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13 May 2004
The Longest Day
This was the longest day. I arrived at the airport at 10:45am, and made it to the gate by 11:15. There, an older gentleman told me that the flight had been overbooked by 37. Luckily, I had a boarding pass with a seat assigment, so I got on board. I sat next to a young Asian man and asked him if he had taken this flight before. He said no, but I think he misunderstood me. We talked for a while. It turns out that he was a Taiwanese grad student studying politcal science in New York and was on his way home for the summer. I told him I was taking my first trip to Asia.
Once we took off, there were several movie choices, including "Lost in Translation". Although I saw it last fall, I decided to watch it again, as it seemed quite fitting. A meal was also served at this time. After the movie, the cabin lights were turned off, so I tried to rest. Then they served chinese noodles, and I decided to watch another movie, "Girl with a Pearl Earring", also starring Scarlet Johansen. I think I was on the Scarlet Johansen plane. This movie was a little boring. Afterwards, I shut my eyes and tried to sleep, but I couldn't. I also followed the pathway of the plane. We flew up through Canada, then through the center of Alaska, down the international date line, and finally into Tokyo Narita airport.
After we landed, I went through Immigration and Customs. Then I went to exchange money. I had read that traveler's checks bring a better exchange rate than cash and it was true. It was 112 yen to the dollar. Then, I bought a train ticket on the Japan Railway line to Tokyo. I had to wait until 6pm for that trip.
I made it to Tokyo station about an hour after leaving Narita airport. The Japanese subway station was teeming with throngs of Japanese business men and women in dark suits. I tried to figure out which train to take to get to my youth hostel. Finally, I found it and got on board. As luck would have it, it was an express train and passed the stop I wanted. I got of at Shinjuku and decided I would try to navigate my way to the youth hostel. All I had was a crude map in the guide book and a compass. It was dark outside and there was a slight drizzle. The street outside the train station was filled with flashing neon signs. According to my guidebook, this area had been the inspiration for Ridley Scott's Bladerunner. After wandering the steets for a while, I realized that I wasn't going to find the place on my own. So, I stopped at a little business and asked, "Tokyo Yoyogi yusu hosteru was doko desu ka?". He tried to explain it in limited English, then decided to draw me a map. He even used a green marker for the streets and a blue marker for names. Quite impressive. Eventually, I found it, and since it was nearly 10pm, decided to crash. After all, if it's 10pm in Tokyo, do you know what time it is in Milwaukee? Of course, it's Miller Time. :)
No thanks. I didn't fly 6000 miles to eat here!
14 May 2004
The Tokyo subway system has to be the most complicated one in the world. It's bigger than New York, London, and Paris all put together. There are so many trains, and so many tracks at some of the stations, that it can take a while to figure out what to do. Luckily, the trains and stations are labeled in English as well as Japanese. But, it still is tough.
I woke up at 3am today, and I mostly just lay awake for the rest of the morning, much like the characters in Lost in Translation. The time shift plays with you biorhythms. I spent the morning hiking back to the Shinjuku train station where I finally got a map of Tokyo. I should have done this earlier. Then I found the train I needed to get back to Sangubashi station near my hostel. I then went to the Meiji Jingu (or shrine) and planned to see the treasure museum, but it was closed. Lunch was eaten at a little Japanese place where you sit at a bar and face the cooking area. Luckily I got a picture menu, so I could just point and said "Kore o kudasai." I ordered the only thing with meat in it (as protein is my thing). It was bowl of noodles with pork. Not too bad. But the menu said "Chinese Noodles" so it may not have been Japanese food. Still, it was Japanese enough for me.
In the afternoon, I headed to the Imperial Palace. Although you cannot go inside, you can see the walls around it and one large park. Unfortunately, the park was closed. So, I headed north to the craft gallery and the National Art Museum. The art musuem was interesting. It showcased many works of modern Japanese art by artists who had gone to Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Many of the paintings looked eeriely like works by Van Gogh, Renoir, or Dali.
That evening, I headed to the Ginza shopping district which is full of people milling about the streets. The buildings are covered in large, flashing neon signs and jumbotrons. The Sony buildling showcased new electronic goods, including a high definition LCD widescreen television. The image of the woman swimming in the water was so realistic, I dared not get to close lest I get wet. Then, I headed to the Roppongi district, where I went up the 337 meter Tokyo Tower. When I travel, it's required that I go up tall buildings. This one just happens to be a few meters taller than the Eiffel Tower and looks quite similar. From the top, I got a good night time view of Tokyo.
Then, it was off to Higashi Shinjuku (east Shinjuku) which is the spot for crazy Tokyo nightlife. I had dinner at a medium-sized Japanese restaurant, but most of the menu items were western (pizza, burgers, etc). So I ordered the pork and kimichi. Of course, kimchi is Korean, but it was close enough for me. I also ordered the cold sake to drink. If my brain was quicker, I would have echoed the line from Austin Powers to the waitress, "Sake it to me, baby." :)
After that, I just wandered around the Shinjuku area, which is full of restaurants, video game arcades, and small little shops. Tokyo's red light distict is right nearby. In case you don't know, that's where the Japanese go to buy red light bulbs.
Bright lights, big city - Ginza shopping district.
15 May 2004
Fuji-san and the Clouds
I had planned on taking an afternoon bus to Fuji-Yoshida, but some language difficulties resulted in my buying a bus ticket that left in the morning. So, I arrived at Fuji-Yoshida, a small town at the foot of Fuji-san (Mt. Fuji or Mr. Fuji to you), later that morning. I caught a great view of Fuji-san from the bus just before pulling into town. I immediately went to a booth labeled "Tourist Information Center," where two kind old ladies were working. They were impressed when I asked for a map in Japanese - "Fuji-Yoshida no chizu ga arimasu ka?" And they showered me with pamplets and information, as well as gave me a map to my youth hostel.
After dropping my backpack and poster tube (annoying to carry) at the youth hostel, I walked up Honcho dori, the road leading to Fuji-san, looking for a place to eat lunch. I passed a pizza place, then I headed to the train station where I saw a burger joint. But I didn't travel 6000 miles to eat western food. And my guide book told me that Fuji-Yoshisa was famous for its teuchi udon, or thick noodles. So, I went back to the information booth and asked the two old ladies to recommend a restaurant. They gave me a map to a nearby restaurant that served teuchi udon. Those two ladies are my new best friends. Of course, once inside the restaurant, I was faced with ordering from a menu in Japanese (no pictures). So, I looked up the words for meat (niku) and noodles (menrui) and said. "Niku to menrui ga hoshii desu." After some language difficulties, I eventually got my order through. And let me tell you, the teuchi udon noodles are really good.
Back outside, I saw the clouds had now covered Fuji-San. So, I walked up to a famous shrine in the area. There is a torii, or red gate, that is 60 feet high. Every 60 years, it has to be torn down and rebuilt slightly bigger than the one before. This tradition started in the year 110. Who knows how long it will continue.
For the rest of the day, I wandered around town. There wasn't much else to do. I thought about hiking up a small mountain, but couldn't find the path. Of course, I had done so much walked over the past few days that my feet were no longer my best friends.
That night, I ended up having dinner at a little Japanese joint, this time eating authentic Japanese food. I had a tofu steak and egg. Although I'm not a fan of tofu alone, it wasn't too bad with the egg. A British guy, who also was staying at the same youth hostel, wandered in and we started to talk. He was teaching English in Tokyo and had been doing so for 9 months. During our conversation, I saw that a couple guys to our left were served what looked like raw meat. I told the British guy, "That looks a little rare to me." The cook noticed our interest and said, "Horse. . . sashimi." Then he prepared two small pieces on a plate and gave it to us. I said to myself, There's no way I'm going to eat raw horse meat. Then I saw that the British guy had picked up a piece with his chopsticks. So, I picked up the other piece and shoved it in my mouth. There's no way I'm going to be showed up by a Brit. With the wasabi sauce, it actually tasted kind of good. But it was chewy. After a couple of minutes of chewing, I spit it out. Then, the cook served us a sample of sake for free. He was a cool guy. After that, it was back to the youth hostel, where I slept in a Japanese style room - tatami mat floor and Japanese style bed. It's not too bad if you sleep on your back or stomach, but there's not enough cushion to sleep on your side.
Fuji-san from the town of Fuji-Yoshida.
16 May 2004
The Temple and the Bath
I woke up Sunday morning to the sound of pouring rain. I guess I wouldn't get another chance to see Fuji-san. So, I then headed to the train station to figure out how to get to Kyoto. I had to a buy a ticket to Otsuki, and there I could buy a ticket (2 actually) on the JR line from Otsuki to Tokyo and Tokyo to Kyoto. The last ticket would be aboard the Shinkansen. Of course, the tickets were printed in Japanese, which made it a little tricky to figure out which track to go to, but evenatually I boarded all the right trains. And by 10:40 am, I was on the Shinkansen (or bullet train) on my way to Kyoto.
I arrived in Kyoto around 1pm and took the subway to Imedegawa. I got off and it was raining outside. Soon enough I found my lodging - the Myorenji Temple. This is a 13th century temple with a separate building for lodging. It's a tradiational wooden Japanese building with sliding doors and rock gardens inside. Pretty cool. My room has a tatami floor mat with a Japanese style bed. Although there is a toilet and a sink, there is no bathing facility. But, I the kind old lady running the place gave me a ticket and a bowl to use at the public bath located just down the street.
After checking in, I headed to the conference center to register, then spent a good deal of time updating this website. As I was about to leave, someone asked me where the reception was being held. I had totally forgotten about the reception. That's when I realized that I wish my former classmate and coworker Gopi was here - he always has his ear to the ground when it comes to free food and drink.
[Warning: the following paragraph contains nudity]
Back at the temple, I decided that it was time to use the public bath. So, I grabbed the bowl with a bar of soap, ticket, and a towel and headed down the street. When I arrived at the buidling, there were two doors, but I didn't know which one was for men and which one was for women. So, I just stood there, waiting for someone to exit. Soon, a woman appeared from the street, smiled at me and pointed to the one on the left. Inside, a a very short, very old lady took my ticket and, babbling ni Japanese, tried to explain to me what to do. She walked me to the men's side of the bath, not bothered by the fact that there was a naked man just a few feet away. After the lady walked away, I put my clothes in a bin, the bin in a locker, and walked into the sauna-like bathing room. I had read about what to do in my guide book. I also followed the example of another bather. Basically, you have to sit on a little stool, fill your bowl with soap and water, wash yourself off, then go sit in the hot bath. When I got to the hot bath, I put my left leg in and found the water very hot indeed. Then I put my right leg in and felt strange throbbing sensations almost like an electric shock. I took my leg out for a while and then tried it again. Still, I felt the shocks. Either there was something wrong with that water or there was something wrong with my leg. So, I decided to forego the hot bath, and just dry myself off and leave. The old Japanese lady babbled more to me as I left. The only thing I caught was, "Sayonara."
Sitting in my Japanese style room at the Myorenji Temple.
17 May 2004
Today, I didn't do much sightseeing. Instead, I spent most all of the day at the conference. That is one of the main reasons I'm here, of course. It also rained all day, so sightseeing would not be particularly fun anyhow. I've also heard that it may rain all week. That would be bad.
I did enjoy a good Japanese bento box lunch at the conference. Of course, to get the free lunch, you had to first sit through an hour of talks from 1pm to 2pm. Afterwards, they handed out tickets with which you could obtain the free lunch inside the exhibition hall. In previous years, you could just grab the free lunch at the start of the talks. The organizers are getting smarter and smarter. At the end of the day, I met up with a colleague from MCW, who was waiting to have dinner with Bob Cox and Rasmus Birn. I tagged along, but to my dismay, they chose to go to an Italian eatery. Still, it was an interesting dinner. (By the way, for those of you who don't know, this is a bit of shameless name dropping. :) )
Myorenji Temple - my lodging for 5 nights in Kyoto
18 May 2004
This morning, I woke up early (around 5:30 am when the sun was up). I bought my breakfast from a convenience store. I find that this is the cheapest option. For less than 400 yen (roughly $3.50), I can buy a juice, a pasty, and a yogurt. The store clerks are always very polite, bowing and saying "Arrigato gozaimasu" when I enter and after I make a purchase. I've gotten into the habit of doing it myself. I wonder what what happen if I did that back in Milwaukee.
I planned on going to the 7am talk at the convention center, but didn't make it there until 7:20. Still, I saw a talk I wanted at 7:30. After the early morning talks, I saw that the weather was picking up outside, so I walked around the convention center and took some pictures. Now, I don't want to sound insulting, but the convention center is pretty ugly. It's made of hulking, bland concrete.
For lunch, I got another free bento box. This one had sticky rice and cold meat. I figured that it couldn't be too bad. I spent the rest of the day at the conference, and by about 6pm, I started feeling nauseous. I had planned on meeting some researchers from my department for dinner, but I had lost my appetite. I decided to take to the subway home and rest. On the train, I started feeling worse. At my subway stop, I rushed out of the train and ran up the stairs looking for a public bathroom. Then, I realized that I had no more time to wait. I found a garbage can and vomited into it. Several times. I made it back to my room at the temple, and vomited several more times in the bathroom. Something in that bento lunch did not agree with me. That was not a fun experience. I'm glad to report that the following morning I felt better.
Traditional wooden house in Kyoto
19 May 2004
I got up late today on account of my being sick the night before. I felt better, but I was still quite tired. I decided to skip the morning of the conference, so that I could do some laundry and some sightseeing. After I finished my laundry, I headed to the Imperial Palace, but I arrived too late for the 10am tour. So, I headed down the street to Nijo-jo, or Nijo Castle, when it started to drizzle. This place had several old palace buildings, one of which you could walk through (after taking off your shoes, of course). The walls inside the palace had old paintings, but photography was prohibited due to the sensitivity of the artwork. For lunch, I found a Japanese diner and sat at the counter between the Japanese business men. I luckily got an English menu, and ordered the box lunch for 650 yen. This one was warm. Some meat, egg, and rice. When I went to pay the bill, I was told 950 yen. Since I couldn't really argue in Japanese, I just paid it and left. It was raining quite hard outside now.
The rest of the day, I spent at the conference. In the evening, I was told about a western style restaurant near my lodging. I tried to find it, but wound up at a Japanese restaurant. I figured I'd just eat there. Of course, this place had no English menu, but the cook said, "Dinner" and I answered, "Hai." Soon, I recevied this fancy box. I opened the top lid to see a couple green beans, a tiny fish, and a flower. Then I took this compartment off to reveal another layer, this one with a couple small pieces of cook meat. Is this it, I thought? Then in a few minutes, I received another dish - this one had raw fish on a bed of ice. No way, I said. I said the word for warm, "Atatakai," but the cook didn't seem to understand. Then I said, "Cooked" and pantomined a frying pan. He seemed to get the idea. Several small dishes followed, each one presented in a very elegant manner. This makes me wonder if the Japanese like airline food. But the bill was a little more than I expected. Oh well.
The entrance to Nijo Castle
20 May 2004
Kyoto in the Rain
Apparently there is a typhoon that is causing all this rain in Kyoto. At least, that's what the old lady running the temple told me. This morning, I decided to do a little more sightseeing as the day started out free of rain. I made it to the Imperial Palace for the 10am English-speaking tour. Before you enter, you have to go to the Information Office and fill out a permission slip with your name and passport number. The grounds of the Imperial Palace had several classic Japanese palaces. Although the original palace was built in the 12th century, the current buildings date from the mid-nineteenth century due to fires. Candles can be a very destructive form of illumination.
Next, I went to Toji Temple, where I saw two old temples filled with giant gold-colored Buddhas. Pictures were not allowed here, unfortunately. There was also a five-storey pagoda - the largest in Japan. That was pretty impressive.
Then it was back to the conference (after a lunch at McDonald's in the Kyoto station). That night, the conference reception was held inside the cramped hallways of the convention center instead of outside due to the rain. There was a Japanese jazz band playing dinner music followed by a show of dancing Geisha girls. The night was capped off by fireworks in the rain.
The outside wall to the Imperial Palace in Kyoto
21 May 2004
The Sun Finally Shines
On the last day of the conference, the sun finally came out to shine. On Friday, the conference only had morning sessions. After those were done, I went to hike up a small mountain to see Kiyomizu Temple. From the top, I got quite a view of Kyoto. Then, I had to rush back to Kyoto Station, where I bought a ticket for the next Shinkansen to Hiroshima. On board the train, I walked forward to get to the non-reserved cars, but soon found that it was standing room only. Even though the train was doing 300 km/hr, the ride is fairly smooth.
In Hiroshima, I called my lodging to get directions. I was told to take bus number 2, but I soon learned there was no bus number 2. There was, however, a tramline number 2. Eventually, I made it to the minshuku - a Japanese style lodging where my room had a tatami floor. This place had regular doors and locks on them, unlike the temple lodging in Kyoto. After throwing my stuff down, I went out to find a place to eat dinner. I ended up going to one restaurant that had pictures of cooked meat on the outside. When I walked inside the restaurant, everything was painted yellow, red, and green. It turned out to be a Jamaican restaurant. I ordered the jerk pork and was served my meal with a fork and knife. This caused me to do a double take as I hadn't used such implements since arriving in Japan. Could I still remember how to use them, I wondered. Yep, I could.
Standing near Kiyomizu Temple, at the top of a mountain overlooking Kyoto
22 May 2004
Tramlines, Bullet Trains, and Ferries
This probably has to be one of my more complicated travelling days. I started out the morning by taking a tramline out to the Miyajima stop, where I hopped on a ferry to Miyajima island. This is where you can see the famous red gate standing in the water off the coast of the island. Next, I went back to Hiroshima, where I walked through the Peace Memorial Museum. Inside, you can see pictures detailing what happened to the people and city in the aftermath of the atomic bomb. There's even a watch on display that stopped at 8:15 am on August 6, 1945. It's all pretty moving. Nearby, there is a monument with the names of all those who died. And by the river, below the epicenter of the blast, lies a building that remains untouched since that day.
After that, I had to hurry up to catch the next Shinkansen to Hakata. I only had time to buy some crackers and beef jerky for lunch before hopping on the 12:52pm train. I needed to be in Fukuoka to catch a 3:30pm ferry ride to Pusan, Korea. The ticket vendor told me that the train would arrive at 2:55. That was going to make things close.
It turns out that the train arrived at 1:55pm. That gave me time to spend more yen, find the bus to the ferry port, and wait around for the ferry. I was the only westerner on the ferry. That made me feel kind of proud. The rest were either Japanese or Korean. That gave me the idea to play the game, "Are they Japanese or Korean."
The high-speed ferry had comfortable seats like an airline and rode on a jet engine. In three hours, we had made it to Pusan, Korea. After going through immigration, I found a restaurant, where I had some very spicy chicken for dinner. Then, I found my way to Bujeondong train station where I bought a ticket for the night train to Wonju, Korea. I called my friends in Wonju to let them know I'd be arrving at 5am the following morning.
The Atomic Bomb Dome - the one building left untouched in Hiroshima, Japan since 6 August 1945
23 May 2004
I didn't get too much sleep on the night train. But I got a little more rest after I arrived. After breakfast and some chatting, my Korean friends decided that we would drive to Chiak san, or Chiak mountain, a famous hiking spot near Wonju. Since my friends had a little third-grader, we didn't hike very quickly. Also, we avoided the more strenuous last leg of the hike to the top of the mountain. Still, we saw the Goryongsu Temple and the Seryempokpo Falls. That night, we had dinner at a traditional Korean family restaurant. Here we had to remove our shoes at the door, and we sat on the floor at a low table. On our table, we cooked seasoned pork, which we then wrapped in lettuce leaves along with spices and rice. It tasted pretty good. The one thing that I like about Korean food is that it's cooked.
First sight of South Korea - the shipping port of Pusan (or Busan)
24 May 2004
I took an early morning bus from Wonju to Seoul, arriving about 9:20am. I then had to navigate the subway system to find the exit for my youth hostel. Seoul's subway is pretty big, but still not as complicated as Tokyo's. After calling for directions and wandering through the streets, I eventually found the youth hostel. I then dropped off my backpack and went to explore some palaces.
Seoul is a very interesting city. If I were to compare it to Japan, I'd say that Seoul has the big city feel of Tokyo as well as this rich history of Kyoto. And prices in Korea are much cheaper than in Japan. So, if you only had time and money for one Asian city, Seoul would be a good choice. But I'm an adventurous traveler, so I like to see as many places as I can.
I first went to Gyeongbokgung Palace, which is very large and impressive. There are many old buildings to see there. Of course, many have been rebuilt. What's funny is that in Japan, the palaces were often destroyed by fires. In Seoul, the palaces were often destroyed by the Japanese. Another interesting thing to note was that there were hordes of school children visiting the palace and many seemed interested in the blonde foreigner, saying hi and asking me where I was from. Maybe they were beginning to learn English and wanted to practice.
After lunch, I went to Changgyeonggung Palace and Jongmyo. This site was smaller than the first, but still interesting. I walked outside into Jongmyo Park, where I saw lots of old men playing Go or Korean chess. It was quite a sight. To end the day, I headed to Seoul Tower, where I first had to hike 20 minutes up neverending concrete stairs. There was also a cable car, but that's for wimps. I went up Seoul Tower to get a good evening view of the city. I then waited for the sun to set to get a night view.
Now that I'm in Seoul, there are a few things on my agenda: I need to eat some Seoul food, hear some Seoul music, and purify my Seoul. Or my name isn't Seoultysik. (Had to say it eventually.) I had dinner at a little restaurant in the Hongik area. It was a dish with spicy beef and octopus served with rice. It was good, but very spicy. I think the Koreans coat everything with red pepper. All in all, it was quite a busy day.
Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea
25 May 2004
The Dangerous DMZ
As everyone knows, North and South Korea are divided by the DMZ zone. Today, I went on a DMZ tour. A group of us on a bus first went to Imjingak Park, where we saw war memorials and the Bridge of Freedom, where 13,000 war captives returned to South Korea back in 1953. Next, we went to the entrance of a tunnel that goes down to the Third Infiltration Tunnel discovered by South Korea in 1978. North Korea denies digging these tunnels. Then we went to the Dora Observatory high on a hill, where you could see over the DMZ. You could also look in binoculars to see North Korea's propaganda village - a group of modern apartments designed to 'lure' South Koreans to live in North Korea. However, you could only take pictures behind a yellow line. Otherwise, soldiers would confiscate your camera. (And no, I didn't test this rule.) We also saw Dorasan Station, a train station recently built to service a future train line between North and South Korea. The South Korean government seems quite optimistic about a future unification.
We returned to Seoul around 3pm, and I hopped on a subway train to visit another palace - Deoksugung. This one was small, but interesting because it also housed a museum of contempory art and the Royal Museum, which housed artifacts from Korean palace life. Then, I headed to the Namdaemun Market, which is a giant outdoor market with hundreds of vendors selling their goods on tables or the ground. Even though I had no interest in buying anything, it was quite a spectacle to see, especially for a westerner such as myself.
Dora Observatory, overlooking the DMZ between South and North Korea
26 May 2004
Third World Charm
I caught a bus from Seoul to Incheon International airport a little after 7am. The brand new airport is actually located 52 kilometers west of the capital, and the subway won't reach it for another couple years. After 40 minutes, I arrived at the spacious, modern, and clean airport. I have to say that I'm pretty impressed. I think it's the nicest airport I've seen (although I haven't been to the one in Paris.)
The plane ride to Beijing on Asiana Airlines was around 2 hours and it included a meal. Back in the states, you'd be lucky to get five pretzels thrown at you for a 2-hour trip. After landing, and going through immigration, I tried an ATM machine. It wouldn't take my bank card, but it did accept my credit card. Then, I went to get a taxi ride to Beijing, which is also located away from the airport. Just as my guide book had warned, an unoffical taxi driver tried to get me to take his taxi for an inflated fare. He even followed me to the official taxi line. I told him, "Let me check the price of this taxi." He eventually went away.
Of course, I ended up in a taxi with a driver who didn't speak any English and couldn't read the address I wrote in English. He called a translator on his cell phone, but the translator hadn't heard of the youth hostel I was trying to find. So, I looked at the map in my book and found a hotel nearby the place I wanted to go. I copied the Chinese name onto a piece of paper and showed it to the driver. He nodded and took me close to where I needed to go.
After finding the hostel and checking in, I did my laundry, which was overdue. Wearing the same dirty clothes over and over is not habit I want to maintain. By this time it was evening, so I strolled through a hutong on my way to Tiananmen Square. By the way, 'hutong' is a Chinese word meaning narrow, dirty alley in which old people stumble alomg, bicycles weave around like flies, and car drivers laughingly try to maneuver. Since the dollar is very strong compared to the Yuan, I had dinner at a fairly nice restaurant - roast duck and (warm) Tsingdao beer. Then I strolled up through Tiananmen Sqaure, where I was constantly assaulted by hawkers of postcards and kites. Unfortunetly, when you don't look Chinese, it's like having a large banner over your head that reads, "Please annoy me by trying to sell your useless crap." This is my first trip to nation of impoverished people, so I suppose I should get used to it. Ah, the pleasures of third world charm. After seeing the wall with the picture of Mao, I walked back through the hutong to my youth hostel to get some rest.
Chairman Mao keeping a watch on Tiananmen Square
27 May 2004
The Forbidden City
When you arrive at Beijing, you need to check your manners at immigration, and pick them up later. Now, maybe it's because I've spent a lot of time near touristy locations - Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City - but I really find Chinese people to be rude. Walking in these areas, I am accosted every 10 seconds by someone trying to sell something. I've adopted a strategy of avoiding eye contact, ignoring them when they speak, and trying to move like a running back to avoid the bottom feeders. Perhaps a supersoaker would come in handy. Or better yet, a can of mace.
Today, I went to Chairman Mao's mausoleum, but couldn't get inside because I had a backpack. I guess I'll try again another day. Then, I went into the Forbidden City. This is a very large and impressive place. Larger than the palace complexes I saw in Japan and Korea. And, because of the admission fee, the place was free of annoying people trying to sell stuff. However, I found the Chinese tourists to be a bit rude, pushing and shoving to get a glimpse and take a mandatory photograph of the interior of the buildings.
Aftewards, I climbed a hill to the north of the Forbidden City to see a small shrine and get a good view of the city. Then, I stopped at a mall to try lunch at a Chinese McDonalds. Food here is cheap - a Big Mac combo only cost 19.5 Yuan ($2.35). Then, I walked around the southern part of Beijing, where I saw the Beijing Ancient Observatory. The Chinese developed astronomy very early. But they still have a way to go with civility.
For dinner, I had a large plate full of dumplings and a beer. And it only cost 15 Yuan ($1.80). If you can put up with the rudeness, China can definitely be a cheap place to visit.
The Gate of Supreme Harmony inside the Forbidden City
28 May 2004
The Great Wall
Today, I went on a 10-kilometer hike on the Great Wall, from a place called Jinshanling to Simitai. This section of the Great Wall is located 110 kilometers away from Beijing, and the 3-hour bus ride to get there took 4 hours. Still, according to my guide book, this remote section of the great wall had very few tourists and few hawers compared to Badaling, the part of the Great Wall where most everyone goes. Also, there are some very steep ascents and descents along this portion of the wall, making for some very fun hiking. Our small group - about 10 or so - took about 5 hours to complete the hike, making stops at the most of the guard towers. The Great Wall really is a magnficient creation, lying on the ridge of mountains in northern China. From our perspective, we could even see westward to the mountains of Mongolia. I definitely recommend a visit to the Great Wall if you ever come to China. It's quite amazing. Of course, after the hike, we were all dead tired.
That night, we didn't return to the hostel until around 8:30pm. A group of us went to eat at a local restaurant down the alley (or hutong). We sat outside at a table by which cars passed just inches away in the narrow alleyway. We ordered several dishes and shared them all. We feasted quite well and the meal only cost about 15 Yuan per person. Some of the other travellers had been to other parts of China, and they said that the people in the smaller towns are a lot more friendly, and don't like it when you leave. Perhaps I should have planned to visit some smaller towns. Also, some of the other travellers had been travelling for 3 months, 5 months, or 9 months, making my 3-week journey fairly short and insignificant. Next time, I'll have to plan a longer trip.
Looking out over the Great Wall of China
29 May 2004
Well, I had another sick day. I woke up this morning with a fever and diarrhea. I did not feel good. I decided to cut out any sightseeing to allow myself a chance to rest and drink fluids. I wasn't really sure what made me sick - if it was something I ate, something I breathed in, or if a bug bit me. Or it could have been the result of the long hike on the Great Wall under the hot sun. In any case, I didn't see anything special this day. It was mostly bed, toilet, bed, toilet, etc.
30 May 2004
I woke up late, feeling slightly better - let's just say the fever was gone. So, I thought I'd try to do some sightseeing. After a late breakfast, I headed to the Summer Palace. This is large garden with a lake to which Chinese royalty would often retreat. One interesting thing of note is a large pagoda on a hill with a large statue of Buddha inside. It's called the Tower of the Fragrant Buddha. There is also an old-fashioned Chinese shopping street along a canal, which is mostly a tourist trap, but a charming one at that. Lucky for me, there are many toilets in the complex. Of course, most of the toilets stalls in Bejing are the hole-in-the-ground squat kind, but they usually have one western style toilet. I don't know why they Chinese prefer the squat toilet. It doesn't make sense to me. While walking around, I encountered two of my fellow hikers from my trip to the Great Wall. I told them that I had been sick. One of them said that he had been sick too and believes it was a case of sunstroke. So, perhaps that's what made me sick. And all this time, I thought I was invincible.
On the way back, I had to take a taxi back to the subway. Now, the taxi from the subway to the Summer Palace only cost 19 Yuan, but all the taxi drivers outside the palace were shouting 40 or 50 Yuan. One guy offered a ride for 35 Yuan, but I said the price should be 20. It's funny that the only Chinese who speak English are the scam artists. As I was walking away, he lowered his price down to 30, so I took it. He didn't even drive a metered taxi; it was just his car. Even though it seemed a bit dodgy, I figured it was okay. Everything in Beijing is a bit dodgy. Anyway, the driver was crazy, squeezing onto the shoulder of the road to get ahead of traffic and then forcing his way back in. He didn't even drop me off by the station. I had to walk another 100 feet to the subway entrance. As I turned around, I saw that at the point where he stopped, he was able to make a quick u-turn where he probably planned on heading back to the Summer Palace to get another customer.
The Summer Palace
31 May 2004
Temple of Heaven in the Toilet
I woke up this morning and found a pharmacy, where I pointed to the Chinese word for anti-diarrhea medicine in my Lonely Planet guidebook. A good guidebook is indispensible during travel. This seemed to mend my malady somewhat, though my colon seems to have shrunk as I still seem to require frequent visits to the toilets (or hole-in-the ground versions that seem to be popular here).
I made it to the Natural History Museum after lunch. This was quite an interesting place if you like science. Although there was few signs in English, you could still get the jist of the exhibits. The basement contained the most interesting exhibit - preserved human bodies that had been cut open with the skin removed, revealing muscles and bones. The bodies were in various poses and they weren't even enclosed in anything so you could touch them. (I didn't.)
Next, I headed to the Temple of Heaven Park, or Tiantan Gongyuan, which was right next door. I enjoyed this park more than the Summer Palace, as it had long, shady paths for walking and several classic Ming era buildings including a tall, three-tiered hall that resembles a pagoda. Behind this was the Temple of Heaven, a small but important temple. A long walkway called the Bridge of Vermillion Stairway led up to the main area. A slight upward slope was built into the walkway to give the illusion of ascending into heaven.
Even though I was feeling better, I was still having to make frequent trips to the toilet. And I drank like 4 bottles of soda or water, which seemed to disappear inside my body and never come out. All this talk of toilets is probably pretty disgusting, but it seems quite fitting as much of Beijing does smell like a toilet, especially the subway, which must run through sewage pipes. It's hard to believe that Beijing will host the 2008 Olympics.
As I was writing this entry around midnight local time, a Brit from the Great Wall hike found me and told me that a group was going clubbing. Since it was the last night of my trip and I was feeling better, I dropped what I was doing and joined them. We went to a techno dance club called Banana that was packed with locals even though it was a Monday. What's funny is that they danced without moving their feet, justing bouncing up and down. It turns out that the circular dance floor moved up and down as people bounced in rhythm. Pretty cool. But it was packed like a sardine can, so our group found a place outside the main floor to dance 'Western-style.' We left at 3am and the place showed no signs of dying down.
Hall in the Temple of Heaven Park
1 June 2004
Hi, Mao, Bye, Mao
I finally got to see Chairman Mao today. I had also tried Monday morning only to discover that the mausoleum is closed on Mondays. But today, I joined the long, but fast-moving queue to enter what some refer to as the "Maosoleum." The Chinese people really pay respect to Mao; he's like their George Washington. Many buy flowers or bow down before his statue. After 40 minutes, I finally saw the body. The face looks a bit like wax, but stays preserved.
Then I wandered through the markets and down the hutong to my hostel, where I finished an entry in my journal, packed my bag and took a taxi to the airport. When I arrived, I couldn't find the United Airlines terminal, so I asked a person at Information. She pointed and said "International," where I had already been. So, I walked back and asked a person at Korean Air. She said upstairs. So, I go upstairs and it's a food court. Then I ask another person at Information. "You have to go through customs," he said. This turned out to be correct. If you don't know the answer, don't make something up.
The flight was 13 hours including waiting time. It's strange spending that much time on a plane, but luckily I got some sleep after watching a couple movies (Miracle, which was good, and Big Bounce, which wasn't despite Owen Wilson's humorous antics). Just as the plane was about to land, the plane began ascending. Apparently, another plane was using an intersecting runway, so we had to go up and get back in the landing queue. And I really had to use the bathroom. Fortunately, I was able to hold on. We finally landed a little after 4pm local time and was back in the U.S. of A.
In closing, I hope that this blog had been both educational and entertaining. Backpacking through foriegn lands is an adventure, not an idyllic vacation, but one that I highly recommend. Many of the travelers I met work for a while, saving up money, then quit and travel for any length of time from a couple months to a year. That's a serious commitment, but a trip can take as long you like. Many backpackers also stick to the poorer countries where travel is quite cheap.
In the end, I have to say that despite the lows, the highs were definitely worth it. I hope that my next trip is longer, more adventurous, and even more entertaining. I'll keep you posted.
Handsome guy hiking the Great Wall of China
Site created 1 May 2004
Last updated 7 Feb 2009
Email dave at backpackingdave.com