Sitting in Narita

I’m going to interrupt the chronology of posts here since I’m pretty backlogged on posting. I’m currently sitting in the Tokyo Narita airport waiting for an open flight. Jeff and I are flying standby and we’ve been here since yesterday, but we’d expected this, so it’s ok.

There’s an airport TV that plays a loop of programming, and I’ve seen all the programs at least five times now. It plays about five different Japanese music videos, the weather, a promo for touring Japan, promos for touring Thailand and Switzerland, weather from around the world and the news. It has ads for Coke Zero, some kind of credit card called ID, American Express, Calpis soda and Pocari Sweat.

I’m really tired of it.

Maddening Matsuyama

Getting out of Miyajima and going to our next destination proved to be quite the hassle. Since it was the Obon holiday season, a huge travel time in Japan, Jeff and I got up early and got to the dock at about 8 a.m. to buy tickets. But, of course the ticket office and information office were both closed. We spent a while communicating with the agents at another ticket office, and found that tickets were going to be about $160 to get to Matsuyama. Considering the journey takes just two ferries, we felt a little ripped off. Complicating matters was that we didn’t have that much cash, and though I have a credit card for emergencies, few places take credit in Japan. So, I walked across the island searching for an ATM, and found only the post office, which opens at 9 a.m., coincidentally the same time as the first ferry left the island, so I walked back to the ticket office, hoping it’d be open. At about 9 a.m., the ticket office still hadn’t opened, so I went to the information center to ask why the first ferry was scheduled to leave before the office opened. The girls there were very confused, called a few people, and informed me that the ticket office was open already. Of course, having sat outside the office for an hour already, I told them sharply that it was not open, and then left. At about 9:30 a.m. a man showed up on his bike and opened the ticket office, but told us the first ferry left at 10 a.m.. When we asked if they accepted VISA, he said “NO, NO, NO” and then sort of laughed like we were idiots, so I walked back across the island, got money, and came back. By this time, two very polite and helpful ladies were working in the ticket office while Mr. Lazybones sat in the back. We got our expensive tickets, got on the ferry and grumped for a few hours.

Once in Matsuyama, we went to the information counter to find out about transportation methods into the city. Sadly, the desk was closed for a break, so we parked ourselves and waited. About ten minutes later, the man came back, and told us that we’d missed the only direct bus going to our destination, which left right when he had been on break. Jeff sort of imploded at that moment, since the next bus was in an hour. But, we took a few buses and subways and finally made it, all before lunch. We grabbed some cheap Japanese curry, stowed our bags in some lockers, and went out sightseeing until our hostel opened.

The main (only) thing to do in Matsuyama is see the castle and take mineral baths. We opted for the castle, which was actually really neat.

The castle is in the middle of the city, on a tall hill, so we rode a tram to the top, where there were views of the whole city. The castle was originally built in 1603, and wasn’t so much a residential castle as one for defense. We toured the interior, where there were exhibits of samurai armor, weapons and art objects from the castle, as well as a history of the castle.

It was blazing hot, but for the ride down we skipped the tram and took the ski lift, because it just looked too silly. As it turned out, it was much more comfortable than the tram anyway!

We grabbed our bags and headed to the hostel, which we had a hard time finding. By the time we were settled, we had very little cash, as the hostel was cash-only and cleaned out what we had after buying our ferry tickets. Of course, there were no international ATMs to be found, so we spent a while looking for a restaurant that accepted VISA, while Jeff declared that he really disliked Matsuyama.

The other big thing to do in Matsuyama is visit the famous public baths there, but having no money, we opted for the free hostel showers instead. We weren’t too bummed either, because when something like that gets famous, it seems the service inevitably goes down, and other travelers confirmed our suspicions.

The hostel may have been my least favorite hostel, including Chinese hostels. Of course, the hostel shower just had to be absolutely ghastly, even after a day spent sweating in the 100 degree heat. It was actually worse than my crazy water heater in Beijing, and may have been the worst shower I’ve ever taken. For starters, the shower water worked like a park bathroom sink — every time you pushed the button, the water lasted for 20 seconds. That wouldn’t be so bad, except that the water never got hot. Oh well, I got clean in the end, and the cold water was refreshing. I went to sleep at about 11 p.m., as did the other two girls in my room. However, a fourth girl came in at about midnight, and rustled around with her bags and went in and out of the room until about 1:30 a.m. Then, the same girl’s phone alarm went off at 5:10 a.m., and she continued snoozing it and letting it go off every ten minutes until at least 6:30 a.m., when I left the room. I guess she is NOT familiar with hostel etiquette or the dangers of provoking strangers who may or may not have weapons under their pillows.

At any rate, Jeff and blew out of town, fully ready for a slightly better travel day elsewhere. Perhaps somewhere with ATMS…

The deserted city

In the run up to the Olympics, the Beijing government did a whole lot of “restoration” of historic tourist sites. In the case of Qianmen (前门), this meant razing a large swath of historic hutong, building a large, historic-looking shopping street, and raking in large sums of tourist money.

Except that the money never rolled in.

Saturday I visited Qianmen for the first time since I was in the area visiting a museum. Of over 100 large, beautifully built shops and restaurant spaces, eight were open. Of course, there were still crowds of tourists, because if the government deems something a tourist spot, the tours companies are pretty much obligated to go. The result: hundreds of tourists wandering down a completely desolate street, all wondering “why am I here?”

Although some businesses had signed on to open up in Qianmen, almost all have pulled out and moved to other areas.

So, what was once a vibrant neighborhood with local homes, shops and historically significant buildings, is now a no-businessman’s land of empty buildings. Though these buildings are quite pretty, it doesn’t really justify the incredible waste and reckless prospecting by the government.

The only exception to the lack of notable businesses is the newly opened H&M store. H&M is pretty much my favorite store, but it doesn’t redeem Qianmen.

As I said earlier, the question on everyone’s minds was “why am I here?” A few years ago, the answer would have been that Qianmen is the historic business district of imperial times. Because it was located just south of the gates to the Forbidden City, it was the place where members of the court went to unwind, do some shopping, visit bars and frequent brothels. In later years, it housed some of the oldest stores in Beijing.

These days, the answer to that ever-pressing question: To witness yet another prospecting failure of Beijing. Cheers!

Electric scooter diaries

To continue with our chronicle of our travels, when we disembarked from our tour boat, we were in Yangshuo, the tourist capital of rural China. Yangshuo is a horrible town with too many tourists and even more hawkers and crooks, so Jeff and I decided we had better get out of dodge, having spent the morning being ripped off by the boating tour agency.

We had made friends on the boat, bonding over our misfortunes, so the four of us fought our way through various hawkers, “tour guides,” and other undesirables, and decided to get out of town as fast as possible. Anna, one of our new friends, made the suggestion that we rent scooters, and in a matter of minutes had everyone on board.

After a few brushes of death involving large trucks, rain, hand-drawn road maps and unmarked roads, we made it to the “highway” outside of town. There were almost no cars, and wonderfully, no hawkers and people yelling, “hello? HELLO? Pretty lady, you come here! You buy this!” It was the first bit of quiet and peace that we had had in a while, and it was lovely. It started to rain shortly after we left town, but it felt wonderful to have the wind in our faces and an abused umbrella over our heads as we whizzed along. We were finally getting a taste of that wonderful feeling of freedom that comes with having no plans or obligations, floating through a foreign land, enjoying the beauty and mystery of a new place.

We don’t have any pictures of us on our scooter, but here are our friends Anna and Gerry:

From China: Moreventures

We went hiking on a mountain outside of town with a huge natural arch at the top.

From China: Moreventures

It was really beautiful and majestic, and it would have been even better without the dozen or so ladies who climb the mountain to coerce hikers into buying things from them. While we are used to an atmosphere of reverence at natural wonders, the Chinese are more into spectacle. Accordingly, while we founding it rude and annoying that people were constantly trying to sell us things when we were trying to appreciate the amazing scenery, they felt they were just doing their jobs, I suppose. Once we got to the very top of the mountain, we were finally able to shake off the hawkers and properly appreciate the view.

From China: Moreventures

We also tried to understand our hand-drawn, not-to-scale map of the area to figure out where to scooter off to next. It was unproductive, so we decided just to wander about and hopefully not run our of power on our bikes.

From China: Moreventures

Once we climbed down the mountain, we ran the gauntlet of the hawker ladies again, and literally got on our bikes and drove away as they were still trying to sell us things. While about 60 percent 80 percent of me was sure I was going to die on that scooter, the other percentage was loving the peace and freedom the bike afforded. We meandered about, and finally took a random highway toward the middle of nowhere. Once out on the road, which didn’t seem to even be on our map, all we passed were farmers and cattle, and the occasional scooter. We eventually stopped in a tiny village where we decided to look for dinner.

From China: Moreventures

The village was barely a block long, and once the road left the village it was no longer paved. It seemed to be a market day, with tents set up along the road filled with meats, vegetables and soon-to-be dead animals. We asked around for a restaurant, and were led to a small room the size of a garage. In fact, it probably was a garage. The woman who ran the place woke up from her nap and took us into the kitchen back of the garage where her stoves and supplies were. She asked us what we wanted to eat, and based on our rather hazy requests made an incredible meal despite her humble facilities. We had such a lovely time there, chatting to her a little as she cooked and just enjoying the company of our new friends that we almost didn’t make it back to Yangshuo in time to return our scooters.

Once our scooters were safely returned, we headed to the bus station to find our way back to Guilin. Just as we were getting into a parking lot that appeared to be filled with buses, we were herded into a bus bound for Guilin by a harried Chinese man. A little sketched out, we got seats and made sure all the Chinese people on the bus were going the same way, paid, and promptly fell asleep.

The afternoon cost us only a few kuai, but I think Jeff and I both agree it was the best part of the trip up to that point.

Touring in Guangzhou: Don’t do it

While on the long train ride to Guangzhou, we discovered that apparently going there was a mistake. Almost every Chinese person we told we were going there looked confused and asked why. The next thing they said was to watch out for scammers, pickpockets and muggers. Great.

Well, it turned out that Guangzhou wasn’t really as bad as people made it sound, it just wasn’t much of a tourist city compared to Xi’an. It took us about an hour to get to the hostel because our driver got lost. Then the hostel staff had lost our reservation. So basically by the time our accommodation was all settled, we were already hating Guangzhou.

The dinner of pigeon did wonders to cheer us up, although I didn’t partake of it. Southern Chinese food is really amazing and tasty, and we’ve loved pretty much every meal we’ve had here.

The next day we decided to book our tickets out of Guangzhou. Despite having told us the day before that they could help us get tickets, the front desk staff acted like this was a completely crazy request and gave us vague directions to a ticket office somewhere else. It took us a while, but eventually we found it and got our tickets to get out of town.

Then we went touristing.

First we went to a park our Lonely Planet recommended. It wasn’t anything amazing, I mean, it was a park. But we did manage to entertain ourselves by renting a really janky paddle boat and boating around the lake. For the most part it was peaceful and nice, though some people in a motorboat ploughed into us at one point.

The highlight of the day was really amazing museum that I encourage those who end up in Guangzhou to go see.The museum is built around an excavated tomb of an emperor from around 200 BC, and you can actually walk around inside his tomb. I can’t imagine many museums in America letting you walk around inside an artifact like that, so I found it really neat. Each room of the tomb had a little sign telling you what was stored there. In one of the rooms, they found several sacrificial victims.

The museum also has a huge collection of artifacts found inside the tomb, four large rooms of artifacts, in fact. It was a little hard to believe that all the artifacts actually came from inside the tomb, since it’s pretty small, but apparently they did. One of the coolest things was the jade burial suit the dead emperor was wearing. There was also a lot of beautiful jewelery and some very large and impressive musical instruments. You could also see the remains of one of the concubines and the emperor himself. Be warned, it looked like some dirt with bits of rock in it, arranged into a vaguely human shape. Actually, I think they have part of his jaw preserved, which Jeff immediately noted has “the best teeth I’ve seen so far in China.” Like father, like son.

There were also many other rooms of artifacts from elsewhere, but since we came right near closing time, we didn’t see much aside from the dead emperor’s stuff. The museum itself is actually pretty interesting, since you wouldn’t really notice it from the street. It’s built right into a block of apartments but once you’re inside, it’s pretty huge.

After breezing through the museum, we met a friend of a friend for dinner at a vegetarian restaurant. He didn’t really seem to understand the concept of everything having mock meat, but dinner was pretty good nonetheless. The restaurant was right next to a Buddhist temple, and inside it was decorated like a forest.

Notice the mock tree in the background.

The next day we decided to go look around the old colonial section of town. Back during the Qing dynasty, the French and English were allowed to set up a small outpost on an island in the river that runs through Guangzhou. Today, the island has many preserved mansions and parks from that era, and sounded like a nice way to start the day.

Once we found the island, we were a little confused by the signage.

Apparently what our guide book didn’t tell us was that the island is in a parallel universe where you can be five places at once.

Since the island was really small, we just wandered around it without a concrete plan. A long park runs down the middle of the island, so we decided to take a stroll through it. It was quite lovely, if a little obviously English in style. We even saw a couple taking wedding photos there.

We were only charmed for about one minute, because then we saw this:

Then ten minutes later we saw this:

I guess that’s where all the wedding dress catalogs do their shoots. Maybe because it’s the only area in Guangzhou that’s free to get into and doesn’t look like poop.

Afterward, we wandered back to the subway through a Chinese medicine market. I was actually rather upset by it since we saw several very real looking tiger paws and thousands and thousands of needlessly killed animals, many of which are protected species. Jeff found it really interesting and exciting however, since it’s a little taste of “real” China, depending on how you define that.

Later we discovered what Guangzhou does best — being creepy, and shopping. On our way to the pedestrian shopping street, a really creepy and likely crazy man starting stalking us. He was walking about twenty feet in front of us and every few seconds would turn around and wave or beckon at us and say “hello!” or “come on….” Very creeped out, we ducked into a store once when he wasnt looking and managed to shake him. At any rate, shopping in Guangzhou is really good. Everything there is really cheap because there are a lot of clothing factories close by. For example, a pair of shoes that cost 50 kuai in Beijing cost 15 kuai in Guangzhou. After shopping we had to run back to our hostel, grab our things and get the heck out of dodge.

I guess our guidebook’s “sites” section could be revised in this way:

Guangzhou doesn’t have much for tourists to do. You’re best off to just stay one or two days, and spend the day doing two things. Get up in the morning. Eat some Cantonese baked goods. Go shopping. Eat Cantonese seafood. Go shopping. Go to Cantonese dinner. Go shopping. Repeat.

The Journey Begins

All right, the journey began last Tuesday, but this is the first really stable internet connection we’ve had.

Tuesday morning, we set out for the train station for a big adventure.  Caitlin had been worrying because I didn’t have a plan or much input on the trip, but my plan was to play things by ear and do things as we go along.  It turns out that China sort of expects you to do this, since we pretty much had to buy tickets the day before we left.

We had heard moderately scary things about train ticketing and travel, so Caitlin had been hesitant to take the plunge.  We finally got to a place to buy tickets and talked to the guy behind the window.  He was mumbling a lot, but Caitlin understood that there was a train leaving for Xi’an at 8:30 p.m.  Since it’s a 13 or so hour ride, it’s best to leave at night, sleep the whole way, and wake up in a magical new land.

Once we walked outside, Caitlin looked at our tickets and realized they left at 2:30 p.m., meaning we would get to our destination at 3:30 a.m.  Suboptimal, and it had us upset for a little while.

By the time we were leaving, however, we were in much better spirits:

We got to the train station two hours early, because Caitlin wanted to make sure everything was in order.  I guess she assumed we were traveling internationally and had to go through TSA…

Once inside, I was struck by the sheer Asianness of the place. Chinese people everywhere!

It amazed me how few white people were there. I figured that with the Olympics freshly over and all, the tourists would be filling this place up, but there was not a Caucasian in sight.

Not only that, but it turns out that it’s the norm for the trains to be pretty much entirely Chinese. Aside from the usual semi-English signs, there was nothing that catered to foreigners. The locations on the giant sign were entirely in Chinese, the menus at the cafe were entirely in Chinese. Even (not surprisingly, though) when Caitlin noted that she wanted rice with her meal, the server yelled across the restaurant, in Mandarin, “The foreigner wants rice!”

Once we were done with lunch, we had a solid hour to kill before our train left.  The Chinese not only like to get to things early, but they also have this weird obsession with lining up.  It doesn’t matter what it is, if they see a line, they have to

  1. get in the line
  2. and

  3. get to the front of the line.

In this case, it meant that no matter what we did, we weren’t getting a seat in the waiting room.  So we waited our time on the floor, getting shooed away arbitrarily by one of the officials.

Finally, we passed through all of the shoving and pushing, finding our way to the platform, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel — the first of many, many tunnels (both literal and figurative).

Getting Home

The Olympics tend to draw large crowds from around the world, so it was inevitable that there would be someone I knew in the city.  As it turns out, I knew a couple of people, one of whom we actually decided to have dinner with.

Dinner was lengthy and enjoyable, and beforehand we even got to see the Beijing equivalent of Fremont street:

It turns out my friend was one of 300 international Olympic volunteers.  To put things in perspective, there were 100,000 volunteers of her category.  We had noticed there were different classes of volunteers, so we asked about the old people who sit around on every street doing pretty much exactly what they do every single other day, only wearing the Olympic shirt, and she explained that they’re there just in case someone needs a question answered.  Also, since there could potentially be a lot of questions, they are the largest class.  To quote our source, “There are a million of them.  Literally.”

During the course of dinner, I made it known that I had been wanting the Olympic polo shirt worn by the 100,000. I had even devised a plan to attack a lone Chinese girl, beating her up to steal the shirt. Fortunately, my lone American friend was so sick of the uniform, she offered the whole thing to me.

Unfortunately, this involved going to her place to pick it up, which wouldn’t be so bad, but Caitlin had to go back to her place to get ready to welcome a friend who would be staying the night. That meant I would have to get home by myself.

Getting across town was easy. I had a two-month local to take me on the trains, even mapping out my return to familiarity. As we were switching lines, however, we hit a bump in our plan. Waiting for the train to arrive, we watched it go right past us. More Chinese people collected, all looking confused:

It turns out the station was closing, but there was another train that stopped before we were out of luck.

We got to the right district, I got a new outfit (including the issued elastic-waisted pants and sock set), got shoved into a pre-informed taxi, and somehow made it back safely.  In fact, aside from the fact that I said nothing the entire time aside from “xie xie” when departing, I’m not sure the driver knew I didn’t speak Chinese.

Anyway, I did something in China without Caitlin!