We're Never Coming Back

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Day 260 - Yungang Caves, Datong

china Thsese dudes are massive...

So, after the hanging monastry (which is only the *2nd* most impressive tourist trap in Datong), we decided to check out the Yungang Caves, a series of 45 caves, 20 minutes out of Datong, that house - get this 51,000 buddha statues. Now, I don't know about you, but the fact that it houses "51,000 buddha statues" means nothing to me. Firstly, I have no idea how many 51,000 is. I mean, 5,000 is ok. I can kinda picture 5,000. But 10,000 and I start to lose track. 51,000 and I have NO IDEA how many that is. Surely its, like, a stupid amount. ridiculous. Anyway, there I am, picturing a set of natural caves on a hillside, loaded with little painted ornamental buddhas. How wrong was i?

We decided on the non-tourist approach again, so after waving a lonely planet (with the chinese symbols for Yungang Grottoes in it) under the noses of some bus drivers, we eventually got on the number 3-1 and headed out of town to a nearby coal mining town. Its kinda grim, and run-down. Much as you'd expect, I guess. But we get off, head past the open brief-cases of buddha ornaments and tacky fake-jade necklaces. and into the deserted park where we're faced by a wall of cliff, dotted with tiny cave entrances etched into them.

We wander to the start of the 45-cave circuit. Its kinda impressive. Not AMAZING. But impressive. The caves are not very deep, but covered in etching of buddhas, dragons, pagodas and important looking dudes. most of the buddhas faces have weathered off by the rain or air pollution or something, so some of them are kinda grim looking. And in the middle of the caves are stone pillars shaped like ancient pagodas. I like it.

And a few more caves like that later, and we're kinda bored. until we find this cave...

Its creepy. and empty. and hollow and scary. and the steps are inviting us to wander in. and there's no one around to stop us, or tell us not to, or save us from the murderers/tigers/spiders that lurk inside. I'm shitting myself. Sam's nervous - but willing. We creep in. To find this...

[check me out, stood at the bottom]

Its enormous right. This man-made cave is probably about 20m high, with a perfect flat ceiling of rock. Its cavernous, echoey. And the buddha, flanked by two smaller dudes on either side, one caught scarily in the sun, peers out of a window in the rock over Datong and the coal-mines. Standing at the bottom, I don't even reach half-way to his knee. Its immense. And all the while, we're creeping around this place like uninvited guests. There's stone-carved corridors to explore, but they're all blocked. so we take the photos and leave. in awe.

Its said that no-one leaves this place unwowed. which is true. Its special. I'm being careful not to gush about it, because it was kinda boring. its samey. The rest of the caves don't differ much. There's small ones...

...there's huge ones...

...there's little ones with THOUSANDS OF BUDDHAS on them (no wonder they racked up 51,000)...

...really knackered ones that look SO wrong...

...and then there's two massive outside dudes, exposed to the elements are rotting as we speak. All in all, its amazing. the work, the effort, the skill. but hey, its like the terracotta army. impressive on paper - a bit lame in the flesh. number one tourist trap in Datong - number 2 for me. The monastry was way better. But maybe just because my life was in danger. i dunno.

anyway, we left the caves and went in search of the Datong "great wall", a segment which hasn't been destroyed yet about 10 minutes from the entrance to the caves. did we find it? don't be stupid. we ask some dude. he shakes his head like we've just asked for a knife to cut our throats. we ask some shopkeeper, who puts down his uzi that he was polishing (wtf?) and calls over his taxi driving mate. we explain - no taxi please - and he points us in the opposite direction to the instructions in the lonely planet. we try both. for an hour. and don't find even a sniff of the great wall of china. which is fine, cos apparently its a rubbish, crumbling mess anyway. and i've already been, so screw the wall.

and as if all 51,000 buddhas got together to kick my ass in some kinda of kharmic-retribution backlash, we ended the day in a horrendous hard-seat night train, getting no sleep with no leg room and no warmth, and ending the horrendous journey trying to find a cab that would take us to a hostel in beijing at 6 in the morning when its -5 degrees outside. which took ages. But eventually we made it into a bed, and for half the price of nights accomdation we slept for 4 hours, cabbed back to the train station and set off on a 7 hour journey to Taishan - home of a massive (and most) sacred mountain in China, which I plan on climbing solo sometime in the next couple of days. i'm mental. damn right.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Day 259 - The Hanging Monastry, Datong

china Every now and then, you strike gold...

So, Sam and I are sat in Xian, back off the Terracotta Army trip, which you might know I kinda hated. And we're discussing where to go next. We had a choice. We could go south, see some panda's, but then getting back to Beijing might have been a hassle. We could go to Taian, site of china's most sacred, and scalable, mountains. Or we could go to Datong - outback, dusty, cold and challenging (there's very little tourist infrastructure there apparently). So what do we do - we choose Datong.

Datong is a 6 hour train ride west of Beijing, so after watching the new Willy Wonka film (what's with the sucky ending about finding a family?), we jump on a night train and head north to Beijing, arriving at 6am to the blistering cold of winter. Our connection to Datong isn't for 8 hours, so we head back to our old hostel and play some cards in the warm before heading off on the hard-seat journey to Datong, packed in like sardines into the carriages reserved for locals. Its grim - they smoke on the train, they spit on the floor (after hacknig up half their lungs first - a common occurance in china), the spill noodles on their laps and kids scream the whole way. Its smells SO BAD, and its freezing, and SO UNCOMFORTABLE. Seriously, unless you're going for the authentic travelling experience in china, aviod the hard-seat carriages.

But we made it, and scooted across the street to the nearest hotel and bundled into a dorm room (i.e. 4 beds in a room with no facilities, sharing the staff toilet and showers), where we met a wicked girl who was staying in the same room. She's funny, easy to get on with, and speaks a little mandarin, so the next day we get up early ready to head to the famed Hanging Monastry with her.

Datong boasts two attractions - the first and most respected is its Buddhist caves, caved out of the surrounding hillside and adorned with over 50,000 carvings of buddhas. shocker. that's a lot. The second, and less well-received, is its Hanging Monastry. That said, for 100 yuan (7 quid), you can jump on a tourist bus and visit the caves, the monastry and a jade factory, all in one day, and with the comfor of no chinese people spitting on your shoes and no hassle getting cabs and buses. But we're not here for that. So we wrap up warm, hit the road and start trying to make our way 1 hour out of town to the monastry.

First we're bundled on a bus by a local, responding to our "Xuankong Si" calls (the name of the monastry). We pay up, take a seat, laugh at how easy that was, then get bundled off 3 stops later and pointed down a road. 10 minutes later we're bundled onto another bus, which we suddenly realise is a tour bus and is going to rip us off (it wasn't) so start shouting "TING!" (stop) at the driver and bundle ourselves off. Then we're hassled excessively by taxi drivers, so much so we jump on the next bus, which is a small 14-seater minibus. Its smokey, stinky and tiny. And after paying up and getting comfortable, it stops to pick up half of china. In the end we had 28 people on the bus, sat on tiny wooden stools in the aisles and croching at the front so the driver can see his mirrors. It was mental. And then, a hour later, we're dropped off outside a taxi which offers to drive us to the monastry for 30yuan (it should have been 10yuan - ripped).

But we made it. And this is what we saw...

Perched - literally sliding off - the mountain side is this amazing monastry - stacked in places 3 storeys high and dripping with ancient, religious charm. Its freezing, and we're starving, so we jump into a restaurant (which rips us off AGAIN) before donning our gloves and beginning the small scale to the foot of the monastry.

Now, I love stuff like this. Its old - 1400 years - and yet tourists can still clamber over it. Some of the staircases are held up with mere wedges under the supports, and the whole thing creaks with age as you carefully pick your footing on the hanging balconies around the outsides of the gorgeously adorned rooms of buddhist deities and gods.

My fear of heights kicks in at one point, enough that I want to turn back, but I carry on, edging my way around the one-way system of narrow paths. Its magical, and we're here all alone, except for a group that arrive just as we start our descent. Its charming and captivating, and surrounding by a jaw-dropping gorge and dam, complete with frozen ice flows seeping from holes in the rock. I scoot up the concrete steps lining the side of the gorge to the top of the dam and stare out over the frozen lake.

The return journey is somewhat more comfortable, taking the same cab back to the nearby town and a nicer bus which affords us some sleep. And then its a mammoth internet session to end the day, making use of the faster-than-beijing connection and ability to check my myspace without crashing the computer.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Day 256 - The Terracotta Warriors, Xian

china Scary...

OK, so getting to Xian, about 10 hours south-west of Beijing on a night train, was probably the most-fun part of our 2-day trip to the Shanxi province. Originally planning on continuing south for a week, our beijing hostel has scared us to death about the impending New Year celebrations and lack of available train tickets, so we're heading away for just a couple of days. Anyway, we're booked on a night-train - this means two things for certain - no sleep and no comfort. Picturing an dirty carriage with 4-storey bunks, no blankets, no pillows, wooden beds and open windows, neither of us was looking forward to the journey - until we 'checked in' to our dorm...

how awesome is this. right, it was SO NICE. shockingly nice. warm and soft and cushioned. we had our own tvs with 10 channels. hot water on tap. clean (squat) toilets. a door to keep the riff-raff out and even a wake-up call at 6am. it was sweet. and whilst sam didn't sleep at all, i slept like a baby. perfect. we also got to watch our favourite tv programme "just for laughs. gags", aired in south america and seemingly in china too.

arriving in Xian was cool. the city is flanked on all side by its beautiful and imposing city walls, which circle the city centre, failing to hold in the sprawling metropolis that Xian now is. Its huge - 6.6 million people - and if it wasn't so flat, I reckon you could see it sprawling as far as the eye can see. That's something that's quite subtle in china - there's literally millions and millions of people. Towns that look no bigger than brighton house ten times as many citizens. And whilst the cities are huge, you wouldn't know there were that many people. until you enter the shops, where there are 8 check-out staff when one person could do all the work. In each of the multitude of hair-dressing salons scattered around our hutong in beijing are HOARDS of staff. maybe 10 or 12 staff, just hanging around. Its mental. I'm writing this from Datong, a small town between Beijing and Xian, where we are staying in a hotel which employs a solitary woman on EACH FLOOR of the hotel, just to unlock your door for you and clean your rooms. Its weird.

Anyway, the city is huge, and after arriving at our very central hostel, we dump our bags and head around town to spy what the shops have to offer. Its cute - we wander the highstreet for 3 hours, scouring music shops for chinese techno (all I got was shitty disco), sam bought some SARS masks, which is hugely popular out here. especially Hello Kitty ones. and I bought some rip-off sony headphones, which stopped working after 20 minutes. 2 quid wasted.

The next day was our shot at the warriors. now, word on the street is that Terracotta Army is a bit of let-down. Just a bit museum and not the awe-inspiring spectacle that it should be. To be honest, I'm not that fussed about super-touristy stuff anyway, unless you can get up-close and personal with the goods. But, that said, we couldn't come this close and not see them. some form of ancient artefact peer-pressure. Anyway, after wandering around for ages like idiots looking for the right bus, in the blistering cold, we hop on and an hour later we're jumping off at the entrance to the compound.

The whole place is disgustingly big. The museum is about a kilometre from the car park, and you have to walk through this maze of hideous tourist shops selling replica terracotta men, a scattering of pushy tour guides who insist "you will learn NOTHING if you don't have me as guide", and the sound of a chinese Kate Bush being piped around the park. Its kinda depressing, especially when the shops are offering little terracotta dudes for less than 5p each.

Anyway, we make it to the front of the park and after storming around the dull and badly presented museum, we head for Pit 1...

Right. Its big. That's the first thing that gets you. And there's a good number of the lifesized dudes. We push our way to the barriers to get a better look, take some photos, smile coyly at each other, and start walking. The thing is I don't wanna upset anyone who's been, or planning on going, or always wanted to go. But they're a bit rubbish. Ok, AMAZING. an ancient wonder. an unbeliveable about of hard work (all to protect the grave of a dead king). shocking that they have been restored so amazingly well. but a bit dull.

right, there's not THAT many of them. and they're about 30m away from where you are, so its hard to really see them in detail. and they're a bit... dare i say it... basic. i dunno. I wasn't overly bothered about seeing these bad boys when we made the journey to Xian, but actually seeing them didn't change my impression too much. I feel bad. I'm supposed to be wowed. Instead, we trundled around the other (rubbish) pits, and hopped on the hour long bus journey back to Xian city centre. Nice photos. Nice work by the archeologists. Could be better though.

And after lazing around for a day, wandering the streets of the Xian and the beautiful Muslim district (not a muslim in sight though), we jumped on another night train heading back to Beijing. Next stop - Datong - home to some old chinese history and loads of buddhist statues. whoop whoop.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Day 252 - The Summer Palace, Beijing

china This is SO MUCH cooler than the Forbidden City...

Right, travelling in China is a little bit different to everywhere else. South America is great because no matter what your plans, timescale or level of social skils, you'd quickly pick up a group of people to travel with and would never be on your own for long. New Zealand and Australia are trickier - but its totally possible if you're flexible (most people have travel plans pre-booked, so you need to fit in with the cool ones to stick with them). But here its tough. Its so cold, and there's hardley any backpackers at this time of year. And the travellers are loads more independant. Also, the country doesn't lend itself to travel in one direction - people scatter around all over the place going from Beijing to Xi'an, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tibet and Mongolia.

So, its kinda quiet here in Beijing as far as our social life goes. So to make up for it, Sam and I have been eating in the same AMAZING and CHEAP restaurant every night for the last 5 nights. Sick. Seriously though, everywhere else is like 4 quid a meal. Here, you can get a massive meal for 2 people for under a quid. and its amazing. AMAZING. The food is so good. If you're in beijing, get to the Nanluogu Xiang Hutong and head for 'Drum and Gong'. Its unreal.

Anyway, aside from embarrassingly going to the same restaurant every night, we've been up to a few other things. We took a 20 minute cab across town to the weekly flea market which had the most amazing chinese stuff you've ever seen. Edward-Scissorhand-style gloves for cutting paper, buddha statues made of marble, everything imaginable printed with chairman mao's face, mahjongg-brick bracelets and marlborough-light-packet ashtrays.

The poor attempt at taking a photo doesn't even come close to how cool this place was. But the bitter winter wind destroyed our spirits and after an hour (and a few rediculously high price offers) we took a long walk through this beautiful park and got a cab home.

On Monday we decided to go and check out Chairman Mao's dead body, which has been incarcerated (against his and his families will) in a glass box inside Tiananmen Square. Our hostel leaflet says we're 'minutes' from the square, but we're actually about an hour's walk from it. So we did the long walk, with our feet turned into blocks of ice and our fingers about to drop off, and when we got there we found that the place is shut on Mondays. Along with the two museums on the square. great. so we walked back. then went out for dinner again (of course).

But Tuesday was a total highlight. The Forbidden City, in the centre of Beijing, was something of a disappointment for both me and sam. It was just plain boring. Kinda pretty, but nothing that special. On TV, its colourful and vivid and empty of tourists and sparkling in the sun. In the flesh, its overrun, grey and smoggy, lifeless and in the process of being renovated. Nothing special. So when we decided to go to the Summer Palace, we kinda expected much of the same.

Now, a cab there is about 4 quid. Neither sam nor I can afford to pay that when the bus there is 14p. So we get the bus number from reception, get them write down the name of our destination in chinese characters, and hop on the number 834. Its SO embarrassing not being able to speak the language. But I thrust the piece of paper under the drivers nose and he studies it for about 30 seconds (they all seem to take ages to read here - taxi driver too) then waves us onto the bus.

Its rammed with chinese people. Half asleep at the back. The other half staring at us. I literally can't tell you what its like to be in china and to be a western person. Every 4th person STARES AT YOU. solidly. unashamedly. sometimes with a grimace. sometimes with a laugh. the odd chinese girl will shout 'HERRO' at me from across the street, but mostly its just stares. it can be a bit creepy actually, but we're used to it. but on the bus, it was mad. I didn't know where to look. Sam takes a seat, I stay standing, and all eyes are on duncan. But 45 minutes later, we're shooed off the bus by the female conductor and pointed in the right direction.

So, first impressions were a bit rubbish. Its spread over a hillside overlooking a lake, and there's no sign of a lake, and the usual grey, peeling, unimpressive temples litter our view. But pretty soon its different. One temple is full of 20 massive stone sculptures of scary looking buddhist deities - some holding dragons and dogs and stuff like that. The others are spread across this hillside with hundreds of rocks inbetween, with little paths and tunnels weaving through them.

As we approach the summit of the hill, we see the reason why this place is so amazing. An enormous frozen lake stands at the bottom of the hill, overlooked by some beautiful temples and pagodas, gleaming alive in the reflection of the setting sun. It dazzling. People are scattered across the ice, wandering from one side of the lake to the other, where a beautiful bridge spans the ice with 12 arches under it.

We slowly meander down the hillside to the level of the ice, where we venture out to wander over to the island, but underfoot its a bit creaky, so sam decides to bail out. We later found out that its only 2 feet deep, but still. We walk around and catch the beautiful sunset against the backdrop of the bridge's hundred statues of lions. And two hours later we're home after another amusing bus ride.

Two of the guys we met, Phil and Rix from Denmark, seem to be a very bad influence on me - getting me totally blind drunk one night (I have video evidence of asking some dude if I could do karaoke, but him only having chinese songs - I NEVER DO KARAOKE). My last memory was at 11pm when Rix pulls out a vacuum-packed chicken foot and I draw the card which means I have to eat it. I didn't. And then two nights later, me and Rix end up spending 4 hours in some bar drinking tequila shots "the irish way" - where you snort the salt, drink the tequila and sqeeze the lemon in your eye. Embarassingly we returned to the hostel at 4am, laughing like school kids and waking everyone in the 8-bed dorm up.

I also went to get my beard trimmed - one of my favourite backpacking experiences. Yeah yeah, I could buy a beard trimmer. but its so cool, walking into a place where you don't speak the language and don't know the customs, and asking to have your beard trimmed. On this occassion, they wanted to firstly wash my hair (cheeky) - i said no. Then they wanted to cut my hair - i said no. then comb my hair - come on. but eventually they just trimmed my beard. labouriously for 25 minutes. and then after being stared at for the whole time by the staff, I was asked to pose for a photo with the hairdresser who had clearly never cut a western person's hair. It was sweet.

The whole reason we've been staying in Beijing for so long was because we forgot to apply for our vietnamese visas in advance, so had to do it here. and they're taking a week to be processed, and you shouldn't travel china without your passport. But the week is up and after collecting our visas (man - my passport has SO MANY STAMPS in it now) we get a cab to the train station where we're heading for Xi'an, home of the Terracotta Warriors.

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