get some noodles for dinner.  Then came our first sleeper train.
When you get on, you go to your assigned bed and the staff swap your ticket for a small credit card sized thing saying which bed you're in.  Then when you get off, they give you your ticket back, because without a ticket you can't get out of the train station.  We were on the top bunks, which is about 18 inches below the ceiling, but surprisingly comfortable.  I lay reading my book for a while, when they suddenly (and without warning) turned out the lights, so I went to sleep.  And slept surprisingly well.
And that's all for this installment.  Tune in some time, next week, for more. 

Monday, 21 January 2008

Day 152: The Spring Festival Travels Begin

So, we're stuck in Taiyuan waiting for a train that leaves in 5 hours, so I thought I'd post the first part of my travels.  Photos will either be added to this post later, or added as one big post at the end, I'll let you know.
DAY 1 - URUMQI乌鲁木齐=>YINCHUAN银川 (also known as the day I wrote the least detail)
At 6:30am, my alarm went off.  So of course, I hit snooze, but then I remembered that Catherine was elaving around 7am for her flight to Shenzhen, and I wouldn't see her for over a month, and we had to leave around 8:30, so I figured I should just get up.  I finished packing and skipped breakfast (too early in the day for food) and we got a taxi to the airport, for a rather uneventful flight to Yinchuan.  After getting the shuttle bus to town, we walked for about three minutes before finding a 招待所 (A hostelly guesthousey type of thing.  Really cheap, not too bothered about the legal paperwork (the government like to track our movements by making us register our presence in every hotel, using our passport).).  We dumped the bags and headed to Tourist Site Number 1 - 承天寺 (Chengtian Temple).  Which was quite the waste of time and money.  One out of the three exhibits was open, and you couldn't climb the pagoda.  So we went to Tourist Site Number 2 - 海宝塔 (Haibao Pagoda), which was cheaper and more worth it, although the steps in the pagoda were horribly small, making the climb and the descent quite uncomfortable.  Tourist Site Number 3 was the 南关清真寺 (Nanguan Mosque), which was alright.  We weren't allowed in the prayer hall (fair enough really), so we saw a fairly rubbish museum which was essentially a lot of photos of famous people I'd never heard of visiting the mosque. 
We decided to go for food, so we searched out the 老毛手抓美食楼, a restaurant recommended in the guidebook.  We headed in the really vague direction the book gave us, and when we realised we weren't going to find it, we tried to ask a lady on the street.  But as soon as we approached her, she shook her head and ran off.  Even though Nikki spoke to her in Chinese.  A nice man then came over, and walked us to the place, which was quite far, and then walked past shortly after to check we got in okay.  We ordered an Yinchuan speciality, 手抓羊肉 (Hand grabbed mutton).  It came by the kilo, and as neither of us have any idea what a kilogram looks like, we ordered one kilo.  Turns out, that's quite a lot.  We also ordered 韭菜炒香干, which was Chinese Chives fried with some kind of tofu.  Quite nice really.  We did try to order a 羊肉小炒, although that never came (and having seen the quantity of food we had ordered already, that's probably a good thing).  The food was really, really good, although the tea was weird.  When we sat down, there were cups of what looked a lot like dates, sultanas etc. in old crusty sugar.  They added hot water, and it turned out there were tea leaves underneath, but it was so sickly sweet I couldn't drink it. 
After eating, we got a cab home to dump some things and go out for a walk.  But we ended up discussing our route for this trip again, and changing little bits, and adding Chongqing and Chengdu to the route, which means I might get to hold a baby panda for my 21st birthday :D:D:D
DAY 2 - YINCHUAN银川 => <strike>YANAN 延安</strike> BAOTOU 包头 (Also known as the day I wrote too much)
At 7:30, we woke up, showered in the most mafan (Chinese: 麻烦, meaning troublesome.  But who says that?) way known to man (it was a shower head directly over a western toilet.), and headed to 南门 (South Gate) from where we heard we could get a bus to the Western Xia Imperial Tombs (西夏王陵).  First, we bought our bus tickets to Yan'an, for the 5:30pm bus (the latest one we could get, and as it's a looooong way, we decided to do it overnight), and asked about buses to the tombs, but they said they didn't do buses there from the bus station itself.  So we wandered around 南门 (which looked a LOT like a mini Tian'anmen 天安门广场 square) looking for a bus.  Realising there wasn't one, we asked a bus driver who was playing with the side of his bus, and he said to go to 'xinye square.'  So we walked in the direction he pointed, and realising we couldn't find it, decided to ask someone.  He said there was no such square.  So we decided to get in a taxi, and ask the driver to take us to the stop where the bus to the tombs went from.  She suggested we take her taxi, for 100 kuai.  We realised it was more convenient (no waiting for buses, warmth, probably not hugely more expensive), so we did the 32km in her taxi.  The tombs really are in the middle of nowhere.  We bought our cheap tickets (yay for student cards) and started walking up the road.  It was so cold, so when the little bus thing pulled up by us, we were rather relieved.  Only thing is, it was colder in the bus, as the sides were open, and it was windy.  We finally arrived at a big building, outside which was a giant stone wall, carved with both Chinese and Xia characters.  We took some photos with the Xia characters and then went into what turned out to be a museum.  We ran around looking at a lot of old bowls and avoiding tour groups (more on how I hate them at a later date).  We wanted to see a tomb, so we went a little along from the museum to what looked like a tomb, judging by the models we'd just seen inside.  It turned out not to be.  But it had guard towers, which we climbed, from where we could see how to get to a tomb.  Once we were on the path up to the tomb, it became stupidly obvious how to get there.  We walked around the tomb a little, trying to take photos, but the weather and the weird light made that really difficult.  We found the entrance to the tomb itself, but you couldn't go in.  Just before, we'd been saying that if you could go in, would we?  I decided I would, scary though it would be, but then we couldn't, so no fear required.  We went back to the taxi, but only after taking photos with the Kalavinkas (if anyone has any idea what they are, please let me know). 
At this point, the taxi driver asked if we wanted to go to another place, the name of which I had never heard, and which was apparently a film studio.  So we went.  And it was exactly that.  There were two and a bit parts - Ming city, Qing city and a really little bit about the cultural revolution.  It was interesting enough, but I was cold and stopped caring after a while - not having seen any of the films didn't help matters much.  When we got back to the taxi, she asked us for an extra 100 kuai, because we're students.  On our return to the bus station, she explained it should have been 260, but because we were students, she would give us it for 200.  Her daughter was also a student, so she understood we weren't rich apparently.  We tried haggling, but she was having none of it. 
We had a while before our bus, so we went for food at a little place near the bus station.  It was alright, but the staf were rude.  As soon as we went in, the waitress came over, then without saying anything to us, turned to the other staff members and shouted: 他们听不懂 (they don't understand).  We proved her wrong.  After waiting for a while in the bus station, we went out to the stand for our bus, where were told to wait a minute, as it hadn't come in yet.  Around 5:15, we were told it wasn't coming at all, and we were to refund our tickets.  We took a taxi to the train station, and joined the slowest queue in the history of time.  Well, only after SEARCHING the timetable for Yan'an, and not being able to find it.  So we looked at the map to see if there was a line, but we couldn't even find Yinchuan.  Turns out, the map was not geographical.  How logical. 
There was a train to Baotou, stop number three on our route, at 6:43pm.  It was currently 6pm.  We could make it.  But the line was the slowest in the history of time, so by the time we got to the front, it was 6:40pm, and they stopped selling tickets 15 minutes before departure.  To say I was unimpressed does't even come close - people kept pushing in at the front, and the woman at the front was going really slowly.  So we got tickets for the next train to Baotou - 00:40.  With no seats.  Then, to kill six hours. 
We sat in the quieter of the two waiting rooms (unsure of which was ours) and starting wrinting our travel journals (which, to be honest), is the only way I could possibly remember all of this).  Trips to the shop, toilet and reading my book helped pass the time, but it was so COLD in the waiting room.  Nikki had seen a warmer room, which was 8 to get into, so we went in and got a free cup of tea.  We huddled by the heater and played cards for a bit, ate some noodles, tried (without much success) to sleep.  At around 10:30, they suddenly switched off all the lights without warning.  We were let into the soft seat waiting room though, which was nice.  We played some more cards, and I was too scared to sleep, because anyone that tried around me had "GET UP!" screamed in their ear. 
Eventually, we got on the train and made seats out of our bags at one end of the carriage.  Only problem was a) it was freezing with the door open; 2) no one shut the door and iii) it was seriously uncomfortable.  I tried sleeping a little, but really couldn't.  Nikki found two seats around 4am, but no sooner had I sat down when the guy who had been sitting there 20-30 minutes before came back and ordered me to get up.  The nice guy across the aisle let me sit in his seat for a while. 
At just after 7am, we got into Baotou.  Straight to the ticket office to book our tickets to Hohhot (book early or no seats/trains), where for some unknown reason we were pushed to the front of the queue by staff.  Not complaining, we got tickets and went to get a taxi to the bus station to get a bus to Genghis Khan's mausoleum (成吉思汗陵).  En route, the taxi driver informed us that there may not be any buses, on account of the snow.  When we got there, a load of people crowded round the taxi informing us that there were.  On getting out of the taxi however, it was a different story.  There were no buses, we had to get a taxi.  One guy offered to take us to Dongsheng, a nearby city, for 100 kuai each.  One way.  So that was 200 round trip, then we had to get from Dongsheng to the mausoleum and back.  Somebody else offered to take us to the mausoleum, wait for us, then take us back, for 1000 kuai.  Never going to happen.  He would go no lower than 800, and for 800 we had to take another passenger.  There were no buses and nothing to do in Baotou, so we didn't really have much choice. 
We got in the taxi, and a really obnoxious woman got in the taxi as well, and we got on our way.  Although I needed the toilet, and I discovered later that Nikki did too.  We figured it wouldn't be far, so it was okay.  We were getting there pretty rapidly when the police pulled the taxi over.  They looked at our passports, asked a load of questions, such as "Why are you in China?" "How long have you been here?" "What is the relationship between you and the girl?"  Fun fun fun.  Eventually, we were allowed to go on our way, and as we left, one of the policemen said: "欢迎再来" (Welcome to come again).  I wished I knew how to say "fat chance" in Chinese. 
Eventually, we dropped the obnoxious woman off and went on our way to the mausoleum.  After buying our tickets, we made a beeline for the restroom, before seeing the mausoleum properly.  We took a lot of photos, and say a museum which was built in the shape of the Mongolian word 'hehan' (emperor).  We tried to go to the old site of the mausoleum, but it turneds out to be a different site, and the mausoleum isn't even there, so we went back, as we had to be on a train at 7:55pm.  We got back around 4:30, around two hours earlier than I expected going by what the taxi driver had said before we got on in the morning.  We ate some not very good food, and then waited for much shorter than 6 hours in a considerably warmer waiting room. 
Eventually, we arrived and bought our tickets to Datong immediately, then went to find the Anda Guesthouse, which came highly recommended.  It's traditional Mongolian style, and in a convenient location, and reasonable priced.  But it doesn't exist.  Number 78 on that road does not exist.  We went to a hotel on Train Station Road instead, which was really quite alright, and not that much more expensive. 
And I'm leaving it here, because I am getting some serious cramp in my hand.  More later at the next stop where there is internet access and lots of time to kill.