Saturday, 27 February 2010
Sunday, 14 February 2010
Guest Writer: Stephanie's Mom and Bethany
On Monday, we didn't set an alarm. We slept late and S even served us hot drinks in bed (mocha for B, tea for me). Then we went to the local huge shopping center (Carrefour) down the street. The bottom floor has multiple cafeterias and we picked and chose several different foods to share. Then we picked up a hair dryer and a few other things. It was crazy busy due to the upcoming New Years.
More than once, while standing in line, someone cut in front of me or tried to cut in front of me. S had to warn me more than once because I just wasn't paying attention and let a small gap in front of me. It is just like driving, if there is a gap, someone will go into it.
We were thinking of going for another massage, but we were so tired, we decided we needed to rest more first. As we walked back to S's apartment, we saw workers (in cook's outfits and such) playing cards in groups on the sidewalk, sitting on the ground or squatting. When we got back, we popped in a DVD and chilled.
That night, Stephanie had scheduled a wine tasting with her favorite wine tasting bartender, Pierre, for us and a few friends. Pierre emailed pretty late and said he was laid up in the hospital. Stephanie tried to work something else out but we ended up just having several bottles of wine and some really interesting food with Stephanie's friends Stephanie and Fleur joining us. Stephanie is a teacher at PingHe just like Stephanie and Fleur is a website designer for an Australian company.
After dinner, Fleur headed home and the four of us headed to one of S's favorite bars, Windows Underground, in the basement of a building. They play American pop music and their drinks are cheap. Being a Monday night, we were able to grab a table right away. S showed us a dice game we can play without being able to hear each other talk (you use hand signals for the game) and it was a lot of fun. A guy from Zambia named Sam, bought us all a round of drinks, then joined our dice game and then tried to convince me to stay in Shanghai, he would even pay me. Okay, time to leave.
We grabbed a taxi to the apartment and got home about 2AM.
On Tuesday, we slept very late. Then we headed to the Yu Garden and Old Shanghai. It is a large collection of shops and restaurants, from very cheap to very expensive. The entire area was very elaborately decorated for New Year's and was beautiful. We went to a popular restaurant for Shanghai style dumplings. We then crossed the bridge that is supposed to give us long lives.
Then we walked along the Bund, a row of beautiful European style buildings along the river's edge. They are doing all sorts of improvements in preparation for the 2010 Expo, so there was a wall between the road and the river and the sidewalk was being improved. We saw the famous Shanghai skyline all lit up across the river.
We then walked toward Nanjing Road, another row of modern stores and restaurants as we headed toward the subway. One thing I saw that was interesting was delivery bikes for several restaurants, including KFC and McDonalds. Why don't they offer that in the US?
On Wednesday, we went for a Chinese all-body massage. It's amazing how many aches and pains our bodies have from walking ALL day and sleeping on really hard beds. So really, they are necessary.
We then headed to the Shanghai museum and learned quite a bit of Chinese history. It was much more fascinating that we thought and ended up running out of time and got kicked out at closing time. A bell rang, the security guards shooed us out and as we sat on the front steps, planning our next step, we saw the procession of security guards exiting.
We walked down the rest of Nanjing Road that we didn't see last night. Everywhere we went, we were always approached by street vendors. The most interesting item they were trying to sell us here was a set of two wheels that you strap to your sneakers. Then you could walk when you wanted to, or roll away when wanted. If only I was younger…
Stephanie then brought us to another great restaurant. My favorite dish, which I had requested to have again which I remembered from our last trip, was a caramelized potato dish. We had it here and it was awesome. We grabbed a cab home which went right underneath the skyscrapers. We were able to take some interesting pictures of them with their tops lost in the fog.
On Thursday, I desperately needed to stay off my feet, especially since we were going out Salsa dancing at night. I suggested B and S feel free to go out without me. It was a very rainy day which was perfect for me to stay in.
***Bethany Writes About Her Day!***
I still wanted to walk around more to take in more Shanghai. Stephanie graciously offered to take me to see 2 Buddhists' temples and the Fake Market (another huge market place with designer purses, sunglasses, and all kinds of other items). We decided to visit the Jade Temple first because Stephanie had not been there…that way if we only made it to one temple, it would be new for Stephanie too. Off we went.
It was a cool rainy day, not great for outdoor sightseeing but we pressed on. We stopped for breakfast at my favorite coffee spot, The Coffee Beanery. We had a western breakfast. I had my standard mocha and Stephanie had her caramel macchiato. After breakfast, we jumped in a cab headed for the subway. We took the subway to the closest stop to the Jade temple and grabbed another cab from there to the temple.
The temple was surprisingly busy with worshipers. Stephanie explained this was most likely due to the impending Chinese New Year's which is a very important time for the Chinese. As we walked into the courtyard, we saw 3 large vessels with burning fires. People were crowded around the fire lighting incense. Around the courtyard and beyond were structures all in the traditional Chinese architecture. Inside each building were many deities, everywhere you turned, with stools in front of them for the worshipers to kneel and pray. They also had amazing detailed beautiful alters in front of the larger deities. The alters were covered with gifts of fruit, food, coins, and other items. We watched as many people walked through the temples, kneeling to pray to almost every deity. At the back of the temple area, we heard chanting and peeked inside to briefly see part of a Buddhist service in progress.
We now headed to the front exit and on the way were greeted by a woman asking if we wanted to try the tea from the temple…a special blend only available at the temple. After Stephanie confirmed the tasting was free, we followed her upstairs for the tea ceremony. We tried 4 different teas and then she blended several together for us to taste. As we sipped our tea, we wondered if Ms. Vickie was awake yet. Stephanie and I both liked teas #5 and #8 so we both bought a box of each. As with most things in China, these were not prepackaged so the woman scooped out our tea and put it into our pretty boxes. Then off we went.
It took a few minutes to catch a cab back to the subway (I'm getting used to this occasional inconvenience now). It wouldn't have been quite so bad if it wasn't cold and drizzling. It was nice to get in the cab and on the subway to warm up some. Stephanie, having seen both temples now, said that she liked the Longhua Temple better and we should go there. Whaaaaaaaa! I'm cold and wet. I reminded myself that I asked for more sightseeing…besides when would I be back to China?????
On the map, the Longhua Temple looked closer to the subway stop than the Jade Temple so we thought it might be within walking distance. Hhmm!!!!! I think the map lied or maybe I was just being a weenie because I was cold and wet. Well, we made it. This temple was similar in layout and architecture with many worshipers. However, the insides of the buildings and the deities were more impressive. One building had 3 walls (top to bottom) of small Buddhas, each one slightly different. Another building had 4 large statues of females with their backs to each other. Each one had 8 arms, all holding a different object. We went through several other buildings with large gold deities. The ceilings inside the buildings were absolutely beautiful with detail carvings and designs. Stephanie was right. This temple was more impressive and I was glad we went.
We took a taxi to a different subway line instead of walking more in the rain. Now to the Fake Market which is inside the subway tunnel at the science museum stop…warm and dry. This area is an underground mini-mall with small shop after shop all willing to barter for the sale. I spotted some D&G purses I liked. Fake, of course, as the market name implies. We haggled with the woman for a bit getting her down from over 320 RMB per purse to 300 for both. I wasn't anxious enough so we decided to have lunch at a food spot next door. We enjoyed lunch and wondered again if Ms. Vickie was awake. As we walked out of the lunch shop, the purse woman was waiting to pursue the sale. I offered her 250 for both and ended up settling on 260. SOLD! J We browsed through a few more shop and I bought some D&G sunglasses. Then it was back to the street level to catch our cab to the grocery store near Stephanie's apartment.
Tonight was supposed to be hairy crab night before salsa dancing. We stopped at the grocery store but it seems that hairy crabs are out of season so we had to come up with plan B. We made the short walk to Stephanie's place. And now the answer we had waited for…Vickie was up but snuggling under the covers in bed. We rested a bit for our big night out.
***Back to Vickie!***
We went to dinner at the nice restaurant near S's apartment in our salsa outfits. It was a windy, cold night and the walk was very chilly. We were finally able to get the famous Shanghai hairy crabs that Stephanie told us about earlier in our trip, and tried the spicy bullfrog. Yum yum. (Really!)
The salsa dancing was on the 65th floor of a 5-star hotel with beautiful views all around. Lucy, Fleur and another of S's friends Ibrahim joined us. After we each did some dancing and had one expensive drink each (78RMB!! Eep! That's more than the 1 hour massage costs!) we headed to a jazz club. After 1 more drink each, we headed home. As we were getting into the cab, we were approached by a little girl begging for money, with her mom standing close by. It was shameful to see.
On Friday, we had some more baozi for breakfast. Two of them cost a total of 3.8RMB. Wish I could have these at home for breakfast too. Today was our day to actually go to the famous Shanghai skyscrapers and unfortunately, it was an extremely cold and windy day. First we went to the Pearl Building, the one with the balls and tripod legs. Stephanie suggested we go up into the higher building, the Financial Center, for the views, and go into the Shanghai History museum in the basement of the Pearl Building. It was very interesting and informative.
Then we headed to the Shanghai World Trade Center. It is the building that looks like a giant bottle opener, with a gap at the top. We first went to the 97th floor (the bottom of the opening) and took tons of pictures and looking up at the 100th floor above us. Then we went to the 100th floor (the top of the opening) and took tons more pictures. Some of the floor blocks were glass and we were able to take some pictures looking straight down. B had some issues with the height and the glass floor but she survived.
We grabbed some dinner and used the heated toilets (mmmm) and headed to the Super Brand Mall. It is a huge mall with 9 floors. We each had a Dairy Queen Blizzard. Of note here is that the options for the blizzards are not the same as home. No candy options so B had to settle for oreo and nuts. Then headed out to the edge of the river to see the Bund all lit up for the night. There were many boats and barges going down the river, it is busy all the time. Again, more sales people (jasmine for you…you like lazar lady) and a McDonald's kiosk.
We grabbed a taxi back to Stephanie's apartment but first stopped to see S's DVD lady. Then, on the walk to her apartment, we stopped several times to see fireworks taking place very close to us. The fireworks caused the car alarms to go off right near us. According to Stephanie, they will get more and more frequent closer to the New Year. Tomorrow is New Year's Eve and Sunday will be the New Year. We will be leaving just before everything closes for the holiday. As I'm writing this, I hear even more fireworks all around us.
B and I packed because our flight leaves at 5PM tomorrow. We decided to go for a foot massage in the morning, grab a few supplies at the Carrefour, go for a hot pot luncheon and then head to the Maglev and home. I probably won't post again until I'm home and Stephanie probably won't post for a while because we completely exhausted her. But she was an absolutely great hostess and we had a fabulous vacation. If anyone else has an opportunity to come visit her, you really should.
Bye and B and I will see you back in CT soon.
Guest Writer: Stephanie's Mom
We were able to sleep in a bit this morning and it was wonderful. Then we checked out of the hotel and met Lucy's dad's friend (who had the big vehicle) and his son, Eric, who is 21 and going to university and wanted to practice his English. He was extremely nice, pleasant, friendly and a great guide. At the end of the day, we exchanged emails because he would love to stay in touch and continue with his English.
Eric's dad drove us to the opposite side of the lake that we were at yesterday. He drove us around all day which was extremely nice of him. They brought us to a place where the famous Hangzhou tea is grown, including the Emperor's personal 18 tea trees, to a tea garden, to a cave and to a beautiful park. Despite the previous projected weather of a rainy weekend, Sunday was an absolutely gorgeous spring-like day, sunny and warm.
After exploring a bit of the tea garden and the dragon's well, we had some tea and sunflower seeds out on the patio. We decided to stay for lunch there and Eric's dad ordered us a feast, several different dishes and our favorite was a fish dish smothered in a dark ginger sauce. After we finished, we climbed the hill to see a temple and then went even higher. We figured at some point it would open up to a beautiful view but wasn't sure how high we had to go. Lucy asked some people coming down hill and they said it would be another 15 minutes to the summit. But we had left Eric's dad at the table and decided to go back down.
When we went back to the patio, the lunch dishes had been cleaned up and there was more tea and sunflower seeds (they were slightly flavored with soy sauce, we think, and were awesome, we couldn't stop eating them). It was a beautiful setting with wonderful weather, so peaceful and quiet, we decided to stay for a while. Luckily, Stephanie had her playing cards on her (which apparently she always has on her) and we decided to play some poker, Texas Hold 'Em, which Eric knew and we taught Lucy and Eric's dad. We used the sunflower seeds for betting but were eating them so fast while playing, that Stephanie had to buy us another bag to continue playing. There was lots of laughing and the last hand, ALL the sunflowers were thrown in (big pot!) and both Eric's dad and I won, so we split the pot.
After the game, we went to a few more spots and then we got dropped off at the train station. We were a little late getting there because the New Year's traffic was so heavy, so there were quick goodbyes and thank yous, we practically ran through security (imagine 20 people throwing their stuff in the security machine at once) and pushing and shoving like your life depended on it. I honestly don't know how they really check everything piled on each other like that. I think it may just be for show.
As we ran down the corridor toward our train car, the conductors were telling us to just jump on the nearest car, and walk down the aisles on the cars. Lucy said no, that we still had a few minutes so we walked very fast towards car number three. I was afraid they were going to close the doors on us and leave so I was ready to jump on the nearest car, but we made it in time.
We have used all sorts of public transportation during this trip; taxis, the Maglev, subways, trains, planes. The public transportation stations and vehicles are immaculate. They are so clean and organized and neat and safe. The subways are HUGE, almost entire cities underground with shopping centers and huge walking areas; I think they could have concerts down there. One we went to had 20 exits that extended over several blocks. So you had to make sure you took the right exit, or you would come out in totally the wrong place. Also, at the busy intersections, they have underground crossings so you don't have to cross in the road. At a couple of places, we saw huge elevated circular crosswalks to prevent people crossing the roads.
Once we arrived back in Shanghai, we said our goodbyes to Lucy (who had to go in a separate direction) who had to work the next morning and planned on seeing her again on Thursday night. We grabbed a cab, stopped for a quick late dinner from the local convenience store (baozi – big steamed dumplings with fillings that I'm becoming obsessed over), and went home to bed.
Now we were back in Shanghai, Stephanie's territory. Now we can slow down and maybe get some more sleep.
Thursday, 11 February 2010
Guest Writer: Stephanie's Mom
Our train was scheduled to leave at 9:30AM to Hangzhou, Lucy's hometown, which is yet again another city. Lucy was Stephanie's penpal since S was in middle school and now they are good friends while both in Shanghai. S's grandmother's neighbor's husband's brother's wife is Lucy's aunt. Got that? And the neighbor had heard that Lucy (her American name) wanted an American penpal to practice writing English too, and that was how they got hooked up. This would by my first chance to meet Lucy. Well, she is a charming, funny, wonderful girl!! She has a great sense of humor and fun and obviously loves spending time with Stephanie. We were joking to each other about how 'crazy' and 'rotten' Stephanie is and that I don't have the option to not be around her, and Lucy said she doesn't either, because S is too cute.
We were scheduled to meet Lucy at the south train station at 8:45AM and we thought that as a hoot, we three would wear our panda hats (very hot in Beijing) that S bought for us at the Pearl Market. Talk about crazy laowais! We got tons of stares as we walked around the train station with our hats on trying to find Lucy. The south train station is a very large circular building with multiple entrances, thank goodness for cell phones. We eventually found each other, hugs all around and then we ran to catch the train. We literally had to push and shove through miles of people to get through security and towards the train but once we were on the train, we had assigned seating, so no problem there. It was a little over an hour ride and we chatted the entire way.
It was supposed to rain all weekend but we weren't going to let that bother us. Hangzhou is known for their beautiful West Lake (which is on the Chinese money), for their famous tea, and for the beautiful natural area around the lake. We were met at the train station by Lucy's dad who grinned from ear to ear to see us, especially Stephanie, his American daughter. She had knitted him a scarf for the only other time she met him and he was proudly wearing it, says he wears it all the time. He rushed us to his friend's car with lots of room, 3 rows of seats, and we piled in and away we went.
They brought us to our budget hotel which was very nice. We had two rooms for two each, checked in, dropped off our luggage, cleaned up and ran back downstairs where they were waiting to drop us off closer to the lake. We had until about 5PM to ourselves, and then we would meet at Lucy's grandmother's home for dinner. Lucy suggested we eat lunch now so we would be hungry again at dinner time. She brought us to a restaurant right near the lake and ordered us several Hangzhou specialties. Everything was so good. I love having someone else order for me, especially when they know the good stuff to get.
We walked on a bridge that crosses the lake in the drizzling rain. It was beautiful and the spring buds were starting to open on the trees and everything smelled so good. You could see pagodas and mountains in the distance. We got a flat boat ride to an island which was even more beautiful and peaceful. Due to the closeness to the holiday and the drizzly weather, there were few people there. They had paved walkways and gates and gardens and so much more. We took a ton of pictures, leisurely walked and chatted. Then all four of us decided a foot massage was in order and we had just enough time before dinner.
We grabbed a taxi to the Big Feet Massage parlor, how appropriate. They put all four of us in one room on these really comfy chairs, we each had our own masseuse (like before) and this time they really, really focused on our feet and ankles. Boy, I needed that. But they also did hands and arms, and neck and shoulders and back. Again, we got the elbows in the back and apparently, I was the only one that got knees in my back (I must have really been stiff). As B says, they seem to find where your knots and problems are, and are really able to work them out. This massage was a little more expensive, 85RMB for 80 minutes. The green tea footbath was heavenly.
Lucy's grandma lives just a couple of blocks away from the massage parlor so we walked. She lives in a large apartment complex. Her apartment consists of one great room (divided into a dining area and a living room), 2 bedrooms, a very tiny kitchen with a small sink, another room divided, one half is the toilet, shower and washing machine, the other half has a large sink. It was very cozy and neat.
When we arrived, Lucy's dad and uncle and cousin greeted us. Lucy's mom and grandma were very busy cooking. They had laid out some different fruits and gave us hot tea. They were very pleasant to us and seemed really pleased to see us, especially Stephanie. We exchanged gifts (I am SOOOO glad I thought to bring some gifts from CT) and everyone seemed pleased. The women were more subdued in their thankfulness but that is part of the Chinese culture, don't want to seem greedy. But Lucy's dad was visibly pleased by receiving a matching knitted hat from Stephanie and I got some great pictures of that exchange.
Lucy's cousin is 17 and is learning English too. So he was a translator along with Lucy and occasionally Stephanie at the dinner. Lucy's dad knows a few phrases and was very proud when he used them and we understood. They brought out at least a dozen foods, a real feast. You can tell they went all out for us and we were so grateful and pleased. There were vegetables, meat, fish, sweets, soup, so much. They seemed especially proud of the mutton dish. We ate and ate until we thought we would burst and then ate more because there was so much food. We had beer with dinner which was very good. We talked about all sorts of things and had a good time. Such an experience I would never have been able to have without Stephanie.
We all sat around a round table, all nine of us, close together. The table was covered with a large piece of plastic and each serving place had a small salad-sized plate, a small soup bowl, a soup spoon and chopsticks. I didn't learn until the next day how this works but I'll explain now. You can use the soup spoon or chopsticks to serve yourself or others from the platters. You usually serve into the soup bowls. You leave the scraps in the plate. Soup is usually served last, after you are done eating the real food, you empty your bowl onto your plate, and now use your soup spoon for eating. And at grandma's house, the plates were emptied onto the plastic on the table and it was rolled up and thrown away. Now I know!
Also, at or before this point, B and I were starting to get sore using chopsticks. I knew we should have practiced before coming, and I did, for a meal here and there, but I didn't realize how tiring it would be to constantly use them. We were actually getting a sore near the fingernail where the bottom chopstick rests. We figured we needed a callous there so it wouldn't be so sore anymore. Also, at times, our fingers just wouldn't work the way we wanted them to anymore. All of a sudden, we couldn't pick up our food. This happened to B at this dinner. She reached for some cabbage hearts and couldn't get it. Of course, at this point, everyone was watching her and cheering her on. Eventually she got it and there was a loud cheer.
After the table was cleared, we had more fruit and tea and more chatting. But grandma goes to bed early so soon afterwards, we finished cleaning up and headed out. Lucy had to stop at her parent's house and would meet us at the hotel within the hour. She suggested going to a Reggae bar and we agreed but I said it would be dangerous to go back to the hotel first because we knew how exhausted we were. But we thought we could rest a little and be ready to go out again.
We went to our hotel rooms and there was a business card pushed under the door, for an escort service. I remembered that on my last trip to China, they actually went to some of the student's rooms offering their services, so I warned B about it. We took off our shoes and relaxed, turned on the tv and found one English channel and got real tired. We agreed that we really did want to go out, to have more experiences but were totally exhausted and hoped they would cancel. A little later, we got a phone call, 'Did you order room service?', NO, 'Do you want a hot oil massage?' NO, 'We have…..' At this point I hung up, I thought it was the escort service harassing us. A moment later the phone rang again and I made B answer it. It was Lucy playing a joke on us. She said they were tired and would we mind not going out, and we were thrilled. I think we were in our pjs and in our beds within 30 seconds. We found out the next day that when Lucy got back to their room, Stephanie was already asleep. What a great day and looking forward to tomorrow.
Guest Writer: Stephanie's Mom
We had to get up fairly early to get in the visit to the Terracotta soldiers and get back in time for our flight back to Shanghai. We had the option of joining a tour from the hostel but they were including a couple of shopping stops and we were worried that would make us too late. Stephanie had researched and found a bus that would take us the hour plus ride out of the city to the museum. Our hostel was at one end of the city right against the wall, the bus station was at the other end of the city right against the wall, and then the bus ride would be over an hour outside of the city. We decided to first grab a quick breakfast in the hostel's café which, unfortunately, only offered Western style breakfasts. 'Terra' was still there and this time we got her attention and fed her our leftovers and got lots of doggie lovings that we sorely miss from back home.
We grabbed a taxi to the bus station and hopped on the bus. They had many busses lined up just waiting for this route and the last stop is the museum (no getting off too early this time!!!). After a few passengers got off, there were only about a dozen of us left for the last stop. There was a lively happy group and they collaborated among themselves and us and asked if we wanted to join them to try to get a group discount, we said sure. We were the only laowai there and as we went into the entrance, they all wanted pictures with us, putting their arms around us and such. The 'leader' went up and asked for the discount but 'no go'. I guess it needs to be pre-planned. It was only 65RMB for B and I to get in, S used her college ID to get a big discount, only 35RMB. There were dozens of guides hanging around the box office and entrance asking us if we wanted a paid guide for 35RMB per person in the group. They stated that there really isn't that much information inside and they had all the good stuff to tell us. They especially told us that very little was in English and really pushed for us to hire them. But we refused multiple times, with multiple guides both because Stephanie had been there and we didn't believe there wouldn't be information. Our group haggled with one guide for a long time (the entire walk from the entrance to the first building) and they eventually agreed on 3RMB per person. We broke off at that point and went our own way.
WOW! First we hit Pit One which is the largest pit of excavated soldiers. It is a huge area that isn't even entirely uncovered yet. They have areas where we see well preserved soldiers and horses and areas where they are all broken up. Some areas they are working on fixing them, putting them together like puzzle pieces. There were several signs explaining what we were looking at (ha! No information in English, bah!) and the immensity was overwhelming. There also used to be carriages too but they had made those of wood and they had either burned or rotted since then. We walked all around Pit One and went onto Pit Two and Three. We spent a few hours, it was so fascinating. Then we went into the museum and found that the entire area we were in was basically covered in finds. The emperor needed EVERYTHING he had while alive in his afterlife, so they created an entire village for him, gardens, stables, soldiers, bakeries, etc, etc. They even buried a few horses live. It was very fascinating and I think I will need to read more up on it when I have time.
One thing I have noticed while in China is inconsistent numbering. This definitely isn't Germany where they are as precise as possible. You will read one sign and it will say there are this many soldiers in the pit, and another sign will say there are this many (a different number). The Forbidden City said there are 8,700 rooms on the recording and the sign would say there are over 9,000 rooms. Ah well.
As we headed back to the line of buses waiting to take us back to the city, we ran into our original group again. They were snacking on a type of roll with meat and vegetables in it that a lady was selling from a cart in the parking lot. They told us to try it, it was like KFC (hee hee). Stephanie told us we needed to be careful because it was meat but we braved it. She opened the steamed bun which already had some veggies in it, put in a spoonful of some shredded pork and handed it to us in a type of paper pocket. It was very good (and none of us got sick). We were followed by a stray dog and I shared some scraps with him. We have been noticing lots of stray dogs in China but many look well-kept, so I'm not sure if they are truly strays or just wander during the days. And none of them seem aggressive. As I tossed some scraps to him, he just gingerly approached it and took it gently. He then continued to follow us at a safe distance and I think he honestly looked sad when we got on the bus.
Some vendors approached us as we were boarding the bus with baskets of pomegranates. There were also many vendors on the side of the road, about every 1/10th of a mile with many more pomegranates. I guess they are the big thing this time of year. Of course there is danger pulling over to buy them, there are signs warning of getting hit while trying to pull over.
As we drove through some countryside, and then closer to the city, I observed what we were passing. There were still fruits, individually wrapped in plastic bags, on the trees. Lots of stray dogs wandering around. People working right on the street or sidewalk: using a sewing machine, repairing bikes, cutting hair, shining shoes. We passed lots of walled in courtyards, both old and new. If you got a glance in some of the older gates, you could see big piles of debris. It looks like they are doing a lot of destruction and rebuilding.
Again, I notice the extra employees needed on the bus, this time there is a driver and fare collector. This bus trip cost us 7RMB each for each way for the hour ride to the Terracotta Museum. Luckily, just about every time we have taken a bus, we have gotten the back seat which has 5 seats across the entire back, and we can stretch our legs into the aisle. The other seats are way too close together for us tall Western giants.
When we got back to the station, it was CRAZY busy. It was now a Friday night and a lot of people were probably off work for a week and heading home for the Chinese or Lunar New Year next weekend. I suggested we grab the first taxi we could get, go to the hostel for our luggage and head to the airport and then worry about dinner, but S said we had plenty of time and didn't want airport food again. So we stopped into a noodle place that she likes and we had some great dinner, but I am really getting tired of noodles!! We ate quickly and headed out to get a taxi and realized that we would have to walk a distance away from the crazy bus station area to get better luck, and it was starting to drizzle. Well, taxi after taxi passed us, no one would stop. S was getting frustrated as we walked and walked, flagging down every taxi we could see and having them pass us over and over again. We were approached by pedicabs and motorcyclists, but there were three of us, and we wanted to get there alive. And obviously, they couldn't get us all the way to the apartment. We debated taking a pedicab to the hostel and then seeing if they would call us a taxi but decided against it.
As the time ticked by, S thought they were being picky and not picking up us laowai but then we noticed they were driving by the locals too. One or two stopped and when Stephanie told them where we wanted to go, they said no and drove away, we don't know why. So I said, the next one we get, we just jump in and don't give them a chance to refuse us. A few minutes later, we approached a taxi pulled over on the side of the road. We watched a guy poke his head in and talk to the driver, but whatever he said the driver refused. We decided to ask if he would take us to the airport. As S was talking in the window to the driver, a Chinese woman practically pushed S out of the way to get in the front seat but S wouldn't let her, she was quicker. After telling the driver what we wanted, he wanted to negotiate a price, some more discussion between S and the driver, and we agreed on 120RMB (instead of the estimated 100RMB) and off we went. I told S I was so grateful we finally got a cab and one that was willing to wait at the hostel while we get our luggage, that I was willing to give him more. S said no way, we don't want to encourage them to take advantage of people, especially laowai. I went along with her wishes of course but I was so grateful to be off my feet and to get to the airport on time.
When we got to the hostel, B and S jumped out to get our luggage. I stayed to make sure the taxi wouldn't leave, but he hadn't gotten paid yet so it was probably a safe bet he wouldn't have left anyway. Like I said before, our hostel was right up against the wall and the street was very narrow even though it was two-way. While we waited, the taxi had to move several times to get out of the way of traffic.
Eventually, we were on our way, one of the craziest scariest taxi drives ever. I'll explain Chinese driving below. We made it in time for our flight which was delayed 50 minutes, so we had time to relax and have the most expensive coffee and tea ever. We all ordered our usuals (Mocha, Caramel Mochiatto, Milk Tea) and they were each about 68RMB. Only my tea was a decent size and tasted good, B and S got major gypped in size and taste. Never again!! Because we paid so much, we decided to stay at the comfortable table until our flight was ready to board.
Our flight to Shanghai was about 2 hours. S wanted us to take the Maglev (fast train) but it was closed for the night. We decided on a taxi (rather than multiple subway stops and then a taxi for the last leg) and even got the school guard to open the gate for us so the taxi could drive us all the way onto campus, to S's apartment building. Normally we have to walk through the gated campus to get to S's apartment.
We knew that we were leaving early tomorrow morning for a 2 day 1 night trip to Lucy's hometown of Hangzhou, so we needed to wash enough clothes for that trip, take showers and quickly check emails. Then we all collapsed and set our alarm for early morning to catch the 9:30AM train.
Chinese driving: As you may know, this is my second trip to China, B's first and S has been living here for the last 1 ½ years in addition to several trips previous to that. Now, with my observations, Stephanie's help and my new book, I understand Chinese driving. As I told people after my first experiences here, there seems to be no rules. There are the occasional stop lights but no real stop signs, yield signs, etc. Here is the reasoning and how it all works.
American's have Right Of Way rules, lots of them. Both where signs regulate movement and where there are no signs.
Chinese have no Right Of Way rules. Whoever is in that space first has the right of way. And it works for them. That means when you are at an intersection, whoever is in that space first, gets it. Whether it is a large truck or bus, car, bike, motorcycle, pedestrian, anything. You obviously are taking a chance going into the traffic flow, but that is the only way you will get anywhere. This is very apparent in the very large, busy areas. If you were to wait for a clearing to pull out, or someone to give you the chance to pull out, it will never happen. But if you do pull out right in front of someone, they will slow down and not hit you. No middle fingers, no bad attitudes, no horn blowing. The only time there is horn blowing is more of a warning that you shouldn't walk out in front of a speeding bus, not because you did but because you shouldn't. I've never heard any one grumble, yell, swear or be upset while dealing with the traffic. Amazing!
Also, everyone will do anything they can to get where they want. If that means crossing the double line (into oncoming traffic) to pass someone, they do it. The oncoming traffic will just slow down or swerve out of your way. If it means the taxi goes down the bike lane, it will. If it means squeezing between 2 vehicles without an inch to spare on either side even if you aren't in a real lane, it will. We've gasped a few times and sucked in our guts to help, but we haven't hit a thing. And we've only seen 2 accidents so far and we've been in very large, busy cities at very busy times.
Tuesday, 9 February 2010
Guest Writer: Stephanie's Mom
'Windy' knocked on our door at 5:30 AM to get ready for our flight and ordered a taxi for us. We got to the airport and found a buffet breakfast for only 18RMB that was very good. Chinese breakfast offers the same food as lunch and dinner, meat, veggies, noodles, rice, dumplings, soup, etc. We casually ate breakfast until S told us it was getting late and we quickly went to our gate. The plane was already boarded so we got right on, but we weren't the last ones to arrive. This plane had seating 3-3 in coach and it was full.
This flight included breakfast which B and S nibbled at, everything looked gross to me. A kind of mush, some yogurt, a weird sandwich, and I felt it was a good thing I had already eaten. The flight was less than 2 hours. We grabbed a taxi to the hostel, it was a very nice 'fancy' taxi, a newer VW with lots of leg room and fuzzy seat covers. It was much better than the taxi in Beijing where there was no leg room in the back seat for B and me and the 45 minute ride to the airport was painful. But S had researched and found that a normal taxi ride from the airport to our hostel should cost about 100RMB for the 30-40 minute ride and this one went up to 180RMB. Stephanie argued with him but he wasn't giving in, so we just paid him. I appreciated the comfortable ride.
Xi'an is a walled in city, like most cities in ancient China were, but this one is still standing. At night the wall was lit up with strings of lights. There were also some extra decorations near and on the wall for the Chinese New Year. Within the city, Xi'an has its own drum and bell towers just like the ones we visited in Beijing.
Our hostel was literally right against the wall, only separated by a road. It was a rather cute hostel, an old style multi-courtyard house. S had reserved a 3-bed room again but they suggested we take 2 rooms (same price) because the only available 3-bed room would be near a noisy section. This hostel had MUCH better bathrooms and again very nice rooms but unfortunately, these showers didn't have individual water heaters and only offered hot water from 7AM until 12noon. We arrived after noon and were leaving before 7AM so no showers for us that day. The rooms were around the edge of the courtyards which were really nicely decorated.
After we checked in, we grabbed lunch at the hostel's café. There was a beautiful, extremely mellow golden retriever hanging around. Her name was 'Terra', like Terracotta soldiers. S had a sandwich and B and I had Chinese food. Then we walked to the Muslim Market area, which was new for Stephanie too. It was blocks and blocks of vendors, in this case, mostly food vendors, as far as you could see, selling every type of food. Fruit, meat, candy, spices, garlic – the aromas were awesome! They were selling food to bring home to cook and food to eat right there. We tried a few things and liked most of them, but stayed away from the meats. They had whole skinned pigs and birds and beef and more hanging right there, with boxes of bones in front (free?). They had large bags of peeled garlic (30 lbs or more), huge bins of spices and so much more. I took a hundred pictures myself; it was so unusual to me. We walked for a few hours seeing and smelling everything. We tried a glutinous rice cake with red bean paste and honey and rose petals, that none of really liked. We also tried some dried fruits, nuts, a stuffed fruit pancake (major yum!), warm bayberry juice and a hairy, crumbly, dusty 'sweet' that only Stephanie really liked.
In the middle of this market was a very old walled in Muslin mosque, over 1200 years old. It was so peaceful and quiet and beautiful, with gardens and gates and walls and buildings. This also seemed to go on and on until we hit the back, where the actual mosque was. So peaceful and quiet despite the crazy market that was just outside the walls.
When we couldn't walk anymore, S found us a massage parlor. We badly needed foot massages if we were going to walk anymore. They had an 80 minute foot massage for 45 RMB (less than $7 each) that was not as focused on the feet as I would have liked. It was a full body massage with some focus on our feet (including a foot bath) and included the girls kneeling on our backs in all the right places. They couldn't have weighed more than 100 lbs each but when they knelt on us, it was with so much strength, we were grunting under the pressure. At one point, while laying on our stomachs, they unhooked our bras and did our backs, and also massaged our ears and cleaned them with q-tips, nothing like our first massages in Shanghai. It was great and our feet and ankles and calves felt a little better, our bodies felt great but our feet needed more attention. So we knew we would need another massage soon. Now it was necessary for research and comparison.
After the massage, we went to a Japanese restaurant for dinner. B had spicy beef hot pot, I had Udon noodles and S had pork chop over noodles. We shared some Japanese dumplings and fried prawns. I'm getting sick of noodles now.
The hostel had given us free coffee coupons that we used at lunch and free beer coupons that we tried to use at night. There was a bar in the basement of the hostel that we had to climb an extremely narrow set of stairs to get to. It was a lot bigger once we got down there than we would have guessed, in fact it had room after room and was quite busy. We found that our coupons weren't good until later in the night so we just ordered a drink each that were served in very pretty, fancy glasses and were very reasonably priced. In this bar (and a future one we later visited), you pay when you order the drinks right away. After one drink, B and I went to bed and S stayed on a little longer, waiting to hear them play a trivia game, but it ended up being a 'private' game so she eventually also went to bed. Tomorrow, we go see the Terracotta soldiers.
Guest Writer: Stephanie's Mom
First we went back to the dumpling place just down the road from our hostel, on the way to the subway. We were there at a very busy time today and the cashier was very short with Stephanie this time and got her frustrated. Yesterday's breakfast only cost us 9RMB total, this time it was a little more. I prefer the baozi (very doughy bread outside, filling on the inside), B prefers the dumplings. We also tried an extra large pork roll that looked like a big cinnamon roll, and was very good.
We grabbed the subway to Tiananmen Square which was surprisingly quiet yet again. We are hitting these places at the right time. Today was a very cold and windy day. There weren't even that many vendors out. I remember getting majorly harassed the last time I was here, but that was in the summer. After we walked the huge plaza and took tons of pictures, we headed into the Forbidden City.
If you don't know, the Forbidden City is basically a fortress that the emperor lived in. It is multi-walled and gated and has over 8,700 rooms. It was even bigger than I remembered but that could be because we walked where we wanted to, instead of with a tour group. We went to a few new areas, including a clock museum and a treasures museum. We also saw a big nine dragon screen (wall). B wanted to steal some of the fancy jewelry we saw but luckily they were all in secure glass cases.
When we exited the Forbidden City, there were more vendors, and some of the first ones that were selling books that B was interested in. They have big colorful pictures of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. B negotiated once again but really wanted them. They started at 60RMB each and she got them for 40RMB for 2.
We grabbed a taxi to the Temple of Heaven. This is where the emperor would have an annual ceremony to wish for a good harvest. There is an Abstinence Hall where the emperor would stay for three days before the ceremony abstaining from women, meat and alcohol. The main temple of Good Harvest is a very well-known temple that you probably have seen in pictures in Chinese restaurants. It is round and has three levels and is very colorful. The entire temple area is a large and beautiful park that the people use for getting together, playing cards, music, singing, selling homemade items, like crocheted elephant purses and hacky-sack type things with feathers on them (very popular). They don't harass you too much, ask once or twice and then let you go on your way, but everyone is selling the same things.
We went to the Circular Mound where the emperor would climb the steps, stand on a small round stone and talk to the gods. The tourists take turns standing on it for pictures, and of course we did too. Bethany asked for warmer weather.
We went to the Echoing Wall, a round walled area with a couple of buildings. Its claim to fame is that you can talk into the wall at any point and hear it at any other point, no matter how far away you are. Stephanie loves her panorama option on her new camera and took another cool picture here.
After we left the Temple of Heaven, we stopped for coffee to warm up. The place was really small and it had a ladder that went into a small hole in the ceiling, where there supplies were. While there, Stephanie asked where the best restaurant for Peking Duck was and got suggestions on how to get there. But first we stopped in the Pearl Market.
The Pearl Market is a large 4-story shopping place, mainly for products, no food. A lot of the vendors have a tiny 6'x6' area packed full with a small hole in the middle where they stand. Sometimes they would scoot underneath to get out or they would have an assistant. Here they harassed you endlessly. 'Hey Lady', 'best price for you', 'better quality', 'looka looka', 'I give you better price because your friend can speak Chinese' (ha!). They are SO good at following your eyes. You glance at something and they immediately pick it up and try to sell it to you. If you don't look their way, they point out something and yell it out, 'magnets!', 'pashmina', 'chopsticks' etc. They would actually pull on your sleeves and follow you down the aisles. We were there for a couple of hours, did some heavy bargaining, bought some items, made some enemies and stayed until it closed, using the late time to make some last minute sales.
We grabbed a taxi to the Peking Duck restaurant. It was a nice place, it had covers over the chairs and covers over people's jackets on the chairs. I'm not sure if I explained this practice yet, but (according to my book), this is because Chinese food consists of a lot of liquids and sauces and the spaces between tables are usually very small, so these covers prevent spills on people's jackets and on the chairs. Also, once you are seated at a restaurant, they usually only give you one menu (which we hand to Stephanie) and may leave for a minute or two and then they are back right away looking to get your order. You barely have time to open the menu and look at it. They stand over you impatiently waiting. There's no such thing as ordering drinks first and casually perusing the menu. Also, you really have to work to get the waiter's attention after the initial order, for more tea, for the bill, etc. Only one place we have been at, have they cleared some of the dishes as we are eating. Most don't take anything away, even if you have many empty dishes on the table and there isn't room for more, until you leave the table.
We ordered half a duck (B wasn't sure she would like it), the side items needed to eat the duck (thin pancakes, duck sauce, scallions), sweet and sour crispy fish, mushrooms with cabbage hearts and more. Some soup showed up that we didn't order so we sent it back. Later, Stephanie asked for sugar for our tea and the soup showed up again. She used the wrong tone (tang vs tang) and eventually we got the right item. B really liked the duck as did S and me. It was as good as I remembered. Stephanie ate the meat from the half a head too. Our last item arrived really late, shrimp fried rice. Here, once the item is ready it comes out, no waiting for everything to be ready and some items come out late. You need to pace yourself. We had leftovers this time and I suggested we get our leftovers packed to give to a beggar woman we passed on the way in. This was the first beggar I remember seeing so far on this trip.
On the way out, we passed her and I gave her the bag of food. She was so grateful, and thanked me many times. But next thing you know, there were three beggar women surrounding me while S was calling a taxi. They were very friendly saying 'hungry', pointing to their bellies and mouths and 'xie, xie' (thank you, thank you). I gave each a dollar and we jumped in a cab and drove away. A man was starting towards us just before we got in the cab, I'm assuming to shoo the women away. I realized that we were very lucky to 'escape' and I decided that we wouldn't give to another beggar unless we could get away fast. They could come out of the woodwork faster than we can handle.
We went back to the hostel and used the internet in the lobby and talked to the lady at the front desk and some of the guests. It was a good time. 'Windy' is trying to learn English and we talked for a while and she learned a few new phrases. She wanted our pictures with her and I asked for her email address so I could send her copies and she was thrilled. She also asked if I could be her American mother, what an honor. We stayed up too late but it was fun, and eventually dragged ourselves to bed because we had a morning flight to Xi'an.
Monday, 8 February 2010
Guest Writer: Stephanie's Mom
We decided to get another early start to get to the Great Wall today and had an acrobatic show to attend in the evening. Bethany and I had our first experience with a shower corner, it is just so fun having the entire bathroom get wet. We have to make sure the non-showerer uses the bathroom first before we use the shower. Unfortunately, we found out our hair dryer won't fit in the Chinese plug or the converter, because it has one wide and one narrow prong. Darn it. So no shampoos because it is much too cold to go out with wet hair. It was approximately 0 degrees Celcius. This hostel has individual wall water heaters so while someone was showering, the others kept hearing 'beep, beep' while the person in the shower was trying to regulate the water temperature.
On our walk to the subway, we passed many vendors selling food, on carts, outside windows, etc. We picked one place that didn't look too bad and had inside seating in addition to selling food outside the window. We had some fried dumplings and a large fried-dough with a caramelized (thick, browned) sugar on top. Yum. Bethany was in love with the dumplings and planned to go back there again.
We grabbed the subway during rush hour to the bus station, and hopped on the bus towards the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. It's a little nicer than the Badaling section which allows vendors on the wall. The one we went to, the vendors are only at the bottom and we have to take a cable car up to the top. This is the first place we got scammed but it was funny.
Stephanie said we had about 5 more stops to go before we had to get off and grab a taxi for the last distance. But a guy got on the bus pointing to a brochure with a picture of the wall and mumbling something. We ignored him. Then a second guy came to the back of the bus where we were and said 'this is the stop for the Great Wall', and I assumed he was the bus driver so we believed him and got off. Well, it wasn't. It was a group of drivers trying to get people to use their car service to the wall. We could have hopped back on the bus but instead had a grand time watching Stephanie negotiate (quite vigorously I might add!) a much better price than first mentioned. She even tried to use the tactic of getting the price lower because we were 'three beautiful women'. That sure got a laugh out of the other drivers and some spectators. Finally we agreed on 55RMB each for the 40 minute ride to the entrance of the wall, where he would then wait up to 4 hours for us and then bring us back to the bus stop.
We were all smart enough to wear long underwear and multiple layers, hats, gloves and more. It was a cold crisp day but little to no wind, thank goodness. We took a cable car way up into the mountain and the sun was shining for us. There were very few people there with us and we got lots of pictures without any people in them. Bethany and Stephanie decided to go for a long walk and I decided just to have some alone time and take some long distance pictures of them. It was so peaceful and quiet and serene. I'm so glad I got a new camera for this trip and believe I am getting some really awesome pictures. We also gave Stephanie a new camera for her birthday and she is greatly enjoying using it too. Between the three of us, we should have some really great pictures to choose from.
B and S came back from their very long walk (all the way until it was closed to tourists) which took them over an hour and about four to five towers away from me, then we took the cable car back down. It looked like the cable line dropped off the face of the earth and B and I were frightened that it would face us down into the steep drop, but we then realized that the cable car would stay level (duh!) and the ride wasn't bad. We walked by many vendors who were very pushy but now B was used to handling them. We did look at several items and bought a few. Some of the vendors would say 'I remember you' because we walked by them to go up and now we were walking by them again. Some were very enthusiastic while saying this so we would say 'YOU DO?', and they would say 'Oh yes!'
We went into a shop for some warm drinks, met up with our driver again, tried some yummy dried fruits and bought more things and got back into our car. Our driver dropped us off at our bus stop, we paid him and he waited to make sure we got on the right bus. Very nice even though we were scammed for a little more money than we should have paid.
We took the bus back into Beijing and calculated how much time we had left before we had to get to the acrobatic show. We decided to get something quick to eat (a Japanese fast food restaurant) and grabbed the subway to the Olympic village. There is a huge plaza area and there were few people there again and we walked from one end to the other. We saw the Bird's nest and the water cube and the tower and took more cool pictures. We were approached by a few vendors mainly trying to sell us kites and animal hats, mostly pandas. These vendors had some new tactics, such as saying 'no tax', 'not broken', 'you always say no'.
We went into the subway at major rush hour and saw how the people pack themselves into the subway cars. We decided to pass on the first car that showed up and Stephanie told us they would all look that packed. We passed on the second car because we really would not fit (3 big laowais with their big bags). Stephanie was getting nervous about the time so we decided we were going to take the next subway no matter what. There were a few inches of room so we jammed in and amazingly enough, we fit. We went through a few stops and even more people piled on. Crazy!
We made it to the theater in time and met with 'Betty' who was standing out front with a sign with Stephanie's name on it. Apparently when you call to reserve tickets, you get some sort of service that will buy the tickets for you. The tickets were 250 RMB and she wanted the cash. We handed her the cash and she walked over to the box office to buy the tickets (HUH?) so we got nervous and stood near her to make sure she didn't take off with our money, or hand it to someone else. Meanwhile Stephanie checked the price board and that was the actual price of the 'good' tickets we had chosen. No scam but we still don't know if Betty was working for the theater or got a cut of the tickets. Our tickets were center stage, row 12, very nice. Our seat covers said we were in the VIP section. The place wasn't even half full and most of the people were in the cheap seats, including a tour group. There was no-one in front of us, in the expensive seats. And everyone who had our price seats were in our row. Once the show started, a couple of girls from the tour group tried to hop into the middle closer seats and an usher immediately shooed them back to their own seats. They were selling some snacks in the lobby and walking around in the theater. They had bags and bags of microwaved popcorn. We bought a few snacks and drinks and enjoyed the show. Its theme was 'Flying' and the physical feats were pretty phenomenal.
After the show, we were ready to collapse and took a taxi back to the hostel. B and S wanted some more of those fried dumplings down the street (it looked open when we passed in the taxi) but I was too exhausted to go. But when they got there, it had closed. They grabbed some microwavable food at a mini-market and some drinks.
We also found out we could borrow a hairdryer from the front desk, so shampooing could happen. YAY! We went to bed and planned on sleeping in a little more the next day but it would be our big day for Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Peking Duck.
Sunday, 7 February 2010
Guest Writer: Stephanie's Mom
Prelude – We just arrived back in Shanghai Sunday night after a whirlwind tour of 3 cities in China: Beijing, Xi'an and Hangzhou. Stephanie has been the most awesome guide and we have had a trip of a lifetime. I will now try to catch you up on what we have done so far but it will be over the next few days. We had jam-packed full fun days and now we hope to go much slower and easier, because we need to!
We had to wake up bright and early Monday morning (5:30AM) to catch a flight to Beijing, despite just getting off our 15 hour flight just yesterday (who thought of this crazy schedule anyway?). Stephanie had pre-ordered a taxi to come pick us up right at her apartment door to bring us to the Maglev train to the Shanghai airport for an 8AM flight. The taxi driver apparently took the long way from the school to the train station (the 'elevated' route) and Stephanie proceeded to 'yell' at the taxi driver, that due to the longer route, it cost too much. She negotiated the price down to a more reasonable price, and we had our first experience of Stephanie haggling with the locals.
Once we arrived at the airport, we found out our flight had been cancelled, and we had been rescheduled to a later flight (oops! Forgot to check the status before we went!). We were told two different things and eventually realized we had been re- booked on a 10AM flight at the other airport all the way across the city. We were provided a free bus ride and another 45 minutes later, after we passed the area Stephanie lived, we arrived at the other airport and caught our flight. Stephanie was already getting upset, stressing and sighing because she was disappointed that things were not going perfectly for us but Bethany and I were cool with it. We decided we would be looking at everything that happened as an experience and weren't going to let anything upset us.
We grabbed a breakfast in the airport and that was a mistake. Stephanie recommended a beef ribs and noodles dish that she enjoys elsewhere but it was very bland and very expensive! The three of us split 2 orders and had some drinks and it cost us TWICE as much as the wonderful, multi-course meal from the night before!! (230RMB versus 110. $1 = about 6.7RMB) So last's nights dinner cost us a little more than $5 each.
A couple of differences between Chinese and Americans: the employees at the restaurants and massage parlors, etc, all have name tags with numbers on them, not names. Also, wherever you eat, you never clean up after yourselves, NEVER. Even at the airport or fast-food places, they don't even have garbage pails available to use. You leave your table and an employee cleans up after you.
Our flight was packed and it was a very large plane (it has 2-4-2 seating in coach). The Chinese New Year is less than 2 weeks away so many people are traveling to their hometowns to celebrate with their families. Every flight we took was packed. As we were boarding the plane, I noticed how many employees they had: one to take your boarding pass from you, hands it to second person who scans the boarding pass and hands it back to you, take a few steps and another employee rips the end of the ticket off, take a few steps and another employee puts a check mark on the ticket. There were about 6 airline attendants greeting you as you boarded the plan and they seemed to have even more, once we were on the plane. The ceiling was so high above us, that the attendants would turn on and off the lights as they see you trying to read or trying to sleep. They walked up and down the aisle so often, it was almost instantaneous. It was a very nice flight. I also noticed that for most of the flight, they had a flight attendant posted at the two curtained entrances to the first class section, preventing entry. It was just less than a 2 hour flight.
We grabbed a bus and then a cab to our hostel (one cab refused to take us, Stephanie thinks it was because the fare would be too low). We decided to try hostels in order to 'do as the locals do' and to try to keep our costs down. Stephanie said they are very similar to hotels with very hard beds like anywhere in China and she enjoys the experience. We had a private room with three single beds and a private bathroom. The bathroom was clean, per se, but very old and disgusting. The caulking was all black and a little scary, but it really was okay, really! The room was clean and comfortable. The cost was only 260 RMB each for all three nights.
We came across our first Chinglish that was funny: a sign in the bathroom had a picture of someone slipping on the slippery floor and said 'Caution: Landslide'.
We were in walking distance to some hutongs (older style courtyard houses) and the Drum Tower and Bell Tower. These two towers worked in unison to keep the people informed of the time back in the time of the Emperors. The emperor was said to be the Keeper of Time. They had some special time keeping machines (using water or pebbles) and they would announce the beginning of the day, end of the day, etc by playing these enormous drums and ringing the enormous bell. We had to climb these incredibly steep and narrow steps to get up to the level that the drums and bell were located. We timed it just right and were able to catch a performance of some of the drumming and got a video of it. The drums are on their sides and the drummer stands in front of them and beats on the head of the drum that is almost as tall as they are. The bell was so big, that they would use a tree-sized striker.
Since we hadn't eaten since our bland, too expensive breakfast at the airport, we went for a popular dumpling restaurant that Bethany's dad had seen on a television show and wanted pictures from. They make the dumplings in a glassed in kitchen area and when they saw us watching them, the guy rolling the dough starting showing off a little. We had three orders of 12 each of boiled dumplings, 1 order of fried dumplings and some vegetables. The boiled dumplings were awesome with some flavored vinegar, the veggies were cabbage, rice noodles and a small amount of shredded pork had some sort of horseradish sauce (yum!), but I think the fried dumplings were the best with a little soy sauce.
This is where Bethany had success with her first squatty potty experience. She even took a picture of her first encounter with a squatty potty.
Since we were close to collapsing, we decided to fit in only one more thing for the day – the Night Market. We took a cab to the Shopping Street and walked past all the "Western" style stores in a huge mall and ended up where the street vendors sell all sorts of food and items. This is where we got to see all those weird food items you see on television shows about China and most were on a stick: starfish, seahorses, scorpions, big bugs (cockroaches?), larvae-looking things, centipedes and so much more. They also had chunks of raw meat, organs (hearts?), calamari, tuna and so much more on sticks that would be cooked to order. Another popular item was really large turkey legs with most of the meat gone but enough to carry and eat as you walk. I was tempted to try one of the really strange items, just because I could, but I was really afraid I would get sick and ruin part of my short vacation, so I chickened out.
We got some fruit on a stick, chunks of fruit dipped in a slightly sweetened corn syrupy type sauce that hardened when it was cool. We heard an opera-style singer on the side and checked her out for a few minutes. She was in full costume and makeup and was singing those very high squeaky notes and we moved onward fairly quickly.
We headed down an alley where all the small items vendors were located. There wasn't even breathing room in-between the displays, they are packed so tightly. Every few feet was a salesperson. We heard: Hey lady, Hello, Hey woman, Good/best/better quality, Cheapa for you, How much you want?, over and over and over again. Bethany showed interest in some scarves and was originally quoted 280RMB. Yeah, right! After starting with a counter offer of 30RMB and being almost physically accosted and prevented from leaving the small shop, with Stephanie encouraging Bethany not to give in so the salesgirl gave Stephanie all sorts of dirty looks, lots of laughing about how Bethany was handling her first high pressure sale, and eventually walking away, the salesgirl yelled 'OK! OK!' and the sale was made at 45RMB each. This was how Bethany learned to be forceful for all future bargaining (and she did get good at it!!).
Each of us bought a few items, saw loads of interesting stuff, shared a plate of banana fritters (with confectioners' sugar and a sugar sauce), we talked to a nice guy who wanted to know where we were from. Once he found out, he boldly asked if we could give him anything from America. I gave him a quarter, explained what it was and how much it was worth and he was pleased.
We stopped for some milk tea with tapioca balls that Stephanie likes to warm up, grabbed a few bottles of water (needed to brush our teeth) and took the subway back to the hostel. Stephanie used the computer in the lobby for a few minutes to finalize our travel plans for the next day and then we all conked out. We were glad to see the power was on (it wasn't when we first arrived to drop off our items), turned on the heat and went to bed.