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Hong Kong Travel Tips

Posted by Heliocentrism on October 25, 2017

2017

You have to bring:

  • Prescription medication.

Just about everything else can be bought in Hong Kong, though ibuprofen can be hard to find. Many pharmacies do not sell it, but if you need it, ask.

Things you can buy here or bring with you:

  1. Luggage:
    • It’s best to use a backpack. Elevators can be hard to find sometimes.
  2. Clothes:
    • Hong Kong is all about shopping!
    • There is no sales tax here.
  3. Towel:
    • Bring your towel if you are staying at a hostel.
  4. Shampoo, conditioner, and body wash:
    • Of course you can buy these here.
    • You can even find your favorite brands… like Dove, Pantene, so on…
  5. Deodorant/ Antiperspirant:
    • You can find it here; no problem.
  6. Sunscreen:
    • You can find it here; no problem.
  7. Over the counter medicine:
    • There are lots of pharmacies where you can buy pain killers, but ibuprofen might be a bit of a treasure hunt.
  8. Other things you should bring:
    • An umbrella:
      • When it’s not raining, it’s too sunny. When it’s neither raining or too sunny, air conditioning units drip on your head.

General Tips:

Transportation:

  • Get an Octopus Card:
    • You can get one at the airport or at any subway station.
    • A refund handling fee will be charged if you return the On-loan Octopus less than 90 days from the date of issue.

Food:

  • Eat as much stuff you can only find in Hong Kong you can find.
  • When you get tired of that, eat everything else.
  • When in Macau, eat the egg tarts.

Shopping:

  • If you need electronics here’s the place to get it.
  • There is no sale tax.

Money:

  • Don’t change money when going to Macau.
    • You can use Hong Kong dollars there, no problem.

Scams:

  • The are no prevalent scams to speak of. Just stay away from weird people on the street.

Hong Kong
(中華人民共和國香港特別行政區)
(Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China )

How to get there:

You can enter Hong Kong by plane, train, or boat. Most likely, unless you are coming in from mainland China, you will enter by plane.

***A entry to Hong Kong is not the same as a visa to China.*** Do not try to enter mainland China without a visa***.

Phone:

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Notes:

  • Hong Kong uses the British style plug.
  • Get an  Octopus Card for public transportation.
    • Get one at the airport
    • Refundable HK$50 deposit
    • You can use it to pay for train, buses, and many other things.
  • If you’re in the market to buy electronics, Hong Kong is the place for you!
    • There is no sales tax, so everything is Duty Free.

Macau
(中華人民共和國澳門特別行政區)
(Macao Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China )

How to get there:

You can enter Macau by plane, train, or boat. Most likely, unless you are coming in from mainland China, you will enter by plane or by boat from Hong Kong.

  • Boats from Hong Kong
    •  TurboJet
      • HK (SHEUNG WAN) <–> MACAU (OUTER HARBOUR)
      • HK (SHEUNG WAN) <–> MACAU (TAIPA)
    •  Cotai Jet
      • HK (SHEUNG WAN) <=> MACAU (OUTER HARBOUR/TAIPA)

***Entry to Macau is not the same as a visa to China.*** Do not try to enter mainland China without a visa***.

Phone:

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Notes:

  • Don’t bother to change your Hong Kong dollars to Macanese pataca.
    • Every where in Macau, from the buses to the shops, take HKD.
  • The best thing to do is the plan out everything you want to see and in what order. Then when you get to Macau go to the tourist information desk and ask them what bus to use.
    • They will tell you the bus number, where to find it, and how much it will cost.
    • Remember to bring a pen and write the information down.

 

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Posted in China, Hong Kong | Leave a Comment »

Macau

Posted by Heliocentrism on October 20, 2017

Monday, July 17th, 2017

Macau: Hong Kong’s New Face

The day we visited Macau was a nice day. Hong Kong is a very crowded city with everyone bustling about. Macau is a little crowded too, but mostly with tourists. The worst part of the day was that it rained off and on, other than that, the day went smoothly. After the rough time we had on our first day in Hong Kong, a little rain didn’t stop us from having a good time.

We took a ferry over and got directions from a tourism guide stationed at the terminal. We managed to get on all of the right buses with no adventures what so ever.

We tried an egg tart. It was delicious. I think the tart will be what I will remember the most about Macau for years to come.

After that we went looking for historic houses. We had a lovely time walking through Portuguese gardens when it started to rain harder. Luckily for us, there was a covered walkway not too far from where we were. And that walkway led right to the Venetian.

We did not gamble. We aren’t gamblers, but we loved the Venetian none the less. It is a fabulous place. Everything there is so shiny and over the top.

I’ve been to the Venetian in Las Vegas. It’s quite similar, but the one in Macau is a lot bigger. We spent hours walking around. We wanted to buy something, but there wasn’t anything we really needed.

Later we took the ferry back to Hong Kong. It was a great day.


Macau
(中華人民共和國澳門特別行政區)
(Macao Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China )

How to get there:

You can enter Macau by plane, train, or boat. Most likely, unless you are coming in from mainland China, you will enter by plane or by boat from Hong Kong.

  • Boats from Hong Kong
    •  TurboJet
      • HK (SHEUNG WAN) <–> MACAU (OUTER HARBOUR)
      • HK (SHEUNG WAN) <–> MACAU (TAIPA)
    •  Cotai Jet
      • HK (SHEUNG WAN) <=> MACAU (OUTER HARBOUR/TAIPA)

***Entry to Macau is not the same as a visa to China.*** Do not try to enter mainland China without a visa***.

Phone:

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Notes:

  • Don’t bother to change your Hong Kong dollars to Macanese pataca.
    • Every where in Macau, from the buses to the shops, take HKD.
  • The best thing to do is the plan out everything you want to see and in what order. Then when you get to Macau go to the tourist information desk and ask them what bus to use.
    • They will tell you the bus number, where to find it, and how much it will cost.
    • Remember to bring a pen and write the information down.
  • Try an egg tart. No, try 2!

Senado Square

Basic Information

Website

Cost:

  • free

Hours:

  • 24hrs

Notes:

  • Walk around and take photos.
    • Get a photo of the fountain or the pattern on the ground.

Ruins of St. Paul’s

Basic Information

Website

Cost:

  • free

Hours:

  • 24hrs

Notes:

  • This is a 17th-century Portuguese church.

Monte Fort

Basic Information

Cost:

  • free

Hours:

  • 7:00 – 19:00

Notes:

  • The fort was built between 1617 and 1626
  • The Museum of Macau is in the fort.
  • In 2005, Monte Fort became China’s 31st World Heritage Site.

The Venetian Macao

Basic Information

Website

Cost:

  • You can enter for free
  • The cost of gambling or a hotel stay are another thing.

Hours:

  • Who needs sleep?

Notes:

  • Even if you don’t gamble there is lots of shopping, eating, and sight-seeing to be done here.
  • From the Venetian, and any of the casinos, you can take a free shuttle to ferry (and visa-versa) even if you didn’t gamble or stay in the hotel.

Map:

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The Horrible No Good Stay

Posted by Heliocentrism on October 15, 2017

Wednesday, July 12th – 19th, 2017

I’ve been to  Hong Kong many times. But, I’ve only ever seen the inside of the airport.  It’s a very nice airport.  For the first time I got to leave the airport and enter Hong Kong. I was very excited.

We would spend a week in Hong Kong. Mark wanted to try out accommodations in two different areas. The first place, was one he found on Airbnb. It was some sort of futuristic capsule hotel thing. It was going to be amazing. We would see Hong Kong for the first time ever and stay in a kitschy space hotel.

Best seat on the bus

We landed in Hong Kong and was first greeted by a staff member of the board of tourism. She handed us a free map. We gave her the address of our accommodations and she told us what bus to catch, what stop to get off, and she recommended getting an Octopus Card. We got the card and easily found our bus. We were the first in line. We got to our stop without any problem. Everything went smoothly.

The address was easy to understand. It was something like 140 ABC Street, ABC building, 24 section. We found ABC street, then 130 ABC street. At 140 ABC street there was supposed to be an ABC building, but there wasn’t.

We asked to people around where the ABC building was. They didn’t know. But they only knew the building they worked in. They said they weren’t too sure about the other buildings. One person even walked with us and concluded that the ABC building should be near here; he pointed to a building which was not the ABC building. We thought that maybe there was a typo.

We went to a Starbucks to use their wifi and call our host. It was a headache talking to him. He spoke no English or Cantonese. All his communications were in Mandarin. We used the google translate app to talk to him. We could understand him well enough, but he seemed not to know what we were trying to ask.

We kept the dialog simple. Instead of asking, “What’s the address,” we wrote, “address?” We would run it through a translator and send it to him. He had no idea what we wanted. “Why would people who paid to stay at my accommodation ask about an ‘address’?” The man seemed to be a bit thick.

After 45 minutes of texting back and forth, Mark got a new address. It was about 5 metro stops down the line and nowhere in the neighborhood we thought we would be in when we got the reservations.

We book the place online expecting it to be in one area. In the conformation email we were given a different address and found out that it was actually on the outskirts of where we wanted to be. That was still okay. Now, we were told that we would be staying in a different area all together.

We went to the new address and found nothing. There was no sign for any capsule hotel or anything that would resemble a capsule place. Once again we asked around, but no one had heard of it.

We found a store that had free wifi and contacted the host again. It took another 30 minutes of texting to get more information out of him. By this time I was convinced that he was too stupid to run a hotel or Airbnb accommodations. Later I would realize that it was a bit more sinister than that.

He was going to meet us at XYZ station exit 1. We sent him messages like, “Man = blue shirt, baseball hat, gray pants. Woman = green shirt, black pants. You = ?” We wanted to be able to find him in the crowd and for him to find us. But he didn’t understand. In the end we just when to the designated spot and waited.

…and waited.

…and waited.

…and waited.

…and waited.

Then we went back to another store with free wifi. Mark texted him again, asking where he was. He claimed he was at XYZ station exit 1. We ran back there. Out of frustration Mark started to yell, “Airbnb guy!” No one answered.

We went back to the store with free wifi. Again he claimed to be at the meeting spot. He said he was there for the past 30 minutes.

I began to wonder why it was so hard for him to understand us, but we could easily understand what he said. No one who is able to put a room on Airbnb is that dumb. Something strange is going on here. “I think this is a scam.”

I told Mark that we should start looking for another place to stay for the night. Mark groaned. His head began to ache in anticipation of the roller coaster ride it would be to get our money back from this fraudster.

During our adventure we passed a Holiday Inn. It was a bit above our budget, but for one night it would do. We headed to the Holiday Inn and got there just in time to see them close up shop. They locked the doors, pulled down the blinds, then they locked themselves behind iron bars. “Holy hell! Is all that necessary?” I thought, from the other side of the street. It looked like they were expecting the Purge to begin in a few minutes. I could hear bottles clanking in the distance.

We looked down the street. As if choreographed, all the shops and businesses in turn pulled similar metal bars down. The whole town was closed for the night. “Yikes,” I thought. “Are we going to have to spend the night at Starbucks?”

I turned to look at Mark. Before I could even ask him what he thought we should do, some shady looking creep approached us. “I have hotel. You need hotel? Yes… I have!” We wanted to tell this slimy guy to get lost, but he was right. We did need a hotel. So, we followed him.

He took us into a dirty building with lots of little shops and dingy looking restaurants. It felt like everyone inside was staring at us and whispering to each other, “Those two are about to be exploited.” The guy we were following was still working the crowd. There were 3 or 4 other tourists he tried to make follow him to his hotel, but they clearly had better option than we did.

The creep took us to a room with no windows and a bathroom that was oddly wet. Mark and I popped our heads in to look inside, but didn’t like what we saw. But, the creep insisted that we enter the room before we made up our minds. “It’s okay,” Mark politely declined, “we don’t need to both go inside.” The creep would not let it go, “Just go inside, please.” So we went in.

There was one single bed and about 1 square foot of space in the room that was neither bed nor bathroom. He quoted a price that Mark thought was way to high for such a dump. I didn’t hear what he said. I was busy thinking about how much I would rather spend the night at Starbucks and how much I needed to get out of the room, but Mark was blocking the way. To go around him, I would have to climb on the bed. I didn’t want to touch the bed. “…And, why was the bathroom wet!? They could not have just cleaned, it’s past midnight,” I thought.

Sensing our hatred for the windowless room with the one twin bed and the mysteriously wet bathroom, the creep remembered another room. The second room, the one in the photo above, was double the size. It had 2 windows and a moldy, but dry bathroom. This room was still terrible, overpriced, and we did not want to stay in it, but it was slightly better than spending the night at Starbucks (which we weren’t completely sure would stay open all night).

We took the room. But we tried not to touch anything. We slept with all our clothes on. We unpacked nothing. And, we left as soon as the sun came up practically running away from the place.

We paid in cash, giving the money to the creep before he left. The creep showed us the light switch, there was only one, and how to use the faucet. Then he said, “People usually give tip now.” Then he stuck his grubby hand out at us moving it from Mark to me then back as if he didn’t know whether he or I or both would give him money.

I stood there shocked at the creep’s audacity. This was not the type of hotel where tipping happened. Plus, it’s not like he carried our bags or anything. Mark looked at him and told him, “Well, usually people give tips in the morning, depending on how nice the room is.” The creep looked at the room and whined, “I’m not here in the morning, can I have my tip now?”

Mark gently escorted the creep out the room and started to shut the door as he said, “That’s not how things are done. Tomorrow… maybe… it depends…”

There’s no one around to tip…

The next day we found a hostel and met some really nice people who we explored Hong Kong with. They were the bit of sunshine in the rainy cloud that was our time in Hong Kong. But we still had to deal with the Airbnb host we could not find.

The guy went ahead and charged Mark for 3 nights stay, even though he was not smart enough to give us directions. Mark asked him to refund the money, but the host claimed that we cancelled at the last minute. With Airbnb we can cancel and get a full refund, only if it is more than 3 days before the time of our stay. Since, we supposedly cancelled on the night we were to arrive, he just charged us for the whole 3 nights’ stay.

But we didn’t cancel at all. If we did, he would have been able to keep our money. Mark wrote a letter to the higher-ups at Airbnb and explained our situation. After a few weeks, Airbnb refunded all our money back. But by then we were out of Hong Kong. While in Hong Kong this was hanging over our heads. It wasn’t about the money. It was this feeling of being taken advantaged of. This was our first day in Hong Kong and it was a very bad experience.

But, luckily we met some really great guys from Holland. We would go out to eat with them a lot. We did some sight seeing with them too, but mostly we ate. We had a great time with them and it helped us forget the horrible first day in Hong Kong.


Hong Kong
(中華人民共和國香港特別行政區)
(Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China )

How to get there:

You can enter Hong Kong by plane, train, or boat. Most likely, unless you are coming in from mainland China, you will enter by plane.

***Entry to Hong Kong is not the same as a visa to China.*** Do not try to enter mainland China without a visa***.

Phone:

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Notes:

  • Hong Kong uses the British style plug.
  • Get an  Octopus Card for public transportation.
    • Get one at the airport
    • Refundable HK$50 deposit
    • You can use it to pay for train, buses, and many other things.
  • If you’re in the market to buy electronics, Hong Kong is the place for you!
    • There is no sales tax, so everything is Duty Free.

Australia Dairy Company

Basic Information

Websites:

Cost:

  • 26 – 30 Yuan for a set meal

Hours:

  • 7:30 – 23:00

Notes:

  • I highly recommend the scrambled eggs.
    • They are the best thing on the menu and the best scrambled eggs I have ever tasted.
  • Go early and prepare to stand in line.
    • The bigger the group you go with the longer you will wait.
    • You might be placed at a table with people you’ve never met before.
    • The restaurant will be crowded with waiters wizzing by you.
      • Don’t make sudden moves.
      • Don’t bring big bags with you.
    • The wait staff might come off as being a bit rude.
      • They can be a little rude if they like; the food is legit!

Central–Mid-Levels escalator and walkway system

Basic Information

Websites:

Cost:

  • free

Hours:

  • Downhill direction: Mid-Levels – Central 6am to 10am daily
  • Uphill direction: Central – Mid-Levels 10am to midnight daily

Notes:

  • This is the longest covered outdoor escalator in the world.
  • There are many stops along the way.
  • Be careful when going from the top of one escalator to the bottom of another (or visa versa). Sometimes, you will needed to cross the street, so watch out for traffic.

Noon Day Gun

Basic information

Website

Cost:

  • Free

Hours:

  • everyday at noon

Notes:

  • There are other “Noon Day” guns throughout the world, though many have been discontinued.
    • The one in Edinburgh, is fired at 13:00 and is called the 1 O’clock gun.
  • Be careful when trying to cross the street near the gun. There is an underground walkway that goes from the nearby mall to the gun.

Hong Kong Museum of History

Basic Information

Website

Cost:

  • Free

Hours:

  • Closed Tuesdays
  • 7:00 – 22:00

Notes:

  • There are no audio guides, but there are many short films throughout the museum.
    • They are played in 3 languages, English, Cantonese, and Mandarin.
  • Bring a light jacket or a long sleeved t-shirt; it can get chilly.

Tim Ho Wan

Basic Information

Website

Cost:

Hours:

  • 10:00 – 22:00

Notes:

  • There is usually a line of people waiting to get in.
  • You might be placed at a table with strangers.

Tian Tan Buddha

Basic Information

Website

Cost:

  • Free to see the outside
  • There is a small charge to enter the Buddha

Hours:

  • 10:00 – 17:30

Notes:

Map:

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Travel List Thursday: Beijing

Posted by Heliocentrism on November 10, 2016

Download PDF version

 

 

 

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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.”

 

 

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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 »

 
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