Back in the UK

I flew into Heathrow earlier this evening and am now back at home. The flight was good and the British Airways food was excellent, we also got a great view of London which was a bonus.

I’ve had a great trip and now have a little more blogging to do on the trip covering the last couple of weeks. I aim to do a post a day for the next week so that I can talk about everything without overwhelming you (and of course myself :p).

After the trip is over I will probably continue to make the occassional post on life™ and of course when I travel in the future.

So you don’t have to check my website regularly you can also read the RSS feed of my posts, and if it isn’t clear I’ll get it all sorted in the next few days.

Arrived into Moscow

Very briefly as I only have a few minutes left online, but I’ve arrived into Moscow this afternoon on the train. To summerize there are lots and lots and lots of trees on the way. Lets just say the highlight of one day was seeing the Europe-Asia obelisk by the railway. There were some cool people on the train though and the first couple of days through Mongolia, China and by Lake Birkal were really cool.

The Lonely planet also suggests a shorter tour so for the first time ever the Lonely planet might actually be right :eek:.

Trans Siberian and home

Early tomorrow morning I’m off on the Trans Siberian railway train to spending a few days in Moscow and St Petersburg before I return to the UK in a couple of weeks.

As I’m going to be very busy squeezing everything into only a few days I’m not going to be posting any more blog posts until I arrive back in the UK.

Beijing

I arrived into Beijing on the train from Xi’an at 6am 10am before I made my way to my hotel where i’m staying in Beijing with my dad. After arriving by taxi I headed to a nearby coffee shop to have a fairly overpriced late breakfast while they got our room ready. After checking into the room I went out to try and do my laundry (as the hotel was overcharging.) before heading to the metro to get the train to the airport to meet my dad. Even though I had a bit of trouble figuring out which direction to go on the metro I managed to arrive at the airport at a perfect time – at which point I met my dad and we then returned to the hotel. By this point I was hungry so I headed to the nearby food court to have some Osaka rice dish which was delicious.

After this I met up with a Chinese girl I met in Malaysia and we headed to a traditional Chinese restaurant for supper. There we had lots of excellent real Chinese food (which is totally different from the stuff you get in the UK.) as well as some frankly mediocre spring rolls. We had this at a very popular restaurant called the Golden tile located near the Lama temple. After dinner we walked around a nearby park and some Hutong alleyways that were also very atmospheric before driving around to Tianamen square which was interesting to see at night.

The next day we got up early and headed to the Forbidden city. There we spent about four hours wandering around. The forbidden city is absolutely massive and even the walk from the west gate (which is comparitavely very close to the south of the palace rather than the north.) to the south gate is about 1km. Inside the buildings are yellow roofed and are incredibly attractive. What’s amazing is that even the opening square and the buildings directly around it would make a large palace. Inside we had a wander around and saw quite a lot – we got the audio guide but it was rubbish as it tried to be too clever by half and guess our location rather than using numbers. There were also a lot of exhibitions including some on clocks and some jade and other treasures. After this we then did some shopping in the afternoon – followed by a delicious meal at the foodcourt opposite the hotel. I had some Chinese dish that was great but I don’t know the name of as it was only in Chinese. Then we headed to the Beijing opera which is a colourful show of dance and acrobatics. This was pretty good – though I have to admit I preferred the Shanghai acrobatics which was also cheaper. We also met a good sounding English speaking guide (email: annalovetour hotmail com) at the theatre – she definitely spoke good English.

The next day we headed on a tour to the Great Wall. This left at a suitable 10:30am, and we went to the Mutianyu Great Wall. On the way we had a chat with the guide about Beijing and the wall before we arrived at the wall itself. The part we went to was a well restored part of the wall that I really enjoyed and we took a cable car to the top of the wall, then walked along the wall through 8 watchtowers before coming back down the chairlift on the other side. This was incredible and we got to see great views of the wall and the surrounding snowy mountains.

On a tour with BTG F.I.T travel (aka Dragon Bus) booked through our hotel (the Novotel) we then returned to a chinese medicine centre where we were attempted to be sold dubious herbal remedies which mysteriously managed to cost ¥1000! We were also given a foot massage which was apparently paid for by the tour but we were suggested to give a tip of ¥20. As I didn’t think my massage was that good (certainly it wasn’t as good as the full body massage I got in Shanghai.) I offered to give a tip of ¥5 for it which was refused and then I was asked for ¥20 which I refused to give. Frankly for a tour arranged through an international hotel it was disappointing as the only tour that went somewhere more dodgy was the one in Delhi to Agra. Then in the evening we went out with the Chinese girl again where we had some Peking roast duck and other dishes which was delicious. After that we picked up some supplies for our trip on the trans Siberian.

The next day we got up fairly early and headed to the temple of heaven on Beijing’s modern and clean metro system. This is an important temple where the Chinese ask for a good harvest. These days though in the grounds you get to see lots of people doing tai chi in the morning. We also saw the golden temple buildings around as well as an interesting exhibition on Chinese music. After this we headed out the south gate and after about 40 minutes of walking we reached KFC for lunch which even my dad thought was pretty good.

After that we headed to the lama temple which is a Tibetan Buddhist temple in the north of Beijing. It was also blessed by the emporer so it has yellow roofed buildings (other buildings had to have grey roofs.) it was a nice temple and then to avoid the rush hour we returned to our accommodation to get ready for our early trans Siberian departure.

Japanese and Chinese

A joke that is often made about Japanese is that they don’t have a word for no but just say hai in an uncertain manner. They actually do though: ie (pronounced ee e).

Now one of the very few things I’ve learnt with my very limited Chinese* is that the Chinese actually *don’t* really have a separate word for no in fact saying bu shi which translates as “negative yes”. Of course as unlike Japanese, Chinese is tonal which means it is impossible to just say yes directly in an uncertain manner as it could well mean something entirely different. Maybe at one time the Chinese had a proper word for no, it’d be an interesting thing to find out.

* this means I’ve just about made it onto really tough words like yes for example :p.

The most boring place on earth: Xi’An

Note that the title of this post is untrue, Xi’An is actually really good aside from the terracotta warriors, I was worried there wouldn’t be enough to do for more than two days and it’s simply untrue. There are another 3 full day excursions I could have done as well – and I spent nearly 3 days in Xi’An. I was worried there wouldn’t be enough for more than two days entertainment and in fact you could easily spend 5 or 6 days here (though if you see the pandas at Chengdu that is probably reduced to 4 or 5.)

Anyhow to continue my story. After I finished with the terracotta warriors I headed back to town and then with a bus/taxi combination I made my way to the big goose pagoda in the south of the city. I was unsure of which bus to get and for some reason I couldn’t figure out where to pickup a taxi at the station and they therefore kept driving past empty. Then due to the further excellence of my Canon’s battery meter my battery basically ran out at the temple. The big goose pagoda is big and tall and in a fairly interesting temple grounds which I wandered around – I was a bit late unfortunately so I didn’t get to go up the pagoda itself. After this I returned to town and tried to buy some thermal underwear and failed as either noone had it or it was well over my budget of ¥100 – in the end I got two for ¥100 each at the supermarket the next day, I got an OK stealth discount for them from the usual price of ¥149 by being given a different box with what I’m sure is exactly the same goods inside. I got the same kind of “special” discount with some postcards as well as a terracotta statue which apparently both carried a 50% discount because I’m a student* – yeah that’s about as likely to be true as the iPod’s in the market here to be a) real and b) hand delivered from the factory by Steve Jobs himself.

The next day I had a lazy morning as I was unable to go to the pandas which I’d tried to arrange the previous evening and I didn’t get up early enough to head to the apparently great Farmen Si temple complex so at about 11am I finally left the hostel to head to the Beilin museum. This contains a bunch of confucion stone tablets that were OK but I didn’t find them that interesting in a nice temple.

After seeing that I then headed south to the excellent Shaanxi history museum. This was surprisingly difficult to get into as the ticket desk was marked “baggage” in English but it was free so I can’t complain. Once inside I picked up the excellent audio guide (a must for foreigners as most of the signs aren’t in English.) which gave a good – though a little lengthy overview of the pieces. All in all I spent two hours here and was impressed. A lot was made of the first emporer and then the silk road which apparently the Chinese discovered. It’s something that isn’t said in Europe but as they generally imply the silk road magically materialized from thin air the Chinese are probably correct.

After seeing this I returned to buy the thermal underwear and have dinner before heading to the train station by bus to get my train to Beijing.

* I actually got a further discount on both and in the case of the terracotta statue it was entirely because the seller messed up the student discount speech :p. It is true though that for museum entry and stuff you do generally get a 50% student discount.

Xi’An and the Terracotta army

After catching the night train from Shanghai I arrived into Xi’An – First I went to my favourite restuarant (McDonalds) for breakfast. After that I made my way down to the south gate to look for some accommodation. I found something right by the south wall which was good and cost ¥40/night. I found later that you could have got a better price booking online on Hostelworld et al. I was talking to some Americans who did this and that seems to be typical for China.

After checking into my hostel I made my way to the nearby south gate and climbed up onto the city walls. These are impressive brick constructions that apart from one segment appear to be in excellent condition. That segment is much more rough and ready but it was definitely still standing and keeping the wall up.

After wandering around the wall for a bit and looking over the walled centre of the city I headed back to the hostel for lunch of some Chinese dumplings before heading north into the centre of town towards the bell tower. First I attempted to get some thermal underwear as it’s freezing here and only going to get colder as I go north. I found a store selling them for ¥100 that contained “cashmere” when they were selling pure wool ones for ¥250 – something wasn’t right there. After this I headed to the bell tower and then to the drum tower which were both OK but not great – they had a musical performance in each as well but to be honest it was awful I even walked out of the second one. To be honest it reminded me of the end of year assemblies at school in goodness. But there you wanted to go home afterwards so I’m definitely biased against them. Then I went to the Xi’An mosque – something I had been looking forward to since I was in the islamic art museum in malaysia. The mosque is especially interesting as it is built in Chinese style so it doesn’t remind me of a mosque at all. There did seem to be practicing muslims in Xi’An as they were praying at the mosque when I was there. On the way back I passed through a Market selling the usual fake designer goods. It even had some fake iPods that had gone to great lengths to copy Apple’s copyright information which I found amusing. After that I went back to my hostel and had pizza which was great, at that point I met some Americans who had had much better luck at avoiding western food so with them I headed out to the muslim quarter to paradoxically have some traditional Chinese food after this I returned to the hostel to chat some more.

Then in the night I awoke to feel the room shaking slightly – clearly there had been a minor earthquake before I left to go to the Terracotta army. Rather than go on an organized tour (about ¥160) I headed out on my own which was fairly easy as you just take bus 306 from the train station. It was also much cheaper as it only cost ¥7 each way. All in all I paid another ¥35 to get in and ¥30 for an audio tour which was quite good and it had clearly been designed by an ease-of-use specialist as it only played each piece on the device exactly once. So if you typed the number wrong you were screwed.

Anyhow I should talk about the greatness that is the terracotta army itself. The whole thing is re-assembled as all the warriors were destroyed before they were found – though there were still some broken warriors left. In my view pits 1 and 3 were the best though pit 1 had most of the warriors with a large series that greeted you. Even though I saw some terracotta warriors before at the British museum this was still seriously amazing. The detail that has gone into them is absolutely stunning.

There is also a museum of some of the works, especially the bronze work which was highly detailed and also chromed to protect them from corrosion – something that wasn’t reinvented until 1937.

After that I left and got the bus back to Xi’An and then my adventure continues but I’ll talk about that in another post.

Shoes and Shanghai national museum

On my final day (Monday) in Shanghai I first had to buy some new shoes. My “bargain” shoes from New Zealand which cost NZ$25 (£8) turned out to be not so great and they were still so wet in the morning that I had to borrow the orange plastic flip flops from my hostel to go across People’s square to the shanghai department store to pick up some shoes as I wanted to have dry socks to try them on.

It might have been a fun challenge to try and complete the whole trip with a pair of flip-flops but it wouldn’t have been fun in Siberia where I head next for sure! I first headed upstairs to the outlet section where they had real (but old) Nike and Adidas shoes. Unfortunately they were all very trainery and unsurprisingly few of them looked particularly good though the quality looked fine. So instead I headed to the lower floor to pick up some smart shoes as I need some and the Chinese don’t seem to have many shoes in the middle ground between trainers and smart shoes – I’ll have to pick some up back in the UK. There I got some good quality shoes for ¥420 but they are rubbing a little at the back so I think it was probably my least bargainous Shanghai buy.

Then after returning the flip-flops and picking up some insoles for my new shoes (which was difficult actually as they weren’t generally sold by shoe shops.) I headed to the shanghai museum. This had some interesting Buddhist statues and some excellent and really detailed bronze and jade work that was worth seeing as well as some interesting Chinese art – they seem to be keen on greyish nature pictures which makes an interesting change and is very different from European landscapes. There was also some good pottery but it was no more impressive than any other I’ve seen in other places. Overall it’s worth visiting but it’s not amazing and it is difficult because everything is catergorized to get a feel for the history. Credit though is due as virtually all the descriptions were in English as well as Mandarin.

After that I returned to my hostel and we went for a traditional Chinese Mcdonalds before I went and caught my train to Xi’An. The train was uneventful though IMO not as comfortable as the Vietnamese first class trains we took there as the beds are a little narrow. It was pretty quick though taking 13.5 hours to cover the 1200km from Shanghai to Xi’An.

Suzhou

On my second last day in Shanghai I headed over to the gardens of Suzhou. I left on the 10.30am train after getting my Xi’An ticket and sitting around for the requisite amount of time. I got to go first class as well which was nice but unnecessary. It was my own fault though as I didn’t specify and I’d specifically asked for a first class ticket to Xi’An – in case I can’t get all my shopping in my backpack I want it to be safe in a normal bag. I shouldn’t complain too much as it was only another ¥5 and I got a free water. The train was pretty quick and I think it got up to 200km/h.

Suzhou was pretty interesting after arrival and I first saw an OK Chinese temple before visiting a quite interesting museum on silk production – they were currently making some silk on an old loom that didn’t even have a mechanical shuttle. After this I tried to go to another museum but I couldn’t find it – on the way I found some canals which Suzhou is partly known for before looking at a couple more gardens which Suzhou is really famouse for. These were good but not great. Partly because I don’t enjoy them that much and partly because it’s winter I’m sure. For lunch I did manage to have a small portion of Chinese dumplings which was good. After this I headed back to the train station where I got my ticket. I had to wait so first I headed to KFC for supper before settling down in the waiting room for my train.

Shanghai

I arrived into Shanghai on Thursday afternoon and then headed to my hostel on the metro where in the evening I settled into my hostel. I met up with a canadian and we went out to buy some (fake) designer fake leather belts – I needed a belt to hold up my trousers so I thought why not. In the end we bargained hard and ended up getting them for ¥40 including adjustments to make them fit – apparently the customers are generally really fat! Aside from the fact that they are designer (and we all know that adding a label is a very expensive process and so justifies a large price premium.) the deal wasn’t that great – you can get a Tesco fake leather belt of equivalent quality for £2.99 or maybe less. Anyhow personally while I do like my clothes to look good and be of good quality I don’t give a damn about the designer label on them as it doesn’t mean anything to me.

After this we went back to the hostel and went to have a massage (which was great actually and it was a real massage that didn’t come complete with a “happy ending“.).

The next day I headed out to do some initial exploration of the city – first I decided I was going to give the maglev train a go to see what it was like to go the fastest it is generally possible to go on land. The maglev is pretty damn quick as it goes up to 430km/h and that is faster by about 100km/h than the Shinkansen – however comparitavely it is only a little faster so it wasn’t as impressive as I thought it’d be. On the way back I got off one stop before peoples square where I am staying and did some shopping where after visiting a number of both western and Chinese stores I found a good quality and stylish coat and a jumper for a decent price from an outlet of Giordano (¥299 and ¥126 respectively.) – you’d pay £30-£35 for the jumper and probably a similar multiplier for the coat.

The next day it was Saturday and I wanted to see some more than shops. First I headed to the museum of contemporary art to see the exhibition there. It had some work by couple some of which was interesting but it gave no interesting insights into love which was the premise of the exhibition so that was a little underwhelming. After that I met some girls outside who wanted a photograph and suggested I went to see the acrobatics with them. As it seemed innocent enough I followed along until they said that rather than going to the box office we were going to go to a teahouse instead to buy the tickets – obviously at this stage it was a scam so I just walked off but it was very subtley done and even the prices given were entirely correct as I’d find out when I went to the box office. Its said to see this pulled though as I often legitimately ask people for photos of me.

After this I headed to the Shanghai museum as I had planned to before and like the scammers had said the museum was free – what they hadn’t mentioned was the absolutely massive queue outside so I decided against it and instead headed on the metro across the river to get a view of the city from one of the towers there. I headed to the Jinmao tower and first made my way up to the lobby of the Hyatt which was about half way up – unfortunately the bar at the top was closed so I couldn’t go for a beer instead of paying to go to the observation desk as I had in Chicago. So at that point I went down the tower and reluctantly paid the ¥60 (it’s ¥88 for adults.) to go to the top. The view from the top was good – though it was a bit blurry from the pollution even though it was a nice day so you couldn’t see as well as you otherwise might have been able to. After seeing this and after having a wander around at ground level I headed back into town were I decided I’d go to the acrobatics anyhow. First I went to the nearest teahouse on a backstreet to ask where I might be able to get some tickets. I headed to one of the theatres known for putting on a performance and it was on the right metro line (though conveniently 1/2 way between two stops.) so I headed in that direction.

It was actually surprisingly hard to find the box office as the signs pointed to the theatre itself even though it was actually in the forecourt of the shopping centre concerned and I had to “borrow” the conceirge services of the onsite RitzCarlton to get directions – they also sold tickets though it was definitely wise to go to the box office itself. This is due to the way the tickets themselves were sold I managed to only pay ¥150 for sitting slightly further back and on the side and was within 1m of people who had paid ¥280 or nearly twice as much. Unfortunately that was the end of my financial success for the evening as I then went to dinner. As I was outside the Ritzcarlton and between two branches of high end jewelry retailer Tiffany less than 1km apart I was, to put it mildly, screwed, with regards to finding a cheap meal outside of the traditional western chains. I decided that after saving over ¥100 on the theatre I could blow it all in one go on a meal in a nice restaurant. I did get quite a good meal of sichuan style duck and some traditional Chinese tea but to be honest it wasn’t really worth the extra – maybe I should just have stuck with McDonalds or gone slightly upmarket with a slightly pricier western food chain. After this I returned to the theatre to watch the acrobatics which were absolutely stunning to see. They did lots of different things from plate spinning to dancing to jumping through hoops – it’s well worth seeing if your in Shanghai and is without a shadow of a doubt the best such evening performance I’ve seen on my trip.

Then on Sunday morning I headed off to the Bund which is the strip of colonial buildings along the river and which was OK but not really that exciting as typically the skies had opened once again to prove that my shoes from New Zealand that I got a great price* on really were made of cardboard (though in credit to cardboard it probably would dry out quicker :rolleyes:) – I’m off in the morning to buy at least one further pair. Then, determined not to have a western lunch I went to a Japanese food chain to get some food like everyone else I left my umbrella (hey it was a ¥50 umbrella that was bent and missing the cap and case from Marks and Spencers in the UK.) at the door before having a lunch of rice and chicken and cheese on a scewer which was a speciality of the south of Japan I think and which was very good.

Now if you were paying attention you’ll notice the large amount of attention to the umbrella in the last paragraph – yes, I return to the door to find that the umbrella has gone. There were some other similar ones but they all looked absolutely god-awful so I made a fuss and extorted ¥30 from the restuarant which given my previous shopping successes* I thought would be enough to get a replacement**. I then went into the first Chinese department store and used my fluent Mandarin pointing skillz to find the correct department. First I checked the price which was ¥40 which was fine by me and then – just to confirm I opened the umbrella unfortunately it failed to open correctly and pointed up initially on the outside. Now this wouldn’t be an issue except that a second failed to open as well. As I expect it to work at least the first time I walked out and this was then repeated in a further two stores (one of which was recommended by tourist information.). Fortunately at this point I found a store of Giordanos and managed to get a decent working umbrella for ¥45 as well as another jumper for ¥126. Now the shock here wasn’t the price or necessarily the quality but the combination – if they are charging that kind of money which is almost as much as you pay in the fairly pricy M&S I was shocked at the total lack of quality. Hell in a lower class UK chain you could probably get an umbrella for ¥20 that was better – and probably also made in China!

After this I headed to Xintiandi which is a block of restored Shanghai houses from the 1930’s that is full of coffee houses as you would expect in a similar place in the west. It was interesting though – and they also had a museum on it. I then went to have a cup of tea and a muffin. Following this I headed over to the Wu garden in the old city (the rest of which seems to be being rapidly demolished.) which was quite interesting to see as a traditional Chinese garden. Chinese gardens include lots of rocks and water features but seem to be plainer than Japanese gardens and there is also less gravel – they are fairy similar though.

After this I returned to my hostel to investigate my onward adventures. I had lots of ideas but they were put to bed by lack of trains or cheap accommodation so in the end I decided to do a day trip to Suzhou and then head straight to Xi’An this did take a surprisingly long time – travelling to more remote parts of China is still difficult, if they had a single overall computer system (and website) that would help a lot. In the evening I settled down and watched a couple of films – the first was a weird Japanese film and the second was this is England – a movie on skinheads in the early 1980’s. I really liked it as it exposed everyones limits and how people can be manipulated.

On Monday morning I got up early and got my train ticket for Xi’An on Tuesday evening before heading out to Suzhou but this post is massive enough as it is so I’m going to write it now and post it later, maybe tomorrow or the next day from Xi’An.

*= of course like the camera I got a great deal on in Chile it wasn’t in the end such a great deal – we shall see if my great deals I’ve bought here do better – I think they will as I checked the quality quite carefully.
**= I promise this story is at least moderately interesting :p.