Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Between Beijing and Xi'an

Our journey since Beijing has been both enjoyable and trying. There are amazing things to see and do in China but there are always hassles that test our patience. We spent three nights in Tianjin, our plan had been two, but we learned that we needed to plan our daily activities down to every detail. So our first day in Tianjin was spent sitting in Starbucks on their free wireless planning out everything for the following week. We planned each train we would take, when we would buy tickets for the trains, where we would stay, what we would do, and everything else. Starbucks was home away from home and it was just what we needed to escape for a day to re-analyse our plans.

Tianjin is currently a growing port city. This in China means, buildings are vacant for demolition and a highway is displacing probably hundreds of people. There are dozens of new buildings on the rise, all empty waiting to be finished and tenants to move in, however they're much too expensive for most citizens. At night, the large city is dark due to a power shortage and no work occurs in the day. We have no idea how the buildings will get built and the highway will appear.

Our main reason to be in Tianjin was to visit the 6th tallest tower in the world, so on our second day, we took the city bus to the tower. We enjoyed tea in the revolving lounge area overlooking the city's clouds and smog, not much to see. The tower is only 15 years old yet it's so dirty and uncared for that it appears to be hundreds. Next we ventured to Jiefang Beilu Street which is lined with historical buildings from the early 1900s. This area used to be filled with foreigners, mostly Europeans, and the architecture left behind is a treasure to Tianjin. Most of the buildings are now banks but 20% are left vacant and in disrepair, a sad sight. We left Tianjin with our plans perfect, said good-bye to the very helpful hostel owners and boarded our first REAL hardseat train.

The train wasn't as bad as we had assumed, it was however overcrowded. First they sell tickets to fill the seats and then they sell standing room only tickets so the aisles are full of people too. There is barely any room for luggage. The food carts often have troubles getting down the aisles. At least the seats aren't actually "hard" as such, just not quite as padded. On a long voyage, they become hard... At least there was a nice young guy next to us who spoke some English. He was able to help us know when to get off. We arrived at Taishan Station in Tai'an shortly after 7pm. There were no hostels in Tai'an, and our intended hotel was supposedly vacant enough not to take a reservation. We hopped in a taxi to take us there, giving him the chinese characters of the name of the hotel, but obviously we weren't quite prepared enough. He managed to take us to another hotel without us realizing it... It turned out to be fine, but we were still deceived...

We realized that we were in the wrong hotel the following morning when we set out to find an ATM and realized the street names were incorrect on the map we had. We found our way though and eventually made it to the central trailhead to ascend Mount Tai (Tai Shan). A stone path with stone stairs lined the ENTIRE way up. There were a few temples along the way and many little shops and stands selling drinks and souvenirs. It took 2 hours for the first 5.5km to the Midway Gate and then another hour and a half to ascend the last steeper 3.5km to the Southern Gate. We ate lunch then carried on the extra half hour up to the Jade Emperor Temple at the summit (1545m/5068ft). Nice views of the surrounding peaks and into the abyss of clouds and fog below. Pretty impressive. Being quite tired of the 1600 step ascent, we took the tram back down to the midway point and the bus the rest of the way down a crazy winding road. Our deceitful hotel was closer to the bus drop-off than our intended hotel, so that was good at least. It was also closer to the train station, so the walk back to the station the next morning was easier. Worked out for the best, we guess.

Our next train was a little more trying, being that it was NINE hours on a congested train, again on hardseats. You can only read and listen to your Ipod so long... And sleeping was not exactly a comfortable option. A couple of people spoke broken English around us, which they attempted to practice on us. Nice enough people, again, helping us to know when our stop would be. We arrived in Luoyang shortly after 8:30pm and our hostel was an easy, straightforward walk from the train station. Our first Hostelling International hostel that we've stayed at in Asia. Pretty nice place despite lacking wireless internet.

Luoyang is known for the Longmen Caves that are just south of town, with easy access by local bus. The "caves" were carved into the cliffsides on each side of the Li River for a stretch of about one kilometre. Into the sides of the caves are carvings of buddhas. Many had the heads sawed off a century or two ago by relic hunters, but the area is still quite impressive. There is one area with a large buddha among others that has been well restored and maintained, which was the most impressive and made the visit all the more worth while. There is also a temple and gardens on the grounds which we didn't bother with. The stairs up and down the cliffs to see the caves were a little too tiring on us being only 2 days since our Tai Shan climb. :) We returned to the hostel by mid afternoon and relaxed into the evening.

Today, we arrived in Xi'an. We were finally able to buy softseats for this 5-hour ride, which was quite enjoyable. First off, it was a double-decker car. The seats were more padded, there was much more room, and there were many less people. Arriving in Xi'an mid afternoon also allowed us to spend a bit of time on the internet to continue planning our trip and sending some emails. Looking forward to seeing the famed Terra Cotta Warriors and to clammer up Hua Shan over the next couple of days.

Tianjin Pics | Tai'an & Taishan Pics | Luoyang & Longmen Caves Pics

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Beijing and the Great Wall

Let us start by saying, we were spoiled in Japan. There was no culture shock whatsoever in Japan, but Beijing is definitely giving us a new experience. Cars have the right of way, everyone horks on the street everywhere, stores sweep their garbage onto the street, and its every man for himself. And we're now constantly solicited at the tourist destinations. Also, the tourist destinations themselves are not maintained very well.

That being said, we've still managed to experience Beijing to the fullest and are reasonably satisfied. Our first morning, we woke to a guy playing guitar and harmonica while tapping his foot on a tambourine. He was being filmed by CityTV who were doing a story on traditional hostels. The musician was a guest from England. We were interviewed while having breakfast, so we might end up on Beijing TV! How exciting. :) Continuing on with our day, we tested out the subway system by taking it to Tiananmen Square. The subway was packed to the gills, but we managed to shove on. Tiananmen Square is huge. Lots of tour groups and solicitors. Then we carried onto the grounds of the Forbidden City, through the Gate of Heavenly Peace where the huge picture of Mao is hung. We left the Palace Museum for later and carried on around the Palace Moat, past Beihei Park, and back to our hostel.

Saturday was a definitely highlight. The hostel arranged a driver for us and 5 others to take a minivan up to the Great Wall of China! Four of us were dropped off Jinshanling section of the wall while the other three carried on to Simatai. Dan and Es (from England) and us hiked the 10km from Jinshanling to Simatai. Fantastic! This stretch of the wall was not very touristy and it was a beautiful day. We took lots of amazing pictures. Breathtaking (figuratively and literally) the whole way. Quite an arduous hike as the wall scaled up and down along the mountain ridge. Incredible. We had a great time. Definitely worth the 3-hour drive. We managed to hike the whole 10km in about 3 and a half hours, which was meant to take 4, and we even had a nice stop for lunch. :)

We took it easy the next day, only visiting Beihei Park and the Lama Temple. Beihei Park has a nice lake to walk around, with many interesting attractions such as the Nine Dragon Screen and Round City along the way. The highlight is the White Dagoba on the hilltop of the Jade Islet, with a temple at the bottom and many stairs to walk up. It yielded a decent view from the top. Then we carried on by bus to the Lama Temple, Beijing's most colourful temple, and the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. There were many nice buildings, one housed the world's largest sandlewood statue: a 55ft high Maitreya Buddha! It was huge! That evening, we attended an acrobatics show. Children of all ages did some pretty crazy stuff! Balancing acts, bicycle acts, tight-wire acts, etc. Very entertaining.

We got up early the next morning and headed down to the Temple of Heaven. We entered from the south of the park, walked over the Round Altar, around the Imperial Vault of Heaven with its surrounding Echo Wall, and up to the magnificent Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Definitely a recognizable symbol of China. Then we carried on exiting at the north of the park and heading to the Forbidden City. This time, entering the Palace Museum. Unfortunately, main Hall of Supreme Harmony had scaffolding all over it and was closed to the public. We carried on past many of the halls, looking into what was inside. All not very well maintained. Dirty and in disrepair. And hords of people everywhere. Not the most enjoyable experience, but at least we can say we've been... We returned to the hostel and then Jason carried on to check out the CRTV Tower. It is the 6th tallest tower in the world at 405m (1329ft). No glass elevator, but it had a decent outdoor view from the skydeck. The city was hazy and the sun was setting. Jason hurried back to the hostel in time for us to head out to see the Chinese Opera! Quite an interesting and unique show. Lots of face makeup, crazy music, and fun acrobatics.

We got up early again this morning to take the bus an hour and 15 minutes to the Summer Palace grounds. The grounds contain a large lake and many halls and temples. We first walked down to the 17-Arch Bridge and Dragon King Temple. Then walked up around the lake, down the Long Corridor the Cloud Dispelling Hall at the base of the main Palace. We didn't have time to hike all they way up, so we doubled back and caught the bus back to our hostel in time to check out at noon. Then we took the bus to the main train station and took the train to Tianjin. The bus to hour hostel took almost an hour but we made it okay. Seems clean and nice. It only just re-opened though, so some services such as wireless internet are still missing... We're here for a couple of days before carrying on south.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sayonara Tokyo & Ni Hao Beijing!

We've landed safely in Beijing! After some struggling with the new language we found the correct buses to our hostel and we're all settled in. It's much colder here, -2C this evening, and very different from Japan. We will need to quickly adjust to the fast-paced, more foreign culture and become a little more aggressive with getting what we need. There's very little English compared to Japan and we're not greeted with as many helpful faces.

That all said, we're quite happy to leave Japan. We'll admit we've pushed our budget a little in the bustling, consumer driven country and our last week was limited in travels. The nine nights in our little Japanese apartment began to feel secluded. Tokyo, in our minds, is just like any other city and we navigated it with no problem. It didn't feel like we were in the largest city in the world. We soon fell into city routine, grocery shopping and riding the metro, it was almost too much like home.

Regardless of the travel and budget constraints, we toured all over Tokyo. Harajuku is the young, hip shopping district selling brand-name fashions and the famous "Harajuku girl" type clothing. It was very interesting to walk the streets and alleyways watching the young and fashionable. The Meiji Shrine is located beside Harajuku district and is like a forest in the middle of the city. The torii gates that lead to the shrine are the largest in Japan and are made from 1700 year old Cyprus trees. The shrine itself is similar to many we had seen, but the natural setting and grand entrance was special making walking the grounds enjoyable.

Electronic Town is just that, a flashy shopping district for all your technical needs. The buildings here are practically alive, covered in lights and decked out in advertisements, we quickly got sucked in. Imagine whole department stores, 7 stories tall, selling nothing but gadgets, computers and appliances. It's crazy. It's Future Shop on steroids. We thought about a neat, talking, language translating, hand-held device, but quickly shook it off (a little forethought now, it probably would have been really helpful in China). Our day ended with the successful retrieval of our Indian visas. We couldn't have been happier.

Asakusa, containing Nakamise Dori, the road leading to the Sensi-ji Temple, is the old merchant district and the place to go for souvenir shopping. This is probably one of the most beautiful and unbelievably congested places we've been yet. The two entrance gates to the Temple located along Nakamise Dori hold the largest lanterns in Japan, weighing 100kg each. The merchant stands lining the road have been past down from generation to generation, keeping many of the little bakery shops traditional and interesting. However, most of the shops sell junk. Sensi-ji Temple, where you pray for forgiveness, is again like many others, but the surrounding atmosphere keeps it extremely alive and colourful. It was entertaining and touching to watch the locals visit the temple to pray.

The next two days, Saturday and Sunday, were rainy and uninviting. We didn't want to go out, not for the rain, but for the sheer number of people that are out shopping and site seeing on weekends. We stayed close to home and finalized plans for China. Monday and Tuesday however, we needed to get out of the apartment and run a bunch of errands including, rescheduling flights, investigating India and visiting an English used book store. Jason purchased book 3 and 4 of the series The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy and Nicole got a book called Dead Simple by Peter James. All for only $15.00 Cdn. Nicole's already half done hers.

Our last day in Tokyo, we splurged and spent $20.00 to visit Yokohama, Japan's second largest city. We couldn't give up the chance of saying we'd been to Japan's 7 largest cities. Plus, the largest ferris wheel in the world, one of the largest China towns in the world and Japan's tallest building are all located in the port city of Yokohama. The city is beautiful and multi-cultural due to it being one of the first ports Japan opened up to the rest of the world. Cobblestone sidewalks and a foreign cemetery are some of the main attractions. We enjoyed a brief cruise along the Yokohama waterfront on the crisp, sunny day. We were happy to leave with our last impressions of Japan being Yokohama.

Over the next few days we'll tour Beijing and see the Great Wall and other spectacular attractions. Hopefully the language barrier doesn't continue to be a burden.

Tokyo 2 Pics | Yokohama Pics | Beijing Pics

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Japan, From West to East

Weeee! We've spent the past week travelling almost across the entire country! After leaving Fukuoka, we stopped in Osaka for a couple of days. Our hostel was in a shady part of the city, showing us the highest concentration of homeless that we'd seen so far in Japan, but they were all unobtrusive. We arrived in the afternoon so we walked to the Shitennoji Temple, which had a 5-story pagoda and a nice turtle pond, then spent the evening touring all of the underground shopping districts. Osaka is known for its shopping and Nicole did her fair share.

The next morning, we visited the grand Osaka Castle and checked out views of the city from the Floating Garden Observatory. The observatory was bridged between two buildings. We even had to go up a floating escalator that ascending from one building to the other. Very cool. We spent the afternoon in Koyasan (Mount Koya). To get there we took a 1.5-hour scenic train ride south of Osaka, a 10-minute ascending cable car, and a 10-minute winding bus ride. The main attraction was an old graveyard lined with lanterns leading to the Okunoin Temple. It was beautiful walking in late afternoon. It was very chilly though, too cold for Jason in shorts and a t-shirt. We made it to Okunoin at sunset, so the sky above was beautiful against the fall colours of the trees near the temple. The highlight for us though was the Lantern Temple at dusk, lanterns hung all around it and filled it. Beautiful! Unfortunately we weren't allowed taking pictures.

The next day, we briefly stopped in Nagoya, dropped off our bags at our hotel, and then carried on 2 hours north to the mountain town of Takayama. We weren't able to get there until mid afternoon, but we still took a scenic walk to the Hida Folk Village. Situated on a pond and filled with old thatched roof houses and fall coloured trees, the area was beautiful.
There was also a nice view of Takayama with high mountains in the distance. It closed at 5pm so we couldn't stay long. We walked back into town to see old merchant houses at dusk, then returned to Nagoya for the night.

Sunday, we met up with Hiroko Baker, who we know from Jason's cottage! She was here visiting her father, who's in the hospital for surgery. We met her and her son, Sammy, at the Nagoya Aquarium. We had lunch with them, then ventured through the aquarium. We watched a cool dolphin show, followed by orca training. It's amazing what they can do. After, we toured tonnes of tanks full of fish and turtles and even penguins in an Antarctic climate. Quite a good aquarium. There was a cool little Italian village next door which had canals and gondola rides and all sorts of replica statues and buildings from Italy.

Hiroko's sister, Eri, picked us up here and then we had tea and cake at Hiroko's friend's (Junko) bakery. Junko is famous in Japan for her portrait cakes that she creates. She has even been on TV! We had a very tasty dinner with Eri's family and then returned to Junko's house as she was happy to have us stay with her. She and her husband even cooked us an awesome breakfast the next morning. So hospitable! And Shinji (Eri's husband) also drove us to the subway the next morning. Thank you so much to Eri's family and Junko's family for hosting us and thanks to Hiroko for organizing it all!

We took the train from Nagoya to Tokyo and we actually saw Mount Fuji from the train on the way (Good spotting by Nicole)! This was quite fortunate since Mount Fuji is cloud-covered most days of the year. It sure was an awesome sight! Then we carried on 3 hours north of Tokyo to the small town of Kakunodate. Again, it was late afternoon so we only had about a half hour of daylight to see the samurai houses that the town is known for. Nice houses on wide streets lined with beautiful fall coloured trees. We took the train back south an hour and a half to the city of Sendai where we stayed at our only real hotel in Japan (since there were no hostel options). It was a Comfort Hotel so it was still relatively cheap. Nice room. :)

In the morning, we walked around Sendai to see its shopping arcades and tree-lined street that it is known for. A pretty cool and active city. After, we took a 25-minute train to Matsushima. We took the wrong train line unfortunately so we had to walk a little further than we'd hoped, but we figured it out. Matsushima is considered one of Japan's most scenic spots. Its coast is lined with pretty pine-clad islands. A couple of the islands have beautiful red pedestrian bridges to them. We walked around Oshima Island which had lots of caves carved into the rock and even a tunnel. Pretty amazing. We walked all along the coast of the harbour then took a sightseeing cruise through the islands to Shiogama (just south of Matsushima). Lots of cool water-worn islands with eroded shorelines and tunnels. We took the train back to Sendai then all the way back to Tokyo. Being the last day of validity for our Japan Rail Passes, we'll be staying in Tokyo for our last 9 days in Japan. We are staying in an apartment-style hostel in a neighbourhood 30 mins northwest of downtown Tokyo. Seems to be a nice place. Looking forward to relaxing and seeing more of what Tokyo has to offer.

Osaka Pics | Koyasan Pics | Takayama Pics | Nagoya Pics | North Pics