BootsnAll Travel Network

You’re Fatter Than My Mom

Boarding our Thai Airways flight in the morning, I had some little jitters about my next destination. Every person I have spoke with who has been to China has just said how hard it is to travel there, that no one speaks English, the food is bad, it’s hot, it’s polluted, it’s overwhelming etc. No other destination that I’ve been to so far has instilled this sense of anxiety in me, and no other have I been given such dire warnings about the state of travel. As I boarded my Thai Airways flight in Bangkok and settled into my very nice economy seat (with plenty of leg room, ahem, United), I felt an urge to flee back to Southeast Asia. That feeling didn’t leave me for the first entire day I spent in Beijing, but it quickly subsided and has left me breathless, a combination of the smog, the throngs of people, and the unbelievable “newness” of a country. 

We arrived in Beijing airport about 4pm, and after what I was surprised to be an easy immigration, we furiously studied our guidebook for how to get out into the city. We found the airport shuttle desk, and somehow deciphered the Chinese characters and limited postings in English to figure out where we wanted to go, buy the ticket, and then found the correct bus to get on. The bus driver seemed concerned that we were on his bus, and motioned at us to come over to the sign listing the stops. He seemed somewhat reassured when we pointed to the last stop, and let us board. The city center is about 25 km from the airport, and the first thing we noticed on our arrival was the fog. Or the smog, whichever it was. The sun was desperately trying to get through this thick grey mass, and though there probably wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the entire air was filled by this gray fogginess, which hid every building and tree from our sight. We arrived at our stop, and got our bags out of the luggage storage. A few taxi drivers approached us, but because we couldn’t speak Chinese, and they couldn’t speak English, they seemingly didn’t want to deal with us. We finally found a driver that was willing to take us to our hostel. We stupidly didn’t write down the name in Chinese, so we ended up having to stop at a hotel and found a person who spoke some English who could direct our taxi driver where to go. When we finally arrived at the hostel, it was full, and the girl at the desk said she could book us a room at another place. We asked if she could explain to our taxi driver where to go, but she said that he didn’t want to take us. Apparently, he’d had enough of driving us, so we got our bags and I tried to pay him, which he then tried to get more money from us because it was so difficult to find. We adamantly refused and walked away, and he had to resign himself to the 60 Yuan, which it turns out was a good price anyway for that distance. Walking down the street to find another taxi, we stopped at another hostel on the street, and though they were almost full, we got them to reduce their price for a triple room for us that night, as long as we promised to stay another night. Tired from our travel day, we quickly took the room and unloaded. It was almost 6pm by then, and we had been up and traveling for more than 12 hours.

Feeling hungry and restless to explore our area, we set out down the street armed with a newly purchased map and our guidebook. The streets were a bewildering mess, even though they were printed in Roman script along with their Chinese characters, probably to prepare for the 2008 Olympics, they didn’t seem to correspond to any street names on our map. Chris and I, as what has become a running joke with us, quickly got lost trying to find the main shopping strip close to us. After asking for directions in another hotel, we were approached by a nice woman who spoke very good English, who wanted to speak with us. Relieved to find someone that spoke English, we chatted with her a bit, and then she asked us if we wanted to view an art gallery across the street. Shrugging, we set off behind her into a building, where it became very obvious very fast that it was not an art gallery, but a small shop full of art for sale. The sales pitch started quickly, and smiling and politely, we excused ourselves to set back out on the street. Not another block down, we found ourselves talking to another person who “wanted to speak English”, who then after a minute or two, directed the conversation to art and his art school, and did we want to see it. It was a shame that the people who could actually speak English were know just out to sell us something, and we quickly said our goodbyes and set off down the street. We finally navigated ourselves to the main street, which was full of Western style department stores and shopping malls, and was packed with people strolling along. It was a Saturday night, and the street was full of locals and Chinese tourists, snapping pictures and eating ice cream. Realizing we were now starving, we entered a restaurant, and pointing, ordered what turned out to be pork with mushrooms, an uninspiring meal but hunger became our tastebuds. We found our way back to our hotel, after trying to help a Canadian family find their way back to their hotel but realized later we told them the entirely wrong way, and crashed early, exhausted from our full day and both realizing how hard it actually was to just get around in Beijing.

The next morning after breakfast, we spoke with the travel agent desk in our hostel, to a girl who spoke impeccable English, who then couldn’t get rid of us as we peppered her with questions. We ended up booking a trip to a part of the Great Wall for the next day, and spent about half an hour trying to decide which part of the Wall to visit, as there were many available, some more touristy than others, some hard to get to but empty. We settled on one that we thought would be a two hour hike, and also booked our train ticket for going to Xi’an, three days away. We were surprised and troubled to find that no sleepers were available, and we would have to settle for hard seats for the overnight trip. Not having much choice, we booked those tickets with her as well, paying a small fee to avoid having to go to the train station. After what seemed like forever, we set out into town to explore Tiananmen Square and the surrounding area.

We finally figured out directions and our map, and walked the short way to the Forbidden City, which made us realize what a good location our hostel was in, which we hadn’t realized the day before. Not thinking ahead, it occured to us as we reached the huge square in front of the Forbidden City gates, that not only was it incredibly hot and sunny outside, but it was also a Sunday, and that meant hordes of Chinese tourists also wanted to enter the Forbidden city. We decided to buy tickets and a headset, and stood in a huge line to buy the tickets. We chatted with a couple in front of us, and it turns out they also went to the same part of the wall as we were going to. They had me a bit worried when they said it was quite a difficult walk, but doable so I forgot about it. After buying our tickets, we started to take pictures of the imposing temple, and realized that in the span of about 3 minutes, we had lost the ticket for our headset. Searching the ground proved futile, and we bought another one so we would have some clue of what we were looking at. We also came unprepared, as the sun streamed down on us and we didn’t have sunscreen or hats with us, and Chris ended up wrapped my linen shirt around his head like a turban to shield his neck and I tied a Cambodian scarf around me to soak up my ever-sweating forehead. We entered the temple grounds with hundreds of other people, pushing and shoving, as if the temple would somehow disappear in the next 5 minutes. Not knowing much about the place, we spent the next few hours strolling through the temple areas, and listening to the explanations on our headset about the significance of each building and area. It was so hot that the day was somewhat unenjoyable, and we bought overpriced water and cold drinks to ease the heat. It was already late in the afternoon by the time we exited the palace grounds, and we found overselves in Tiananmen Square, a huge expanse of concrete surrounded on all sides by huge towering concrete buildings, housing museums and other important things. It was gigantic, and we didn’t have to imagine very hard what it must have been like to witness the hundreds of tanks rolling and thundering down the wide streets to quell the demonstration for political reform, a photo I’m sure we’ve all seen.

Wandering past the square, we attempted to find a famous restaurant known for its Peking Duck, only to find that while we actually located it, it was very expensive, and we really only wanted a small snack, and more importantly, something to drink. We reached a large intersection, and glancing guiltily at each other, headed towards the Golden Arches towering over the street. Sinking into the formica seats, we drowned our thirst in ice cold fountain pop and milkshakes, laughing that we did what every said we would do more often than we thought, and that was to eat at a fast food joint. Revived by the air conditioning more than the food, we headed off for our long walk home, and it was then I realized how out of shape I had become again, since most of the sightseeing in southeast Asia was spent on the back of a moto or in a tuk tuk. I hadn’t actually walked around a big city in almost 2 months, since Kuala Lumpur, and combined with the pollution and heat of the day stifling me, I was plum tuckered out.

We miraculously found our way back to our hostel, and had a little rest and relaxation, along with a well needed shower. While we had a TV in our room, nothing was in English, unlike other parts of Asia, and we quickly shut it off. It was evening now, and we headed towards a restaurant that we had passed the day before which looked promising, and beckoned us with an English menu. We entered and after perusing the menu, were surprised to find such a nice restaurant with such low prices. Another bonus was it was full of CHinese people, always a good sign, and we took a while looking over the huge menu while enjoying a cold beer. We settled on some dishes, and when Chris’ came out, we both stared dumbfounded at this huge bowl chock full of beef, cabbage and a very large amount of chili peppers. We easily could have shared this monstrosity, and along with the rice and the level of spiciness, proved too much for Chris to finish. My chicken and bamboo shoots paled in comparison by volume, but was delicious as well. And for this huge meal, we paid the equivalent of about US$4, and we happily proved other travelers wrong that the food was bad in China, it was in fact very good, at least at this place.

Our transport to the Great Wall was leaving at 7am, so we decided to be good and go to bed early, instead of enjoying some more cheap beer and what turned into a nice evening temperature. The next morning, we were picked up from our hostel by a big tour bus full of other backpackers, and as the man came around to the collect our tickets, it became very apparent that the tour we thought we were doing was not what we thought. The girl at our hostel had explained that we were doing a 2 hour walk down one part of the wall, and would be picked up in the middle. In fact, there was no pick up in the middle, we were to walk up and down the same area, parking lot to parking lot. This is not what we wanted, so we paid extra to do the four hour hike, which was meant to be beautiful, but we were not fully prepared for. As our drive continued on, we also realized that the weather outside was not all that great, and it eventually clouded over and started raining as we drove further and further out of Beijing. The drive, which we were told was 2 hours, was actually 4, and we finally arrived at our start of the wall around 11am, to rain and mist to boot. What I hadn’t expected was the rain, and unfortunately had forgotten to bring my contacts with me, so now on top of anticipating scary slippery steps and rocks, all my favorite things, I had to deal with rain on my glasses, further limiting, in my mind, my ability to do this hike. We bought a few food items from a vendor at the front, and set off with just a few other people towards the trail.

After second guessing the directions from our bus driver for a moment, we chose one path at the fork at the road, and luckily it was the correct one,a fact confirmed later as we asked someone we passed going the other direction. The drizzle continued to come down, and though I had my rain jacket on, the only thing that accomplished was making me sweat, and instead of keeping the rain off my glasses, they were now fogging up as well, since I had not only not worn contacts, but didn’t bring my fogless glasses with me. We kept up the path towards the wall, and as we turned one corner, a huge staircase leading up to our first watchtower loomed suddenly before us. Wiping my glasses off a slowly disappearing piece of dry shirt, I gazed up at these hundreds of steps and quickly realized what I was getting myself into. There were 24 watchtowers on this path, all with hundreds of steps going up and down to each one, some in better condition than others. The rain and mist made it hard to make out the next watchtower along the wall, however, so it was impossible to see how far we were actually going. We began our ascent, and the wonder of the Wall hit me quickly, as I watched a lone hiker with a bright red rainjacket hike ahead of us, and disappear in the mist.

Admittedly, the first half hour or so was not that enjoyable, as the rain continued to come down, not heavily but enough to be annoying, and my visibility was almost non-existant with my wet glasses. Climbing stairs has never been my forte either, and even in the best conditions, some of the steps, or piles of rubble and rock, would have been hard for me to navigate. Along with that, because of the weather there were no sweeping views of the wall climbing along the ridges of the hills ahead of us. We couldn’t see the next watchtower on our path, let alone two or three ahead. But finally the rain let up, and eventually stopped altogether. The day was still warm and humid, but not as hot as it would have been with sun streaming on us, and I was quickly soaked with sweat as we continued climbing, and descending, my legs ached and struggled at the beginning but then adjusted and finally gave in and just kept moving without a wimper. The mist lifted slightly, but never completely, and there was a certain aura along the wall, with few tourists and a cloudy mystery around every bend. We certainly wouldn’t get our postcard-perfect shots, but we got something better, and that was a different experience of the wall than many people get.

The hours continued on, and hundreds of photos were taken. At first I had been worried we didn’t have enough time to complete the walk, as they only give you 4 hours to walk the 10 kilometers. But when we reached the halfway mark, as the vendors selling water and Tshirts gladly inform you of, we realized we were ahead of schedule and slowed down a bit, taking our time a little more, resting more, and chatting a bit to other hikers along the way. By the beginning of the 4th hour, I have to say, the Wall began to look the same, but as the weather cleared a bit more, it also offered us more faraway views than previously, and we took advantage by snapping even more pictures. As we reached the last watchtower, we could see the parking lot turnoff in the distance, and the large bridge we had to cross over. We paid the 3Yuan feee to cross the bridge, and made it over, tired but completely energized as well. At almost the last set of stairs, I encountered a girl sitting down, crying, too exhausted to move another muscle, not realizing she was just about 30 steps away from being finished. But her friends were cheering her on, and she eventually stood up, took a deep breath and finished the climb. Only to realize it was another kilometer to walk to the bus, but alas, not uphill. Chris and I treated ourselves to an ice cream at the end, and I was eventually talked into buying a “I climbed the Great Wall of China” Tshirt. We waited at the bus about another 1/2 hour while they waited for everyone to finish, and we settled into our seats for our long 4 hour drive back to the hostel. We arrived at our hostel around 9pm, completely cramped up from sitting on the bus for so long after the big hike. We debated just going straight to bed, but without any real lunch, we knew we’d be starving at 3am, so we headed for what would become our favorite restaurant again, and devoured our food and cold beers. Exhaustion finally hit us, and we quickly ate and headed back to our hostel for a good nights sleep.

We decided to sleep in a bit the next day, which in hindsight turned out to be a bit of a mistake. We didn’t have much on the agenda, but still had a full day to explore, as our train to Xi’An wouldn’t leave until the evening. In my ever-increasing stupidity, I didn’t get my Vietnam visa previously, and now realized the only places I could get it were in Beijing or Hong Kong, which I didn’t think was a problem since Chris was flying home out of Hong Kong. But what I hadn’t realized was that if I went to Hong Kong I would be technically leaving China, and therefore since I only had a single entry visa, I would need to either get another Chinese visa to head overland into Vietnam, or fly to Vietnam from HK, not an enjoyable prospect as it was expensive. So in a last ditch effort, we headed towards the Vietnam embassy to try and get it in one day, which was a silly thought but I had to try. Glancing at our watches and maps, we decided to then try and head for the Summer Palace for a few hours, which was supposed to be beautiful but kind of far away and we needed to take a taxi. After sitting in traffic for half an hour and not getting anywhere, we timed ourselves again and decided to give up on the SUmmer Palace and head back to the hostel. We wanted to be at the train station by 7:30 to try and get upgraded to sleepers, and it was now after 3 already. By the time we got to the Summer Palace, we’d have about an hour before we’d have to head back to get some dinner and go to the train station. So we turned our taxi driver around, and spent the next few hours on the internet, found a grocery store to buy some food for the train, ate dinner for the third time at what would be become our favorite restaurant, and finally left for the train station.

We arrived at the station about an hour early, and settled down in some chairs to wait for them to open the gates. Announcements were constantly being made on the intercom, but we had no idea what they were, so we just kept our eyes on our gate for any sign that it was time to board. The Chinese finally gave us our first inkling as they started meandering over to the gate to line up. After a few minutes, we decided to gather our belongings and join them, as we needed to get there a bit early to try to get sleepers. We exchanged nods and pleasant smiles with the people around us, and spoke with a Polish couple in line behind us. After about 15 minutes, there was suddenly a burst of noise and motions from the crowd, and the nice people around us surged forward in a mass throng, elbowing and sticking in big suitcases ahead of us. It was as if the gates to Heaven had open and there were only a few spaces left. A grandmotherly type who had been smiling and pointing at us earlier knocked into us with the force of a linebacker to get one leg up in line, and we were pushed forward with the crowd through the gates, barely able to show our tickets to the attendant. The mad rush wasn’t over, as hundreds of people hurried towards the train and their compartments. We found ours and tried to speak with the attendant about a sleeper but she just gave us a confused look. She called another man over and we tried to explain and motion that we wanted beds, and finally a third person was called, apparently out of the kitchen, who spoke some English. She understood that we wanted sleepers, and sort of shrugged, wrote something on our tickets, and said “12.” We weren’t really sure what it meant, but we were motioned to board the cabin with our hard seats.

Another traveler had once described hard seats on Chinese trains as being like airline seats. He failed to mention that is was like airline seats in a medievil torture chamber. Imagine a cramped economy class, your knees close together, no arm rest separating you and the person next to you. Now imagine that instead of the seat in front of you with its back to you, but the person turned around and facing you, with your knees barely touching each other. This is how we were expected to sit, or sleep laughably, for 12 hours. This arrangement might not be so bad with 4 people who know each other, but with two strangers facing you, legs trying not to touch each other, no room to maneuver, it quickly became uncomfrortable. Luggage storage space was at a premium, and bags and boxes and suitcases filled the overhead racks and lined the floor space. We managed to talk to these two girls from Boston who were across the aisle from us, and in one girls mangled Mandarin and hand motion, they eventually switched with the two men across from us, so at least we could speak with each other. A couple of hours went by, and the cabin was loud with people talking, some music in the background, and various other bodily sounds. A bit after midnight, the cabin attendant actually found us and motioned for us to quickly get our things and follow her. We explained to the Bostonians that we apparently had managed to get sleepers, and they were able to get two as well. For an extra 100Yuan each, we know suddenly shared a 6 bed cabin with not horribly uncomfortable beds, but more importantly, silence, and we managed to get a few hours of sleep before arrving in Xi’an that morning.

Slightly groggy but realizing it could have been worse in the sleepers, we said goodbye to the Bostonians, and found a taxi to take us to a hostel. We had booked a room previously from Beijing, but like most hostels, our room wouldn’t be ready until 2, so we set out to get some breakfast and caffeine, and to book our train tickets to our next destination. Standing in line for train tickets, a nice man in line asked if we needed help, and he quickly arranged for us to buy tickets to Langzhou, a transit stop to our next destination. Unfortunately, they didn’t have sleepers again, for at least a week he said, and we were on a tight schedule, so we booked hard seats and wished silently that we would be able to get upgraded again. After some breakfast, we made our way back to the hostel to check into our room, only to find that instead of a double, they had given us a room with 5 beds. We quickly asked if they had anything else, and dubiously, the front desk girl said they had a “new room”, just finished, and did we want it? We asked to see the room, and found ourselves in an oasis, a newly refurbished room, complete with the best shower I have had in months. We quickly set out on the town, and visited the older part of the city and the wall which surrounds the town.  Xi’an is in fact a very pleasant city to just stroll around in, unlike Beijing, and we made our way towards the Bell Tower, a large temple in the middle of a big roundabout in the center of town. THe views were nothing spectacular, but we were able to catch a performance of some traditional music and dance that was held there a few times a day. Afterwards we found ourselves exploring the Muslim quarter, through the many back streets and alleys, full of restaurants and shops, and realized we were hungry. Many street vendors were selling little kebabs of various meats, plus grilled breads and fried potatoes. We were just deciding on where to eat, when we were ushered into one restaurant and ordered some beer. Still unsure if we wanted to eat street food or from the restaurant, we looked over the menu when suddenly a young girl appeared and sat down at our table.

Introducing herself to us, a plate of kebabs appeared on our table, and she said in very good English that her parents bought them for us. We looked at each other and shrugged, and tasted the kebabs, which were grilled beef with a nice level of spiciness. This girl, she told us she was nine, quickly ingratiated herself with her good if affected English, and hundreds of questions. We ordered another plate of kebabs, lamb this time, and each one was 1Yuan, and some grilled bread covered in butter, chili and cumin seeds. She asked us numerous questions, “How old are you? Are you married? Why not? Why was I wearing such strange rings on my fingers? Why are we in China? etc” Often these questions were peppered with comments as well, the fact that I was too old to not be married, that I was drinking a lot of beer, and my favorite, that I was indeed fatter than her mom. Laughing, trying to find the correct response to a strange nine year olds quite rude but astute observation, I finally nodded my head in agreement. I was in fact, fatter than her mom, who sat at the table next to us, and she said that there were also many fat white men around as well, because we drank too much beer. THis girl entertained us for about an hour, until her parents had finished their dinner and they said their goodbyes. We stayed for another drink, and when paying our bill, realized her parents had paid for one plate of kebabs for us. After leaving the restaurant, we found a little stand that had a crowd around it, and bought one of whatever they were making: a small solid rice pudding covered in peanuts and some sort of sauce and salt and sugar, with a smiley face drawn in the middle, a nice small dessert to finish a great meal.

After leaving the Muslim Quarter, we found ourselves back in the main square, and as the sun was setting we took pictures of the nice sunset behind the bell tower, and groups of people strolling among the grass. We ran into our nice young friend and her parents again, and after a quick hello, took pictures with her and exchanged email addresses to forward them on. We made our way down the square, and came upon a huge staircase full of people, leading down to a courtyard in front of a big mall, where there was a big beer garden set up in German style. It was great temperature outside, so we enjoyed some nice German beer and tried to figure out the contest that was happening on the small stage. It was getting late, and we had an early tour booked for the following morning to see the Terracotta Warriors, so we headed for home to catch up on the lack of sleep from the train the night before.

Our tour to the Terracotta Warriors was arranged through our hostel, and after some confusion about getting a free breakfast with our ticket, but the kitchen not able to cook everyone’s food in time, we boarded our bus with about 30 other people. Once on board, we were told that before we went to the Warriors, we would first be stopping at a nice factory to purchase some souvenirs, and most of the bus groaned in frustration. This was common practice, to book a tour and then suddenly find yourselves at a shop or factory of some sort not mentioned on the tour. So we stopped at the factory where they produce replicas of the Warriors, and also tons of other souvenirs, gifts, furniture and such. We quickly made our way through, made sure there wasn’t actually something worthwhile to purchase, and waited outside to continue on.We finally left the factory, and made our way to the Warriors, where we were given our tickets and a time schedule of about two hours to complete everything and meet the group afterwards. Two hours seemed like a long time, but the complex is actually quite big, and numerous buildings housing various Warriors in different stages of excavation, plus a movie and a museum to visit. We watched the quick movie explaining the history of the Warriors and how they came to be buried underground, and then made our way to the main building. About the size of a huge fieldhouse, we entered and quickly saw rows and rows of thousands of warriors, lined up as if waiting for battle. They were lower than the viewing platform, and without a good zoom it was hard to get closeups of faces and the costumes, but in fact every Warrior is distinct, with different hairstyle, uniform, face and weapon, some say copied after actual individual soldiers of that time. And there are literally thousands of them, and many more probably buried elsewhere around the complex, waiting to be dug up and put back together.

We spent almost an hour in there, trying to get good shots and just viewing the vastness and amazingness of the place. We quickly made our way to another building, which housed an active dig, and then to the museum where some Bronze chariots and horses were housed. That place was a zoo compared to the Warrior complex, because the chariots were housed in small glass cases in quite a small room, and there were hundreds of tourists trying to get a picture in the dark of these quite remarkable but surprisingly small chariots. It was nuts and claustrophoia finally kicked in and we made our way to the group meeting place. Our tour guide informed us that we would now go to lunch, which was not included in the price but he assured us was good and inexpensive. What we didn’t know was that is was a set lunch at a nice restaurant, served Chinese family style on a lazy Susan. A few grumbles were heard about not having a choice of food or where to eat, etc, but luckily the food was really good, and not as pricey as it could have been under the circumstances. Following lunch, we were then brought to a silk factory, which despite myself I was very interested in, watched as they attached the silkworm to the loom and made thread, quite a strange process. There was of course a store attached to the museum, and after a very strange little fashion show, we were herded into the store, where my willpower held and I ignored a very nice pair of pants. Feeling quite worn out, we happily boarded the bus again, thinking we were going home. Unfortunately, we were now headed to some sort of museum, which I don’t think anyone was in the mood for, but we stopped and politely looked through the two small rooms of Chinese artifacts. Finally, we got on the bus the last time and headed for home, anxious because we were on another night train that night, and needed to get some groceries and dinner before we boarded.

After about an hours bus ride, we arrived back our hostel, and quickly ate some dinner and repacked our bags for our night train journey. We headed out to find a grocery store and stocked up on some food, and then hailed a cab to take us to the train station. We arrived very early for some reason, and after communicating to the information desk that we wanted to upgrade to a sleeper, she wrote down in Chinese that very information, and told us a certain cabin to go to and ask. After the same sort of pushing and shoving, we wandered among the cabins and asked numerous people about upgrades, but they all shook their heads and pointed elsewhere. Getting nowhere, we finally had to board the train and find our seats. We realized then that this would be unlike the last train we were on, as the aisles and seats were jammed with people. What we didn’t realize, was just how different, and completely horrible, it actually would be.

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