A Travellerspoint blog

Chengdu, Sichuan - Pandas!

semi-overcast 26 °C

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Chengdu, the capitol of Slchuan Province, is ranked as one of China's happiest cities. It is known to have a tea culture, the residents enjoy drinking tea and playing mahjong. The fifth largest city in China, population of 14 million, still manages to be laid back.

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We are going to Chengdu because of the pandas - the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, admission 58 yuan or about 13 dollars Canadian, (Americans your dollar is stronger right now, cheaper for you) a UNESCO World Heritage Site. WE must go early as they sleep after feeding time which is 930 am.
The gates open at 8 am daily - there are more than 50 giant pandas plus red pandas, not as famous but rare also. There are only about 2000 giant pandas left in the world and about 5000 red pandas. The red pandas look like raccoons and are not nearly as cute as the Giant Panda!!

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80 percent of giant pandas in the wild live in the bamboo forests of Sichuan Province.

Sichuan is famous for its hot and spicy food. They use a spice, Sichuan Pepper, that tastes a bit like perfume smells but it numbs the mouth, a rather odd and a bit disconcerting experience.

Hello Chengdu was once one of China's best hostels and we are staying in a Tibet style room. I was attracted by the decor and the courtyard gardens described in the hostel website.
When you hear about all the crowds and horrendous traffic a garden sounds appealing. The Hostel said they provided transfer service but on the day we arrived they were unable to send a car so we had to grab a taxi. We queued up and then had the usual routine of being too slow and having drivers refuse us - he who hesitates is lost in catching a cab in China. We eventually secure a ride.
The grounds of our home for the next five nights were appealing, reminiscent of a cabin in the woods. The door to the room had a Mickey Mouse lock, like a small padlock you might use on a suitcase. The door broke the first time we used it and staff got somebody to fix it within a few hours.

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The room was not appealing, kind of dark with a wall to wall bed you had to climb into from the bottom. It seemed musty, the sink was moldy where it joined the wall
I was in a tizzy over my missing credit card and the first thing I did was contact my Yichang Couchsurfing friend and she called the hotel, yes, they had my card. Whew what a relief. Why didn't I contact the hotel? Their English was sketchy and my Chinese is non-existent. Also although I am carrying my iphone, I don't have phone service. I am using the phone as a camera and to get wifi.
We had supper in the hotel bar, some young people were having a sing-song, a Chinese girl struck up a conversation with us and we had a pleasant meal of spicy green beans and vegetarian fried rice. The spicy green beans had the mouth numbing Sichuan pepper.
The weather was fine, hot and humid during the day.
Day 1
The receptionist helped me get my credit card back from the hotel in Yichang. They would courier it to me and it would arrive within 24 hours, the fee would be about 7 dollars. Yippee. We booked opera tickets and the panda tour and went to People's Park on the city bus. Rhea is a good navigator.
People's Park turned out to be a large, free park with a lake, street food, flowers, trees, a bonsai garden. There were so many people crossing the street it was easy to sandwich myself in the middle.

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Street Food at People's Park, Chengdu:

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Along the way we passed a man playing what I thought were Chinese bagpipes. "Look," I said to Rhea, "Chinese bagpipes." And I took a picture:

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We attracted his attention and it turns out he was selling gourd flutes. They have a drone mechanism and kind of sound like the bagpipe if you have a good imagination. We were bartering, I had no intention of buying one from him, my suitcase was too full and I was thinking of getting one once we got to Xi'an. When the price was down to fifty yuan Rhea all of a sudden took interest and bought one. Well, now I had a base price for when I bought mine - it would be a great souvenir for Jeff.
There were a lot of tourists in People's Park, several took our picture and some asked permission to have their photo taken with us and we complied - if I was fast enough on my feet I took a picture also or got Rhea to take one.

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I took pictures of other people too:

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When we came back out on the street we were kind of disoriented and wondered where our bus stop would be. I walked down the block to try and get an idea if this was near where we entered the park. When I came back Rhea was talking with a young girl:

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As I approached I took a picture. I was thinking about the student scam you read about in the guidebooks. Some charming young person posing as a student invites you to an art show or a cafe and you end up paying an exorbitant price.
Her name was Jungle and she was a tourist, visiting Chengdu for a few days before returning to University somewhere else. She spoke excellent English and was majoring in English. She wondered if we were going to eat, she would come with us. Red flag, red flag. She seemed so nice and genuine though. So off we went across the street, the menu arrived with pictures, we ordered spicy tofu, Chinese shredded potato salad and some greens.

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Rice came with it as well as tea. I took a picture of the menu just to establish the price when the bill came. One cannot be too careful and we had been warned.
We had a fine time, laughing and talking with a very engaging 19 year old. She insisted on charging my phone/camera and we showed each other pictures. When the time came to leave our young friend had already paid the bill. We were her guests, they were told to be nice to tourists. She walked us to our bus, and waited til she saw us safely on board.
We spent three hours with a random tourist and enjoyed every minute of it - Jungle, you restored my faith in humanity. We would never have had this opportunity on a guided tour.

Riding the bus back was a bit daunting, we did not know for sure where to get off, it seemed to be on a different route. I was sitting beside an older lady who had already pointed out to me that my backpack was partially open so I showed her the map and she nodded and watched and when the time came indicated we should get off. Very nice lady, surprising how much body language and pointing can accomplish.
A street vendor was selling roast corn and potatoes on our block and some neighbours were playing a game of cards - their card table was right on the busy sidewalk.

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Funny, I never thought the Chinese ate either potatoes or corn. China is a big producer of corn. They dry it on rooftops and roads, the pavement warms it up.
Day 2
We took the bus to Tianfu Square across the street from an enormous statue of Mao and the Science and Technology Museum. We were going to meet Anna, a couchsurfing contact. The bus stop was right by a Starbucks so we popped in to use their wifi and had coffee to keep things legit. You needed a phone number to connect and a server let me use his number and got me set up. Now I could see if Anna had contacted me, I could message her to meet us at Starbucks. As it turned out she was going to be late and we arranged to meet by the Mao statue at 2 pm.

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We roamed over to the Square, fountains, no shortage of people, it was hot, I went to look at the underground mall.
There was no escalator, or maybe it wasn't working. We saw quite a few non operating escalators, there have been a number of unfortunate incidents on poorly maintained escalators in China, recently a lady died on an escalator in Jhenzhou. Maybe escalators have been taken out of service until they are certified safe.
First I took the wrong set of stairs, this is what happens when you cannot read characters. 69 stairs down and 69 stairs back up and now I have to take more stairs to the actual mall.
At 2 pm we walked over to the Mao statue. We waited half an hour, then went back to Starbucks, maybe I had a message.
Yes, sorry she was late, she was coming. Time passed and at three twenty five there she was. A nice young girl who had travelled in from a nearby city, to meet English speaking tourists. We were sorry, we had to leave We had hung around now for two and a half hours and there was no way we were going to miss the Sichuan Opera. So we hugged and took a picture and along came the bus and we were off. Bus fare is so cheap, something like fifty cents.

Chengdu is the birthplace of Sichuan Opera, distinguished by the face changing aspect, lightning speed changes of face masks. We had booked tickets with door to door transfer service from the hostel.
The only other passenger was a nice young man from Shanghai. He showed us around the opera house, some tickets include the opportunity to dress in a costume and pose. Watching them putting on makeup and getting dressed up was interesting:

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The opera is like a variety show - musical instruments, slap-stick comedy, shadow play, puppets, opera, face changing, click, click the mask changes, very entertaining. We were served tea.
I enjoyed the opera and a tune played on the two string Chinese violin, Butterfly Lovers, Liangzhu, was really beautiful, I had a little tear. Butterfly Lovers is a popular tune, a folk tune, telling the story of star crossed lovers who end up as butterflies. Our opera companion explained this to me as we walked back to the van. He was going to wander around the opera district, it was still early, but we were going back to the hostel, we had a pretty full day for two old girls.
We sat outside, the weather was fine, had a bit of food from the hostel restaurant, and I had a beer. Along came Kayson, he had found the bars too crowded so he hadn't stayed long and besides he was leaving early in the morning. We visited, very interesting, talked about wine, traditional Chinese medicine, music.
They all seem to like Adele, the Beatles and Taylor Swift. Kayson suggested we visit a park where people play mah jong, dance and do tai chi, and there are many tea houses. He showed us on the map, in fact he gave us his map with the park circled in red.
Day 3
Panda day!! This was a highlight for me, when we first decided to come to China I had only two requests - I wanted to see the pandas and the terra cotta warriors.
We met on the patio at 730 am and boarded the hostel van. They actually had two vans going to the centre, both full of tourists. Off we went, lots of traffic, and the line up at the gate was long. However, we did not have to wait in line for tickets, these were provided and so in we went, we were to meet back at the entrance at 11.
Feeling pressed for time, not wanting to go in the wrong direction, we were confused. We had been under the impression that an English speaking guide would show us the highlights. We spotted a big crowd, very difficult to muscle my way to the front but I eventually did and there were five pandas munching on bamboo. Constantly munching on bamboo. A few were so lazy they were laying down and eating bamboo. Cute. Adorable. Ivory and black, cuddly, benevolent looking, I loved the pandas!!

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We were trying to find the nursery and eventually a big line up indicated something important - yes, this was for the nursery.
I was learning something about crowded line ups in China, really a transferable skill anywhere.
I wormed my way along the outer edge of the line, and eventually ended up inside a dark building, very crowded, I hugged the wall, smart move, there were so many people I thought I might suffocate, time passed, I wriggled my way along the wall and there they were. Five wee pandas in a crib and along came a staff who put in the sixth baby, very cute but we only got three minutes at the window, move along, gee, I could hardly tear myself away.
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Rhea was back a ways so I enjoyed a few minutes in the fresh air, kind of standing aside as the people poured out of the nursery, yes, there is my sister, we inched our way back down the stairs to the main park area and found more pandas to watch, youth, with more than one in the area, and adults who are kept in solitary confinement. They do look cute eating, once they finish they will sleep so we are here at a good time.
Pandas here seem to only eat bamboo but apparently are carnivores as well. They have evolved into bamboo eaters. Bamboo has very little nutritional value so they have to eat twenty percent of their body weight every day. They are bears but do not seem very scary. They have attacked humans and can run at a surprising speed. Hard to believe when you watch them, but they have teeth and claws and will eat meat on occasion.
As we left the Panda Base I saw street sellers with stuffed panda bears and puppets, thought briefly about stopping and then though no my grandchild has so many teddy bears already and several puppets. I would later regret this decision as the pandas were such a big hit with me - they are so cute.

We were back to the hostel by noon, what to do now? We walked to a shopping centre, had a coffee at the KFC - note coffee is expensive in China and here it is cheaper.
Then we went to a bakery where all the staff wore hats and gloves and the bakers were behind a window, very clean. We bought sweet buns and went to Starbucks to get another coffee,
I wandered around the mall and bought hair bands, I needed one for my hair and one for my cell phone. I have invented a system to ensure I don't lose my cell phone, it is attached to my wrist by a string, a hairband and a safety pin. Really ingenious, somebody should manufacture it, I came up with the prototype. With one of the new hair elastics I am going to improve my safety strap.
On the walk to the shopping centre I bought a pair of black pants - 3X large!! The LARGEST size they carried. Keep in mind I am five foot seven and weigh 135 pounds.

When we got back to the hostel I found our room had not been cleaned which annoyed me as the towels were all wet and a mess and the beds were never made or changed and the garbage was full. The thing is your toilet paper goes in the garbage, not in the toilet. Our beds were not made or changed in the five days we stayed at Hello Chengdu.
Day 4
Wenshu Monastry, one of the most well preserved Zen Buddhist monastaries in China is apparently free but since we are in Chengdu during the National Holiday known as Golden Week we did not brave the crowds and go. We did see some lamas here and there around town but the largest number was in the Tibet Section.

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Tibetan Quarter: since we cannot travel to Tibet we make a point of going to this district. We took a cab from our hostel, Hello Chengdu. We had to hail one from the street and this was the first time I was almost run over. Many taxis did not stop even though some of them were empty.
A staff at the hostel had written Tibet Quarter in characters so we were just dumped at the side of a road and we kind of wandered into a street sellers' area. It was crawling with beggars, really some very disfigured people, so between them and the sellers grabbing our arms, pleading, it was distracting. There were lots of lamas and other interesting people.

In Tibetan Quarter of Chengdu China

In Tibetan Quarter of Chengdu China

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When we approached Wouhou Temple we were able to snag a taxi.
We planned to go to a park on the river close to Sichuan University as recommended by our opera friend. We had the name written in characters but the cab driver dumped us at a different park. We walked, pointed to our map, nobody knew, nobody spoke English.

Confucius says: our greatest glory is not in never failing but in rising every time we fall.

We really do not know where we are and when I spotted a smartly dressed young businessman waiting for a street light to change I showed him our map. I said something like, "we are trying to find this park" and he answered in Chinese. He hailed a cab which stopped on the spot and we hopped in along with the stranger, travel maybe twelve blocks, then we all get out and he insists on paying and points us in the direction we are suppose to go.
To avoid stairs we looked for a flat bridge across the river, there seemed to be a park like area on the other side. Two young girls were chatting nearby and a man was fishing in the river.

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I took the map over to the girls and they seemed baffled. We pondered what to do and shortly the girls approached and said "we will show you." So off we went retracing our steps, to a set of stairs that led across the river to the other side. After about fifteen minutes I asked the girls how much further, they had a quick discussion and said only fifteen minutes.
I was trying to explain that we would not do another fifteen minutes of walking when a man said to Rhea, "What part of China are you from?'' A middle aged Caucasian, an expat from New York. He spoke to the girls in Chinese and explained that if we turned around it would take ten minutes to the park, the route they were using would be longer. So we parted ways with our guides, and retraced our steps until we came to a restaurant, with a nice patio and lots of patrons. However, our arrival caused a commotion and the manager was called. He was very polite and said I speak little English and our menu is only in Chinese.
Now I am about to get almost run over the second time today as we hailed a cab. Back to the hood near Hello Chengdu, we go for HotPot.

It is around three pm by now and we really have not eaten all day, so we order vegetables, mushrooms, potatoes and some other things, the waitress puts us in aprons and fixes up our dipping bowls, the inside bowl was not as spicy as the outside bowl so I cooked mine in the middle.

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Later I walked around the neighbourhood, went into some shops, picked up snacks, saw streetsellers with baskets of puppies for sale. I was later told they do not eat cute dogs. Eating dogs is part of the culinary culture of Korea also. International perception is becoming more significant so the consumption of dog meat will likely diminish. I don't like the idea of eating horses either but many Europeans eat horse meat.
Day 5
We are staying the last night at the 5 star Tibet Hotel as it is located near the train station, 10 Renmin North Rd. However this is not the train station we need. For eighty eight dollars per night (including breakfast) we should have spent a few nights - it was such a step up from Hello Chengdu.

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We had sent our laundry out to be washed so luckily it arrived early and we got a cab over to our hotel at 9 am and were able to check in right away. The lobby was gorgeous and the room was huge. The bathroom had a separate stall for the toilet, odd, tub, separate shower, huge vanity and dressing table, and a lot of free toiletries, good quality, very nice. Robes and slippers were provided, the beds were soft, wow. It was tempting just to stay in our room but the day was young.
We went to the Sichuan Museum.

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They have nice shops in the museums, no bartering. However, they are not the place to buy cheap souvenirs, as it turns out. Beside the museum was a park where the streets were paved with broken pottery.

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There was a shrine and a lady was doing tai chi.

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The park was cool and quiet, a little oasis in a busy city.
We had lunch at our hotel, very nice, linen, good service, some English. We had a beef dish and greens, a fruit plate. It was good even though the beef was partly organ meat. You could tell by the texture. I kept thinking, I like liver, keep eating and it all went down.
Since we needed cash, this is a cash, not credit card economy, we had to go to a bank machine. This required a walk and we also needed to get to a drug store so we kept walking, found a place, part traditional Chinese and part western,

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kept walking, got lost and eventually got back to our hotel. There were no interesting stores along the way, seemed to be an area dedicated to stoves and kitchen appliances.

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There were people playing mah jong right on the street.

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We ate supper in the hotel restaurant, a kind of bento box affair with little compartments - one dish was fish, one was chicken and I suspect pork also. It was ok I wouldn't order it again though.

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Day 6
We leave today at 1 pm. First the hotel buffet breakfast. Fabulous. Yak tea and coffee are both offered and all kinds of western as well as Chinese dishes. Very pleasant.

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Then we went to the tea room and were shown and given tastes of various teas. We bought tea, it comes in a brick, Tibet black tea in bamboo, lasts forever and gets better with age. Drink with milk in the morning and lemon and honey in afternoon. I have tea to last me the rest of my life. My kids will inherit some. Rhea was still shopping when the taxi came.
Yes I highly recommend the Tibet Hotel. Way better than the Tibet style room at Hello Chengdu - double the price but breakfast is included and the beds are so much more comfortable.
Had we walked the other direction to go shopping yesterday there is a big mall just down the street. Our room was quiet, service is good. It was wonderful to have a separate shower stall, water did not get all over the bathroom, my hair was clean, I felt kind of civilized. The decor is Tibet-themed, lots of prayer wheels, maybe not five star standard to westerners of discerning taste but luxury to us now at our sixth accommodation in China. The best hotel we stayed in. Well worth the price we paid. Easy to get a cab, they are waiting right outside. No hailing one from the street and taking your chances of being run over.

Busy street in Chengdu near Tibet Hotel

Busy street in Chengdu near Tibet Hotel

So many people ride scooters, no helmets most of the time, kids on the bike, brave people.

Chengdu is about 1900 km from both Beijing and Shanghai. We broke up the trip by traveling Shanghai to Zhangjiajie by air 1358 km, Zhangjiajie to Yichang by train another 425 km and Yichang to Chengdu by train, 868 km.

Chengdu is located in the fertile Sichuan Basin of central west China. Ancient irrigation systems are in place. I was stunned by the lush, verdant countryside, greener than green:

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Posted by CherylGypsyRose 16:31 Archived in China Tagged pandas local park opera budget sichuan tibet quarter hotpot transit people's Comments (0)

Yichang, Hubei, China

sunny 28 °C

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YICHANG is the gateway to the Three Gorges. The Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2012, is the largest hydro power plant In the World!
Tourists start or end the Yangtze River Cruise here. We are not taking a cruise but we will at least see the Yangtze River as we stay 2 nights on our way from Zhangjiajie to Chengdu.
The Yangtze River is the largest river in China, and is the third longest river in the world. (Only the Nile and the Amazon are longer),,
We are staying at the Taohualing hotel. This is more expensive than I had arranged through Booking.com but my original hotel backed out. I have to pay the extra but I will get a refund of the difference from Booking after submitting the right paperwork. So eventually this hotel will have cost us fifty-three dollars Canadian a night.

The Taohualing Hotel was the first four star hotel in Yichang, and it has hosted many famous people including the leader of North Korea and Henry Kissinger. I don't think we have the same room as those guys but our room here is a big step up from where we have been staying for the last week and the lobby is palatial. They have a whole wall of pictures showing famous people who have spent the night.

We are on the fifth floor overlooking a courtyard, nice and quiet. No roosters crowing, no school kids singing, no street sounds. It is a bit crowded for an easy chair and a desk besides the beds and night tables but there is a closet, the shower works and it seems pretty clean.

There are robes and lovely slippers as well as a good shower and softer beds!! At night staff set out your slippers and close the curtains, very good service. The staff speak limited English but they have been trained to say a pleasant and enthusiastic "Good Day" or "Good Evening" and are very attentive. Our cab is met by a smartly dressed staff, very effective "Good Afternoon" (even though he didn't speak any other English), and very efficient at bringing in our luggage. I am thankful for the suitcases, it is such a formal lobby and the staff are formal too.
We have arrived by train from Zhangjiajie, we had a sleeping car, not because it was all night but because these were the only seats available. It was not a long trip, we passed fields, cities, towns and construction and enjoyed the ever changing scenery, all very interesting to us:

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Between Zhangjiajie and Yichang, From the Train

Between Zhangjiajie and Yichang, From the Train

We had asked some English speaking girls in Zhangjiajie to write down the hotel name in characters so were able to give this to the taxi driver. When you get off the train there are persistent people trying to carry your luggage or get you a taxi so the trick is, ignore them, there will be a taxi 'queue'. When it is 'your turn' do not hesitate, grab the first empty cab, hand the driver your paper. Of course, we arrived in rush hour and the station is a distance from our hotel. We were pleased to pull up through a gated entrance and a formal drive, hey, this is a nice change.

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I had arranged to meet a CouchSurfing host in the lobby on our first morning, 1 October. Grace is a college professor, visiting her family in Yichang for the National Holiday which is the first week of October this year. She took time away from her family to meet with us and offered tips on what to do during our short stay in her home city.

With my Couchsurfing Friend, Grace in Yichang in lobby of hotel

With my Couchsurfing Friend, Grace in Yichang in lobby of hotel

She wrote some things down for us in characters, including the names of dishes that were popular in Yichang. One of these was lotus root which we later sampled and enjoyed. She told us how to get to a park along the Yangtze River and advised us to go to a restaurant where the food was good and the prices reasonable. She had put some thought into what two older foreigners might want to do while in Yichang and was a great resource. Yilling Square was walking distance from our hotel and in the evening people gather and lots of them dance. In China most people live in apartments and the abundance of parks and squares in some cities affords them the opportunity to enjoy nature, companionship and the outdoors. We did see people dancing in parks, doing tai chi, playing cards and mahjong.

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I told Grace my sob story about losing my reading glasses and she walked us part way to a place that made glasses, they were unable to understand me and they could not make the glasses in the short time we had. Besides, I had a spare pair with me, bifocals, so I was not desperate. I never did get glasses in China. After we had checked out the eyeglass situation we started to look for the restaurant.
Rhea showed a young man our map and characters and he started walking with us, indicating we should follow him. After about ten minutes he called out to another young man who now took over and we followed him for about ten minutes down little alleyways lined with businesses, we were kind of worried, where are we going and then he pointed - yes, there, the restaurant. We would never have found it without help and it is indicative of how kindl some young people in China are to tourists.
This was a small, plain restaurant, everyone was friendly, we showed our characters and ordered the fried spicy potatoes and lotus root that Grace had recommended. They were served with tea and a plate of very good pickles, picture below. The potatoes were so hot and spicy that I decided to have a beer, which was so cheap.
This was the best meal we had in China and the total bill, including the beer, was nine dollars. We were the only foreigners in the area, people stared and smiled at us, everyone was very good-natured. Of course they do seem to drink tea when they eat. Lotus root tastes like sweet potatoes or yams. The way ours were served reminded me of sweet potato fries. Sorry, I don't know the name of this cafe.

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Spicy fried potatoes are a signature dish of Yichang. I was surprised they even ate potatoes!!
From the restaurant we made our way to the park and saw the Yangtze River. It was a gorgeous summer day, October 1, 2015. People were riding bicycles built for two, fishing, playing cards.

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While I wandered around an older gentleman struck up a conversation with Rhea and his English was very good. He was older than me and had not taken English in school but rather had taught himself by listening to the radio. He had been a cook and a sailor and was now retired. We were impressed by his motivation to learn English. All we can say in Chinese is Nehow and shayshay (thank you, or a rough facsimile).

Yangtze River in Yichang

Yangtze River in Yichang

We attempted to take a taxi back to our hotel but no taxi would stop. Finally when one did, somebody else beat us to it, you cannot hesitate - he who hesitates is lost - but the cab driver did indicate to us we should go across the street and try there, the traffic on this side was going the wrong direction. Tried there and still no luck, nobody would take us as we were too close to the hotel. So we walked back and had to ask for directions several times.

In the evening we walked over to Yilling Square. There was a pedestrian overpass with a ramp.

Our train to Chengdu left on the morning of 2 October. The hotel arranged for a taxi, the check-out process is time consuming, I am inquiring about my deposit refund, the bellhop insists on carrying my luggage ..... Long story short, my credit card was left behind.
I knew within two blocks of the hotel, perhaps before we had passed through the gate, but how to yell 'stop, I have to go back' to the driver in Chinese was beyond me. So our train ride from Yichang to Chengdu was not relaxing for me as I was stewing about my credit card, my jacket and my glasses. I have lost three things. Although I am pretty sure that my credit card is with hotel reception.
No wifi on the train, we had kind of funny seats, soft seats, but we faced the other passengers in the car - like twenty rows of people all looking forward and we looked backward. It felt kind of awkward facing everybody, but between taking pictures and deleting pictures the time passed. Food carts go around but we do not buy anything on the train. I have digestive biscuits and water.
Today is Oct 2. The National Holiday, called Golden Week, is on and every guidebook said - do not go to China during Golden Week. This year was even worse as there was another holiday where they eat moon cakes, on Sept 28. Lots of people took vacation for the duration. However, I can't say the crowds have been unbearable. We only had to wait in line for any length of time once, not as bad as I expected. However, we did kind of plan our holiday around the anticipated congestion of Golden Week, hence our stop in Yichang and now six days in Chengdu. Then the National holiday will be over. But there will be overflow from those who took extra days right up til Oct 11. I guess traffic on the highways in some places is horrific, but not that we have witnessed. We have guaranteed seats on all the trains as the tickets were booked before we left home. Good thing, as the trains are full and they have laid on many additional trains to transport all the people traveling.
Chinese New Years is family time, Golden Week is sightseeing for those who can afford it.

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 16:13 Archived in China Tagged travel train square river holiday national budget lotus yangtze root couchsurfing potatoes yilling Comments (0)

Budget Travel? Consider China

Senior travel to China, independent travel on a budget, tips on budget friendly travel in China

semi-overcast 26 °C
View China for Cheap on CherylGypsyRose's travel map.

If you think you cannot afford to travel, think again.
In the fall of 2015 my 59 year old sister and I (66) traveled independently in China for 27 days. My budget was fifty dollars per day for hotels and meals with an additional six hundred dollars to cover travel within China. We paid seven hundred dollars for round trip airfare from Calgary.
It was a challenge with the Canadian dollar being so low but I did it and could have done it for less.
We travelled 4,503 km within China 3,145 km was by train. We saw a lot of countryside on that 2000 mile train journey.

The view from the train window was always interesting: cities, construction, fields, mountains, plains and rivers. When I think of the Chinese countryside I do not think "polluted and overcrowded".

Around Chengdu the Sichuan Basin was almost unbearably green.

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True: Tap water is not drinkable anywhere in China. You have to boil it for ten minutes and who does that?

We traveled from Shanghai to Zhangjiajie by air. We either had soft sleepers or soft seats on the train. There are cheaper seats called hard seats and hard sleepers.
Shanghai to Zhangjiajie by plane - 1358 km - 535 yuan
Zhangjiajie to Yichang in soft seat, train - 425 km - 138 yuan
Yichang to Chengdu - soft sleeper, train - 868 km - 310 yuan
Chendu to Xi'an - soft sleeper, train - 742 km - 312 yuan
Xi'an to Pengyao - soft seat, high speed train - 525 km - about 400 yuan
Pingyao to Beijing - soft seat, high speed train - 585 km - about 482 yuan

Convert to Canadian dollars, $471 Canadian Dollars
We booked all our trips through englishctrip online, before we left home.

People often say they cannot afford to travel.
It depends on your standards. If you can tolerate staying in plain hotel rooms and hostels, if you take the time to book your rooms in advance, some good cost savings can be accomplished. Our room in Shanghai was 59 dollars Canadian. However we spent seven nights in Zhangjiajie for under 35 dollars per night. Here is a breakdown on hotel costs, plus keep in mind one night was spent on the train. All of our accommodation had a private bath and a rating of 7.9 or higher.

I first looked at hotelscombined.com and most of my bookings were with booking.com. All of my bookings had free cacellation so
cost more than non-refundable hotel bookings:
Shanghai - Fish Inn Bund - Recommend - fifty nine dollars per night
Wulingyuan - Zhangjiajie April Hostel - 35 dollars per night. Five nights = $175
Zhangjiajie Yijiaqin Hotel - 31 dollars per night included transfer service to and from the train station and the owner also drove us to the cable car entrance. Two nights = $62
Yichang - we were upgraded by Booking.com so stayed at Tuohualing Hotel for 53 dollars per night. 2 nights = $106
Chengdu - Hello Chengdu - five nights - $186.11
Tibet Hotel - highly recommend - one night - included a big breakfast - $88
Xi'an - Ancient City Hostel - two nights - recommend due to location, comfortable restaurant, bar area and it has a lift - 42.50 per night $85
Pingyao - Hongyuyuan Family Guesthouse - 25 dollars per night for two nights included breakfast. $50
Beijing - last minute booking to Howard Johnson Paragon - four star hotel - could likely have found a better deal had I searched earlier - five nights at 88 dollars per night = $440
The stay at Howard Johnson in Beijing impacted my hotel budget, however, I still came out ok.

Our biggest additional expenses were entrance fees and cable cars.

Food I liked: noodles, really good. Lotus root, spicy fried potatoes, Chinese potato salad, Chinese pickles, spicy green beans, fried peanuts.
Food that surprised me: corn on the cob, potatoes.
The lamb and bread stew was thirty eight yuan for two or five dollars each. It was filling and tasty.

- taxis are cheap
- train fare is reasonable
- airfare is reasonable
- city buses cost about fifty cents.

  • Museums are free. We saw museums in Shanghai, Chengdu, Xi'an and Beijing.

We could have saved money by walking more and utilizing the subway system.

Two phrases resonated:
1. eyes in the back of your head
2. He who hesitates is lost
Both apply to pedestrians and drivers. Pedestrians do not have the right of way, although in Beijing there seems to be more vehicles stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks. Always be aware of drivers turning left or right into the crosswalk and do not anticipate they will wait for pedestrians to finish crossing, even if the walk sign is on. Millions of Chinese are crossing streets as we speak, without incident, they have eyes in the back of their heads.
When getting on a bus, boarding a train, making a purchase, catching a cab, if you hesitate, another person will take your place. He who hesitates is lost. In any line up, elbows out, make yourself an obstacle or you will be first in line no more. Also, not having eyes in the back of my head, having my elbows out gave me a warning signal when others attempted to pass so I could take defensive action. None of this, "after you, you were here first, go ahead".

Spitting - yes men do this, not all men, not as frequently as you might think, but if you hear a hoarse throat clearing do not look in that direction. There are signs in the national park, no smoking, no spitting. Still some people do it. I expect this too will change. Apparently so many Chinese citizens are now traveling abroad there have been comments by the host country media about their spitting. The government wants a favourable view in the international community so is making a stab at discouraging the habit of expelling phlegm - although traditional Chinese medicine supports the practise.

Smog - not evident in Shanghai, Zhangjiajie or Yiching. Most evident, on our journey, in Beijing.

Chinglish - no trampling on grass, no frolicking in elevator.
Sign in western style toilet stall in Shanghai mall: no standing on toilet.

Itinerary with highlights

1. Shanghai - the Oriental Pearl, Shanghai Museum, hop on and off bus, river cruise.

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2. Zhangjiajie - the karst mountains in the Wulingyuan Forest Park and the monkeys.

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3. Yichang - try lotus root and spicy fried potatoes. Yangtze River, Yilling Square

4. Chengdu - People's Park, the pandas, the opera and the Tibet Hotel. Try the HotPot and shredded potato salad.

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5. Xi'an - Muslim Quarter, Bell Tower, terra cotta warriors. Try the lamb and bread stew.

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6. Pingyao - Cute tourist town, ancient streets, temples, bargain for souvenirs. Have a foot massage.

7. Beijing - the National Museum, the Great Wall, Hutong tour and Jingshan Park.

Tour with Shopping
We went on one three day sightseeing tour in Beijing. The total cost, including the initial fee, an unadvertised "extra cost", and a nod to a ripoff purchase was one hundred and forty dollars plus the cable car to the Great Wall - this was the 'shopping tour' that folks on TripAdvisor warn you about. We enjoyed meeting the other participants, it was easier than getting around on our own, there was an English speaking guide, maybe not as much information as some tours I have been on, but the guide was pleasant and efficient in moving us through the various sites. You do not have to buy at the shopping stops, the sales people are high pressure, just find a place to sit, stick to your guns, say no. The washrooms at the shopping stops are clean and they have western style toilets so take advantage of the facilities. We thought the meals were good and convivial.

Souvenirs
Tea - why not? The Chinese take their tea seriously and will spend money for a top quality leaf. Said to have medicinal properties, I purchased puer, green, jasmine and chrysanthemum as well as bamboo encased bricks of Tibetan Tea. The leaf and brick teas can be reused up to five times and the puer and Tibetan Teas improve with age.
My kids may inherit tea as I prefer coffee.
Scarves - for myself and for gifts - fake Chanel, fake cashmere, fake silk.
Terra Cotta Warriors - bargain hard
Tea cups with lids and strainers - the same thing will vary dramatically in price. Nice to have with leaf tea.
Paper cutouts from Pingyao - intricate, pretty, light weight
Calligraphy
Gourd flute for the musical tourist or a two string violin
Bargaining
There is no shortage of souvenirs. Pingyao and the stalls around the terra cotta warriors as well as the Muslim section of Xi'an were the most fun, if you like to bargain. It is a game and they charge westerners more - if you can get somebody local to go with you, then you might do better.
This was my system - they make the first offer - I divide by four - they come back too high - I go up slightly if I really want the item. They come back but not as low as you have offered. Now you either make another offer or walk away. They may chase after you and then again, they may not. Only purchase off random street sellers if you have the exact right change as a common scam is to take your money and give you back counterfeit as change. I purchased terra cotta warriors, a selfie stick and a kite this way, and made out fine, but the tour guides warn you not to do it. I don't think I got many bargains, I often saw the same item for less elsewhere!!

Scams
- pickpockets love crowds and often hang around train stations, airports, subways, crowded areas.
- Counterfeit money exchange scam.
- Overcharging at restaurants - take a picture of the menu.
- Posing as student scams - take you to a cafe, bar or art gallery and stick you with an enormous bill at the end.
These are all written up in Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide etc.
The English language paper in Chengdu had a report about scams taking place during the National Holiday, Golden Week. Chinese tourists had been scammed by high prices on shrimp (six times the regular price) and the street seller received a big fine and was shut down after the scam was reported. The penalties are harsh, still lots of people do it. Bars actually hire pretty girls who pick up guys, order a lot of liquor and then take off leaving their male target to pay the bill. As far as I know, we were not scammed but we did take some preventative measures.
I wore a money belt and a neck pouch but eventually purchased a small canvas cross body bag, worn at the front, to carry the day's funds. We also had a day pack to carry water, a light jacket and some snacks.
Meeting Locals
The locals we met were the best - we did meet a few just by chance but I had contact with several CouchSurfing Hosts before we left home. As a member of CouchSurfing I posted our itinerary. Then potential hosts contacted me. I made it clear in my request that we were not looking for a place to stay. We wanted to meet locals to learn more about their community. Therefore in Shanghai, Yichang, Chengdu, Xi'an and Beijing we met young adults who took time from their busy schedules to offer assistance to two older ladies. Through CouchSurfing we met seven people. Our trip was improved by their involvement. We were left with the pleasant impression that Chinese people are considerate, friendly and helpful.

Guided Tours with Air to China have been really inexpensive. We took the independent route as we were going for a longer period of time and wanted the challenge of doing it on our own.

By going on our own, we ate with locals, rode the bus with locals, sat in parks with locals, yes, it was a different experience than a guided tour. We got lost, were frustrated when trying to take a taxi, had to plan ahead to get our destination written in characters, usually by the hotel or hostel staff. We saw a bit of everyday life in China, rode the subway, shopped at the neighbourhood fruit stand, and picked up groceries at the local store. We ate several times in our room as we were too tired to venture out and we were picky eaters mainly due to allergies.
Could you do it for less? Yes, you sure could:

  • Stay in a dorm in a hostel
  • Walk and take buses and subways
  • Choose hard seats or second class on the train
  • Take the bus instead of the train

The locals we met were amazed that we had the nerve and fortitude to travel independently in China at our age. A young woman wrote on CouchSurfing that we were "miracles."
All in all, it was an incredible journey. Limping, taking pain killers daily, we made it. It would be easier for people without arthritis. There were times when I couldn't find anybody who spoke any English, but most of the time somebody could. And with all those translating gadgets the young people can find a way to communicate.
Is there somewhere you want to go? Are you prepared to rough it a little? China is full of history, beautiful scenery, UNESCO World Heritage sights.
People watching was always interesting for me. And I never tired of the scenery passing our train window - not boring!! And there is so much left to see
People were friendly and willing to help. We had several conversations where we spoke English and the other party spoke Chinese. With gestures, and smiles, we kind of communicated.
Moving along the huge line to the cable car at Zhangjiajie an older woman spoke to me in Chinese as I passed. I paused, we took each others hands, smiled, looked into each others' eyes, and ...... I moved on. I believe she was saying welcome. And I think she knew that I was saying thank you.

Which brings me to reciprocity. We were frequently asking for help with good results. We didn't help anybody. If someone asked us for assistance in Chinese, we don't know about it. Our trip would have been very different if people had not helped us. We relied on the kindness of strangers.
And that made all the difference.

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 18:48 Archived in China Tagged trains travel in hostels china budget backpacking souvenirs tips seniors couchsurfing independent inexpensive Comments (0)

Beijing and The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall, National Museum of China, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, old-style narrow streets called hutongs, Peking Duck, the capital city of China, Pandas in Beijing Zoo, Ming Tombs, Lama Temple

overcast 26 °C

BEIJING municipality is bordered to the south by Shanxi province and to the north and west by Inner Mongolia.
We started out in Shanghai, went south to Zhangjiajie, west to Chengdu and then north east to Xi'an and the UNESCO listed ancient town, Pingyao and then to Beijing.
Everyone says not to go to China during national week, a very crowded country is on vacation. Sightseeing at all the tourist spots will be difficult, trains will be packed, you cannot move etc. Just so you know, we survived! We only experienced a few really long line ups, we booked our train tickets in advance, travel was quite comfortable.
We have seen a lot of countryside and will have travelled, within China, 4503 km, 3,145 km by train.
Our final journey in China is a high speed train from the ancient town of Pingyao to Beijing, a distance of 585 km and at 200 km plus per hour it does not take very long. Our seats are comfortable, we are served a little snack, everything is pretty good and we can charge our phones right here on board. Very modern. At this speed it is difficult to get a decent picture of the scenery whizzing by:

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Beijing has a population of 26 million. 'Beijing' means 'northern capital'. For the last 2000 years it has been the capital city of China, off and on.
We have arranged to meet another Couchsurfing host, Carolyn, at the train station in Beijing. It was her suggestion that she would meet us right in the carriage and see us safely to our hotel by taxi. We did get off the train and then just stood on the platform waiting. I have no wifi service and so again this lack of a cell phone is a bit of a pain, after hanging around for fifteen minutes, I am wondering if we should go into the train station, but no, just before I decide to take off, there is a young woman hurrying towards us on the now mostly empty platform. Of course, she is coming from work, traffic was heavy, but she is here. Friendly, efficient, good English, a very experienced Couchsurfer, she takes charge.
It is rush hour, the cab ride is slow, Carolyn points out the Forbidden City and Tian'anmen Square. Soon we are in a traffic jam, I can see the lights of the Paragon - gee, when the traffic moves again our driver heads off past those lights and keeps going. Carolyn tells the driver to let us out, he cannot seem to find a way to turn around, we are super annoyed as we were so close during that traffic jam, now we hike back 8 blocks.
We all go up to the room, the lobby was quite elegant and the room isn't bad, it has some floor space, a desk and an easy chair and there is a closet with robes and slippers.

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We decide to have supper and since we don't want to walk too far Carolyn takes us into the attached mall and we have Chinese fast food, a sort of a Chinese version of MacDonald's (there is a MacDonald's and a KFC in the mall also).
Before taking the subway home Carolyn suggests we see the Beijing Museum and Jingshan Park the next day.
October 14 - National Museum of China and Qianmen Street
I have arranged to meet another Couchsurfing host, Ilaria, at 4 pm at our hotel today. In the meantime we look into tours, and I message Ilaria with our problem of communicating with the tour companies. She gets right on it, we have not even met at this point, and we are getting somewhere as far as booking a three day tour of Beijing.
We head out to see the Museum and Park as Carolyn suggested. The hotel helps us get a taxi and explains where we want to go and we are let off about two blocks from the museum. Across the street is Tian'anmen Square, looking very benevolent, with the decorations left over from the National Holiday.
On Oct 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declared the founding of The People's Republic of China from a balcony in Tian'anmen Square and Beijing has been the capital ever since. Tian'anmen Square is the world's largest public square. 440,000 meters!

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Museums are free most of the time in China and the gigantic National Museum of China is also but you have to show your passport and get a ticket. Go to the foreigner's ticket booth on your right as you face the museum. There is heavy security at the museum, anything we carry goes through the security check and we are patted down. Then we must open the pack and take a drink out of our water bottles. The guard says "Drink the water," I think she means all of it, so am relieved when she only means a few swallows.
The museum is enormous, two million square feet, it seems empty it is so vast, marble walls and floors, hard to describe, some kind of showcase, some kind of testament to the People's Republic of China. At first I was taken up with marveling at all the wasted space, the incredible size, but it turns out that the Beijing museum kind of spoke to me.

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After I recovered from the abundance of armed guards and security and stopped taking pictures of how massive everything was we saw some amazing stuff. Do you recognize this guy? From 386 - 534 AD, the Buddha was unearthed at Longxing Temple, Shandong Province.

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People have replicas of this buddha's head in their homes!! Here is the real deal.
After looking through the sculptures, the bronze, the three legged pots, some artwork, we wandered through an astonishing display of African Art:

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From the mezzanine I had spotted a tea area with wicker furniture on the main floor, about a block from where the entrance and guards were located. We haven't really eaten today so refreshments will be nice. Surrounding the tea room there is an extensive collection of Salvadore Dali copper sculptures from the 1970s, so close, so many, so accessible.

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While we drank our tea, I had chrysanthemum, we could see the Dali sculptures all around. How often does this happen? I felt content, relaxed, like we had accomplished something today. It wasn't just one more museum, this one captured my interest.

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Some people came along and wanted to have their pictures taken with us, so we said sure, they sat down, we all laughed, nodded, I jumped up and took a picture, this was fun. We went to the Beijing Museum and look what we saw - two old foreigners, collapsed in wicker chairs, drinking tea. Now we are part of their album.
And they are part of mine.
On the way to the exit there was a sculpture exhibition, very moving, about the Chinese during WW2. Very good, dynamic sculptures, they told a story of anguish, very obvious actually, I am glad I saw them:

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I suppose there is nothing mentioned about the 1989 "troubles" in nearby Tian'anmen Square, but neither do they have google or Facebook so a candid look at the recent past is not expected. During the Cultural Revolution a lot of ancient artifacts and buildings were destroyed, but with a five thousand year old history China can likely keep one of the biggest museums in the world respectably stocked. The day we were there it seemed almost devoid of tourists, maybe that is why I enjoyed it. No crowds.
We spend the next hour trying to catch a taxi, seems nobody would stop, and after walking several blocks and trying several streets we saw a hotel with a taxi stand, Eureka moment, we were late getting to the hotel but Ilaria was still there.
She was a 22 year old University student who was actually dating a guy from Edmonton. So I felt comfortable with her right off the bat, plus she brought cake. She made a phone call to get our three day tour of Beijing straightened out. Now we had a plan for the next three days, Ilaria suggested we go for Peking Duck. So off we went out to the street, it is still rush hour (lasts two or three hours) and we cannot get a taxi. However the subway is right there and we are only two stops away. We can go to Quanjude, the oldest Peking Duck restaurant, it is so popular we will likely have to wait in line for 1.5 hours. In times gone by only the emperor got to eat this delicacy so the wait should not be too daunting but the stairs at the subway were, so Rhea decided she would stay at the hotel and we went on without her.
There is a window where you can watch the chefs cook ducks in the open fire ovens:

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This was pretty interesting. The duck is sliced, served with bean paste, cucumbers, green onions and pancakes.
When Ilaria left to use the restaurant washroom I hung around in the lobby taking pictures of the staff, the diners, the people waiting. After a time I was approached by a group of middle aged men, well the one with the green cap and uniform seemed old, they talked to me in Chinese, first the old guy and then another guy, I said "Nehow, my friend went to the washroom and I'm waiting for her', totally baffled by what was up, they talked some more, very bold, I just nodded and sidled away to another side of the lobby. Wow. I missed an opportunity as Ilaria said when she came back a few minutes later they were likely asking me to join them for dinner. Worse luck, the men had already gone into dinner. I thought they were telling me to stop taking pictures.
Now we walked around Qianmen Street, stopping for green tea ice cream and then to a tea shop called Wuyutai which was founded in 1887. If you think tea is cheap in China think again. Maybe the stuff we drink here, but the Chinese take their tea seriously. I purchased small amounts of crysanthemum, green, and puer tea. My bill came to about 25 dollars. The puer tea lasts forever and improves with age so I'll hang on to that. Apparently you can reuse this tea up to five times so that kind of stretches it out.
Chrysanthemum tea is suppose to be helpful for respiratory problems, high blood pressure, and hyperthyroidism, reduce inflammation and help calm your nerves. To make - once the water has boiled allow it to sit for about a minute before pouring over about 6 flowers arranged in a glass cup.
Puer Tea is suppose to raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol. It is known to help with weight loss. Since it mellows and ages like fine wine the older it is the more expensive it is. When making this tea you first rinse with boiling water, strain, add more boiling water and let it steep as long as you want.
We are being picked up at 8 am - set the alarm, get to bed, tomorrow is an early start for a pretty exciting day.

October 16, Ming Tombs and The Great Wall
First day of our three day tour booked through Beijing tours for 87 US dollars. It includes entrance fees to all the sites we will visit, transportation, an English speaking guide and three lunches. We are picked up at our hotel by a van and we make several other stops, the van is eventually full.

First stop is a jade factory, we get the sales pitch, there are some pretty high pressure sales people here so I don't want to seem too interested but to put on a jade bangle you use a plastic bag. Or soap. They squish your hand into it. Jade is a big deal in China.

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They gave a demo on how to tell real from fake jade, banging two pieces together, listen for the sound, then looking at it through the light - real jade does not have air bubbles. Jade is associated with wealth and good health. Jade sometimes trades several times higher than gold in China. Jade has played a significant role in Chinese culture for more than five thousand years!! It is very difficult to tell real jade from fake jade by the way.
We drive past Olympic park, the distinctive Bird's Nest, and out of the city. We are heading to the Ming Tombs, about fifty km north east of Beijing to a World Cultural Heritage Site where thirteen emperors of the Ming Dynasty are buried.
We visit the Changling Tomb of Emperor Yongle. He was the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty but the first to be buried here. It was this emperor who moved the capital to Beijing and built the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven. Below is the Yongle Emperor in the Hall of Eminent Favour - people throw money at the statue to increase their good fortune. When I initially saw this statue I assumed it was a buddha.

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It is a gorgeous summer day, 15 October, 2015. We have a good lunch at a restaurant near the Great Wall. Tea is included but any additional drinks are paid for by the diner. Outside in the parking lot a group of men play cards.

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After lunch we drive to the Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall. We have two choices but we have to sign a release if we pick the second one. First choice is to take the cable car to the Great Wall which is an additional fee. Second choice is to take a ski lift up and a toboggan down, considered more dangerous and also costs an additional fee. Of course there is a third choice, hike up to the Great Wall but that would be time consuming. Rhea and I decide to take the cable car and wished later we had picked choice two. It was a long walk up hill to get to the cable car. It was hot, all the stairs were hard on the old knees, we were pretty worn out when we reached the cable car. The ski lift had been quite a bit closer to the parking lot.

Confucius says: It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop

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Riding the cable car was fun, here we are at the Great Wall. Well we were on a square that led to some stairs which went up to the Great Wall. These stairs were tricky as they were not uniform and there was no hand rail.

Here was the Great Wall started by the emperor buried with the terra cotta soldiers, added to by the Yongle Emperor buried in the Ming tombs, being restored today by the People's Republic of China, a great tourist sight. The effort, the loss of life, the perseverance to build a wall to keep out northern invaders - stretching for something like 21,000 km (13,000 miles) over mountains, how perilous to build. Still both the Mongols and the Manchurians got through, it was not a continuous structure, they could likely have found an opening, guards could be "persuaded" - an interesting wall. It is one of the world's most famous landmarks.
No, it cannot be seen from space. But as a World Heritage Sight it is recognized as a great architectural feat. Over the centuries it was built it may have cost the lives of over one million people. Imagine how many people must have worked on it, peasants, convicts, who knows. Also the Chinese invented the wheelbarrow to help them build the Great Wall.
It has been the source of building materials in recent centuries and the touristy parts have been rebuilt. There are plenty of un-restored sections for the adventurous hiker. Not us though.
The original wall, constructed during the reign of Qin Shihuang, was built of rammed earth. 221 BC.
Reinforced with stone and brick by over 2 million workers during the Ming dynasty, it was home to one million soldiers in the fifteenth century. Thirteen dynasties contributed to the construction of the walls and the current powers are restoring sections for tourists.

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Tick, I stood on the Great Wall of China.
As almost the first ones on the van we are almost the last ones off, a long day. Tomorrow they are picking us up at 730!!

Forbidden City
An enormous palace, home to 24 consecutive emperors over two dynasties. It is closed on Mondays, open 830 am to 5 pm, admission 60 yuan, about 14 dollars Canadian. Being on a tour, our admission is covered, and we do not have to wait in a long line. We enter through the Meridian Gate, once used exclusively by the Emperor. The Forbidden City is the largest palace complex in the world, over 8700 rooms!

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The wall enclosing the Forbidden City is composed of 12 million bricks and the whole shebang likely took a million workers to construct. CHINA'S best collection of ancient buildings and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Hosts an average 40,000 visitors per day, do the math, students get in for 20 yuan and small children are free, as in under 120 cm and its free. It is built according to feng shui principles to maximize energy flow.

We stop at an establishment devoted to Traditional Chinese Medicine and sit through a presentation on the benefits and the differences between TCM and Western Medicine. Since a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine just won a Nobel Prize people are quite interested. Then we are each given a brief consultation, a doctor takes the pulse from both wrists, looks at your tongue and writes a prescription. We did not purchase but some people did.
We go to the Temple of Heaven, the emperor was considered a "Son of Heaven," and here he made sacrifices and prayed for a good harvest.

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After another convivial lunch with our group we stop at a pearl factory. To tell if pearls are real, rub them together. A fine dust should come off. We sat around waiting for the rest of the group, we had to stay in the pearl factory for forty minutes. Can you tell we were on one of the infamous 'shopping tours' hence the cheap price for the tour.
Our final stop for the day is the Summer Palace, another World Heritage Site, an excellent example of Chinese landscaping aesthetics. The man made Lake Kunming dominates the landscape, dragon's head boats offer tours, the largest bridge is the Seventeen Arch Bridge.

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We have felt safe in China, there is a visible police presence, lots of security, penalties are stiff for crimes, it is one of the safest countries in the world. There are scams and pickpockets so you have to be watchful and aware of your surroundings.

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We have been warned by the tour guides not to buy souvenirs from street vendors as they have various scams such as giving fake currency as change. We decide the trick is to give them the exact amount so upon leaving the Summer Palace a fellow passenger helps me buy a selfie stick for ten yuan. Hey, good deal, I should have bought two!! I could have really used this earlier in the trip!!
October 17 - Beijing Zoo, Olympic Park, Lama Temple
There are only three of us on the tour today and our first stop is the panda section of the Beijing Zoo. Although I have seen them already in Chengdu I enjoy the visit immensely:

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As we are leaving we notice a vendor selling panda teddies and so I purchase the panda hand puppet I had neglected to buy in Chengdu.
The smog is so heavy today we can barely see the Olympic Stadium or the seven star VIP Hotel, the dragon, at Pangu Plaza across the street. The Bird's Nest was designed by a Swiss Architect for the 2008 Summer Olympics and is the largest steel structure in the world:

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The five Olympic Mascots are the colours of the Olympic rings, very friendly, childlike, the fuwa, good luck dolls say "Welcome to Beijing."

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We are taken to Dr. Tea to sit in on a tea ceremony, sample teas, and then listen to the sales pitch. The tea hostess was charming, she made five different types of tea, we were appreciative samplers, then the sales pitch and we all ended up with tea which turned out to be a ripoff but we chalked it up to an added expense to our three day tour, maybe an extra twenty dollars.

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A trademark of Beijing are the narrow alleys or hutongs. Hutong is a Mongolian word meaning water well. Almost every community was designed around a well to provide water for the locals.
The tour through these narrow alleys was interesting. I enjoyed the ride (pedicab or bicycle rickshaw) through the district and seeing the people go about their daily lives. There was a nice neighbourhood feel to it, but also a sense of cramped living conditions, this is kind of like subsidized housing for qualifying residents of Beijing. Our three day tour was said to include the hutongs and there had been no mention of an extra fee so we were surprised when the guide informed us it would be an additional 23 yuan each to pay the hutong guide and the pedicab drivers. Since this is less than five dollars Canadian we coughed up the money but it seemed a bit underhanded and we mentioned the extra cost in the satisfaction survey at the end.

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The courtyard apartments are narrow, kind of laid out like side by side rooms, facing the street, maybe ten feet deep. There is no bathroom so they use a communal bathroom. Wouldn't that be something? I guess in times gone by this would have happened in other places like Ireland. Did you read Angela's Ashes? Perhaps they will not last much longer in China as they seem to be modernizing so rapidly.

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We ate lunch in the hutong, what a joke, eat lunch with a local family. The table and chairs were in a maybe ten by ten foot bedroom, there was a bed and the table and chairs for four people, not much room for anything else, and the lady who lived there was cooking a few rooms down, it almost looked like some of it was being cooked outside, there was quite a lot of food and it was good but I was worried about the sanitary conditions. The only time we saw the lady was when we passed the "kitchen" and she looked exhausted. So much for having a pleasant chat and maybe helping stir a pot and getting a few cooking tips. Heated up peanuts taste pretty good.
These apartments are for people who were born in Beijing. If you were born elsewhere and now live and work in Beijing you do not qualify. Of course anybody born outside of a marriage will have no ID and not qualify for anything. There is a strong incentive for Chinese to marry. If you have an illegitimate child and work for the government you are terminated. Your child will have no ID. Talk about stigma. Gee, the whole thing here in the 1950s was I thought religion, oh my god, sex out of wedlock, but in China it has nothing to do with religion. The child is to be born into a nuclear family, a traditional family, family is important, traditions are important. Also I suppose it helped with the one child policy. One child, two parents.
When we were in China they still had the one child policy, there are 113 boys for 100 girls, do the math, in a population of 1.4 billion, quite a few men will not find a Chinese girl for a wife. Girls, get over to China, it is crawling with single men. However, you must accept this family responsibility, this looking after the aged parents and all that. Although they had the one child policy still in place there is some flexibility in the rule in October 2015 - if you both were only children then you could have two kids. In Nov 2015 the Chinese government abolished the one child policy. Many couples who qualified for two children were choosing to not have the extra child, so they expected their population to max out in 2050 and then decline.

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We are off to the Lama Temple , home to about 70 lamas, and visited by the faithful and the curious. Pictures inside buildings are not allowed as they are active places of worship. There was a lot of incense, many statues, the vast majority of Chinese are atheists, still there could be 245 million practicing Buddhists or 18 percent of the population. About three percent of the population is Christian and there are are anywhere from 20 to 150 million Muslims (look it up). Although we never met a religious Chinese it seems they have some superstitions such as wearing jade for luck. Feng shui principles influence urban planning and Taoist balance intertwines with Traditional Chinese Medicine. Four is widely considered an unlucky number even by the atheists and government officials have been slammed for gorging on the health and wealth building nutrients of the giant salamander.
But I digress. Here we are at the Lama Temple in Beijing:

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This has been a good day, not too strenuous, lots of different things to see, we end our day at the gardens behind the Forbidden City, Jingshan Park.
Rhea is anxious to get her grandson's name done in Calligraphy so we are taken to a calligraphy master, a descendant of Manchurian emperors, who writes the name in characters and adheres his stamp.

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We spend a bit of time watching old people play badminton, dance and sing.

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Since the Howard Johnson Paragon is attached to a big mall geared for tourists we purchase a few more souvenirs. Our bargaining skills are terrible, the sellers can smell our anxiety and our need to get something quick - yes here even you can bargain in many shops.
The next morning, Oct 18, we make another round, find the things we bargained for last night and did not buy are more expensive today. Here is an example: A sales clerk had actually nicely, but physically, dragged me by the arm into her shop and when I offered forty yuan for an item, she had been offended but then chased after me and dragged me back yes, forty yuan. OK. I had no cash, just a credit card. They would not take the credit card. The next day I had cash - the same sales clerk priced the item at fifty yuan, no budging. This is where things get a bit ridiculous since I now did not purchase - two dollars and forty cents, nope, I am not budging either. Really it got a bit ugly as I think she called me a name, so then I was sick of bargaining. The thing is they think all westerners are rich. There are some very rich Chinese, supporting the jade market, buying property in Vancouver, shopping at the Gucci and Apple stores, eating giant salamander, driving Audis. There are very poor Chinese also.
Still we picked up a few things, packed our bags, our suitcases and backpacks are stuffed.
We arrive at the airport early, we go through security, another picture is taken, turn in our departure cards, get patted down, then we wait to board. The duty free store and airport shops are expensive, buy your souvenirs elsewhere. I bought a pop which they took away from me when we went through a second security check just before we boarded. Gee, this is different. Then our plane was held up on the runway for over half an hour. All of a sudden we are looking forward to going home.

We will be on this Hainon Airline flight for 12.5 hours, have a 3.5 hour wait in Seattle and then another two hour flight home. Since we arrived at the airport two and a half hours in advance we will basically be travelling for twenty hours and when we go to bed tonight it will be tomorrow morning in Beijing. I set my watch back fourteen hours, sleep a little, watch tv, lose an earring, eat a souvenir bag of candy, long flight but I am pretty tired so kind of veg out.
Home. We made it!! We actually travelled independently in China for 27 days. We did it!! All in I spent close to three thousand dollars and had an unforgettable journey.

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Posted by CherylGypsyRose 16:19 Archived in China Tagged trains temple traditional travel palace of square tea hostels city china tombs museum world summer heritage national great budget tour unesco site stadium wall backpacking souvenirs chinese heaven forbidden medicine jade olympic taxis calligraphy ming couchsurfing tian'anmen independent hutongs Comments (0)

Pingyao Ancient Town, Shanxi, China

Best preserved ancient town in China, city wall, souvenirs, temples

sunny 18 °C

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We take the train from Xi'an, passing terraced fields, to the town!, 50,000 people, of Pingyao.
It used to be the 'Wall Street of China' and is the birthplace of modern Chinese banking. Today it is the best preserved ancient town in China.
Pingyao's intact city wall was built in 1370. The Confucian Temple was constructed in 1153!
We are staying right in the old town, at a guesthouse, for two nights.
The train station is on the city outskirts and looks new. Ultra modern, sleek and clean. We have arranged transfer service from our landlady, 30 yuan or roughly six Canadian dollars and fifty cents.
She is standing on the stairs with a card with my name on it, a pretty woman who takes my suitcase after we hug hello and says in a rich, deep voice, almost Russian sounding, 'I am strong.'

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We discover that although her English sounds clear and confident it is limited so casual conversation is out.
For two nights our room costs fifty dollars and includes breakfast. It had over a nine rating on booking.com and was very well located on a Main Street of the old town. We get two complimentary bottles of water per day and in the evening a pot of hot water. We did not use the hot water as we were always suspicious that it could be tapwater.

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This is an ancient property decorated in the old style, wall to wall bed with a wood frame, likely hand painted and an old wood chair very heavy barely fits at the foot of the bed. The bathroom has a sink, western style toilet, toilet paper goes in the garbage can and two tiny streams of water come out of the shower head, if coaxed. The room is well off the street and faces a courtyard where we could sit at wood tables, some people took their meals there.

However for the first time we are chilly and I am bemoaning the loss of my down jacket. The bathroom gives the room a smell, maybe mildew with a little sewer, there isn't room to swing a cat, one suitcase goes on the chair and we are either laying on the bed or preparing to go out which we do in shifts.
We had barely checked in when Rhea announced no more guest houses or hostels, get a normal hotel room in Beijing. She would pay the extra she could not stand any more crappy bathrooms and God willing, the mattress might be softer as these mattresses have been pretty hard.
So I have a shower and wash my hair, I am freezing. Considering this room is costing us 25 dollars per night or 12.50 each with breakfast included, it isn't that bad. Now I dig out my long pants and the cashmere sweater I got at a thrift store in Victoria for ten dollars.
The guest house has its own restaurant but Rhea had spotted a hot plate for cooking so we decided to go out to eat. Lots of Chinese tourists, a few westerners, the streets are walking-only except for a few scooters and bikes, very narrow, and crammed with souvenir shops, many selling cashmere and silk scarves. Some of these scarves are the size of tablecloths and I am determined to get one to keep warm. This issue will be short lived as we are here for less than 48 hours.
We loop around two blocks, this is kind of like Banff, gives off that mountain vibe for some reason, maybe it is the nippy weather and all the souvenir shops and the streets full of Asian tourists ....
We settle on a restaurant which seems to be doing a lot of business, the menu has pictures but the names are not descriptive to our taste, bullfrog and cow intestines are not sounding appealing and the waiter does not speak English so we decide to go back to our guesthouse to eat. Quick as you please the affable owner says in her deep, clear voice, 'May I take your order.' Discussions on menu items are out so I have dry potato chips, these are home made, I enjoy the salt. Back in the room I supplement supper with soda crackers and digestive biscuits. This may be one reason I did not lose weight, my diet was so heavy in carbs!!
For breakfast I have coffee and try to eat some bread, I'm ok but feel a bit off.
We are given a map, the old city wall is a block away and we explore this quaint, ancient town, a big bazaar, and bargaining is in.

We stopped by a Catholic Church, it was not on the tourist circuit, so free, kind of cute, with the Asian influence:

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Now we started our souvenir buying expedition. If things are not priced you say "How much"? They either hold up their fingers (learn that system, I did not), pull out cash or, most common, show the amount on a calculator, You now are expected to do something. If you say I have to think about it, or, maybe later, they indicate you are to enter an amount on the calculator or somehow make a counter offer. This is stressful. I do the math, divide by 4 and enter that amount. They are offended in a good-natured way. They show a new number, slightly less than the first offering. Eegads, now it is my turn, I am apologetic, try to move off, the calculator is shaken under my nose, put something, play the game. You win some, you lose some, never feel too cocky, only a few will chase after you and grudgingly give you the price you offered. Sometimes their final offer is final and you may not come across a similar deal all day, and then kick yourself later, because 'he who hesitates is lost,' here in the bargaining department as well as in the street crossing department.
We get creative and start bargaining on multiples but it does not always work, sometimes the price marked is the price and sometimes it is not.
Oh here we pass a restaurant with a lonely planet recommendation, and now there is a coffee shop, right across from the place with all the dream catchers in the window

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I spent thirty yuan for a fancy coffee, I don't like to deprive myself of a good jolt.
I did buy a scarf, 'cashmere' for 65 yuan, I used it that night in our room.

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I was busy looking at hotels online with my chilly fingers and super slow wifi and got us booked in to the Howard Johnson Paragon for our five nights in Beijing. Not a five star but kind of fancier and more upscale than the HoJos back home. For less than one hundred a night but double the price of the budget room I had arranged before.
There is a lot of street food but we do not have any:

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We had lunch at the Lonely Planet restaurant and it was fun. We had noodles. A few of the customers spoke pretty good English and there were lots of laughs.
This girl was really friendly and is showing us her purchase of earrings:

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Unique to Pingyao are red and black paper cutouts - souvenir gifts? Rhea bought a big one, mounted on silk for her souvenir. I bought a little one, kind of an afterthought as a bargaining chip, did not work by the way, these merchants are masters in reading body language and assessing how attached you are to the idea of owning a particular item. I am glad for all my Pingyao purchases, the prices were good compared to Beijing in general and the airport in particular!! Or the railway station!!
Right across from our guesthouse was a massage place, one hour foot massage for thirty yuan, less than seven dollars Canadian. I sauntered over our last morning and had the only massage of our trip. I was up-sold a pedicure for an additional thirty but it was not like what we expect for a pedicure like no clipping the nails and no polish but she did remove some callouses and what kind of pedicure could I expect for six dollars. But I maybe should have tried out the fish nibbling arrangement at a competitor for the experience.

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Since the streets are so narrow, I am guessing fifteen feet, I could hook up to our guesthouse wifi to pass the time as there was nothing much to look at and nothing to read. Parts of the treatment were quite painful, points on your feet relate to body parts and organs but I do not know where my ailments are as the masseuse and I could not really communicate. Too complicated. At any rate my feet were very relaxed during our five hour high speed train trip to Beijing.
Tiny, 2 km across, originally called Ancient Tao, then Pingtao, renamed Pingyao, yes a relaxing sojourn, and in retrospect we maybe should have seen a few of the temples, but we learned how to bargain and picked up a number of souvenirs, recommended if you have the time. It is like a highly commercialized resort town, easy to walk around, laid back. You will see the same items over and over again, kind of crafty items in some places.
For some reason if it is something you really liked but neglected to purchase at the time, it will not show up again and you cannot remember which little shop on which little street, oh well, 'he who hesitates is lost.'

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We are in travel albums all over China. We had our pictures taken several times in Pingyao, here is a fun time below, I was in a shop bargaining and Rhea was sitting on a wall waiting for me, when I came out she was surrounded by people having their picture taken with her so I took one too and then said, "Hey I want my picture taken with you,' to the man holding the baby, "But I want to hold the baby." Rhea took pictures it was quite funny as the baby cried so that didn't work but the whole thing seemed quite festive and fun.

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I wish I would have purchased one of these purses - I said to Rhea that I could make one, and she remarked, "but you won't". How true. Imagine making all these little balls in a uniform manner and then putting it together so it doesn't fall apart and then the zipper, etc. But cute aren't they? I didn't see what price they were, I was so convinced I could just knock one off when I got home:

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A very colourful, crafty, souvenir dense town:

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Posted by CherylGypsyRose 16:00 Archived in China Tagged temples food street travel train town city old budget wall ancient souvenirs tips guesthouse crafts seniors Comments (0)

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