A Travellerspoint blog

China Into the Future with Shanghai

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After our uncomfortable 13 hour train ride we finally got to Shanghai. By the time we got to our hotel and they found our lost reservation, and relaxed for a bit, we had about half of our first day left. We couldn't have picked a better location to stay in, right on Nanjing road and minutes away from their lively pedestrian street. The lights were gleaming and there were loads of people out walking. We entered a huge multi-level food hall (sort of their upscale version of the St. Lawrence Market) and it was packed with people. We took it easy for our first day there and just walked up and down that street, including inside the millions of malls in this city. I expected to pack a whole suitcase full of clothes I had bought from Shanghai but luckily for George the mall prices are even more expensive than at home. Isn't this stuff made here???

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Not a deal to be had on this high end shopping street

George was obsessed with riding the high speed bullet train so we took a side trip to Suzhou, a water town about half an hour (bullet train time) away from Shanghai. It was our first time riding a train that fast and it was very exciting, especially for George who was like a giddy little schoolboy. We reached a speed of 277km/hr and it felt like we were on an airplane. Unfortunately George's research concentrated solely on the bullet train itself so when we arrived in this brand new city we had absolutely no idea what to do. We literally stepped off the train and had no clue what to do next. After walking around for a bit with no city centre in sight we got into a cab and tried to get somewhere worth seeing. English is not as prominent here and this was a difficult task. We got dropped off in town and it wasn't exactly what I came here for - Suzhou is known for its canals (it's called the Venice of the East) and we were on a shopping street. Again we asked employees at a hotel where to go and they could not understand us. We walked into an Apple store and they sort of pointed us in the right direction. Needless to George felt my irritation at this point and was probably rethinking his whole bullet train excursion. Well...let's not go that far. As we stood at the side of the street wondering what to do next, an Asian guy about our age approached us and asked us where we were from and whether we worked here or were just visiting. It turned out he was Jeff from Taipei and he was looking for some friends since he was here for his job. He was very nice and we exchanged skype information and he told us to visit Tiger Hill, the top attraction in the city. Thank you Jeff! We got to Tiger Hill and saw some of the canals I was expecting. George was off the hook! The bullet train back to Shanghai reached 287 km/hr so George was even more excited about that. He definitely likes machines that go fast.

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George is going to build a bullet train network in Canada

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Crisis averted as we finally reached the canals Janet wanted to see

From Suzhou we went to a market where we found the home of knock off Uggs. I'm not an Uggs person but couldn't resist and after what seemed like trying on a million pairs and having some technical difficulties as far as sizes and defects, we negotiated a good price for some warm boots. Harbin and it's -35 degree weather here we come!

That night we went to an area in Shanghai called the Bund which is by the waterfront and had many beautiful old buildings. We were lucky enought to see the skyline and row of buldings all light up at the srike of 6 o'clock. It really was quite beautiful. That was also the night of our first restaurant meal - Pizza Hut. What can we say, authentic Chinese food doesn't really appeal to us.

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A modern skyline as opposed to Hong Kong's retro light shows

Day three in Shanghai was spent in the French Concession, an area of Shanghai that is pretty upscale and has somewhat French architecture. It was drizzling out so it wasn't too lively but we could see that it would be an amazing area in the summer. It seemed like this was an area that many Western people live in as there were stores that had all the comforts of home that we have not seen anywhere else. These came at a price though - Doritos and cereal for $7 and Chunky soup for $6! We had another restaurant meal at a Taiwanese restaurant, which was good but left us still hungry. Oh well, we needed to work off that fast food we've been eating. We also stopped off at another market where George haggled for some gloves and a scarf for me. Overall, we have seen better markets in Asia so we didn't spend too much time there.

Our last day in Shanghai we had a few hours to kill before our flight to Harbin and upon leaving our hotel we met three Chinese young people who we had a conversation with for a while (they love to practice English!). They were adament about us joining them to see some sights but unfortunately we had no time. What nice people though! We walked around some areas we hadn't explored yet, tried a bunch of food from street stalls (perhaps not the best idea before a flight??) and bought some tea from a little shop. It felt like a spring day outside and it was the perfect way to spend our last day in Shanghai. We are now in the airport waiting for our flight to Harbin, which has been delayed. Perhaps that's the universe's way of telling us to rethink our visit to the northernmost part of China. Apparently there is such a thing as a body heat pack (like the heat pack hand warmers but for the body). I have a feeling that will be our first purchase in Harbin!

Posted by jgjourney 05:21 Archived in China Comments (0)

Huangshan's Yellow (should be called White) Mountain

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Huangshan mountain (also called Yellow Mountain) is one of China's most beautiful natural sites. It's famous for it's sea of clouds that streams along the mountain peaks, as depicted in many popular pictures you probably have seen. Many people choose to climb the mountain by taking a cablecar up to a certain point then walking up steps the rest of the way, which is what we were going to do. That is if we could get there. We took a one hour taxi to get to our flight out of Yangshuo to Hangzhou, then took an hour taxi to get the bus station to catch the last bus, as was scheduled on the internet. We raced to the station to find there were no more buses so the only thing we could do was take a bus to a nearby city, then take a taxi another hour to our hotel at the base of the mountain. Needless to say we were exhausted from travelling and wanted to rest in a nice warm hotel. Keyword is warm. For half the trip now we have been in the cold, indoors and out. Taxis, trains, stores, and yes, our hotel lobby that we just arrived at was frigid. Thankfully the room got warm quickly or else they would have had to put us alongside the frozen fish displayed in the lobby.

The next morning, we got on the bus to take us to the cable car and froze on the bus again. So even before we started our 3 hour climb we were frozen. We met two Chinese men in our cable car who were very nice and friendly. The questions came again - are you married, do you have children. Luckily they stopped there and we didn't have another India scenario! They also were touching George's pants and commented on how "professional" they looked (good old Costco!). They also gave us helpul advice about finding people's discarded ice pick shoe covers lying around at the base since it could get slippery up there. All of their communicating was done in between hialrious giggles as they tried to find the right English words to say.

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Just one of the glorious vista's we encountered at the top of the mountain

We started climbing and after a while we forgot about the cold completely and started enjoying the magnificent scenery. Unfortunately it was cloudy so we couldn't see a great distance but the trade-off was that we got a soft dusting of snow, so it was truly like a fairy tale. As we passed the other Chinese tourists, everyone was very friendly and loved to practice their "hello". George also had to pose for a few pictures (what am I, chopped liver? What is the fascination with him?). We were staying at one of the five hotels at the top of the mountain and we had to stop and ask if we were going the right way about a million times. Signage isn't their strong point. We finally got there and into our room, which again was freezing and all there was to heat it was a little heater on the wall. Luckily the room was the size of a shoebox so it wasn't too much of an issue. We ate noodles at the hotel's restaurant and even though they put us beside the heater, we still had to wear our jackets. One thing is for sure, we take heat for granted in our country!

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After being at the edge of this cliff George has given up his Everest ambition

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Janet's winter wonderland (when she wasn't complaining about the cold)

The next morning we woke up to see if we could catch the sunrise at the top of the mountain but it was snowing even harder so we couldn't see sun however we did get to experience a winter wonderland up there before too many people woke up. It was so beautiful! We hiked around for a bit (as much as I could with my blistered up foot) and took the cable car down. We were so happy to have made the effort in coming here for the experience we got. We didn't know our transportation issues had just begun.

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This looks really crazy, but Chinese grandma's took it on no problem

When we got back to the base we were told that buses were not running because the snow had shut down the highway! We're not taking a foot of snow here, we're taking a couple of inches. How does that shut down a highway?? So we had no way of getting to Hangzhou, the city we were going to spend that night at. Our options were to wait until the next day but if it continued snowing the road would still be closed, or to take a 13 hour train to Shanghai and skip Hangzhou completely. We chose option two because the thought of staying in this small town with nothing to do for another day did not sound appealing. We hired a taxi who charged inflated prices because of the weather to take us to the train station, which was an hour and a half away through mountain roads since the highway was closed. It was a long drive in a clunker mini van again with no heat. Argh! We finally got there and got train tickets to Shanghai leaving 4.5 hours later. We ended up staying in a hotel lobby which was slightly warmer than outside until it was time for our train to leave. I think the words "I don't understand why they don't have heat" were uttered from our mouths about a thousand times as we sat there.

The train station was crazy! Everyone was pushing and shoving to get to the train, which we didn't understand since we all had assigned seats. The old lady behing George almost ran him over! We got to our seats and of course, we had characters in our section again. Why always us! People were sitting in our seats and had distributed their sunflower seed shells all over our table and seat. Lovely. There was so much noise everywhere I think I almost went mad, from someone doing a comedy routine at the top of his lungs to music being played from phones, to people selling things down the asiles. And the smoke...oh the smoke. There were multiple times I had thoughts of getting off and just walking to Shanghai. Oh and how could we forget to mention the incessant horking and spitting and the guy beside us who took off his shoes and socks and picked at his feet the ENTIRE ride. Luckily it calmed down a few hours in when people started falling asleep and we managed to doze off for a bit throughout the night. As we write this we are about an hour away from Shanghai so our long journey is amost complete. We have the next three night there so we will let you know how it goes (if we're not frozen by then)!

Posted by jgjourney 21:03 Archived in China Comments (1)

Retreating in Yangshuo

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We landed in Guilin and got a taxi to Yangshuo which is more than an hour away from the airport. Right away, we knew our taxi driver would be a character from the way he was yelling and laughing with his friends. The scenery was beautiful the closer we got to Yangshuo. Our taxi driver on the other hand was getting less amicable. Our protests did not prevent him from making us pay the tolls...oh well, our thinking was we would just take that out of the total at the end. We got into the city and the driver was on the phone with our hotel trying to find his way. After a while of not finding it, he tried to make us get out in the town, which would have been far from our hotel. We refused and he began yelling at whoever he was on the phone with. We were stopped at the side of the road and he was screaming at the top of his lungs! People were laughing at him and so were we as he was losing his mind. It was funny as long as he wasn't yelling at us. Finally, after asking for directions a few times he got us to our hotel. We learned that it was the nice little receptionist he was screaming at and she was putting him in his place. He was asking her to tell us in English the way to the hotel so he could leave us in town, afterall, we were "foreigners" and didn't know any better but she would not have it. He told her she was the rudest receptionist he had ever met and she said he was the rudest taxi driver she had ever met. We side with the receptionist. We learned one thing throughout that ordeal, don't mess with Chinese women! It was amazing to have someone honest and on our side.

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The glorious view from our River Retreat

Our hotel was amazing and the views were spectacular. We had a corner room where we could see the limestone mountains and the Li River right in front of us. It was like looking at a postcard. Our first day in Yangshuo, which was also New Year's Eve, was spent wandering around the touristy little streets. We had a good time window shopping and trying some food from the food stalls. We had dinner at an Indian Restaurant (yes, Indian food in China...the chinese cuisine isn't like it is at home) and we saw some people from the States we had run into earlier. They were kind enough to pass along a dish that hadn't come out yet since they had to run and it was amazing! The whole place was alive at night but we were tired and went back to our room to watch a movie and ring in the new year. Too bad I fell asleep as soon as I hit the bed but George woke me up just before midnight. Surprisingly, they had fireworks which we could see right outside our hotel window in the midst of all the limestone peaks. What a great way to ring in the new year.

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Janet picked up the scent of this ginger tea from miles away

We expected day number two in Yangshuo to be nice and relaxing but it was entirely the opposite. A popular thing to do is to rent bikes and go biking around the countryside. They neglected to tell us that it was a half an hour ride through the city to get to that countryside. I refused to ride my bike on those roads since I would undoubtedly panic and run into some moped so we ended up walking our bikes most of the way. We kept walking and walking and George had a minor breakdown along the way because we didn't know where we were going and it was taking a lot longer than we thought. His bike was also having problems with the gears (likely because those bikes are made for 100 pound Chinese men but he is saying that's a lie as he reads this) so all I kept hearing was swearing and gears clanging in front of me. I'm surprised that bike isn't at the bottom of the Li River right now.

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This is what we envisioned the bike ride to be like, unfortunately this only shows a brief moment

We finally got to the bike path but it was hardly what we were envisioning. The peaceful countryside was ruined by the constant passing of dump trucks beside us covering us with dust. We got lost a few times and ended up in a village and that's when we decided that was it for our leasurely bike ride. We negotiated (through sign language and pictionary) a bamboo boat ride that would take us and our bikes down the river and back to the town. The scenery was quite beautiful and we tried to forget our frustrating morning. After a few other minor breakdowns (this time by me) walking/riding our bikes through town, we got to the tranquility of our hotel, where we had an hour before we had to leave again to see a show we had tickets for. What happened to relaxation???

There is a show in Yangshuo that is famous because it is directed by the same person who directed the Beijing Olympics, which, if you remember was absolutely amazing. The process of getting to the show was just hilarious. We waited for the minivan that piled us all in and got dropped off at the outdoor theatre on the water. Then our group was walked to the theater by our leader with a flag (yes, we were part of those Chinese tour groups!!) and we waited in a line with hundreds of other people. Our leader began yelling in Chinese and a few people around us helped answer whatever questions she was yelling at us. Then we were told to follow another leader to another destination and everyone began sprinting! We also got in the Chinese spirit and ran laughing with the new friends we had made. We then lined up again to get our tickets. Perhaps someone should introduce China to the Ticketmaster system? It would be much easier. We got our tickets and followed our friends to our seats at last.

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Those are guys in boats holding up red ribbon. Much more spectacular live than what it sounds like.

The venue was outdoors, the stage was the river right in front of us and the backdrop was the limestone mountains, which were lit up once the performance began. It was SPECTACULAR. There were about 600 performers and the theatrics of it all were incredible. The sheer number of people involved and the music was amazing and it was very moving to watch. You could definitely see the Beijing Olympic influence in it all. Leaving the theatre we spoke of how this would be an experience we would always remember.

The next morning we woke up to catch our flight to Hangzhou, where we would catch a bus to Huangshan, a mountain we are gonig to climb. Really, climbing means walking up stairs the whole way but we still like to pretend.

Posted by jgjourney 04:59 Archived in China Comments (0)

Xi'An and it's Pottery Warriors

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As we mentioned before, our travel to Xian started off stressfully with the loss of one of our smalll backpacks. We got in a taxi and headed to our hotel hoping the front desk would know a little bit of English so we could sort out our missing bag. The lineup to check in was all Chinese so we were sure there would be no English but to our surprise, the employees here spoke the best English we've encountered throughout the trip. Even more luckily, we had kept the receipt from our taxi ride so we had the phone number and driver number. They made some phone calls and they actually found our bag! The plan is to pick it up when we are in Beijing at the end our trip. So we are about 80% confident that we'll get it back. Here's hoping!

The main reason people go to Xian is to see the Terracotta Warriors, an army of lifesize terracotta statues created for the emperor to protect him in the afterlife that were found under 40 years ago by a farmer. We had to take one bus to the train station, which was very busy and chaotic, and with the help of a sweet little Chinese girl who walked us in the right direction, we got on our bus that would take us to the Warriors. An hour later we were there and the whole complex was massive. We walked around the museum, along with tons of other Chinese tour groups, and finally made it to the three groups of archeological sites where they are still in the excavation process. The first two were impressive literally in the midst of uncovering history but the last one was the grand finalle. Hundreds of lifesize soldiers standing before us along with thousands yet to be reassembled and unearthed. It was mind-blowing. As amazing as they were, add in the fact that they were all once hand painted in great detail in bright colours and it must have been a painstaking process to create all of them. Each soldier was unique and had his own distinct expression and there were even horses and chariots.

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That's some fine looking restored pottery

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Amazing details close up

After nearly freezing to death because there was no heat inside any of the buildings, we made our way back to the hotel. It was evening now and the city was alive and bustling. On the way in we noticed there was a Walmart not far from our hotel so we just had to check it out (and see if there were some more confortable boots for me to buy since my feet were killing me). Let's just say the Walmart was not like one you would see at home, with dried meats and fish hanging all over the place. The wonderful thing was that I found "Uggs" for $5!!! My feet were in heaven and they are still holding up days later. Walmart comes through in the clutch!

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I'm sure the Drum and Bell Tower is amazing in the daytime and not under construction

We walked down a street looking for the Muslim quarter and it was astonishing how just one street off the main road was a different world. It was much less built up, full of little street vendors and small alleyways. Back on the main road, it was amazing how many people were out (on a Sunday night). We both really enjoyed this city for what short amount of time we had there. The next day we had another early flight to Yangshuo, a small postcard town in the midst of limestone peaks. This is where we would be ringing in the new year. We couldn't wait!

Posted by jgjourney 06:44 Archived in China Comments (0)

Discovering China: Beijing and it's Greatness

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After about 24 hours of travel we finally made it to Beijing, the first stop in our triparound China. The first thing we noticed when we stepped off the plane was the white curtain of air pollution that sits on top of the city. This is much like many of the big Asian cities we've been through but it seems a bit worse here. We made it to our hotel without any issues and woke up the next day ready to tackle the city.

We had three things on our list for the first day before the time difference caught up to us - the Forbidden City, Tian'annmen Square, and Wangfujing Street. We layered up as much as we thought necessary, which in the end was not enough. The Forbidden City, the place Chinese Emperors made their homes for hundreds of years, was hugely impressive. The sheer size of it with all it's alleyways and courtyards was incredible. You could really imagine the lives of Emperors and Empresses as you walked through the pathyways. I think I made more than one comment about sitting on a throne being fed grapes. Unfortunately, the cold prevented us from leasurely walking about so we more or less sprinted through and made a pact to wear our thermal leggings the next day. Nonetheless, we really enjoyed our first sightseeing stop in China.

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the forbidden city/palace is not so forbidden if janet is standing in front of it

Next was Tian'anmen Square, which is probably the most synonomous site with Beijing for those of us in the West. We made the mistake of making this our second stop, which meant backtracking all the way back down the Forbidden City. In the end it wasn't so bad because it gave our limbs the chance to warm up by walking quickly (except for my right foot which for some reason stayed frozen. I thought this might be the onset of frostbite but all was well in the end. Weird.). Once we got to the square we were so amazed by the size of it. It was huge! Apparently, it can hold a million people. Just imagine Nathan Philips Square times a thousand. Crazy! An interesting thing we noticed was the amount of security cameras pointing toward every last corner of the square. You definitely know you are being watched. We will likely take half the amount of pictures we normally do because of the cold. Poor George keeps having to take the camera in and out of his pocket with his huge gloves on. We've already had one near-drop and will undoubtedly include our gloves and mitts in more than a few pictures.

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the picture doesn't portray the actual size

On the way back to our hotel we walked down Wangfujing Street, which is known to be a great pedestrian shopping street in Beijing. It has a bunch of malls (mostly very high end) and basically all the stores we know at home. We had lunch in a restaurant that had the most appetizing pictures on their menu, although the real thing was not that great. All we cared about was that we were in a warmish place eating warm food. Along that street we stumbled upon a sidestreet that had a bunch of interesting food stalls like fried scorpion, taranchula, lizard, and starfish on a stick. Yum. George brushed off his negotiating skills and got a warm hat for $5 (the exact same he got at home for $25). That might be the only thing he buys from China as his size isn't exactly the norm around here. Maybe he'll find a magnet for himself so he won't feel so bad.

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we're adventurous with food, but not that adventurous

We got to our hotel and fell asleep before 5:30pm and I woke up at 1:50am. I'm currently writing this at 4:20am after acknowledging the fact that I won't be able to go back to sleep. These time changes are a pain! Tomorrow is our day trip to the Great Wall of China and hopefully we won't fall asleep in mid-climb. We will let you know how that goes soon!

You would think that getting to the most famous attraction in China (possibly the world) would be an easy task, but this was not the case. We were told to take the subway to the bus station and take the 919 bus to the Great Wall. Well we got to the 919 bus and squeezed ourselves onto it with a heard of Chinese people only to be told this bus did not go to the Great Wall and that we should be on another bus. We went to that bus and were told it was not running because the roads were too slippery. What??? It all sounded like a big scam to us but we didn't have time to waste trying to figure it out so we decided to take the train option. We got to the train station and waited in a huge line at the "ticket counter" only to get to the front and be told we were in the wrong line. We got ourselves in the right line, bought tickets and were herded into the station, again, along with a hundred Chinese running to get to the finish line. We eventually got to the train platform and saw that we missed the train by 2 minutes and the next one was leaving in an hour. What a process! Nonetheless we got on the train and were on our way to the Wall.

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it might be cold but we are as happy as can be

We prepared ourselves for the cold in China but didn't know that we'd have to endure the cold indoors as well. Trains, buses, even some malls are not heated. This means being in the cold for the entire day with no heat until we get to our hotel. And so we froze on the train ride to the Great Wall knowing that the Great Wall itself was going to be frigid. Not a good start! We walked about 15 minutes from the station to the entrance and my goodness were we scared. The winds were fierce but we continued and finally got climbing. After about 5 minutes of climbing we didn't even feel the cold anymore. The beauty of the scenery and the huffing and puffing along the stairs took our minds off the massive winds. The wonderful part was that it was a clear day and we could see for miles. We definitely would not have had the same view had we gone a day earlier with all the pollution. It was a wonderful climb to the top, stopping every few feet to enjoy our surroundingsand the snow-dusted mountains. The scope of the whole thing was spectacular and it's mind-boggling to think that human beings accomplished this. We enjoyed ourselves so much and the winter weather made it even more of an adventure. There was also a sense of comraderie with our fellow climbers out there in the winds. It seemed everyone was enjoying themselves, laughing, even throwing snowballs, on this Great Wall. It will definitely be a moment we will remember for the rest of our lives.

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on top of the world

The next morning we had an early flight to Xian to see the Terracotta Warriors. It was just another trip to the airport until I realized I had forgotten my backpack in the taxi. Nooooo! There was nothing critical in there but still some valuables so we ran around the ariport trying to call our hotel and get a hold of this taxi driver. Unfortunately our flight was about to leave so we couldn't get it sorted out just yet but would have to wait until we landed in Xian to see if there was hope of getting my bag back. To be continued...

Posted by jgjourney 06:59 Archived in China Comments (2)

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