A Travellerspoint blog

Xi'an, Shaanxi - Ancient Capital of China, Terracotta Army

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Two nights in Xi'an, main goal, to see the terra cotta warriors, an amazing archaeological treasure trove, discovered in 1974.
Thousands of six foot tall terra cotta soldiers with intricate detail, each unique, as well as chariots and life size terracotta horses were buried near Emperor Qin Shihuang's tomb over 2000 years ago.
700,000 workers laboured nearly 40 years and were then buried alive in the tomb, a thankless job!
Archaeological work is still underway, scientists are figuring out how to preserve the original colour which up until recently faded away once exposed to oxygen.
Xi'an was China's most important city until the ninth century, and is still the capital of Shaanxi Province. It is located at the southern-most point of the historic Silk Road.

We arrived in Xi'an at 530 am by train from Chengdu. We had a 'soft sleeper' and two other passengers shared the space. We only used the lower bunk as neither of us felt spry enough to climb into the upper. I did not sleep a wink.
It was a long trip, we left Chengdu about 130 pm - and chugged along in a north easterly direction for 16 hours. It was not a high speed train, stopped frequently, not restful at all. The distance was only 742 km - a really poky train.
In Xi'an our first taxi driver dropped us off in the wrong district and we had to catch a second cab to get to the Ancient City Hostel and we were given our room right away - it is now 630 am. Private bath, two twin beds, pretty basic but clean enough. There was a restaurant/bar on the premises and an elevator.

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My Couchsurfing contact, Jeff, met us at the hostel at 4. This was now our fourth encounter with a Couchsurfer in China and although I had brought along little gifts I had not actually given anything away yet. We had eaten all the chocolate!! Therefore, I was determined to give him the red golf shirt with the Calgary Flames logo on it that was taking up valuable real estate in my suitcase. Since it had not been made in China I considered it an appropriate gift.
He was not familiar with hockey but was gracious in accepting a souvenir from Canada. We visited awhile in the hotel bar and then walked around the Muslim section.

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In ancient times the bell tower signaled the start of the day and the drum tower served this purpose in the evening. The bell was rung every day at dawn for four hundred years.
The Bell Tower marks the centre of the ancient city of Xi'an and is the largest and best preserved bell tower in China.

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They Grow This Way - Better than Burnt Toast with Jesus Image!!

Quail's egg skewers - Street Food in Xi'an

Quail's egg skewers - Street Food in Xi'an

Not to brag but I actually gave Jeff his English name. When we met I asked him to repeat his name so we could try to say it correctly. "I don't have an English name" he told me and asked what I could suggest.
His Chinese name started with a J sound so we started rattling off names - first Jim, "that's very common," was his response. "my son's name is Jeff" I told him. Then we suggested Jared, Justin, etc but he liked Jeff so he became my Chinese son.
He taught ping pong and gourd flute at a local college. "Perhaps you could help me find a gourd flute,' I mentioned as we walked around the Muslim shopping district. Long story short the next evening we met again and he gave me a gourd flute - beautiful, painted, drones and in a case. He sells them online.

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We had supper in a busy restaurant, we ate the local dish of flat bread and mutton soup/stew.
We broke the bread as instructed and when the bowl was full of little breadcrumbs staff took it away and returned with a steaming hot bowl of meat, noodles, bread, with a slimy texture - it was super tasty. Within 12 hours I was having stomach issues but we all ate the stew so maybe my symptoms came from something else.

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Jeff advised us to forego the terra cotta warrior tour offered by the hostel, it was easy and cheap to take a bus.

Terra Cotta Army
There was a long line up for the terra cotta warrior bus but we were on our way in less than an hour driving from the ancient capital city of Xi'an past the old city wall, through the modern part, eight million people live in Xi'an, into the country. It is about 35 km, and along the way we passed many produce stands and saw corn drying on the side of the road.

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There is a large compound with lots of street stalls around the Museum of Qin Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses - a good enough place to buy souvenirs, they will bargain too.
The Terra Cotta Warriors:
Pit 1 is the essential point of interest as this is where the excavated warriors that have been put back together and cleaned up are located. It really is impressive, the huge clay army was buried near the emperor, Qin Shi Huang to protect him in the afterlife

Terra Cotta Warriors Xi'an China Pit One

Terra Cotta Warriors Xi'an China Pit One

Terra Cotta Warriors Xi'an China

Terra Cotta Warriors Xi'an China

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Qin Shihuang was the first emperor of a united China - he started the great wall, standardized the money and writing system and built a lot of infrastructure. He was paranoid about being assassinated.
The basic religion he followed was Legalism, absolute power to the emperor. Qin banned most religion, killed most scholars and burned a lot of books. He wanted history to start with his rule.
Legalism emphasizes the need for order above all things. Force was required and during the Qin dynasty it is thought the population was decreased by half. By fear of death the population was molded to obey the emperor.
In China Legalism was kind of a harsh brother to Confucianism. Both philosophies embraced strong central rule, Confucianism is more benevolent. During Qin's rule all but the original version of Confucius' writings were destroyed and it is thought that in a skirmish in the years following Qin's death the library holding the originals was burned to the ground.

Qin built the largest single tomb in the history of the world. The huge terra cotta army would enable him to rule forever in the afterlife.

Qin Shi Huang is apparently still buried deep under a hill surrounded by a moat of mercury. To date, science has not come up with a safe way to excavate. Pretty clever for two thousand years ago.

In the evening our friend from yesterday delivered gifts, the gourd flute and calligraphy of our names prepared by his father who is a calligraphy master. We are overwhelmed and don't know the protocol - what to do? Too bad he only drinks water, we could buy him a drink in the bar. As he sat with us explaining the calligraphy and what it said, what the stamps meant, etc a young man, Nick, at the next table got involved in our conversation. He was from Kansas and spoke very good Mandarin. So he sat with us also and there was a mixed bag of Chinese and English.

When our second Couch Surfing contact, Kai, arrived, It looked like we were happening people, lots of friends. Introductions all around, Jeff left and Nick hung in for awhile.
Kai was a dynamic individual, a CSI cop, a body builder, kind of an American slant to his proficient English, he had hosted so many Canadians and Americans he knew quite a bit about our ways and our differences.
In China it is common for parents of one child to put the child through college, buy their first apartment and babysit their grandchildren. Then it is common for the child to look after his parents in their old age. Well, folks, if you put your kids through college, bought their first home, and provided free child care, it should be payback time.
It isn't every single good looking guy who spends two and a half hours on a Saturday night with a couple of old ladies so our admiration for Kai is boundless.

Our last day in Xi'an was Oct 11 - another fine sunny day. We took a cab to the Shaanxi History Museum near the Wild Goose Pagoda before taking the train to Pingyao.

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It was Sunday, part of the National Holiday period, the lineup for tickets was enormous. After we waited at least one hour in line they closed the ticket office for twenty minutes. Since the tickets were free, (you have to show your passport, then you get a ticket), we decided to stick it out. We really saw very little of this huge museum, a few terra cotta warrior models, some pots. I like these three legged pots mainly because of the design of the Shanghai Museum:

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I recommend Ancient City Hostel. It is right next door to a Police Station. It serves reasonable meals and drinks, the bar area is pleasant, our room was pretty bare bones, but quiet, and the location is excellent, walking distance to the Muslim section, the bell and drum towers plus they offer tours. The staff is pleasant, help arrange for taxis, and there is a lift. For one or two nights, if you don't mind a hard bed, and most beds in China are hard, then stay here.

We are taking the high speed train to Pingyao. It is 525 km but with the train travelling at over 200 km per hour it won't take long - we have first class soft seats, should be fun.

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Posted by CherylGypsyRose 15:28 Archived in China Tagged trains travel in hostels china budget backpacking terracotta warriors Comments (0)

What not to wear? Packing Tips for frugal Travelers

26 °C

Preparing is arduous.
I am using the same frameless backpack I took on my 89 day journey in 2012.
It qualifies as carry on and expands a bit if I check it coming home. In addition I have now borrowed a very light weight daypack from my son. It also expands if I want to bring back souvenirs in my carry on.
I pack and then edit. I can't rely on finding things to wear on the trip as compared to the local population I am an oxe. That happens to be my Chinese Zodiac sign. Rhea is a monkey.
I took, including what I wore, 2 pairs of capri pants and one pair of slacks, one sweater, one lightweight rainproof jacket, 5 tops, one pair of shoes, socks and underwear and a baseball cap. One top and a pair of leggings were my pjs. Almost everything was black.

Other things I packed and comment on are:

  • tylenol for colds and flu - used these
  • Polysporin and band aids - never used but just in case
  • antibiotics just in case - used these!!
  • ibuprofin, imodium and allergy pills - used them all!
  • toilet paper - used, rarely supplied at public washrooms but you could just grab some from your hotel every day.
  • A couple of sleeping pills just in case - did not use
  • ear plugs - used a few times
  • face masks for smog and germs - never used, well once as an eye mask to sleep
  • purifying water bottle - not needed only drank bottled water
  • inflateable pillow - used
  • hand sanitizer, sunscreen, deet, bb cream, lipstick and mascara, comb, toothbrush and toothpaste - used
  • p standing up gadget - never used, easier to squat
  • plastic forks - used - I can't knit either and using chopsticks is a talent beyond me.
  • granola bars - ate them up in first four days
  • Cell phone for wifi and pictures (did not have phone service) and a tablet for backup. Handy for looking up hotels, points of interest, general entertainment when you can't sleep.
  • chocolate, T-shirt for gifts - only gave away the t-shirt, super enjoyed eating the chocolate!!
  • The jury is still out on the packable down jacket - I took it, brand new and lost it sometime during the first three days, never wore it but not only would it have been welcome in Pingyao, it would have been great back home!!!
  • moleskin for blisters just in case - Rhea used the moleskin to make her shoes smaller.
  • Reading glasses and bifocals.
  • Eyeglass prescription just in case. I lost my reading glasses before our Hainon Airline flight left Seattle so wore bifocals during the trip and did not purchase glasses but glad to have the prescription along.
  • 2 super compact survival towels, activates with water, size of a matchbox when dry. We always had towels at hostels and hotels, did not use.
  • flat iron - hot and humid, so kind of a waste of time but used it every day.
  • Pen and small noteblook - really handy for asking someone to write something for you in characters.
  • Coffee packets for instant coffee - used them all!!

This was my uniform, I wore it the most, due to comfort:
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  • a pair of fold up ballet flats to wear on planes and trains. Two days into the trip I threw them out as they were not comfortable and were taking up room in the backpack.

On day 8 of our trip we purchased suitcases with 360• wheels, so much easier to move and walk with them, not much cobblestone in China or at least not where we went.
Temperature during the day averaged 26 degrees C and cooled off after the sun went down.
In retrospect a loose cotton dress would have been cooler.
I took wrinkle release spray but did not need as it was so humid.

Keep in mind the time frame was 22 Sept to 18 Oct and even Beijing had temperatures of about 26 degrees C, some days a bit warmer. We hadn't expected it to be so hot!!

I could have managed with one less top.

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 18:31 Archived in China Tagged and backpack light shoes budget hot pack humid essentials Comments (0)

Beijing and The Great Wall of China

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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 recycled 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, even here at the mall you can bargain.
The next morning, Oct 18, we make another round, finding 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 18:28 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)

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, China's Avatar Mountains

semi-overcast 29 °C

Zhangjiajie karst mountains in the Mist

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We fly from Shanghai to Zhangjiajie on the evening of 24 Sept. The flight is with Shanghai Airlines (East China Airlines) and we depart from Pudong Airport, 172 yuan taxi fare from the Bund. Takes about an hour, good roads, lots of overpasses, freeway, totally modern, well marked, we are amazed by the number of skyscrapers and high rises. The city is huge, some say there may be 30 million people.
Pudong Airport terminal is ultra modern, we are early, but check our bags and hang around in the vicinity of gate 10, charging our phones/cameras and watching the people go by. There are the usual assortment, smart, trendy, fashionistas, dowdy, (that would be us).
I contemplate things I was worried about that have yet to materialize:

  • Nobody would speak English - here in the airport signs are in English as well as Chinese and many of the staff speak English.
  • Crossing the street - we have crossed streets several times and survived even though we were warned not to. I prefer crossing with a bunch of people and sandwiching myself in the middle for a good buffer zone but "eyes in the back of your head," is a phrase that comes to me often as far as both pedestrians and drivers here are concerned. Pedestrians do not have the right of way.
  • I have been here for more than 48 hours and have not used a squat toilet

Shanghai was a good place to start, lots of signs in English, lots of western influence such as stores, and the service industry at tourist-frequented spots speak some English.
The flight cost just over one hundred dollars, we will be travelling south west for 1358 km. We booked the tickets through english.ctrip.com. It is helpful in dealing with english.ctrip.com to have an account with the Royal Bank.

I am excited about going to Zhangjiajie Mountain Park because the mountains resemble Avatar - a movie I have never rwatched as I am not a fan of fantasy or science fiction. Still the pictures look incredible and whiling away a week at a mountain resort in China seems adventurous.

Zhangjiajie (pronounced something like jungjowjee)

Located in northwest Hunan province this mountainous region of towering sandstone pillars is reminiscent of another world, perhaps a world created by James Cameron. Avatar-like floating mountains. Talk about scenery!!

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The quartzite sandstone formations are unique to Zhangjiajie, it is a Unesco protected park. Hosting more than 20 million visitors annually it s not a remote wilderness.
Wulinguan Scenic and Historical Interest Area is 264 square miles, it has 243 peaks and 3000 karst pinnacles. Flora and fauna abound, macaques (monkeys), giant salamanders and the aloof clouded leopard (never actually seen), call this region home. Celosias are not a rare flower, but here they grow as big as geraniums!!

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There are cable cars and buses as well as stepped paths.

We are staying at April Hostel near the Wulingyuan entrance to the park. We have to be careful as the streets are being dug up and there is debris and uneven ground:

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The entrance fee to the Park is 248 cny or about 65 Can. and you can use the pass for four days. We found three days to be sufficient and of course many tourists come for just a partial day.

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We spend our first day, 25 Sept at the Wulingyuan side, walking and taking a little train as well as riding the free buses. It is all very civilized, really beautiful and although there are many hikers we find the parts we can actually walk to are spectacular enough for us. I can only take so much breathtaking beauty at my age!!

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26 Sept - I may have wasted money on that four day ticket as this morning I almost electrocuted myself. When I tried to unplug my phone from the converter found one prong was not inserted . I got quite a shock!! 220 volts did not kill me or maybe it was only getting 110.

The second day we took the bus from the Wulingyuan clock tower to the Zhangjiajie entrance, I think seven yuan for the bus, cab fare would have been ten times as much. You pay an attendant on the bus.
There have been world press reports about the Giant Salamander Festival being celebrated right here at Zhanghjiajie, this is a big deal around here, a real delicacy, signs and hooplah. Plus they make expensive skin cream out of parts of the salamander. It seems nothing goes to waste!!

We buy tickets for the cable car and for the first time I show my passport, maybe there is a discount. You bet there was and for seventy yuan I got a round trip ticket. It was really spectacular riding up even though there were four other people in the car with us. The cars are all glassed in to provide maximum viewing. It is almost scary going up, but the scenery is spectacular.
I was just as awe-struck on day two as I had been on day 1.

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The four day entrance ticket covers the park entrance and the free buses but not other modes of transportation. Each time you enter the park they take your thumb print as well as look at your ticket and any purses or packs go through an x-ray security check. We feel pretty safe here.
At the Zhangjiajie entrance to the cable car they take your picture - I thought it was another security check but no, when you get to the top you are offered your picture against a fake backdrop of the mountains. We both said no and carried on to the sightseeing points.

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We have been in China for about four days now and for the first time people are taking pictures of us. It was also the first day I used a squat toilet and while I was thus occupied tourists started taking pictures of Rhea so she was surrounded when I got back. Really on my toes, I instantly took pictures also!! I like taking people pictures, tourists, locals, etc..
I also took a picture of the squat toilet as I expect it to be the first of several encounters with this type of commode:

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Many places have a western style toilet, with a special sign on the door. These are not heavily used so you could actually come to China and never use a squat toilet, however, on this particular mountain there seemed to be only squats available even though there was a KFC where we ate as we wanted a cup of coffee.
It is kind of funny to see a KFC sign at a National Park in China but there are many western chains operating in this country and the Chinese are fond of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Besides chicken and fries KFC also sells items such as corn on the cob and warm, sweet custard tarts.
We do not think about the Chinese eating corn on the cob and potatoes but they do. Street vendors sell roasted potatoes and corn.

I take pictures of people who are in my camera's view, like this lady eating noodles on the mountain:

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There are many tourists, it is about to be a big holiday week all through China. We are usually the only westerners on the bus. We just point to the place on the map when we get on and the driver either signals for us to sit down or motions to where we should go.
The Chinese are great posers, I took pictures of a few posing and a few dressed in ethnic costumes.

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There is wifi here and all over the National Park, I am getting a better signal than I have in either hotel so I check my emails and send a few:

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There are places to get food, water and souvenirs in the Park:

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There were also a lot of monkeys around today, a pretty good day:

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Even though there are crowds of tourists, I do find a few empty spots where people have ventured earlier, noticeable by the big gob somebody before me had coughed and spit out on the rocks (no spitting!!).
We were alone in the cable car descent which was a bonus!!

At the exit they had keychains with our pictures on them and since these were only ten yuan I purchased my first souvenir.

We had supper at the neighbourhood cafe, we are not very adventurous. This was my first beer in China, I was impressed by the size of the bottle and the cheap price - less than two dollars.

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Even though we are in the mountains it is hot and humid and the beer tastes light and refreshing. The dishes and cutlery are all wrapped up, sealed in plastic, message, sanitary, clean.

On 27 Sept we take an elevator up the mountain. All glass, it is really breathtaking and I again got a seniors discount. I am amazed each time I view the scenery, so different from the mountains back home. Once we get back to the hostel we pack up as tomorrow we are moving hotels. We saw a lady washing clothes in the little stream or canal that runs close to our hotel.

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There are many sights we do not see at home, such as these carriers:

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28 Sept - for the first time we go to the fifteen yuan breakfast and decide we have been missing out - the coffee is good and there are an assortment of western and Chinese dishes, I try the pumpkin soup but am not a fan. Rhea had dumplings and we had an enjoyable meal complete with noodles, pickles and corn on the cob:

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Rather than lug our heavy backpacks to the bus depot we decide we need a taxi. Sue at the desk offered to drive us and for that we are very grateful. Taxis won't take six block fares.
She helped us onto the right bus and told the driver where we were going. This gesture increased my esteem of April Hostel tremendously. The room had been small and musty, something made me itchy, the view was of laundry drying, roosters were crowing every morning at dawn, the streets were treacherous, but in the end I loved April Hostel. And I will recommend it - very good service, helpful, clean towels, adequate cleanliness - the staff tipped the scale for thoughtfulness, yes recommend.
The bus ride is kind of fun, bumping along, picking up people, kids brighten up when they see us and say, "Hallo."
A familiar sight, clothes drying on the side of the road:

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Another familiar sight is corn drying on the pavement. China grows more corn than rice now. Who knew?

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 17:12 Archived in China Tagged mountains scenery china hostel budget karst avatar independent zhangjiajie wulingyuan Comments (0)

Pingyao Ancient Town, Shanxi, China

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 holding 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 ate 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 experience seemed festive and fun.

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I wish I 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 17:03 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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