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Latest Travelogue

China 2012

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  Sun     Mon      Tue      Wed      Thu      Fri       Sat

                                                    |  9 Jun |
10 Jun11 Jun12 Jun13 Jun14 Jun |  15 Jun | 16 Jun |
17 Jul18 Jun19 Jun |

9 June Saturday - Day 1

On the morning of Friday, June 8th, I took an early taxi to Dulles Airport, where I caught my direct flight to Beijing. It was a 13-hour flight (officially, 14 hours). I passed the time reading, watching movies, and playing chess on my iPad. We were served two meals and four beverages. Toward the end of the flight, I got a few hours rest. When we landed, it was after 2pm in Beijing, but 2am back home in DC. Nevertheless, I did my best to stay away and get used to the new time zone.

After going through immigration and a stop at the ATM, I stood in line for a taxi. At the end of the line, I was directed to a guy, who started walking me away. He showed me a card that read 450 Yuan for a ride. I stopped and said no, since I knew that a taxi ride to the city should not exceed 100 Yuan. The same trick was tried on me 8 eight years ago, and I didn't fall for it then either.

A long, slow drive under the grey sky brought me to my hotel. I check in, then walked around the Olympic Park area. I saw the Bird's Nest, or National Stadium, the tower where the Olympic flame was lit, and a giant tower under construction. Inside a food tent, I grabbed dinner - a mutton stick and fried rice noodles. I decided to pass on the sea snakes, spiders, and scorpians. Then, I headed to my hotel room to crash after a very long day.

Picture postcard from the Olympic Park area of Beijing.

10 June Sunday - Day 2

After a decent night of sleep, I headed to the convention center and spend the day there. For lunch, I skipped the incredibly long line at the convention center cafe, and wandered down a street. I had to walk several blocks before finding a small roadside cafe, where I pointed to a pastry in the window. I think it had spinach. Then, it was back to the convention center, where I also had dinner during the opening reception.

In the evening, I took a taxi to find a Sunday night swing dance I found on the web. The taxi driver dropped me off on the street, where I wandered trying to find the venue. Unfortunately, I could not find it. So, I hailed another taxi, but the driver wanted to overchage me for the ride to my hotel. I refused and kept walking. I soon found the subway, but it had closed. So, I hailed another taxi, this time getting an honest fair. I'm not a big fan of the taxi drivers in Beijing.

Something old, something new. Street food on the left, convention center on the right.

11 June Monday - Day 3

After spending all day at the convention center, I had dinner at the hotel restaurant. Then, I took a taxi to try and find the Monday night swing dance. This time, I had the address written in Chinese and a map pointing to the location. After a 20-minute drive, we arrived in the neighborhood, and the driver asked a guard where to find the place. We drove around, but still couldn't find it. Then, the driver made some calls on his cell phone driving around in circles some more. Still, he couldn't find it. He stopped to talk to some men on the street. He stopped at two hotels. But the dance venue could not be found. Since it was getting late, I told him to just return back to my hotel. I had wasted 90 minutes and 90 Yuan. I was very disappointed in Beijing taxi drivers.

Waiting to cross the street.

12 June Tuesday - Day 4

After another long day at the conference, I went out to dinner with a couple friends from the NIH. One of the people was Chinese, and he knew of a good restaurant that served roast duck. It was a very good dinner, and luckily, we had someone to order in Chinese for us.

Standing in front of the Bird's Nest, or the Olympic Stadium.

13 June Wednesday - Day 5

Today, I presented my posters at the conference. I also tried to order train tickets for my trip to Xian, but there were no more overnight train tickets available. That was disappointing. So, I decided to buy a flight ticket Xian and an overnight train back. But when I picked up my tickets, I realized that the reception desk had purchased the flight for the wrong day! I had wanted to fly out Friday morning, but they bought me a ticket for Thursday. Luckily, I was able to change the ticket for a small fee. Still, it was a frustrating experience.

In the evening, I tried for a third time to find a swing dance. This time, I knew the name of the venue, and it showed up clearly on Google Maps. A taxi took me to the general neighborhood, then let me out. I wandered down the dark and dusty street, and with the help of my map, I found it. I was excited to finally find a swing dance in Beijing. Even more, there was a live band peforming. The place was full of ex-pats from Europe, the U.S., and Australia. And there were a few good dancers. Since it was a small venue and the music was fast, they were dancing balboa. I joined in, and soon met the local dancers, who were very friendly. Toward the end, Leru, the local instructor, called for a big apple. I faked my way through it, although in that venue, it was really more of a "small apple." The band finished at midnight, and I walked away feeling successful. And wondering if I would find taxi. Soon enough, a taxi pulled up alongside me, and I rode back to my hotel.

The Hot Club of Beijing, a gypsy jazz band, performing at Modernista.

14 June Thursday - Day 6

This was the last day of the conference. I stood by my posters again, then had lunch at the food court of the nearby undergound shopping center. After the conference ended, I went back to my hotel room to rest, as I had a headache. After a short nap, I headed out to a restaurant, where I had dinner. Then, I returned to my hotel room to work on my neglected travel blog. Tomorrow, I fly to Xian.

Restaurant where I had dinner.

15 June Friday - Day 7

I woke up before my alarm clock, got packed up, and took a taxi to the airport. Having a couple of hours to kill, I read my book. The flight to Xian was only two hours, but we were served a pork sandwich on the way there.

When we landed, I found signs for ground transportation and bought a bus ticket to the Xian City Center. While waiting for bus number 1, an attendent told me that I could take bus number 6, which was about to leave. So, I jumped on, putting my suitcase in the bottom storage area. About an hour later, we arrived at the city center.

Off the bus, I checked the map on my iPad to figure how to navigate to the hostel. I walked east to the Bell Tower, then north, then east again, and soon found it. After checking in, I headed out to check out the major sights of Xian. First stop was the Bell Tower, which used to be where locals rang a bell to signify dawn (like a giant alarm clock, I guess). Inside, I caught a musical performance. Next, I walked to the nearby Drum Tower. It showcased many different drums and also included a drumming performance.

After a quick snack and a cool beverage, I strolled north through the Muslim Quarter, which was full of shops and small food venues. It was quite a lively street. Many locals wore Muslim head gear, as well. I turned left down a narrower street, also full of vendors. People rode bicycles and scooters through the narrow alleyway, continually honking to get people out of their way. I find that people in China honk for three reasons: one, someone is cutting them off; two, they want to cut someone off; and three, no reason at all.

I tried to find the Great Mosque, but after complete loop, I could not find it. So, I stopped in the tourist info center, and they told me to take the first left when walking north. I headed north again, and took the first left down a very narrow alley full of vendors selling clothng. Eventually, I found the mosque. Although not like the mosques I saw in Turkey, the courtyard has many Chinese-style buildings with, perhaps, a touch of Islamic architecture.

Later on that evening, I headed out to find a restaurant. The city of Xian really comes alive at night, with buildings full of blinking lights and giant jumbotron television screens. I could not, however, find a restaurant. So, I wandered back to the Muslim Quarter, and entered a place there. I ordered ox meat sticks and a plum juice. The meat sticks were very spicy, and not very large. I planned to order more, but by that time, a long line of people had formed. So, I headed back into the street to find another place for food. I settled on a place where people were eating rice bowls. I ordered a rice bowl and another plum juice (I think), but found the rice to be very spicy and full of onions. After eating as much as I could, I left. I am finding Chinese food to be incredibly spicy, much too spicy for my dainty taste buds.

The Bell Tower of Xian.

16 June Saturday - Day 8

Today, I woke up early, had breakfast at the hostel, and walked thirty minutes to the train station, where I caught the 306 bus to the Terracotta Warrior Museum. I did not need any tour package, as Lonely Planet told me I could take the 306 bus straight to the site for only 7 Yuan.

When I arrived, I had to walk a bit to the ticket counter, then walk quite a bit more, through a gauntlet of vendors, before reaching the entrance where they scanned my ticket. Except it wasn't the entrance. For beyond this entrance was another entrance, where another person scanned my ticket. I didn't understand the reason for two entrances. However, China does a darn good job of keeping people employed.

Anyway, once inside the grounds, I first went right to the Exhibition Hall, which had explanations, in both Chinese and English, on the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors, informationo on the creation of the museum, and two of the horse-driven chariots uncovered from the site. Next, I followed the advice of Lonely Planet and started with Pit 3, the smallest of the three pits. Here, I saw several Terracotta Warriors in a small pit. Originally, I had heard that photography was prohibited, but everyone was taking pictures. So, I pulled out my cameras and shot away.

Next, I walked to Pit 2, which was very large. However, there were no warriors inside this pit. Apparently, the ones that had been excavated had been removed. Excavation is ongoing, however, so more warriors may eventually be revealed. The building housing Pit 2 did have several well-preserved Terracotta Warriors encased in glass. Prime photo stops, they were. There is also a sword, said to be coated with a thin layer of chromium oxide, which has kept it rust-free for 2,000 years.

Pit 1 is the highlight of the museum - the crème de la crème. This pit houses the legion of Terracotta Warriors standing in battle formation. This pit houses many hundred Terracotta warriors uncovered. Although the excavation is not yet complete, it is believed that there are nearly 6,000 warrior figures. The figures, each of them unique, were discovered when a farmer was digging a well in 1974. The enttire site dates back to 209 B.C., and served a role in the mausoleum of the emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a united China. Overall, it was quite an impressive site.

After spending a morning walked around the hot sun, I took a break for lunch. Then, hopped on a bus headed back to Xian. Once back at the hostel, I chilled out until I needed to leave.

Then, I caught a bus back to the train station, fought my way through the maddening crowds, and found my gate. I left on the the 7:00pm overnight train to Beijing. Yes, I could have flown back, but I wanted to travel like the locals and experience the train. It was a 13-hour train ride, so I had purchased a ticket for a soft sleeper seat. This meant a bunk bed in room shared with three other people. Because I had a top bunk, I spent some time in the narrow hallway, watching the Chinese landscape go by under the setting sun. Next, I found the diner car and had dinner. Eventually, I found my way back to my bunk and went to sleep early.

A legion of Terracotta Warriors inside Pit 1 of the Terracotta Warrior Museum.

17 June Sunday - Day 9

I woke up early in the sleeper car and went to the diner car to get a drink. Just shy of 8 am, a train employee looked at me and said, "Beijing." The train slowed down as it pulled into the Beijing West Train Station. I quickly walked to the room where my bags were, but was stopped by a locked door! I guess they locked doors in between cars before coming to a stop. So, I had to turn around and wait for the crowd to exit before I could exit. Then, I ran back to care number 8 and into the room to get my bags. By that time, the cleaning crew was already going to town.

Up the stairs, I looked for the number 2 bus that would take me near my hostel. There was no subway station near this train station. Of course, I had to walk by every bus stop before I could find my bus. I got on and said the name of the subway station where I wanted to exit. The price for the bus ride was only 1.5 Yuan. As it was a crowded bus, I stood most of the way, my suitcase tucked into a space behind the driver. After about a 40-minute ride, I got off and found my way down Yonghegong Street.

Since I arrived at my hostel rather early in the morning (about 10 am), I asked if I could used the bathroom and drop off my bag. The man at the desk said that was fine. After changing from my sweaty clothes to some dry clothes, the man said that the previous person had checked out of my room, so I could leave my bag there.

Then, I was off to explore the Forbidden City via the subway. China has modernized its subway since I was last there in 2004. I remember having to buy a paper ticket from one booth and then hand it over to a person in a second booth. Now, they sell plastic cards with RFIDs in them. You simply hold the card over a scanner to enter and insert the card into a slot to exit. I just bought single-use cards, as that was easy enough for me.

I exited the subway at Tiananmen East and walked straight to the Tiananmen Gate with the portrait of Chairman Mao. Then, I entered, accidentally bought a ticket for the Gate, kept walking, and bought a ticket for the Forbidden City, or Palace Museum (60 Yuan). I had planned on doing a short walk through this place, taking pictures and video, but nothing is quick about the Forbidden City. It's huge, and there is a lot to see. Interestingly, when I later compared my current photos to my ones from 2004, I noticed that the roof work has been repainted, making all of the buildings looks much more grand.

After a couple of hours, my camera battery died, but luckily I brought a replacement. The only problem was that my replacement had almost no charge left. After a quick snack and drink, I exited the Forbidden City and climbed the Hill in Jinshan Park, which is directly north. From there, I was able to get a view of the Forbidden City (and one more photo before my camera died).

By that time, I was sweaty and tired, so I walked to a subway stop. I tried to take a bus east, but every bus driver shook his head no when I told him where I wanted to go. Eventually, I made it back to the hostel, where I was able to recharge my camera battery. I decided to stay in and recharge myself, spending time working on my photos and video.

In the evening, I took the advice of Lonely Planet and looked for a restaurant on 'Ghost Street,' or the section of Dongzhimennei Street east of the Beixinqiao subway stop. Above my head was row after row of red lanterns, casting an eerie reddish glow down the street. I settled on one restaurant with open windows and ordered a duck dish called Qiao Qiao. Unfortunately, it was very spicy, but I managed to eat most of it. I really wish I knew how to say "not so spicy" in Chinese.

Standing inside the Forbidden City.

18 June Monday - Day 10

When I woke up, I noticed a few drops of rain and feared that the weather would be bad. Luckily, it did not rain on my birthday and last full day in China. After breakfast, I headed to the Lama Temple, which is a Tibetan Buddhist temple inside Beijing. It was also a short walk from my youth hostel. Inside, people brought incense to burn while they prayed, There were also Buddhist monks chanting inside one of the pavilions. Photographs were allowed outside but not inside the buildings.

While I was walking through the courtyard, I heard my name being called. I turned around and saw Javier, a colleague from the NIH, who had attended the same conference as I. We chatted, then walked to Nanluogu Xiang, a refurbished hutong (or narrow alley) full of shops and tiny cafes.

When Javier went to meet a friend for their flight home, I continued exploring the neighborhood. I first went inside the Drum Tower, where I caught a drumming performance. From the top level, I looked out onto the city of Beijing, but it was a gray, overcast day. Next, I went to the Bell Tower, where I saw the bell that was once rung to mark intervals throughout the day. After that, I found lunch at a place called Hutong Pizza. I ordered the pumpkin and mushroom pizza. It tasted great, and it wasn't spicy at all.

In the afternoon, I rode the subway to Tiananmen Square, since I had yet to walk around it. I exited the subway at Qianmen, then had to pass through several underground passageways before I could make it onto Tiananmen Square. I also had to go through a security check, putting my day bag through an x-ray machine. I walked north through Tiananmen Square, seeing the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall (or the "Maoseloum") and the Monument to the People's Heros.

Then, it was back into the subway, which I rode south to Tiantandongmen. From there, I found the Temple of Heaven Park. It cost 15 Yuan for just the park or 35 Yuan for a "through" ticket, enabling you to see the big sights. I bought the "through" ticket, which proved to be smart. However, I entered at the north end, so the first sight I saw was the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. This tall, tripled-eaved structure is the highlight of the park. I would almost recommend entering at the southern end to save this beautiful piece of architecture for the end. Walking southward, I saw the other buildings, and finally made it to the southern exit by 5 pm. By this time, my feet were exhausted. However, I still had a long walk to the subway, which I rode back to the hostel.

In the evening, I had dinner at an American-style cafe in Nanluogu Xiang. Then, I grabbed my dancing shoes and headed out to find a taxi to take me to the Monday night swing dance. The first taxi driver who stopped didn't understand the location I had circled on my map. Because of this, I decided to give up on taxi drivers. I merely hopped on the next bus headed east, and rode that until it made a turn. Then, I studied map and realized that I needed to head south. Along the way, I asked a woman working the front door of a restaurant where the Taiyue Suties were. She pointed south, so I kept walking. Then, I saw three parking guards and asked them, pointing to the map. They chatted amongst each other in Chinese. I didn't catch what they were trying to tell me, though. Just then, an Australian ex-pat walked up and asked if I needed help. He then spoke Chinese with the guards, and finally told me where the hotel was. He said he had been living in China for three years. I thanked him for his help and headed down the road.

After finding the hotel, I saw that there were two bars on the first level, but neither had any swing dance. I entered one and asked if they knew about a swing dance. A French ex-pat said he did not know of anything like that. Since he had a laptop out, I asked him if he could look up the website with the information. The name of the club was Bossa Nova, but he hadn't heard of it. He asked another French guy at the bar, and he said that it was upstairs. So, I went to the second floor and finally found it.

By that time, it was 10:30 pm, but there was a band playing. Lulu, one of the follows I had danced with last Wednesday, was singing in her new band. They played mostly slow tempo songs, but it was a fun night. And once I started dancing with a few follows, other follows ran up to me, asking me to dance. The band finally stopped at 11:30 pm. While leaving, two Chinese girls asked me where I was staying, and they offered me a ride. That was very nice of them. Despite the difficulty of finding the venue, I was glad to have been able to go swing dancing on my last night in Beijing.

19 June Tuesday - Day 11

I woke up early despite being up late. Then, I quickly showered, packed, and checked out of the hostel. The man at the desk told me that I could take the subway to the airport, which was great. It meant I didn't have to deal with another taxi driver.

On the way to the subway station, I stopped at a 7-11 to grab some breakfast. Outside the store, I saw two rows of 7-11 employees in the uniforms lined up and bowing to another 7-11 employee who shouted commands. I wasn't sure what was going on, but it did not look like anything I would see in the United States.

The subway had an airport express that cost 25 Yuan, which surprised me, but I was still glad not to be paying any taxi driver. Once at the airport, I bought a few gifts with the rest of my Chinese money and waited for my flight. I had a 12-hour flight to San Francisco, followed by a 5-hour flight to Dulles. My day also gained 12 hours. I slept a little on each flight, but not that much. Despite being tired, I was more than happy to see my wife Jessica at the airport when I landed.

The Boeing 767-400 passenger plane that flew me back to the states.

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Site created 1 May 2004
Page last updated 20 Jun 2012
dave at backpackingdave.com