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Travel List Thursday: Beijing

Posted by Heliocentrism on November 10, 2016

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Back Home in Japan

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 8, 2014

Sunday May 5, 2013

This time I knew I was not in Japan!

Late (for reals this time!)

Vera and I both had morning flights about half an hour apart. She was heading to South Korea and I to Japan. We got on an airport limousine and were zooming down the highway. Then we hit traffic. There was nothing we could do.

I made it just in time to catch my flight. They let me jump the line at the security check and I ran to my gate. I was the last person to get on the plane. I took my seat and caught my breath.

This time when we stopped in Qingdao I was aware of it. There was no mistaking any city in China for any city in Japan.

This is all I have.

Are you sure you don’t mean South Korea?

When I got to the airport in Fukuoka there was a blue bin with my name on it going around the carousel. I knew that it meant that my bag was lost. Although I made the flight from China, my bag did not. I took the bin over to a counter and started filing a report. The airline officials asked me to describe my bag and its contents.

It was a new bag and I could not quite remember what it looked like. It was blue and it was a backpack… “Where did you come from?” the uniformed man asked me. “China,” I said. “You were in China the whole time?” he asked.

“No,” I replied. “I was in China for about 3 days total. The rest of the time I was in North Korea.”

“You were in South Korea,” he corrected me.

“No sir. I was in North Korea.”

“Are you American?” he asked looking at my passport.

“I am.”

“Then you can’t go to North Korea. Are you sure you weren’t in Seoul?”

“I lived in Seoul for 2 years. If I were there just now, I would not have mistaken it for anywhere else. I was in Pyongyang, North Korea. The bag should have a sticker on it saying as much.” Then I pulled out a copy of the Pyongyang Times I had on me and handed it to the official. I might not know the Qingdao airport from the Beijing airport, but I know the difference between Seoul and Pyongyang.

I don’t think Seoul is spelled with a P.

He took the newspaper and said the Japanese equivalent to “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! This is North Korea!”

“I know.”

“It’s dangerous!”

“I know.”

“You were there!?”

“I was.”

He turned to a colleague and told her what was going on in Japanese. She shook her head in disbelief. He handed her the newspaper. She took the paper and looked at the photos. She asked him something and he then asked me, “Why is the newspaper in English?”

“For westerners to read and see how wonderful North Korea is,” I responded.

“Is it really wonderful?” Both he and the lady seemed to have stopped breathing waiting for my response. Maybe they thought I was brainwashed or something.

“No. It’s a crazy place where nothing normal happens. It’s a lot of things, but wonderful is not one of them.”

They seemed satisfied with that answer and finished filling out the form for my bag. It was still in China and would be delivered to my apartment in a few days.

That was great for me since I had to take public transportation from Fukuoka to Oita. Not having a big bag to carry made my life easier and China Eastern paid the delivery charges.

An anonymous co-worker and me

You’re back, wow!

The reactions from my co-workers when I got back was a little surprising. Before I left I found several treats left on my desk while I was in class. It was a bit more than the usual amount of surprise candy one can expect to find on one’s desk if one works in Japan. It was around the end of May when the big teacher mix-up happens so, I figured that was the reason.

At the end of the school year, which in Japan is around May, teachers get reassigned schools. A teacher can expect to work about 3 years at any given school and after the 3 years, the teacher can be moved to any other school in the prefecture. People get weepy and nostalgic and they tend to give each other gifts to say goodbye and thanks.

I did get more stuff than the other teachers, but it was my last year so I didn’t give it anymore thought. When I entered the teachers’ office on my first day back I heard a sigh of relief from some of my co-workers. One even came up to me and said, “Oh you’re back, wow! We were worried about your trip.”

Some of them thought I was not coming back!?

In China Vera and I found a shop that sold the same fruit candy stuff the twins had. We bought some for our co-workers. They were a big hit with the teachers. They would take one and walk over to my desk and ask questions about my trip and thank me for the candy. The treats I brought them from North Korea did not get eaten so quickly. I teach at two schools and the Chinese candies disappeared quickly at both schools, but the North Korean candy just sat there.

Sweets from a tea ceremony done at one of my schools.

I had one more meeting with the principal. He wanted to hear all about my trip. He remembered the questions I had about North Korea when I spoke in previous meetings. “So, what is North Korea like?” he asked through a translator.

“It’s a weird place filled with contradictions and propaganda. People have to appear to hold facts in their hearts that do not stand up to any scrutiny. Some of them seem very curious about the world outside North Korea.”

“What do North Koreans look like?”

“They are very slim. The only non-skinny person I saw there was the Dear Guide. He was quite an anomaly. Other than that, they look just like South Koreans or the Chinese only slimmer and shorter.”

“What do they eat?”

“North Korea’s food is like South Korean food, only not as spicy or flavorful. I much rather the food in South Korea, China, or Japan to the food in North Korea. Their pizza, however, is great!”

“Do they have chocolate over there?”

“No! That stuff is not chocolate!”

“Do they have Chinese or Russian friends?”

“Unlikely.”

“What kind of music do they listen to?”

“State sanctioned music. But, if they are giving tours to westerners one may belt out a verse of Edelweiss.”

 

 

Posted in Beijing, China, Japan | Leave a Comment »

Back in China, Again

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 1, 2014

Saturday May 4, 2013 

All Pictures (North Korea)
All Pictures (China)

Last night in Pyongyang

Is this room bugged?

Our last night in North Korea Vera and I stayed up a little talking about the day’s events. We talked about the famine and the ludicrous government. I had just started naming many of the inadequacies of the DPRK when Vera said that maybe we should wait until we got to China before we took this conversation any further. “I mean,” she whispered, “what if this room is bugged?”

“Vera,” I said, “have you not noticed how nothing in this country works properly? First of all, if they are going to bug someone, why would they pick backpackers with a budget tour company? I don’t know any secrets. I don’t even know people who know people who know secrets. Besides, even if the room were bugged, the bugs probably stopped working like the lock to the door of our first hotel room.”

DPRK cleaned!

Let’s blow this popsicle stand!

By Saturday morning I was ready to leave North Korea. It was a timely departure; not too soon and not too late. I had spent just enough time in the DPRK. Some on our tour would stay and travel north to see other DPRK sights, but I was not jealous of any of them. My only regret was that I had to go back to China instead of going straight home to Japan.

I packed my bag with my freshly laundered clothes and Vera and I made our way to the basement for breakfast. It was the first calm breakfast I had in days. In the restaurant, were only the people from my tour. All other tourists were rushed out hours earlier being told that their schedules were changed and that they were now running late on their new itineraries.

After eating we slowly made our way to the buses. We were now split into 3 new groups; the train group which had no Americans, the plane group which had the Americans leaving the DPRK today, and the staying group made up mostly of an Australian couple, a Hong Kongese couple, and one American.

public transit bus in Pyongyang

I got on the bus and sat in my seat thinking over everything I had seen in the DPRK. Then I heard something strangely familiar, yet out of context. I sat there thinking about it. It was music, a song, a pop song… A K-POP SONG! It was Gangnam Style by Psy!

I stood up to look around the bus. Where was that coming from. I wasn’t the only one; five other people were asking each other where the music was coming from. Then we saw a guy in the back with his index finger over his lips asking us to keep this secret. Next to him was a North Korean guide. The guide was staring intently at the guys phone with wide eyes and making cooing noises in amazement. When he noticed that more people were looking his way, he put the phone in his pocket.

Ms. Lee entered the bus and gave everyone back their passports. I had forgotten that I had given it away. “What do you think they were doing with all the passports?” Phone guy asked. “Making copies to improve their spy program,” another guy answered.

Ms. Lee asked for our attention. “We are running late. There are two problems. One, there is a towel missing. If you have taken a towel from the hotel by accident, please return it.” She paused to see if anyone would admit to taking the towel. When no one responded she continued. “The second thing is… has anyone seen Steve?”

The Kims haven’t seen Steve.

Steve was not in Group A and I did not know what he looked like. Most of the people on the bus were from Group A and also didn’t know which guy from Group B Steve was. Phone guy took out his phone to show everyone a picture of Steve from the night before. There were about 6 photos of Steve. In all of them Steve was drinking heavily and as Phone guy scrolled through his pictures you could see Steve getting more and more drunk. The last photo of Steve was in the bowling alley. “That’s the last I saw of him,” Phone guy said, “around 2:00 this morning.”

The western guide for Group B ran onto the bus and asked if anyone knew who was Steve’s roommate. “Steve didn’t have a roommate,” Phone guy told him. “Crikey,” the guide said. “We’ve been calling his room and no one is answering.” “If we don’t find him soon we’ll be late for our flight,” one worried tourist said. “I’m sure they’ll hold the flight for us,” another person replied, “What else do they have to do today?”

To the airport posthaste!

The towel thing was never resolved. There were threats to search everyone’s bags, but it was never carried out. Someone suggested that maybe Steve stole it in a drunken rage and ran away in shame, but the Koreans were in no mood for jocularity.

Eventually a maid, in search of the missing towel, opened Steve’s room to find him passed out on the floor. The two western guides were called up to his room to get his stuff packed and deliver him to the door of the bus going to the airport. Steve walked down the aisle of the bus beet red, unshaven, unwashed, still smelling of booze, and still in the clothes from yesterday as shown by Phone guy’s phone photos.

Waiting to leave

We were taken to the airport. We all stood by the luggage carousel waiting for our plane to start boarding. It felt a little odd. Usually you check in, go through security check, and then wait for the plane to start boarding. But here, it did not happen in that order.

We walked through security check first; everyone did. Our Korean guides who were not leaving the country went in first. Our western guides were both taking the train back to Beijing, so we were on our own once we passed the gate.

a bus to the plane

Once our passports were checked and not stamped, we walked out the door and onto a bus. We stood on the bus and wondered which plane we would be taking. “As long as it’s not the plane that was smoking when we landed here,” someone said. Then the bus drove us right over to that very plane, or at least one that looked just like it and was parked in the very spot the smoking plane was a few days ago.

“Another photo for the Leader!”

There were these really tall and thin North Korean guys posing for photo after photo in front of the plane. I thought they were part of a DPRK basketball team at first since they wore running shoes with their suits. But, then I noticed one of them writing that he was a diplomat on his landing card. Their clothes were too big and too small for them at the same time. They were swimming in their suits, but ankles and wrists were inelegantly exposed.

Ready for freedom in China

I sat next to one of the lanky guys on the plane. His knees jotted out so far that he was practically wedged in between his seats and the guy’s in front of him. He squealed a little when the guy in front of him reclined his chair. I asked him if he spoken any English and he said, “Nu aye dun’t.” I think this was his first plane ride because he kept watching me and followed what I did, like when I pulled the tray table down for lunch.

When we were given landing cards I filled mine out. He pulled out a piece of  paper with the responses he was to give written in Roman script, but he did not have a pen. I asked him if he wanted to borrow my pen, but he didn’t understand me. I handed him the pen. It was a small pen I got when I signed up for internet service back home and it said “Yahoo BB Japan” in friendly letters. He thanked me in English and took one suspicious look at the pen before filling out his card and handed the pen back to me.

Shortly after we were airborne it was lunch time. This time when we were served “hamburgers” I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t so bad this time. My lanky row mate seemed completely indifferent to the food. He was more interested in the movements his chair could make and all the buttons around him.

What did you guys really think?

Once we were safely landed in China a bunch of us from both Group A and Group B sat at a Starbucks in one of the terminals and talked about the trip. There was a lot of, “Do you know what Mr. Park told me?” and “Do you know what Intern Kim asked me?”

It was cathartic. For the most part we all held back on expressing our opinions and views during the trip. Most of us never corrected anything we were told and went along with whatever crazy story with nothing more that a slight whisper to one or two other people. At the airport we let it all out. Then we all went our separate ways.

That’s not what the sky in Beijing looks like at all!

Let’s Eat!

I had reservations to return to the hostel we stayed in before we went to North Korea, but I did not want to go back there. Vera booked one night at a placed called Sitting on the City Walls. I thought that anything would be better than the dump we were in before so I followed her hoping to get a room for the night.

Vera would be leaving for South Korea the next day and I would head back to Japan. We had a whole afternoon in China and felt like we should do something interesting after we dropped off our stuff at the hostel.

my bed that sits on a city wall

After checking into Facebook and emailing family and friends to tell them that we were safely back in China, we searched the internet for something to do. There was nothing we could think of. I’m sure that Beijing has lots of things to do, but we wanted something hassle-free transportation-wise that we had not seen or done before.

The suggestion of just going to a nice restaurant somehow turned into going to Hooters. I had never been to Hooters before, mainly because of my lack of enthusiasm for either football or boobs, but a greasy and highly caloric American meal seemed the fitting end to my journey into the DPRK.

2 appetizers = 1 meal

The food was good. It was the best thing we had tasted in days! I don’t remember if I was able to finish all my food, but I do remember feeling a little sick afterwards. “And we were in North Korea for just 5 days; imagine being stuck there for months,” I told Vera as we dived into the buffalo wings.

“I just wish I could get Ms. Lee and Intern Kim out to show them China,” Vera said. “If they could only see China and how great it is over here compared to the DPRK. I’m not even talking about America or Japan; just China.” “I think they know, Vera. They must know that life is better almost anywhere other than North Korea coming into contact with so many tourists. But knowing the truth and being able to do anything about it are two different things.”

All Pictures (North Korea)
All Pictures (China)


North Korea
(조선민주주의인민공화국)
(Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk) 

How to get there:

The laws about who can get a visa to the DPRK change often. At the time of our trip, the Japanese were allowed in, but the Chinese were not. But, South Koreans are never allowed in. Korean-Americans, however, are welcomed, if they use their US passport for entry.

Phone:

You won’t get to use the phone. But if you need to know, the emergency numbers are 112 and 119.

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Books:

If you can read Korean: Kingdom of Kim (There is no English version of this book yet. I would love to find one.)

Notes:

NEVER NEVER NEVER bring a bible to North Korea!


The Yanggakdo International Hotel
(양각도국제호텔)
(Yanggakdo gookchea hotel)

How to get there:

  • 38°59’57.3″N 125°45’05.9″E

Don’t you worry about directions here or any other place in North Korea. Someone will also be around to show you where to go.

Address:

Yanggakdo International Hotel
Pyongyang, North Korea

Phone:

There are phones in the hotel, but I never used it. So, I don’t know whom you can call.

Website:

e-mail:

You can send emails from the lobby of the hotel. You can also mail letters.

Cost:

Your tour will take care of this.

Hours:

  • Breakfast starts at 7:00

Videos:

Notes:

  • The Yanggakdo Hotel is not the only hotel in town. Neither is it the only functioning hotel in town. But it is the one in which any tourist in Pyongyang will most likely be staying.
  • This hotel is where many American prisoners get to talk to the Swedish ambassador. Some have actually been held prisoner here.
  • You cannot go to the 5th floor!
  • You cannot go to any floor where the lights are turned off. If you try to, an official will escort you back to the elevator.
  • You can walk around the grounds but you cannot leave Yanggakdo (Yanggak island) on your own.
  • Be careful when using the elevators. The doors will slam shut even when you are in the way.

China 
(中国)

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, train, boat, or bus
  • Make sure to get a visa before going to China.
  • Visas to China are expensive for people of some nationalities.
  • Getting a Chinese visa is not a quick process. Apply as soon as you can.

Phone:

Website:

There is a long list of websites that cannot be accessed while in China. Facebook and parts of Wikipedia are just two of them. As with everything, there are ways around it. There are sites that will let you get to Facebook and other sites for free for about 15 minutes, then you will have to pay.

My advice is to find a few of them and use them for free. Then use them again on a different computer. If you are in China for a long time, then you might want to invest in paying for the service. Ask friends living in China for the best deals.

Videos:

Books:

*These books by Jung Chang are banned in China. But I highly recommend reading Mao: The Unknown Story before going to Beijing.

Notes:

  • If you want an internet cafe look for this (网吧) on a sign.

photo from their websiteSitting on the City Walls

How to get there:

Address:

城墙旅舍
57 Nianzi Hutong
Dongcheng, Beijing
China, 100009

Phone: +86 10 6402 7805

Websites:

e-mail: beijingcitywalls@163.com

Cost:

  • Website
  • 100 Yuan/ bed (dorm)
  • 260 Yuan for single en suite
  • 480 Yuan for double bed or 2 twin beds en suite

Notes:

  • You can book tours of Beijing through this hostel.
  • Remember that in China you pay a refundable cash deposit when you check into a hotel or hostel.

Hooters Beijing

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°55’58.9″N 116°27’02.4″E

Address:

201, China View Building No.1, East Worker’s Stadium Rd,Chaoyang District,Beijing

Phone: (86-010)65858787

Websites:

Cost:

a bit pricier than most Chinese restaurants

Hours:

  • 11:00-01:00 Sun-Sat

Map:

Posted in Beijing, China, North Korea, Panmunjeom | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Night Market

Posted by Heliocentrism on June 27, 2014

April 28 – 29, 2013

All Pictures

Creatures on Sticks (The scorpions were still alive.)

The Night Market – Sunday evening April 28

I spent most of Sunday walking around Tiananmen Square. I had visited Beijing before and there was nothing I really wanted to see again. The only thing I would have been interested in would have been the museum near the dig site in which Peking Man was found. When I looked online for the directions to the museum I saw that it was a 3~4 hour journey that involved a train and several bus transfers. I opted, instead, for an afternoon nap.

When I woke up I went to the hostel’s bar to buy a bottled water and to use the wi-fi. I thought I would just email Vera to tell her that I would be at the hostel’s bar and she should meet me there. As I walked down the hallway I saw her. By complete coincidence, she was put into the very same room I was.

She got a lock for the locker in the room and put away her things. Then we both set out for something to eat.

Vera asked me where I had been eating during my stay. I sheepishly told her that I had mostly been patronizing the Yoshinoya right under the hostile. The food was good, but most of all the lady who worked there was really nice to me. She would talk to me and didn’t seem at all bothered by the fact that I could not understand a word she said.

Fruit on Sticks

One thing that Vera wanted to see was the night market near the Forbidden City. After dinner we walked along the outer walls to the market. It was as colorful as it was crowded.

At one point there were so many people pushing towards us that we got swepped away from each other. We tried to hold hands as we walked down the street, but people kept being caught in our arms. So, we just let the crowd take us where it wanted. After a while we were deposited to a less crowded area of the street where actually buying things seemed less like an impossibility.

What should I buy now that I have room to reach into my pockets?

On our way back to the hostel we passed a set of very beautiful doors. We wanted to go closer to the doors and take photos of ourselves in front of them. They looked like they would open onto the Forbidden City; it was the right neighborhood for it. As we approached, a soldier stepped out and told us, “NO.”

“Can we just take a picture?”

“No.”

“What if we take a picture from here?”

“No pictures.”

Then he politely motioned us to leave the area. I turned to Vera and said, “We should get used to that. We’re going to get a lot of it in the next few days.”

Buying goodies for our North Korean tour guides

The Meeting – Monday April 29

The next day Vera and I walked around Beijing. We went to a bookstore and ate sandwiches. I don’t remember what all we were up to that morning, but we had to be back at our hostel by 14:00 for our Young Pioneer Tour group meeting where we would meet our Western tour guides for the first time.

This was where we got our North Korean visas and were given the rules to follow on the tour. The meeting was not as intense as I thought it would have been. The tourists in the group ranged from backpackers, to a retired couple, from Americans and Europeans, to some Hong Kongese, but most everyone lived in Asia.

We were told not to take photos when we are asked to put our cameras away. In North Korea we can buy things with US dollars, euros, or Yuan; dollars and euros are prefered. We are allowed to ask questions, but only to the North Korean tour guides. “If you’re not sure if your question is safe to ask, ask one of us (Western guides) first. Do not talk about religion. If you have a bible, leave it in China.”

The tour guides told us about a woman who had a copy of The Aquariums of Pyongyang. Once in North Korea she held up her book to ask if it was okay that she had brought it in. “‘Just keep it in your backpack and don’t talk about it,’ we had to tell her.”

Along with bibles and books like The Aquariums of Pyongyang, we were told not to bring in anything with GPS capability. Several hands shot up, but before anyone could ask questions the tour guide responded. “They don’t turn anything on to check. If your camera has “GPS” written on it, just put some tape or a sticker over the letters.”

Computers, cell phone, tablets, and mp3 players are now all okay to bring to the DPRK. That was great, because I had my Acer tablet with wi-fi and GPS capability. It was the reason Vera and I did not get lost earlier in the day. But, it could not find any satellites the whole time we were in North Korea; I checked constantly.

We were given advice on what gifts we should take with us to give the Korean tour guides. “You should give them things that are hard to get in North Korea like bananas or sweets.” I had several bars of Meiji Chocolates from Japan; both the milk and dark chocolates. They also like cigarettes with Marlboro being the most desired brand.

Later I went with Vera to a shop next to the hostel for her to buy some treats for the North Korean guides. She picked up some Choco Pies and asked me if she should buy them. Personally, I hate Choco Pies. So, I suggested that she get some Kit-Kats instead. Later I read about how Choco Pies are so beloved in North Korea that they have become a hot commodity on the black market. Now I feel bad for talking Vera out of buying them.

All Pictures


China 
(中国)

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, train, boat, or bus
  • Make sure to get a visa before going to China.
  • Visas to China are expensive for people of some nationalities.
  • Getting a Chinese visa is not a quick process. Apply as soon as you can.

Phone:

Website:

There is a long list of websites that cannot be accessed while in China. Facebook and parts of Wikipedia are just two of them. As with everything, there are ways around it. There are sites that will let you get to Facebook and other sites for free for about 15 minutes, then you will have to pay.

My advice is to find a few of them and use them for free. Then use them again on a different computer. If you are in China for a long time, then you might want to invest in paying for the service. Ask friends living in China for the best deals.

Videos:

Books:

*These books by Jung Chang are banned in China. But I highly recommend reading Mao: The Unknown Story before going to Beijing.

Notes:

  • If you want an internet cafe look for this (网吧) on a sign.

Dong Hua Men Night Market
(东华门)

How to get there:

  • 39°54’54.3″N 116°24’05.1″E
  • Go to the east gate of the Forbidden City and walk west.

Website:

Hours:

  • 16:00 – 22:00

Map:

 

Posted in Beijing, China | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Hey I know you!

Posted by Heliocentrism on June 20, 2014

April 27 – 28, 2013

All Pictures

Guess who I found!

Leaving Mark Behind – Saturday April 27

I tried to talk Mark into coming with me. But, being born in South Korea, Mark had no interest. The day I left I hugged him goodbye and he looked quite sad.

“What if they won’t let you leave and force you to marry some North Korean general?”

“Don’t be silly Mark. They will want to keep their North Korean bloodline pure. If anything I would be force to marry the son of one of those American defectors.”

Sometime in March Vera changed her mind again and was going to join me on the tour of North Korea. I would leave for China on Saturday and she would get there on Sunday.

I took the bus to Fukuoka and headed to the airport. I like being in airports and not missing my flights so I usually go to the airport several hours before I need to. I checked-in with about 3 hours to wait before my flight.

I found the best reasonably priced restaurant and sat down for a meal. I was about halfway through lunch when I saw some braids bobbing around the restaurant entrance. I didn’t want to be one of those people who thinks she knows every foreigner on Kyoshu, but those braids looked familiar.

Just to be sure I stepped outside the restaurant and loudly whispered, “Rhianna”. She turned around. It was Rhianna! We ate lunch together and talked for about an hour. She was heading to Bali and her flight left before mine.

At least I get to see all my friends before I leave.

Qingdao is not in Beijing

When my seat section was called I boarded the plane. As I walked down the aisle to my seat I heard my name. There was so much going on with people stowing away their carry-ons and talking I could not tell who had called me. “Josie! Over here.” There sitting in 14C was Monica.

“What are you doing here, Monica?”

“Just visiting a friend in Beijing, you?”

“Going on a sightseeing tour.”

There was no time to explain. The line of people behind me needed me to go forward. It was a quick flight and I figured I would get to talk to her at the airport.

When the plane landed she waited for me on the tarmac and we got into a shuttle bus together. I looked out the window at the airport to which we just arrived, it looked smaller than I remembered it. The last time I was here the Beijing airport looked a lot busier.

“Why do we have to stop here?” Monica asked. “Why can’t we just go to Beijing?”

“What do you mean? This is Beijing.”

“No. We are in Qingdao.”

I looked at my ticket and my flight itinerary. The ticket was in Japanese, but I could see that there was a stop before Beijing. I got the ticket when I checked-in that morning at Fukuoka airport. The itinerary, which I printed when I bought the ticket back in February,  said it was a non-stop flight to Beijing. There was no mention of a Qingdao.

Monica and I followed the crowd of people into the immigration area. We stood in a random line and tried to see what everyone else was doing. This crowd was now more than just the people from our plane. We weren’t sure if this was passport control or not.

A man saw us and figured we were not Chinese. He pointed us to the non-Chinese line. We thanked him and stood in the correct line. “There’s a paper we have to fill out. Everyone else has one,” I told her. We both got a copy of the form and filled it out.

We were the very last people to go through passport control. We looked around for our fellow passengers, but we couldn’t find them. “Do you think they would leave us?” she asked. “Maybe.”

Just then a lady with a sign passed us. She saw us looking lost and turned to us holding up her sign. Our flight number was on the sign. When we smiled with recognition, she beckoned us to follow her. Everyone was waiting for us.

We found an English speaker who happened to be a JET working in Nagasaki. He thought that we would have some insight as to what the heck was going on. “Why did we just get off the plane?” I suggested that maybe Beijing’s airport was really busy and this one was not, so they do the passport check here. But really, I don’t know.

We went through a maze set up to keep us apart from other passengers at the airport. Our tickets were checked, carry-on items scanned again, and our bottled waters (which were given to us on the plane) were taken away. We then re-boarded the plane.

Once I was back in my seat, I asked for another bottle of water.

My mom’s dad

Did I ever tell you… ?

Back in 2007 when I was packing to go to Korea the first time, my mom came into my room and sat on my bed. “Are you excited to go to Korea?” she asked. “Yes, but I don’t really know much about South Korea. I hope I like the food there.”

My mother thought for a moment and said, “I don’t know much about South Korea either. I only know that my father was in prison there for 13 months when I was a kid. But it might have been North Korea…”

Although I didn’t know much about South Korea at the time, I had lived in Japan when North Korea kept launching missiles in Japan’s direction. I knew North Korea had a habit of kidnapping Japanese people. And I had seen Team America. I knew that being a prisoner in North Korea was no joke.

My grandfather’s name was Burly Carmichael Reid. I don’t know that much about him. He was not a great father. I remember meeting him 2 or 3 times. Even though he was nice to me, I got the feeling that most people thought he was a jerk.

He was born in British Honduras, a place that is now the country of Belize, in 1908 or 1910. His father was an American and his mother, a Belizean. He was orphaned at the age of 3 when both his parents died in a car accident. He was raised by an aunt. He had 8 children, all with my grandmother though they never married. As far as anyone knows, he had no other kids.

My grandfather somewhere with 3 unknown kids

He traveled a lot. He worked on ships and would send money, pictures, and gifts back to Belize for his kids. My mom told me that once when she was small, her family got a box from Japan. Inside were beautiful slippers and robes for her and her sister. The slippers and robes were too small though. He did not know the girls’ sizes.

My mom, grandfather, random cousin, uncle Lennox, grandmother, and aunt Audrey

What I know is what my mom told me. This is information she got when she was a very young child so it might not be completely correct. Her father got a job on an American merchant ship. The ship was in waters near either North or South Korea. Either North or South Korea took possession of the ship and its crew and held it for 13 months.

I would like to know more about this story, but no one in my family seems to have any more information.

The entrance to the Mao Mausoleum

Early Morning Mao – Sunday April 28

Once I got to Beijing, the real Beijing, Monica and I parted ways and I checked into the crappiest hostel in all of China. I only chose it because it was the hostel were my tour group would meet up and the hostel I wanted was fully booked. I got something to eat at a Japanese fast food place (I know…) and walked around a bit before heading to bed. I had the room all to myself.

I woke up early the next morning so I decided to walk to Tiananmen Square to see Mao. I didn’t want to be bothered with having to use the locker so I left everything in my room that could not fit into my back pockets. I took only my Japanese driver’s license (sometimes they ask for ID), about $20 in yuan, and a light jacket.

I got there just as the mausoleum opened. There was no line. I walked passed the entrance hall and the giant Mao statue. Since there were not many people there I was not rushed along. I was able to stand and look at Mao for as long as I wanted.

I stood there staring at Mao. He had a great life. He killed so many people and he loved it. Many people still love him, though they wouldn’t if they really knew him. He was a horrible man.

All Pictures


China 
(中国)

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, train, boat, or bus
  • Make sure to get a visa before going to China.
  • Visas to China are expensive for people of some nationalities.
  • Getting a Chinese visa is not a quick process. Apply as soon as you can.

Phone:

Website:

There is a long list of websites that cannot be accessed while in China. Facebook and parts of Wikipedia are just two of them. As with everything, there are ways around it. There are sites that will let you get to Facebook and other sites for free for about 15 minutes, then you will have to pay.

My advice is to find a few of them and use them for free. Then use them again on a different computer. If you are in China for a long time, then you might want to invest in paying for the service. Ask friends living in China for the best deals.

Videos:

Books:

*These books by Jung Chang are banned in China. But I highly recommend reading Mao: The Unknown Story before going to Beijing.

Notes:

*These books by Jung Chang are banned in China. But I highly recommend reading Mao: The Unknown Story before going to Beijing.

Notes:

  • If you want an internet cafe look for this (网吧) on a sign.

The Mao Mausoleum
Máo Zhǔxí Jìniàntáng
(毛纪念堂)

The Forbidden City
Zǐjinchéng
(紫禁城)

Tiananmen Square
Tiān’ānmén Guǎngchǎng
(天安门广场)

How to get there:

All of these things are close together. Well, close if you’re used to walking a lot. They are all right next to each other. But because they are really big, it might be a 20 minute walk to go from the Mao Mausoleum to The Forbidden city. You will have to walk though.

Go to Qianmen Subway station. The nearest attraction will be the mausoleum. You can’t bring anything in the mausoleum with you, so you’ll have to walk to the baggage check area first. But sometimes they ask for ID so keep that in your pocket.

Behind the mausoleum is Tienanmen Square and behind that is The Forbidden City.

Cost:

  • It’s free to see Mao. But if you have stuff, it will cost you to put it in a locker. You pay based on how many bags you have, how big the bags are, and how many electronic devices you have in the bags. The lines at the baggage check can get long, so it might be better, if you are in a group, to have only half of your group go see Mao while the rest watch the bags.
  • It’s also free to see Tiananmen Square. But if you pay 15Yuan you walk to the top of the gate and look out on the square.
  • Entrance to the Forbidden City is 60Yuan.

The kept luggage costs for The Mao Mausoleum (2008)

Hours:

  • Mao Mausoleum          Tu – Su 8:00-12:00
  • Tiananmen Square is an open area and therefore always available. **Update: The last time I was in Beijing there was a security check that people needed to pass through to get to the grassy area. This security check does shut down in the late evening and opens back up early in the morning before the mausoleum does. You can still walk around the area when the security check is closed, just not in the main part. **
  • The Forbidden City    8:30 – ??
Videos:

Map:

Posted in Beijing, China | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Trans Mongolian Express

Posted by Heliocentrism on July 9, 2009

June 10-11, 2008

All Pictures

The Trans-Mongolian Express

The Trans-Mongolian Express

We went to the Beijing Railway station , on subway line 2, to catch the Trans Mongolian Express to Ulaanbaatar. While we were waiting for the train, some officials rounded up some people and made them weigh their luggage. Oddly, only Chinese people were ordered to weigh in.

When we got on the train, we discovered that the beds had no sheets. They came by later and gave us sheets and took our tickets. We had a standard class berth with 4 beds. But since there wasn’t a 4th person in our berth, we put all our stuff on the extra bed.

In our exploration of the train, we saw that the first class berths had 2 beds and a bathroom. However, there was no shower. The bathroom is shared by 2 compartments. I’m not sure if they get refilled with TP.

1st Class

There were also electrical outlets in the aisle of the train for the standard class berths. First class has an outlet in the compartment. I put my mp3 player to charge in the walkway area and sat near the door of the compartment to keep an eye on it. The outlets are the F or C socket types.

If you are going to take the Trans Mongolian Express I would recommend bringing:

  1. A few books
  2. An mp3 player with lots of memory for music and/ or audio books
  3. Lots of snacks. There are dining cars, but they aren’t always open.
  4. Playing cards
  5. Toilet paper. There was TP on the train, but sometimes they ran out.
  6. Tea, cup noodles, and hot chocolate mix. There is a hot water dispenser in every car.
  7. If you go in the summer bring a fan. There are fans in the cars, but at some stops they turn off the electricity.

arguing over ramen

Food stop: Datong

At Datong, the train stopped to pick up more passengers. This gave us an opportunity to buy food. We bought some cup noodles and fruit. They were also selling some freshly baked (maybe fried) bread, but some Chinese guys ran off the train, pushed their way to the cart, and bought ALL of the bread from all the vendors. I guess they had taken this trip before and knew the bread would sell out quickly. Very few novice riders were fast enough to get any of the bread.

There was one more stop to buy food before getting to the border.

In some cars there was a bathroom that was hidden behind an open door at one of the ends of the car. Most people missed it and therefore the TP there lasted longer. It also stayed clean throughout the whole trip.

Changing the wheels

Changing the wheels: Erilan

We stopped at the border between China and Mongolia for passport control. As soon as we pulled into the station the officials came by every compartment to check under the beds and take our passports. Everything was very serious and they all seemed to hate their jobs, their lives, and everyone on the train. I could imagine all of officials going home to beat their wives or husbands, scream at their kids, and kick their dogs.

We were in Erlian for about 8 hours. For the first 2 hours we just sat on the train as the train kept moving back and forth. Later we found out that they were changing the dining car. Every country has its own dining car that goes from border to border.

After two hours of rocking back and forth, we were told that we could get off the train and wander around town but we couldn’t get back on the train until it was time to go.

Lifting up the train to take off the wheels

Just hold it

I wanted to get off the train, but my mom wanted to take all her important stuff with her.  While she unpacked and repacked her things the train conductors open and then closed the doors. So we were stuck on the train.

The train pulled into the “garage” and the next 4 hours were spent lifting the train up and pulling the wheels out. They slid smaller or maybe bigger… I don’t remember now wheels under the train. During these 4 hours there was no electricity so no fan and the bathrooms were all locked.

The Trans Mongolian trains have no a/c. All you get is a tiny blue wall fan. This would have been a great time for me to pull out my own personal fan, but I didn’t bring one.

the train’s wheels

The last two hours were spent back at the station where everyone who left got back on board and we waited for them the give us back our passports. Apparently they got to roam around the town with no passports. They also got to buy stuff and use the bathroom.

Because the train was in the station, those poor saps like us who stayed on the train could not use the bathroom for the whole 8 hours we were at Erlian.

When we passed the actual China/ Mongolia border there was a little Chinese soldier standing guard with his guns making sure the Mongolians don’t sneak into China. There were no Mongolian soldiers on the other side. I don’t think the Mongolians spend too much time worrying about the Chinese. Maybe they’re too busy sneaking into China.

70USD!? Malcolm really travels light.

Finally in Mongolia: Zamynuud

At the Chinese border everyone had official looking uniforms.  Even the janitor had a couple of stripes on his sleeves. But in Mongolia, only the lady who took our passports wore a uniform.

The mood in Mongolia seemed a lot lighter than in China. The officials were laughing and making jokes before they got on the train. Once on the train they acted quite serious, almost like they were pretending to be Chinese border officials. Once they got off the train they continued with their merriment.

I tried to stay awake as long as I could to see if I could spot any interesting things moving about in the desert, but there was nothing. So I fell asleep.

Cosmos the Cosmonaut

Call me Cosmos: Choyr

The next morning one of our rest stops was in the town of Choyr. There wasn’t much to buy. In fact there was only a 12-year-old boy and his friend selling un-cold water. Of course, we bought 2 bottles.

On this trip I didn’t drink as much water as I should have. But drinking enough water means peeing a lot… peeing in public bathrooms… dirty public bathrooms!

Here we met the statue of Cosmos, the first and only astronaut of Mongolia. I know what you’re thinking… “How fortunate for him that he was born a ‘Cosmos'”.

Some time ago, the Russians decide to Russianize Mongolia. The first thing that they noticed was that most Mongolians didn’t have a family name. So they made it mandatory for everyone to get a last name. Most people looked at their family tree to find one. It turns out that a lot of people are related to Genghis Khan. Other people either couldn’t find a suitable ancestor, or just wanted to be creative and made up their own last name.

This was the last stop before the final stop at Ulaanbaatar.

Sleeping on the Trans Mongolian Express

Backpacking Must Haves

When backpacking there are some items that you must never leave home without.

1. A photocopy (colored if possible) of every important document you have or need; passport picture pages, visa pages, prescriptions or medication labels. If it is something that you cannot live without or something that might be hard to describe in another language like an inhaler; take a picture of it and bring it. You should also keep a scanned or e-version of everything on an SD card and online. You can always e-mail them to yourself to keep everything in one place.

2. Toilet paper/ wipes and hand sanitizer or soap. Just assume that nowhere has toilet paper and that you will need to wipe down everything you touch. You don’t need to bring tons of TP and wipes since you can buy them at general stores on your trip, just bring enough to get you through a day or two.

3. A small memory card with important information on it. You never know when they this might come in handy. Since I travel a lot and get jobs around the world, I keep a copy of my resume on my tiny memory stick. (I actually got my job in Korea while on this trip. I did my interview while waiting at a train station in Paris.) Just make sure you have some type of reader for it; a camera, some mp3 players, or a card reader.

4. Travel Insurance. I use worldnomads but there are plenty out there. Shop around and find the best price for you. Also scan the receipts for everything you are taking that can be claimed with your insurance. That way you can file a claim while still on your trip if some misfortune befalls you. You can upload documents to Mediafire.com or google documents, that way everything you need for your trip is in one place or you can always e-mail them to yourself. Mediafire is free and your files are saved as long as you log in at least once a month. Make sure you set your file as private unless you want to share it.

5. Drugs. Bring cold, diarrhea, constipation, pain, allergy, and whatever medicine you need. You can buy these drugs in every country you visit, but when you’re sick and in a country where you don’t speak the language you might not be in the mood to find a pharmacy and search through new brands of drugs written in Russian. Just make sure that it is legal to bring your drugs into the country. (You cannot bring Sudafed into Japan.)

6. Get your shots. This might seem like going overboard, but isn’t it better to be safe? Then you can eat whatever mystery soup is given to you without worrying about contracting hepatitis B.

7. A universal outlet plug adapter.

8. Duct tape. You don’t have to bring a whole roll. Just enough to quickly patch a backpack. You can re-roll it as the guy in this link does. There are many reasons to bring some along.

9. A few dry bags. You can buy them online, at a Wal-mart, or at Target. If you don’t have any you can also use zip-lock bags but, they tend to get holes in them after a while. I use dry bags to keep my electronics in. If something wet spills on your backpack, or you get caught in the rain, or you drop your stuff in water, you can at least rest assured that your gadgets will be okay.

10. A swim suit. This is obvious when you are headed somewhere like Bali. But I would bring my swim suit even on a ski trip. There have been so many times when someone traveling with me had to buy an overpriced and tacky swim suit because they didn’t think they would need one on a non-beach/ non-pool related trip.

11. Clothes for crazy weather. If you’re headed somewhere warm, bring one light sweater and a pair of warm socks. If you’re going to a cold place, bring one pair of shorts and a t-shirt.

12. Cash Money! Bring 3 times the cash you think you will need. And, get a bank account from a bank with international ATMs for emergencies. In my case, I use Ally, which has no ATMs of its own; any ATM worldwide can be used to get money without fees from Ally.

All Pictures


Buying Tickets For the Trans-Mongolian Express

Where to go:

The ticket office is in the Beijing International Hotel on the second floor. The company is called CITS (China International Travel Service).

How to get there:

  • Go to Jianguomen subwaystation station and go out of the Northwest exit.
  • Walk West towards the Forbidden City and look for the hotel in the picture to the right.

The train departs from the Beijing Railway station. Here is a humble map: Beijing Railway Station.bmp.

Here is a map of the path that the Trans-Mongolian Express makes: Trans-Siberian_Map.jpg.

Videos:

Notes:

  • If you are traveling with a group and not using a travel agency, only one of your group will need to go to buy the tickets in person.
  • You will need to know the passport numbers of all the passengers  for whom you plan to buy tickets.
  • All this information may have change between the time this post was written in 2008 and the time you are reading in now. It’s China; things change.
  • Visit Seat 61 for more information.

Map:

Click here for Google maps

Posted in Beijing, China, Choyr, Datong, Erilan, Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, Zamynuud | Tagged: , , | Comments Off on The Trans Mongolian Express

A City Cleaned up

Posted by Heliocentrism on July 9, 2009

June 5-10, 2008

All Pictures

My mom and me near Qianmen Subway station. She’s so happy to see me in a dress.

Mother and Child Reunion

Once in Beijing, I met my Mom, whom I hadn’t seen in almost a year, and my brother, whom I hadn’t seen in a year and a half. It wasn’t until my plane landed in Beijing that I wondered how I would find my mom and brother. I knew they would be flying in from LAX, but I didn’t know the flight number or what time the flight would get into Beijing. I didn’t even know if it was a morning or afternoon flight.

I thought that the best thing for me to do was to find a computer somewhere in the airport, email them telling them to meet me at the gate 12 or something, then just wait for them for however long it took. I had just gotten through the passport check and was fishing around in my purse for internet money when I heard my name. I looked up and saw my mom.

me:      How did you know where to find me!?

mom:  I didn’t. Malcolm and I just got off our plane and were standing in line at passport control when we saw your afro.

My brother was still in line and came walking over about 5 minutes later. We took a bus from the airport to the Qianmen subway station. We stayed at the Qian Men Hostel, the same place I stayed when I was in Beijing a month ago.

At Qianmen Hostel in Beijing

The Qianmen Subway station is very near to many main attractions for which Beijing is famous. I recommend finding accommodations in this area of Beijing when sightseeing.

Buying international train tickets

Buying Tickets on the Trans Mongolian Express

Normally, to buy a  ticket on the Trans Mongolian Express, you just call up an agent. They would run down to the ticket office, purchase the ticket or tickets for you, and then mail it to your hotel in China. But because of the Olympics, all international train tickets had to be purchased first hand by at least one of the passengers and within two weeks of the departure date.

For directions click here.

So this was one of the first things we did on our first full day in China. I was a little nervous that something would go wrong and we wouldn’t be able to get train tickets, but I didn’t let my mom or brother know. Ninety percent of the time, something will go wrong when travelling through China. But for the first few hours at the start of this day, everything went fine.

Peking Duck

SCAMS: Stay away from the art students

There are many scams that are run on tourists. Tourists are often identified by the clothes they wear, their cameras, and they’re standing around tourist attractions instead of going to work. Here is an example of  one of the many scams that we encountered while in China. I call it “The Art Student Scam.”

After buying our tickets to Mongolia, we headed towards the Forbidden City. Along the way, we met a young man who said he was an art student. We had a long conversation with him and he taught us some Mandarin. His story was that he was going to Europe to sell  his paintings and he just wanted to show some of them to us.

We were flattered. Obviously this guy could see that we knew art, so we followed him to his teacher’s studio where his paintings were on display. They were nice. His teacher, the great salesman, tried to get us to buy some paintings. The teacher told us that the student needed to sell some paintings here, so he can afford the plane ticket to sell more paintings in Europe.

The Forbidden City

I have no money; neither do I want to carry a fragile painting around Mongolia and Europe so, I didn’t buy one. My soft-hearted brother bought one to help the “poor” student get to Europe. But the teacher wanted him to buy four for better “feng shui“. If I remember right, my brother ended up buying two.  (He says his feng shui has not suffered for lack of symmetry.)

Later, when we were in the Forbidden City another “student” wanted to show us her art. She too was going to Europe to sell her paintings and needed to raise some money by selling paintings. When we saw the art, it looked suspiciously just like the art the first “student” had “painted”. Those sneaky “students”!!!

The Mao Mausoleum entrance side

The East is Red

It’s a great deal they have there, at the Mausoleum. It is free to get in, but if you want, you can buy a flower for comrade Mao at the Mao Mausoleum (Maosoleum?). Then, you place it at the foot of the statue of Mao. I’m sure, they put these same flowers back for sale when no one is looking. You also have to pay to put your stuff in lockers, because Mao hates bags.

Mao looked just as creepy as Ho Chi Minh did, but maybe a little more bloated. Then again, Ho Chi Minh was a scrawny guy and Mao was fat.

The Great Wall of China and my brother, Malcolm

The Great Wall: Scams and all

The Lonely Planet was only somewhat helpful in getting tourists to the Great Wall of China. The directions are above. Watch out for scams.

We walked up and along the Great Wall. I was hoping that it would be more spiritual, walking along this very old wall with so much history beneath my feet. But it was way too crowded for me to get into any mood of tranquility or oneness with anything.

On our way down we passed a bear garden. There were some poor pathetic looking bears on display. Their owners were selling corn and fruit to tourists so that they, the tourist, could toss some food at the bears. By the looks of the scrawny bears, that might be the only food they get.

Where is this lady taking us?

The Underground City: closed

Reading through my Lonely Planet book, that great source of half-information, I saw an entry about an underground city. Mao had it built because he feared the Russians and their nuclear weapons. It was a secret when it was built and it apparently is still a secret because nobody could give us directions to it. No one had any idea what we were talking about.

Later I looked up the information on Wikipedia and there were several addresses for it; each for one of the many entrances.

The Lonely Planet book for China didn’t mention anything about it having more than one entrance. It had one location for an entrance given in map form and another location given in address form. But the book gave the impression that they were both the same place. It confused us.

Eventually, we decided to look for the street address and found it quickly. Of course, first we followed some old lady on a bike who claimed to know where it was. She actually wanted us to buy Mao’s little red book from her and took us on a wild goose chase.

Unfortunately, it was closed and under reconstruction for safety reasons. We were told to come back in a few months. We were all quite disappointed. But if you go to Beijing after September 2009, be sure to check it out and tell me how great it is.

Update: I read somewhere that the Underground City is closed for good and will never be opened to the public. Or maybe the Russians are still a bit of a threat…

Lama Temple

Lama Temple

After that, we went to The Lama Temple. As I have said before, to me, ALL temples look the same. The Lama temple is no exception. Same, Same. But it did come with a little CD  of nice “Lama” music.

Heavenly Dancing

The Heavenly Temple Park

We went to the Heavenly Temple Park, but we didn’t see the Heavenly Temple. We were tired of temples. They all look alike anyway. We were more interested in the people at the park. This park is where the happy people go to hang out, play games, dance, show off what they can do, or learn to do something new. It was wonderful watching folks teaching each other how to dance, do tai chi, or fight. Happy city people warm my heart!

The summer hangout of royalty

The Summer Palace

After the park, we took a public bus to the Summer Palace. It was a really hot day and going to where the kings of ancient China went to cool off seemed like a great idea. It was a little cooler there and very beautiful… so beautiful that it didn’t look real. It was a great place to spend our last day in China.

All Pictures


China 
(中国)

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, train, boat, or bus
  • Make sure to get a visa before going to China.
  • Visas to China are expensive for people of some nationalities.
  • Getting a Chinese visa is not a quick process. Apply as soon as you can.

Phone:

Website:

There is a long list of websites that cannot be accessed while in China. Facebook and parts of Wikipedia are just two of them. As with everything, there are ways around it. There are sites that will let you get to Facebook and other sites for free for about 15 minutes, then you will have to pay.

My advice is to find a few of them and use them for free. Then use them again on a different computer. If you are in China for a long time, then you might want to invest in paying for the service. Ask friends living in China for the best deals.

Videos:

Books:

*These books by Jung Chang are banned in China. But I highly recommend reading Mao: The Unknown Story before going to Beijing.

Notes:

  • If you want an internet cafe look for this (网吧) on a sign.

The Mao Mausoleum
Máo Zhǔxí Jìniàntáng
(毛纪念堂)

The Forbidden City
Zǐjinchéng
(紫禁城)

Tiananmen Square
Tiān’ānmén Guǎngchǎng
(天安门广场)

How to get there:

All of these things are close together. Well, close if you’re used to walking a lot. They are all right next to each other. But because they are really big, it might be a 20 minute walk to go from the Mao Mausoleum to The Forbidden city. You will have to walk though.

Go to Qianmen Subway station. The nearest attraction will be the mausoleum. You can’t bring anything in the mausoleum with you, so you’ll have to walk to the baggage check area first.

Behind the mausoleum is Tienanmen Square and behind that is The Forbidden City.

Cost:

  • It’s free to see Mao. But if you have stuff, it will cost you to put it in a locker. You pay based on how many bags you have, how big the bags are, and how many electronic devices you have in the bags. The lines at the baggage check can get long, so it might be better, if you are in a group, to have only half of your group go see Mao while the rest watch the bags.
  • It’s also free to see Tiananmen Square. But if you pay 15Yuan you can walk to the top of the gate and look out on the square.
  • Entrance to the Forbidden City is 60Yuan.

The kept luggage costs for The Mao Mausoleum (2008)

Hours:

  • Mao Mausoleum          Tu – Su 8:00-12:00
  • Tiananmen Square is an open area and therefore always available. **Update: The last time I was in Beijing there was a security check that people needed to pass through to get to the grassy area. This security check does shut down in the late evening and opens back up early in the morning before the mausoleum does. You can still walk around the area when the security check is closed, just not in the main part. **
  • The Forbidden City    8:30 – ??
Videos:

The Great Wall of China (长城)
Badaling Entrance (八達嶺)

How to get there:

  • 40°21’35.3″N 116°01’11.7″E

There are many ways to get to the Great Wall since the wall is so… great. These are directions to get to the Badaling Entrance, where most tourists go. (Most tourists go to this entrance because it is the most accessible entrance.)

1. Go to the Deshengmen gate (德胜门).

Take the subway to Jishuitan station (积水潭站) on the circle line. I don’t remember what exit we took, but the place to get the bus was right next to the Deshengmen gate (德胜门). So ask someone how to get to the gate when you are at the subway station. Don’t get on any of the buses until you get to Deshengmen gate; the gate is a walkable distance from the subway station.

You can also get the Deshengman gate by taking Public Bus 5, 305, 315, 344, 345, 380, 670, 914, or 919. For these buses, Deshengman gate is the last stop.

2. Take the 919 bus.

The bus is 919, but  be careful. You want a green one like in the picture below, not the public/ city bus.

The green 919 to the Great Wall of China

SCAM: There are local 919 buses, that do not go all the way to the Great Wall and there are fake 919 buses that give tours and cost 400 Yuan. If you find someone who tells you that there are no public or non-tour buses to the Great Wall they are liars! We found one such man.

Ignore anyone who points out the local 919 buses as an example of the non-existence of a 919 to the Great Wall.

The buses at the Deshengmen gate are big, green, and costs 12 Yuan, at the time this post was written, to get to the Badaling entrance and they leave as soon as they are full. The next one is right behind it. So you’ll always be right on time for a bus.

Use the picture of the bus in this blog as a reference.

You can also take the route given by google maps which takes you to the Badaling Railway station.

Cost: 

  • Adult – 45 Yuan
  • Over 60 and Students with ID – 25 Yuan
    • Seniors bring your passport. My mom got the discount.
  • Kids under 1.2m and the disabled – Free

Videos:

Notes:

  • NEVER pay to take a cab to the entrance after taking the bus to Badaling. The small climb to the wall is nothing compare to the climb along the wall.
  • If you don’t feel like walking up the hill to the wall, it’s better to take the coaster up. You buy the ticket where the 919 drops you off. It’s 30 Yuan one way and 60 Yuan round trip. Then you walk straight pass the bear garden. Yes BEAR; not Beer.

The Underground City
Dìxià Chéng
(地下城)

How to get there:

  • 39°53’55.6″N 116°24’06.9″E

First get a map and go to Qianmen station, then head East, as if you are going to Chongwenmen subway station. Use one of the addresses below and try not to get lost. Do not buy anything, take any offers for a ride, or follow any little old ladies riding on a bicycle.

According to Wikipedia.com, there are many entrances to the Underground City. It gives three addresses as follows:

#1. 62 West Damochang Street in Qianmen

#2. Beijing Qianmen Carpet Factory at 44 Xingfu Dajie in Chongwen District

#3. 18 Dazhalan Jie in Qianmen

Unfortunately I do not have anymore information about it because when I was in China last, it was closed for repairs.

Update: The Underground City might be closed for good.

Videos:


Lama Temple
(雍和宮)

How to get there:

  • 39°56’51.6″N 116°25’02.2″E

It is a short walk from the Yonghegong Lama Temple Station.

Or you can take the following buses:

13, 116, 117 to Yonghegong (Lama Temple, 雍和宫) or 18, 44, 62, 684, 858, 909 to Yonghegong Qiaodong (雍和宫桥东)

Address:

12 Yonghegong Dajie, Beixinqiao, Dongcheng District, Beijing

Website

Cost: 25Yuan

Hours: everyday 9:00 – 17:00

Videos:

Map


The Heavenly Temple Park
Tiāntán
(天坛)

How to get there:

  • 39°53’01.3″N 116°24’46.2″E

The nearest subway station is Tiantandongmen Station ( 天坛东门站).

Address:

N39 50 44 E116 26 41
Tiantan Park, Beijing

Website

Cost:

Nov. 1 – Mar. 31 ~ 30Yuan
Apr. 1 – Oct. 31 ~ 35 Yuan

Hours: 6:00 – 20:00

Notes:

  • I don’t remember if the park is free, but it costs more to see the temple in the park than to just go to the Temple of Heaven park.
  • If the park is free then the prices above are for the temple. If the park is not free, then the prices above are just to enter the park and you will have to pay extra to see the temple.

The Summer Palace
Yíhé Yuán
(颐和园)

How to get there:

  • 39°59’60.0″N 116°16’31.7″E

Take any of these buses heading to the palace:

331, 346, 394, 469, 704, 718, 732, 737, 808, 817

Address:

No. 19, Xin-jian-gong-men Road, Haidian Dist., Beijing

Phone: 8610-62881144

Website

Cost: 60 Yuan

Hours:

  • Apr 1 – Oct 31 ~ 6:30-18:00
  • Nov 1 – Mar 31 ~ 7:00-17:00
Videos:

Map:

Click for Google maps

Posted in Beijing, China | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Crossing Over

Posted by Heliocentrism on May 13, 2009

May 13, 2008

All Pictures

The China-Vietnam Border

Want some Dong?

When I got to the Lang Dong Bus Station, a bus to Hanoi was just pulling out. I bought a ticket on the next bus and went downstairs to the KFC and had breakfast. I got some water and snacks from one of the “mini-mart” stands near the waiting area.

If you take this bus, make sure to use the bathroom before you get on. There is no bathroom on the bus and the first rest stop is a good 2 hours away.

I made sure that I was the first person on the bus. I might have even annoyed the gate attendant by constantly asking, “Can I get on the bus now?” I wanted a seat in the front row. If this bus were to crash, I wanted to see it coming.

Before we pulled out of the station they handed everyone a bottle of water and a barf bag. Then they played a Hong Kong action/comedy with English subtitles. I couldn’t watch it because reading on buses makes me nauseous, but at least it wasn’t one of those horrible loud music videos.

Before traveling to China I went to my bank in Korea and got some money changed into yuan, euros, and pounds. They didn’t have any dong or tögrög (Mongolian money). But at the border, right before going through the Chinese immigration check, there were money changers. They surrounded us and told us about the great rate they would give us. They spoke in Chinese, English, Vietnamese, and French.

I thought about changing some yuan into dong there, but there were so many of them and they were yelling at me all at once. It was a bit intimidating and I wasn’t sure about how legal changing money on the street was. (In many countries changing currency while not inside a bank is illegal.) So I entered Vietnam with no dong to my name.

I think one of the most enjoyable things about traveling in Vietnam is being able to constantly refer to their money as dong, which is pretty much what it’s worth.

A ride to the border

A Mad Rush

The Chinese border is on the eastern end of Pingxiang. There we got off the bus and into a glorified golf cart, provided by the bus company. It drove us up to the entrance of the Chinese immigration building. We went in, filled out a form, and stood in line. Everything was somewhat orderly.

When we came out the other end the “golf cart” was waiting for us. Some people chose to ride in the cart, others walked to the Vietnamese immigration check on the western end of Dong Dang. The cart cannot enter Vietnam, so those who rode in the cart had to walk part of the way anyhow.

In the Vietnamese immigration building it was a mad free for all. I had no idea what to do. I had to push and shove my way to the front of the crowd to ask questions. The man behind the glass window handed me a form to fill out. He didn’t say a word to me or even look up from his paper work. I had to hand in my passport along with the form.

The officer doesn’t just take your passport; you have to almost sneak it into the pile of passports on his desk. Anyone with a Vietnamese passport can jump the line by placing their passport on the top of the heap. There really isn’t an actual line, just a line-like form of chaos where people crowd around and yell until they get to go next.

I watched as he worked on his pile with my passport in the middle. Vietnamese people who had just arrived would toss their passports at him and quickly get it returned to them. Eventually my passport made its way to the top of the pile. When he was about to pick up my passport and check my visa to let me through, his co-worker plopped a mountain of passports on top of mine. That moved me to the back of the “line”.

I thought of some excuse, like, “I forgot to write the date” to get my passport back. I pretended to write something on the form and I put it back on top of the pile. This enabled me to skip all those people and move onto the next section of the immigration check.

This proves that I’m healthy.

Is the Doctor in?

Next was the health check. Vietnam wants to keep out contagious diseases so they do health checks to make sure that people don’t bring in any. They do this by charging you 2,000 Dong or 2 Yuan then giving you a piece of paper that says you’re healthy. There is no actual doctor nor is there any screening for any disease or virus; just a piece of paper.

Once I had my piece of paper an official pointed to a door and indicated that I was to go through it. I opened the door and walked in. Surprised to find myself outside I turned around to ask the official what to do next just in time to have the door slam in my face. It was locked. I checked to make sure I had my passport with the appropriate stamps. Everything seemed to be in order. I was in Vietnam, I guess…

After my unceremonious entrance into Vietnam I looked for my new bus. My old bus went back to Nanning taking the people who came in from Hanoi. I found the new bus. It was significantly smaller than the Chinese bus.

Because I was among the last to get on the bus, my new seat was in the last row next to a very fat man who kept trying to use me as a pillow when he wasn’t throwing up. How that man slept through all those pot holes and horrible, loud Vietnamese pop songs  I just don’t know. I do have a theory on why he threw up so much.

Just like the bus in China, the one in Vietnam also provided us with drinks. But instead of water, we were handed cans of… well, I’m still not sure what it was. It might not have even been a drink at all. It could have been soup or dessert. What ever it was, the picture on the can didn’t spark any feelings of thirst or hunger in me.

I handed mine to the fat man since he seemed to thoroughly enjoy his own wonky beverage. He showed his appreciation by chugging the drink in one go and smiling ecstatically afterwards. So, I guess his getting sick was, on some level, partly my fault. I made it up to him by unwillingly catching his head with my shoulder every time he dozed off.

All Pictures


 

 

Vietnam
(Việt Nam)

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, train, boat, or bus.
  • Make sure to get a visa before going to Vietnam. Although some nationals can get a visa at the border for a few days, many cannot or will need a visa for longer stays.
  • Visit the Vietnamese embassy in your country to get a visa.

Phone:

Website:

Videos:

Notes:

  • Don’t worry if you cannot get Vietnamese dong from your local bank back home. You can get your dong at the airport either in your country or in Vietnam. Don’t get too much; no one will buy it back from you. Many hotels, fancy restaurants, and tour agents will take US dollars or Euros. Though, who knows what exchange rate they will use? You will need dong for taxis, small shops, and local restaurants and vendors.
  • When you get to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh pick up a map of the area from any hotel, hostel, travel agency, or tourist information center. Once you have one of those you’ll be able to find anything.
  • Having a map of the area in Hanoi is very important. Every block has a different street name so once you know the name of street something is on you can easily find it with a map.
  • Wherever you choose to stay, make sure you bring a picture and the address of the hotel. One common trick that taxi and motorbike-taxi drivers like to pull is to take you to the wrong hotel. When you say, “I asked for ABC Hotel!” They will tell you that the name changed. They usually get a commission for bringing tourist to certain hotels.
    • Sometimes hotels do change names. But most likely a hotel will not change names between the time of your booking accommodations and your arrival without telling you.
  • Also for taxis, NEVER agree to a flat rate fee. The flat rate fee will always be way higher than it should be. Always demand that the cab driver use the meter. If he doesn’t want to use his meter, get out. Taxi drivers are a dime a dozen. This is true in most countries.
  • For motorbike taxis, settle on the cost of the ride before getting on. Ask fellow travelers for advice on how much a ride should cost.
  • Watch out for cyclo drivers that claim not to have change as a way to get more money out of you. If you need to, wait for one of those fruit vendors to come along and buy something from her to make change. You really should ask the cost to your destination and make sure you have exact change before you get in the cyclo. 
  • It’s best not to say anything bad about Ho Chi Minh while in Vietnam. He is still very much loved by his people.

 

Hanoi
(Hà Nội)
About this sound

How to get there:

By Bus from Nanning –

The bus station is called Lang Dong Bus Station. You can get there from Nanning Train station by taking city bus #6. The city bus costs 2 Yuan. There might be more buses that go between the train station and the bus station, but the #6 is the one that I know.

Once at the bus station you can buy a ticket on the next available bus out. They seem to run every two hours or as they fill up. There will be empty seats on the Chinese bus because the bus in Vietnam is much smaller. You change buses at the border, so the drivers never leave the country. The ticket costs 150 Yuan.

The ride is about 7 hours, but it will seem longer than that once they start to play the horrible Vietnamese pop music and the guy next to you starts throwing up in the aisle. I heard the Hanoi-Nanning train is worse, though I can’t see how.

I recommend getting someone to write a note for you stating that you want bus tickets to Hanoi.

Website

Notes:

  • Make sure to bring your own pen. They do not have pens at any of the border controls and you will need to fill out a few forms.
  • Depending on what country you are from, you should get your visa before going to Vietnam.
    • As an American, I needed to have a visa before entering.

Map:

Click here for Google maps

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Posted in China, Dong Dang, Nanning, Pingxiang, Vietnam | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The People That You meet When You’re Walking Down the Street…

Posted by Heliocentrism on May 12, 2009

May 11-12, 2008

All Pictures

The People’s Monument by Rolex

The People That you meet When You’re Walking Down the Street…

Through the hostel where I was staying I was able to purchase a ticket on 6:59pm train to Nanning. This gave me a free day with nothing to do but wander the city.

Some of Chongqing looks like the ghetto. But there are very nice parts to the city. Downtown Chongqing is quite ritzy. In fact the monument in the middle of the shopping area is made by Rolex.

Downtown Chongqing

The people I met were very friendly. It seemed that anyone in town who could speak English came out to talk to me that day.

One Chinese guy, who travels to Vietnam often, walked around with me a bit and gave me advice on the must-sees in Hanoi. Another Chinese man sat and talked with me about the year he lived in Philadelphia. I spent most of the afternoon with a German guy who lived in Shanghai and was in Chongqing for vacation. He tried to get me to go with him to a beer garden, but I didn’t have time and I hate beer.

Chongqing train station

Well, what do you know?

When I got to Nanning it was late at night. My plan was to get to Vietnam as soon as possible. I left the train station and took the first nice-ish hotel I could find. Soon after, I regretted not going to a hostel. Although their English was just a little less than okay, the ladies at the front desk did not know enough about Nanning to be able to answer any of my questions.

I asked, “Where can I buy bus tickets to Hanoi?” They said, “We don’t know.”

The bus company had an office about two blocks away from the hotel. I couldn’t buy tickets there, but they gave me directions to the bus station. They also wrote a note for me in Chinese that said, “Please sell me a ticket on the next available bus to Hanoi.”

I asked, “Where can I find an internet café?” They said, “We don’t know.”

The internet café was three blocks away. This is when I learned about the earthquake. I was probably on the train at the time it hit.

Then the easiest question I asked was, “Where can I buy a bottle of water?” Again they didn’t know.

There was a mini-mart one block away from the hotel. They must see the store as they pass it everyday on their way to work. Or are they blindfolded and pushed out of a car that slows down a bit as it passes the hotel?

That was the last time I would ever stay in a hotel in China!

All Pictures


 

China 
(中国)

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, train, boat, or bus
  • Make sure to get a visa before going to China.
  • Visas to China are expensive for people of some nationalities.
  • Getting a Chinese visa is not a quick process. Apply as soon as you can.

Phone:

Website:

There is a long list of websites that cannot be accessed while in China. Facebook and parts of Wikipedia are just two of them. As with everything, there are ways around it. There are sites that will let you get to Facebook and other sites for free for about 15 minutes, then you will have to pay.

My advice is to find a few of them and use them for free. Then use them again on a different computer. If you are in China for a long time, then you might want to invest in paying for the service. Ask friends living in China for the best deals.

Videos:

Books:

*These books by Jung Chang are banned in China. But I highly recommend reading Mao: The Unknown Story before going to Beijing.

Notes:

  • If you want an internet cafe look for this (网吧) on a sign.

Chongqing
(重庆)

How to get there:

  • You can get there by train, bus, plane, or boat.
  • 29°33’48.9″N 106°33’04.7″E

Videos:

Notes:

Bus 503

  • Use to go between the train station and Chaotianmen Gate (朝天门) near Chongqing Ying Bin Bus Station (重庆港迎宾汽车站).
  • Cost= 2 Yuan

Bus 120

  • Use to go between the train station and Chaotianmen Gate (朝天门) near Chongqing Ying Bin Bus Station (重庆港迎宾汽车站).
  • The #503 is a better choice when going to the train station because the #120 doesn’t stop in front of the station.
    • If you’ve gone through the tunnel, you’ve gone too far.
  • Cost= 1.o5 Yuan

Bus 608 –

  • Runs between the airport and Chongqing Ying Bin Bus Station (重庆港迎宾汽车站) near Chaotianmen Gate (朝天门).
  • Cost= 1 Yuan

Nanning
(南宁)

How to get there:

Plane –

Train –

There are also buses and boat into and out of Nanning.

Website

Notes:

Map:

Posted in China, Chongqing, Nanning | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Hell is in Beautiful China

Posted by Heliocentrism on May 12, 2009

May 10, 2008

All Pictures

The Gates of Hell

I’m Back!

On this trip I visited Chongqing for the second time. The last time I didn’t get a chance to see the Ghost City in Fengdu, so I had to go back. Lucky for me, Chongqing is almost on the way from Beijing to Hanoi.

Ghost Pirate?

A Really Great Place to Stay

I took a business card from the hostel in Beijing for another hostel in Chongqing. It had the directions on the back, but I still had a little trouble finding the place. It was great and the people there were very nice. Since I was the only female guess at the time, I got a room all to myself for about 5 USD a night!

On the train I managed to rip my backpack. When I asked at the front desk about a place where I could get it repaired they told me to leave the bag at the hostel and they would take care of it. When I got back from my day trip the hole was gone. The lady at the desk had fixed it herself and she didn’t charge me anything.

The mountain next to 丰都鬼城

Hell

The next day I went to see Taoist Hell. The bus ride to Fengdu is supposed to take 4 hours. Since this is China, you have to add in the extra time needed to wait for extra passengers to show up and for construction delays. It actually took about 5 hours to get there and 6 to return.

There was a rest stop along the way, but I didn’t know that. I thought that I had reached Fengdu. That is when I met the lady that saved my day. She showed me where the bathroom was then urged me to get back on the bus. She spoke very little English and I had forgotten my phrase book back in the hostel in Chongqing.

When we got back on the bus she sat beside me. She asked me where I was from, where I was going, and all the other standard questions. When she found out that I was going to the ghost city, she polled everyone on the bus until she found someone who lived near there to make sure I got to hell safely.

It was a bit difficult communicating where I was going. I drew several pictures of ghosts which didn’t communicate “City of the dead” very well. Either Chinese ghosts don’t look like western ghosts or I just have no artistic talent whatsoever.

What are they afraid of?

The Ghost City is very beautiful and there were only a few people visiting when I went. The gates of hell are up a mountain with a wonderful view of the Yangtze. I walked all the way up and took the ski lift down. I recommend doing the opposite.

I also recommend reading all the wonderful, not-so-good-English signs along the way. You will have to read some a couple of times before you understand what they are trying to say. Others you will never understand.

There were many statues and pictures of demons torturing souls. The painted demons were very beautiful. The tortured souls were very expressive. The view of the river was exquisite. It all made hell such a wonderful place.

Life in Hell

Let’s face it, it’s just the two of us.

When I was done I found only one taxi driver waiting at the entrance. He was just walking around in circles like he really wanted something to do. He seemed so happy to see me and asked me if I wanted to go to the dock.

This is a common cruise stop, so if you do not look Chinese the taxi drivers will assume that you are from a cruise and will take you to the dock unless you tell him otherwise.

I had the girl who brought me to hell write in Chinese on a piece of paper, “I would like to go to the Fengdu bus station and buy tickets to Chongqing.” I handed him the paper and got into his van. I talked him down from his original price, but I think we both knew that I would end up riding in his taxi. I had no other taxis to choose from and he had no other passengers to carry.

All Pictures


 

China 
(中国)

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, train, boat, or bus
  • Make sure to get a visa before going to China.
  • Visas to China are expensive for people of some nationalities.
  • Getting a Chinese visa is not a quick process. Apply as soon as you can.

Phone:

Website:

There is a long list of websites that cannot be accessed while in China. Facebook and parts of Wikipedia are just two of them. As with everything, there are ways around it. There are sites that will let you get to Facebook and other sites for free for about 15 minutes, then you will have to pay.

My advice is to find a few of them and use them for free. Then use them again on a different computer. If you are in China for a long time, then you might want to invest in paying for the service. Ask friends living in China for the best deals.

Videos:

Books:

*These books by Jung Chang are banned in China. But I highly recommend reading Mao: The Unknown Story before going to Beijing.

Notes:

  • If you want an internet cafe look for this (网吧) on a sign.

Fengdu (丰都县) &
the Ghost City (丰都鬼城)

How to get there:

  • 29°53’03.5″N 107°43’23.5″E

From Chongqing go to the Hongqing Ying Bin Bus Station (重庆港迎宾汽车站) near Chaotianmen Gate (朝天门).

Buy a ticket on a bus to Fengdu. One ticket one-way costs 66 Yuan. When you get to Fengdu you have to a take a minivan/taxi to the Ghost city. The cost of the taxi ride will depend on your negotiation skills.

Website:

Cost:

  • The Ghost city itself will cost 80 Yuan.
  •  If you don’t want to walk up or down the mountain it will cost 15 Yuan extra each way to use the ski lift.
Videos:

Notes:

  • I recommend using the ski lift up and walking down. You will definitely want to see the crazy stuff on the walk to/ from hell’s gate.
  • There are 2 sections of the Ghost City. The more interesting part is up the hill.
  • If you are visiting during the non-peak season you should make sure your taxi driver will come back to get you.

Map:

Click for Google maps

Posted in China, Fengdu | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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