Friday, December 31, 2004

Uneventful New Years’ Eve

Jan and I woke up a bit late, so we missed the actual breakfast buffet (which was part of the cost of the room). Luckily they still had some food and made up some plates of noodles and some watermelon for us. They also gave us some fresh croissants, which were delicious!

After breakfast we walked down to Jan’s school and around her neighbourhood. I got the grand tour of the school and her classroom, which had projects the kids had done on the walls. After visiting the school, we went to A-best, which is like a 3 story Walmart. I picked up some Kleenex with Tigger on the packages (of course), some bottled water and some throat lozenges. I was going to buy a throat spray as well, but it seemed expensive. I was really indecisive though because I woke up in the morning with a tell-tale white bubble in my throat (the beginning of strep).

We wandered over to Jan’s apartment so she could pick up some more things, and Jan’s apartment really is cold! The floors are all tiled which doesn’t help much – that seems to make it even colder. I totally understand why she wants to hang out at the hotel!

On the way back home I went back to A-best and picked up the throat spray. I figured I should do something – while expensive, it was better than leaving it. The spray was ionic silver. Now, I was totally skeptical about this stuff but figured it was some fandangled Chinese medicine despite the American flag on the box. As it turns out, this stuff has been around for a century and apparently kills pretty much any germ, including strep. Wow! A miracle drug LOL As it was discovered before patent laws, no one can patent it (and therefore make money off of it) so this is supposedly why the drug companies haven’t developed this more. (Side note: While slow acting this stuff actually did work. It took several days, but eventually I was all better. I think it would have worked faster except I wasn’t letting it sit long enough in my throat before drinking something.)

After a quick stop in the park (where people were flying kites) on the way back to the hotel, I went to bed while Jan watched the episodes of Amazing Race I had brought her. While not an overly exciting day, I think at that point I just needed the rest. We were supposed to go to a party at Jan’s apartment being held by her housemate, but I begged out cuz I wasn’t feeling up to it. Jan ended up staying with me and just hanging out while I slept.

By the time I got up and ready for dinner, nothing was open. We didn’t want to go back up to the 27th floor restaurant because they didn’t seem to have much food, but that was the only one that was open. So we ended up there, and half the menu was unavailable! This is the first time I felt like I was in a communist country. Until this point, it seemed fairly capitalistic to me. We finally found some food items that were available, including a ceasar salad that would take 20 minutes to make for some reason. Of course twenty minutes later they came to the table explaining, sorry we don’t have ceasar salad. Ummm, ok. Why not just tell us right at the beginning? Kind of weird. Maybe they had to run across he street to another restaurant to get the food, and they were out of the ceasar salad LOL.

We ended up with these huge salads (much bigger than expected). We had ordered one of each – fruit, tuna and vegetable. The salads came heaped on dinner plates. I was expecting more of a small bowl, so it was a bit of a surprise to get so much food. I also ordered the pork chop and onion soup. The onion soup was something resembling onion soup, but was weird. The pork chop was breaded and then put on top of rice with a cream sauce on top. It was only ok. The salads were delicious though. I should have just stuck with them LOL.

After dinner, we (Cal, Jan and I) wandered up to the wine and cigar bag on the top floor of the hotel. It was quite cold (isn’t everywhere in China?) but they let us move into the cigar bar area which seemed to be a bit heated. No one was actually in there, so it was nice.

The entire place was decorated with leather couches, brocade carpets and men-like stuff on the walls. There was even a picture of Winston Churchill, smoking a cigar obviously. What was really amusing was the magazine collection which included things like women’s fashion magazines for some reason.

We all sat and enjoyed relaxing with a bottle of Dynasty wine. I figured we had to get that just for the name. It wasn’t that bad actually. I often get headaches with red wine (from the tannin), and this one didn’t give me one, so it was good.

At midnight, we heard banging noises and went to the window and saw lots of fireworks going off. That was a nice surprise. That went on for a few minutes and then we called it a night and went back to our rooms to bed!

Not an entirely exciting New Year’s Eve, but relaxing. I figure New Year’s is overrated anyway. There is always all this hype, but never that much excitement.

To see all my photos from this day, visit my photoblog!

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Train Dash Worthy of AR

For the first time in days I got to sleep in. Ahhh, I love this. My bed was comfy and warm, and when I woke up (to Cal calling at the ungodly hour of 9 or something) I just flipped on the TV and immersed myself in English for a while. After another fantastic hot shower, I put on my newly cleaned clothes (it is so nice when someone else does your laundry!) and jumped on the internet for a bit. I talked to my mom who told me to gargle with salt for my newly acquired sore throat (thanks to the Tour of Frozen Darkness as the Yangtze cruise well be known forever more). Then I just lazed around until noon..,. oh and used the hairdryer to finish drying my socks. I didn’t send out my undergarments for cleaning.

After checking out we went up to the Panorama restaurant, which is a bit rotating restaurant at the top of the Holiday Inn building. I haven’t been to a rotating restaurant in ages, so this was kinda cool. The Panorama had a huge buffet of Chinese and Western food. It was fabulous. I had my fill of freshly baked bread, fresh fruit, vegetables, noodles and the like. We spent a leisurely two hours eating our fill and looking out the window at the local environs.

At the end of the meal I asked for a small cup (so I could go an gargle some salt water – see I do listen mom!). The waitress brought back a plastic bag. Umm… not exactly what I was looking for. Never mind. I grabbed my wine glass of lemon water and sprinkled a bunch of salt in it, and just took it with me to the bathroom. I gargled in there and learned that lemon salt water tastes even worse than just salt water. But, at least I had gargled and hopefully that will stave off any worse infection in my throat (the last thing I need is strep which I get every season change).

After brunch we walked around the neighbourhood for a bit. In behind the hotel was a little community. It was great. There were people making sausage (that was hanging in all the windows in town it seemed), chickens running around, kids doing homework out in the cold, men playing cards or mah jong, a playground with exercise equipment, and lots of people walking about doing their business. We also so meat hanging up drying outside, fruit and vegetable vendors and a walled school yard.

We walked through the flower market, which had beautiful flowers and saw vendors with pork, coal and trinkets. So far, this has to be the best part of my trip. It was so nice to wander around and see a real community out and doing things. (One of the reasons why I wouldn’t want to be on the Amazing Race – no time to explore and look around).

Then we went back to the hotel to pick up our bags and got a taxi to the train station. The taxi took a lot longer than we expected… in fact we were really worried about missing our train. This brings me to the Amazing Race portion of the trip.

We dashed out of the taxi, grabbed our bags and ran to the entrance… only wrong entrance, so we ran down the street to the other entrance which had a huge crowd of people in front. We pushed our way through, threw our bags onto the x-ray conveyor belt, grabbed them before they had even made their way out of the x-ray machine, and ran into the terminal. Then I ran up some steps to show my ticket to a woman because we couldn’t figure out where to go. She showed us a door around the corner, and off we ran – down the stairs, around the corner, through a door and into a corridor. Of course our train platform was at the very end. Two minutes until departure…

Gasp, gasp, gasp. Run Forrest run!

We ran down the corridor, ran up the stairs, and then had to run down the length of the train. Run, run, run!

Gag, gasp, cough, gasp.

We jumped onto to train and pushed our way down to our seats. Phew! We made it!

Then we tried to find our seats and discovered that seat assignments are vague. People were sitting in our seats already. As there were two seats empty in the general vicinity of our tickets, we just sat down. Welcome to soft seat class!

Let me start by saying, if I never hear Happy Birthday again, it will be too soon. Some parent had got their kid a toy that played this song electronically and kept pressing the button (or whatever) over, and over, and over again. I wanted to grab that damn toy and wrap it around someone’s neck. Then there were people shouting and yelling and being loud in general. I gave up and just put my iPod on to tune out all the noise, and did number puzzles to idle away the time.

Meanwhile, people were slurping noodles, throwing garbage everywhere and spitting on the floor (see previous comments about Chinese completely destroying things). There were also vendors plying the aisle trying to sell things like pomelos (giant oranges), peanuts, drinks and trinkets. Needless to say the train was a whirlwind mess in less than an hour.

Vendors would come into the train car and shout, which meant everyone looked at them. Then they gave their spiel and by the end everyone was ignoring him or her. One guy was selling socks and was beating and pulling at them with a wire brush. He was also making ppl hold onto one end of the sock while he pulled the other, yanking them out of their seats. It was great showmanship. But alas, after demonstrating all of the qualities of these highly durable socks, no one bought any. If they came in another colour other than gray I might have bought a pair just because the guy was such fun to watch. Interestingly, since everyone had long ago stopped paying attention to the spiel, he just threw the socks at everyone, even if they said they didn’t want them. Then when he went away, the people would look at them, but no one bought any when he came back.

Our four-hour train trip turned into a five hour one. The girl beside me spoke English, which was good, because otherwise we may not have known where to get off. I was worried about Jan because she said she would be there when the train pulled in – which was supposed to be an hour earlier. We walked through exit and she was there waiting for us. It was so good to see her! (It has been about 3 years). Luckily she saw the train was late from the display board, so knew we were coming an hour after we were supposed to be there.

We grabbed a taxi and went to the hotel and checked in. Jan stayed with me so she could have heat (the power in her apartment keeps going out and she is freezing – seems to be a common problem in China, eh?) and we could gab. We talked for a while and then around 11 thought we should get some food. We went upstairs to the hotel restaurant but were told they only had t-bone steak and minestrone soup. I don’t know. Then we tried room service (which is supposed to be 24 hour) but they only had salad available. We didn’t really want any of these things, so we went elsewhere. We found a place next door basically that had heated stone / iron bowls with rice and mystery toppings. We couldn’t read the menu, so for all I know, it was dog that I ate. The bones were kinda small and didn’t resemble anything I had eaten before, so who knows what it was. It was pretty good. I also got some tea, which cost more than the food did! Who would have thought that tea in China would be expensive! The tea leaves were left in the glass too, so it was really strong and bitter. I didn’t really like the tea unfortunately. The food was ok though… better than t-bone and minestrone LOL.

After dinner we just wandered back to the hotel and stayed up gabbing some more until 3am. I’m looking forward to relaxing and gabbing over the next few days!

To see all my pictures from this day, check out my photoblog!

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Hating China and Redemption at the Holiday Inn

Today is actually a continuation of yesterday in that it started just before midnight when we arrived at the Three Gorges Dam. As this was one tour though, and part of my “I hate China” day, I’m starting Dec 29th at around 10:00pm on Dec 28th.

Those of us who had paid to go and see the dam piled off the boat and took another funicular railway up the embankment. Once at the top we all piled into a heated bus – yes, heat! It was pure heaven! We wound down the roads towards the dock passing dump trucks and other large trucks on the way. We crossed a very long bridge – the Yangtze is probably about 2 km wide at this point – and finally got our first glimpse of the dam. While not overly tall (well, it is, but not compared to the bridge of my imagination) it is extremely long. Well, I guess it is about 2 km long LOL. On the other side of the bridge we first went past the locks before getting to the dam itself. The locks were huge; they had several long barges in one lock, and about 20 cruise ships in another. I’ve seen the locks in Ottawa and they are nothing compared to the size of these.

We finally arrived at the damn itself, which was conveniently all lit up, for everyone to take photos. The machinery sitting at the top of the dam gave some idea of scale. The thing is massive. I wonder how tall it will be once it is complete, which won’t be until 2008 I believe. After taking some photos we all got back in the bus to go to the visitors’ center. It wasn’t all that exciting, but did have the obligatory scale model. There was also an observation platform (outside and up a long set of stairs) that gave a good view of the locks. The whole area was very well landscaped. I actually noticed that coming up to the damn – the lawns are manicured, the shrubs shaped and there are winding lit pathways. The amount of money just put into landscaping this area is amazing.

After we saw the dam, then the real fun began – we went to an aquarium (in the dark of course). The aquarium had fish from the Yangtze swimming around in cramped cages. One of them was absolutely huge! It must have been a good meter and a half long. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a good picture because the thing moved to fast and the lighting wasn’t good. There were lots of colourful carp though and other interesting fish. Fortunately (or unfortunately) they didn’t have any pink dolphins, except for the one in formaldehyde in the gift shop area. That was actually kind of sad, because it was just a baby dolphin.

After going through the aquarium we wandered up the path to the “Battle of the Three Kingdoms” show. Back a bit from the path was a huge stadium-like structure, and Cal and I were thinking, “Hey, this might be a live show!”. And upon getting closer, I thought I smelt horses. “Maybe there are live horses!” “Nah, there won’t be live horses”. “Wait, it sure smells like horses – maybe there are!”. And sure enough, there was a battle re-enactment with horses waiting at the top for our entertainment.

The whole thing was like the medieval dinner shows you can go to in Toronto (not that I have been to one, but like the commercials on TV). There were cheesy sound effects and fake cheering, and two battalions in all their battle finery charging each other. The funny thing was that they were actually hitting each other! The whole show was extremely cheesy, but that is what made it so fun. It was totally unexpected that at around 1 am we would be standing around watching people on horses charge each other with swords and jousts and smacking each other. You really had to admire the horsemanship as well, because to coordinate that without smacking a horse on the head, or seriously hurting your counterpart is rather skillful.

The next stop was to King Yu’s temple. It had some neat mannequins, some special kind of tree (couldn’t understand the translation), nice architecture, orange trees and large beams that had survived some major floods of the Yangtze. These didn’t seem all that special to me, but the tour guide made sure to point them out and the Chinese tourists were staring in awe (whether faked or real I don’t know).

So that was our entertainment while our boat passed through the locks. When we entered the temple, I asked our guide (the one I decided to double check with about everything) what we were doing. He said to look at the temple and then go sleep for an hour. I assumed there was a translation issue…. But I was wrong! He really did mean go and sleep for an hour! After viewing the temple, the bus disappeared and we were left with all kinds of vendors. We could have eaten and then slept, or just slept. I walked around for a bit and Cal went to find tea. I’m probably not supposed to tell you that he proceeded to spill the tea all over himself, but the attempts at the vendor to wipe up the tea were comical (the tea mostly fell in his lap). As I sat in a chair having pretty crappy tea, the shoe shine lady came by so I got my shoes shined. They were so muddy and dirty they really needed it! At 2 yuan (about US 25 cents) it was a bargain.

So all of that took about five minutes. Only one hour to go. But wait, it isn’t just an hour, it was two hours that we were supposed to wait around for our boat. To give you an idea the state I was in at that point, imagine spending three days outside without a heater. Kinda like when you go skiing, but there is no lodge to go into to warm up, and you have to stay outside for three whole days. Ok, now you get to sit down in the middle of the night without blankets or a heater and wait for two hours. This was not good. I was decidedly displeased at the one hour mark when I started to shiver uncontrollably. At the two hour mark, when our boat finally arrived, I was literally frozen, and sick. The dam was actually fun until this point.

Back on the boat I gathered all of my things together to be ready for the morning. Then I wrapped my scarf around my head and slept for a whole hour… and I was actually warm. For the first time in days I was actually warm, and then I got the cruel knock at my door telling me we were at Yichang and it was time to leave the boat.

There was no funicular at Yichang, so we had to walk up a long flight of stairs. This was not fun at 4am with a heavy backpack, on one hour of sleep and being frozen. Did I mention I have a hacking cough at this point? So we get on the bus for a four hour ride to Wuhan. This was the bus ride from hell. It would have been nice to sleep, but the seats were so close together on the side I was sitting on, I couldn’t get comfortable. I actually couldn’t even sit facing forward because my knees wouldn’t fit in the space. Cal’s side had about twice as much room as mine, but there was no more space on that side.

In addition to being cramped, this bus had no heat, so I got to freeze for another four hours. The bus driver was in love with his horn and honked incessantly, so I couldn't even get an uncomfortable sleep. Then people were smoking and hawking spit balls. I don’t mind the spitting, it is the loud wind up to them that is awful. I mean, is that really necessary??!! Shut the hell up. Oh, and to top it off we got to listen to loud Chinese pop videos on the TV screen. All of this combined with an extremely bumpy road, compounded by the fact that our driver chose to go down the middle of the highway rather than stay in one lane, made me extremely irritable and at that point I despised China.

We finally arrived in Wuhan and headed straight for the Holiday Inn (which had a gingerbread house in the lobby (above)), which was just across and down the road from the bus station where we were dropped off. This was significantly over my budget at 458 yuan (around US$60), but at that point, I really didn’t care. The first thing I did upon getting to my room was send out all of my still wet laundry (yes, it had been trying to dry for three days and was still wet). Then I jumped in the shower, and let me tell you, a hot shower has never felt so good! I then jumped in my soft bed, with fluffy duvet and pillow and put another blanket on top of that, and then turned up the heat in the room and just luxuriated. Ahhhh, heaven. The Holiday Inn kicks ass.

I should point out that turning on BBC was the first news I had heard about the big tsunami. It was pretty shocking seeing parts of Phuket, Thailand, where I was six months ago, devastated by the wave. It also put things into perspective. I was totally pissed about the whole Yangtze trip. After seeing the news, realizing that at least I was still alive, made things not so bad. I’m still not happy about the whole experience, but I really have no grounds to complain about a horrible holiday in light of what other people in the world have experienced this holiday season.

Anyway, after resting for a bit and getting warm again, we went downstairs and booked our train tickets to Changsha. It only cost like 15 yuan for them to book it, and seeing as it meant we wouldn’t have to go to the train station (money and time) it was worth it. Interestingly, despite the numerous trains that went thru Wuhan on the way to Changsha, they could only sell us tickets for ones that originated in Wuhan or Beijing. That didn’t leave many options. As I didn’t want to wake up at 6am again (I have done that for the last three days) we decided to get the afternoon train instead. It got me into Changsha a lot later than I wanted, but it was better than waking up early again.

Once we had gotten our tickets settled we made our way to Hubei’s provincial museum. (Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province). We grabbed a taxi, which eventually got us there (he had to ask for directions). I was worried for a bit that he was taking us around in circles. The museum showcases a tomb that was excavated that contained all kinds of artifacts including highly ornate bronze bells.

The bells are pretty amazing because they are a set (there are like a hundred of them) and each one has two tones. Even more amazing is the level of craftsmanship. Some of the bronze and iron pieces they excavated are incredibly intricate. This archeological find also confirmed that advanced bronze techniques were known much earlier than previously thought.

After walking through all the exhibits we went to the bronze bell show. A group of musicians played the bells and other instruments excavated from the site such as a 25-string zither and a giant xylophone like thing. It was basically a series of hanging slate plates that you hit as you would a xylophone. The music was pretty good. The bells really did have amazingly accurate tone. At first they played Chinese music, so it was kind of hard to tell if the instruments were good or not. As a finale they played Beethoven though, which was great because then I could really appreciate the instruments themselves.

After the concert we hailed the taxi with a death wish. It wove in and out of traffic, trying to hit pedestrians and cyclists. The Chinese really do drive like total maniacs. When I wasn’t covering my eyes for fear of seeing someone splattered across the windshield, I got to see some of Wuhan. It is a large, modern city. Interestingly, in addition to the standard laundry that hangs out of all windows in Asia, here they also had sausage, fish and ducks hanging from windows and balconies.

After arriving safely back at the hotel we made our way to Pizza Hut for dinner. Recuperation called for American food. The fare was pretty standard – same as everywhere except some of the toppings were different. What was interesting was the salad bar extravaganza. The Chinese apparently take their salad bars really seriously. The Pizza Hut salad bar is a one-trip deal, so you have to get as much as possible in one bowl. I just heaped as much as possible in mine, but the Chinese have a building system! The whole thing was fascinating to watch.

Basically, they build lettuce and/or cucumber around the bowl’s rim to extend the size of the bowl. Then they use dressing like glue to cement all the ingredients into place. The whole thing is done very meticulously – the salad leaves are chosen carefully and placed one-by-one into the proper place. The whole thing probably takes 20 minutes to build. Now, granted they could get a lot more salad in the bowl, but is all that work really worth it?

Stuffed and in a tummy happy place, we tried to hail a cab back to the hotel. This took a lot longer than expected. Basically Chinese people jump into a cab before the current passenger has even gotten out. That and the fact that we couldn’t seem to get a taxi to stop for us, made hailing a cab a bit frustrating. We eventually got one though and wandered back to heated luxury aka the Holiday Inn.

I got internet so I could download the latest Amazing Race episode, and surfed the net for a bit. Then I watched some English TV and went to bed. Despite still being sick, I was in a much better mood than I had been at the start of the day. From absolutely hating China early this morning, I’m now feeling much better about it. After a good (warm) night’s sleep, I’ll probably be in even better spirits tomorrow.

To see all my photos from this day, visit my photoblog!

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The Three Gorges X 3 X 3

Café came banging on my door early this morning to wake me up to see the gorges. We had arrived at the first one. It was actually just before dawn (as opposed to a good hour or two before). The river was quite misty so we couldn’t see much, but we could see something. It was actually kind of cool, because you couldn’t see what was next. Lots of people all stood out at the front of the boat absolutely freezing to death – the wind was so cold. Boy am I thankful that I brought my new, bright coral windbreaker / raincoat with me! That thing is a godsend.

I stood out front as long as I could stand it and marveled at the fact that the water is already up 135 meters. That is amazing. I can only imagine how awesome the Gorges used to look. It’s a shame really, because even with the water this high, they are still beautiful.

After standing in the wind for over half an hour I was pretty much frozen, and also hungry. Of course the restaurant wasn’t open, so that mean instant noodles for breakfast! Well, yuck to say the least. They were very, very spicy and tasted horrible (horrible for instant noodles even). So, of course that meant it was time to go back to sleep and get warm again.

We arrived at the Three Mini Gorges around noon and transferred to a tourist cruise boat. We are actually lucky that it is low season because we also got to go to the Three Mini Mini Gorges, which only allow 3000 tourists a day to go through. I find it very interesting that there are three of each (Three Gorges, Three Mini-Gorges and Three Mini Mini-Gorges). But first the Mini Gorges – My favourite one was Misty Gorge, which was the second one. It had beautiful tall peaks and interesting rock formations. We then went into Monkey Gorge and Cal actually saw and pointed out some monkeys. There used to be a lot more, but the rising water has displaced the monkeys too. Unfortunately, I wasn’t fast enough with my camera to any pictures of them, but I did get some pics of some goats coming down to the water to drink.

After we went thru Monkey Gorge there was a little stop that had vendors and supposedly a temple (I didn’t bother going to see it). There were grilled quails on a stick (which actually looked really good, but we were told that the meat along the river wasn’t fresh and that we should avoid it). I just got some potatoes that were fried up in a wok and had hot spice on them. They were pretty good.

The Mini Mini Three Gorges were just a little bit upstream from the pit stop. We all piled into little boats, and put on life jackets to go up the stream. These gorges were blocked from the wind and the sun was out and they were very nice. Being in a little boat close to the water made the gorges seem that much taller as well. For some reason though, the “captain” of our boat stood at the front of the boat essentially blocking any and all decent scenery shots. He wouldn’t sit down! It was rather irritating actually because the scenery was so nice and I wanted to get some shots without him in them!

While going through the gorges, there was lots of music. Men were playing horns high up on the rock face, and there was a woman singing on a dock (all traditional music). It was all quite beautiful. That and the aqua green water made a really nice experience. We ended up taking one of the horn players back with us to the embarkation dock. He played on the boat for us as well.

Back on the pleasure cruise boat, we had to listen to an annoying loudspeaker – probably giving tourist info in Chinese, but I couldn’t tell you. Everyone was eating food they had picked up at the pit stop before and putting their garbage everywhere despite the fact that there were garbage cans at the end of every row of seats. We wound our way back thru the Mini Three Gorges to meet our boat again as everyone ate, smoked and rushed to buy stamps at the souvenir booth on the boat.

What I found really sad about China, and I guess I have to say Chinese people, is that they have no consideration for other property or other people. The pleasure cruiser was really nice when we got on, and four hours later, it was completely destroyed. There was garbage everywhere, spit on the floor, cigarette butts everywhere – the whole thing was disgusting. Obviously this is a cultural thing, but how hard is it to not spit your sunflower seed shells all over the seats, let alone the floor. I mean really. I guess they don’t think about the fact that someone has to clean that up later.

After rejoining our boat, we entered Wu Gorge, which is the second of the Three Gorges. I just say in my room and watched it go by my window. My toes were frozen from being outside all morning, so I needed to warm them up. All along the river there were markers indicating how high the water was going to rise. What was really sad was seeing all the quaint, little houses below the final marker – all of them will disappear in the near future.

In addition to the cute houses, there were also orange trees and agriculture. There were also coal pits, with big metal contraptions that funneled coal onto large barges to take down river. The coal itself seemed to be cut right out of the gorge face – basically half of the gorge was black from where the coal was sitting. Very interesting to see.

Back on the boat again, we had dinner with some of the other foreigners on the boat. Eric (from yesterday), Anna (who was one half of a German couple), Sylvia (from yesterday – she is the one from Shanghai) and Kelvin, a Chinese man who had moved to Australia for school. We ordered a ton of food. We didn’t even eat half of it. The whole thing only came to about 100 yuan too. So cheap. (That’s like US$13 to feed 6 people). I can’t get used to leaving all that food on the table. It feels so wrong. I can hear my mother yelling at me about starving children in Africa LOL. It is Chinese custom though to have food left over so you know your guests aren’t hungry. It still seems like a waste to me though!

To see all my photos from this day, visit my photoblog!

Monday, December 27, 2004

Things Look Better in the Dark

Five o’clock came very early this morning. I didn’t sleep well. It was absolutely freezing in my compartment, there was a draft rushing through, and there were weird noises all night. I rushed to put clothes on when I woke up, because even though it was freezing in bed all night, it was still a heck of a lot warmer than it was out of the covers!

The first task of the morning was to walk a metal “gang plank” in the dark that was a bit slippery from the rain. Oh yeah, it had broken rungs as well. Seeing as I have poor depth perception in the dark, and my balance sucks, this is not a task to throw at me when I have just woken up. At least our guide gave me his hand… you know, so I could pull him into the water too if I fell in. Haha.

We walked through very deserted streets in the darkness of pre-dawn. We later found out that the streets really were deserted. The town of Fengdu will be submerged by the rising water (due to the dam) so is being relocated across the river on higher ground. We arrived at the chair lift that would take us up to the top of the mountain. That was a relief because I sure the heck am not into climbing anything, especially at 6 am. The chair lift looked rather rickety as well, so maybe it was a good thing that we took it in the dark.

We arrived at the top, without a guide (oh well) and proceeded to walk thru a Buddhist temple called Ming Shan.

The first part we came to had a three highly arched bridges leading to the temple. We also had a good view of the city waking up below (the one across the river) as dawn cracked the horizon (it would be another hour before the roosters started crowing though). We just followed the crowd of people. We saw another temple with a giant statue of a Chinese man in it (don’t know who it was, because, as I said, no guide). Then we went to the Temple of Heaven. It had all of the zodiac gods inside, dragons curving round the pillars and, outside, grass was growing on its roof. It was very cool.

Beside the Temple of Heaven was a large pagoda. It had really nice views. We saw the rice terraces and the mist on the river. There were stairs to climb up the pagoda, but they were blocked off. Not like I was going to climb it anyway.

Finally we took the cable car back down to Fengdu, and saw that it was the real ghost town. It looked like Beirut! All of the buildings were abandoned and gutted. It was actually kind of sad, because tons of villages and cities along the Yangtze have been, or will be, submerged. The number of people that have to be relocated from their homes is amazing. I should mention also that the cable car looked much better in the dark. It didn’t look too sturdy in daylight.

After we reached the bottom of the mountain, we wandered over to Ghost Town (the tourist attraction rather than the gutted city). The whole thing was cheesy but fun. There was a cheesy hell that we walked through. Then we had to walk up a billion steps (that really was hell) to see another area, and then we walked back down again. I’m going to get lots of exercise on this trip if all of the tourist places have this many steps.

When we got to the meeting place at the scheduled time, our guide was still missing. As we didn’t want to miss our boat, we started walking back to it. As we walked all of the touts would shout, “Hello! Hello!” But not in a friendly way – more like shouting at you. It was just a ploy to get your attention so they could try to get you to buy things they were selling. Many of them had oranges, which looked really good, but I had already bought some back in Chongqing to bring with me.

Back at the boat, we had to cross over the metal gangway again. It looked exactly like I had imagined it in the dark – not safe! Crossing back to the boat was a bit easier though, and not as scary, because at least I could see where I was stepping (i.e. on a rung that was actually there). It was a good thing that we started to walk back to the boat too, because, our guide was waiting on the boat for us! I suspect that our guide does not really know that much English and any instructions we get from him we should triple check.

Back on the boat again, I just went back to bed. I piled all my blankets on top of me and got somewhat warm with them. Later on, when I woke up, I made this arrangement with the chair beside the bed. I wanted to sit up and look out the window, but stay warm at the same time, so I put one blanket across the bed and onto the chair, which was long enough to flip over my feet when I sat on top of it (sat on the bed with my feet on the chair). Then I put another blanket over my lap, and finally a third blanket was wrapped around my shoulders. It worked very well for keeping my body warm. Unfortunately, it didn’t due too much for my fingers, so I didn’t get much typing done… and I actually just fell asleep again.

Eventually lunch rolled around so we wandered up to the “restaurant” and had the special – tofu and mushrooms on rice with one tiny, itty, bitty piece of chicken. It was really spicy, which was good, because it made me warm at least. It was actually pretty good, especially since it only cost 5 yuan (about 60 cents US). After eating, I pretty much spent the afternoon like I did the morning – bundled in blankets dozing off to sleep and looking out the window.

Once dinner came around we were back up to the restaurant where we met Eric, a guy from Sweden, and a couple (she was from Shanghai and he from Germany). We all compared how much we paid for the temple tickets, etc and that is when we found out we really had been ripped off. Oh well.

After dinner we arrived at Zhang Fei temple… another site to see in the dark! I swear this is the most sightseeing I have ever done outside of daylight hours. The temple was up a ton of steps, which does not make me a happy camper. It was just a rather boring temple too, that just had some statues depicting the story from The Three Kingdoms (famous Chinese tale).

The street to (and obviously from) the temple was lined with people selling littletrinkets though. We just browsed through them on the way back to the boat. Cal bought a string of plastic chili peppers. He let me do the bargaining for him since I seem to be better at it. I got them for half the asking price for him. I didn’t buy anything though. While the stuff was all interesting (stamps, old coins, etc), what would I do with it? So I just enjoyed browsing and taking incognito pictures with my camera. I discovered if I just let it sit on the case (which I have around my neck) it is much less obtrusive than holding it in my hands. Then I just sneakily press the shutter button and get some surprisingly good, not to mention pretty much level, shots. I’m going to make good use of this trick for the rest of my trip!

After the temple, you guessed it, I went back to the boat and bundled up in blankets for the night. Tomorrow we are scheduled to hit the Three Gorges at … sometime before the sun is actually up. Oh boy! I wonder if the gorges will look better in the dark too.

To see all my pictures from this day, check out my photoblog!

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Dazu: Sculptures

Woke up this morning and went down to the little restaurant for my complimentary breakfast. There was a bit of a buffet set out, with mostly lunch-like foods, so I had noodles and broccoli and really bad coffee. Then we waited around for a while for our tour to Dazu. The mini-bus they had wasn’t big enough for everyone, so they had to arrange for a new one.

Finally we were on our way and we drove through the city past gutted out buildings (couldn’t tell if they were building them or tearing them down), new buildings, old rundown apartment blocks, and apartments with wire cage balconies with stuff crammed into them up to the tops (can you say “fire hazard”?). We stopped for gas at one point and let out half of the people to use the restroom. Of course as they were filling the tank they left all the doors open and let all the hot air out!

Eventually we were in the countryside going down a very bumpy road. The driver was constantly honking and slamming on the brakes. We passed little brick houses and open land. The farm houses surprised me because many of them were made of red brick, which never struck me as a Chinese building material. (Of course, China probably invented bricks or something.)

We finally made it to Baodingshan, which is the main grouping of Buddhist statues in Dazu. The carvings in the grottos in this area were all made between 1174 and 1252, and represent Tantric Buddhism. Before going up to the area with the statues, we had lunch at one of the restaurants on the main street (which was a dirt road). Lunch was pretty good and we were joined by the cat and dog who hissed and growled at each other. Other people in our group were smoking up a storm and everyone was smacking their lips (which drives me absolutely buggy). It seems that many Chinese people eat with their mouth open and try to make as much noise as possible when eating.

The statues themselves were absolutely amazing. They had incredible detail and there was one grouping of three statues that were like 10 meters tall. I took five hundred million pictures – every statue seemed more amazing or interesting than the last. Despite the fact that it was raining slightly, it was well worth the trip out to see them. I kept imagining that these were over 1000 years old, and some of them still had gold paint on them, and very few were weathered from time. The souvenir stands also sold lots of carved things. I ended up buying a Buddha face carved out of White Purple Jade. It is a jadeite that alternates layers of white and purple colour. I figured that would make a nice souvenir.

After spending a few hours looking around (with the aid of one of Cal’s books and some informative postcards, because they tour was entirely in Chinese), we wandered back to the mini-bus. Little kids were running up to us with woven reed things they wanted us to buy for 5 yuan. Ha! I bought one for 1 yuan. I figure I’d rather give money to a little kid who had done something productive, than to someone on the street just standing there with a cup.

The ride back was just as bumpy as the ride to Dazu. I noticed that all of the stores tend to be in groups. The stores basically look like garages all lined up beside each other. So, you would go past 10 tire stores in a row, then 10 sundry stores (can’t really call them convenience stores because they don’t stock very much), then 10 fruit stores, etc. Very strange.

When we got back we were cold (they driver didn’t / wouldn’t turn the heat on for the way back) and needed to get some dinner before we boarded our boat for the cruise. We ended up just eating dinner at our hotel. It was ok, but nothing special. Just food in our stomachs!

After dinner, we collected our bags from the concierge and then walked down to the docks. At the docks, we had to take a funicular car down to the boat. There was a man there that spoke good English who explained the process of everything to us. All kinds of people were getting on the boat and wandering around. It was total chaos!

We eventually got to our rooms, which are very basic. The man who spoke English came by and sold us tickets to all of the sites along the Yangtze as well as for the bus from Yichang to Wuhan. Later on we found out we got totally scammed. We paid about 760 yuan, which was at least double what everything cost. I guess because he spoke English, and said he was part of the Port Authority we automatically assumed he was trustworthy.

We soon found out we had also been scammed by the Port Authority, whom we bought our tickets from. There was no hot water, which we hadn’t asked for (so that was ok), but also there was no heat. At all. We only bought tickets because we had been promised heat. So needless to say we are not happy. Hopefully once the boat gets moving it will warm up a bit.

What is really interesting is all the people walking by opening up random doors and looking in. I finally just locked my door. All of these strangers keep checking in on me. Even with the door locked, people are constantly twisting the door handle. I decided to pay the 100 yuan deposit and get my own key – I have too many electronics for people to be able to come in and out at will.

Since it is so cold, I quickly did some wash so I would have some clean clothes, grabbed some hot tea and crawled under the covers. I did walk around the boat with Cal for a quick tour though – there were lots of people playing mah jong on the third deck, and the other decks just had people running all over the place. I’m looking forward to looking out my picture window (which is just huge!) watching the scenery go by.

Oh, one other thing. Our guide, Café (his “English” name) actually speaks a bit of English. So at least we’ll know where we are supposed to go and when. His first instruction was he will wake us up tomorrow just after 5am so we can go to the Ghost Town! Guess that means I should get to bed!

There are tons more pictures of Dazu on my photoblog!

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Capitalism is Alive and Well in China

Throughout the night my phone kept ringing, and soon as I answered it, the person (or persons) hung up. I suspect, because I was in a single room, it was prostitutes calling. I eventually disconnected the damn thing. Cal and I had arranged to meet for 9 when the Port Office opened. It actually opened around 6, but the English speakers would be there at 9.

We wandered in and got the information. There is only one boat leaving tomorrow, and it is a Chinese cruise ship. There are no foreign cruise ships. Darn, there goes my dream of 4-star luxury, including internet as we sailed. Ok, I’m addicted to technology. The price was Y1022 per berth in first class (a room with two beds). Cal and I wanted to take separate rooms (mainly because it seemed a bit odd sharing with someone not my husband, but also for the additional privacy). The only way to ensure that we didn’t get stuck with someone else was to pay for both beds in the cabin. I bargained for a 20% discount on the total cost though, so it ended up being around Y1600 all up. I guess we’ll find out if it is worth it tomorrow. None of the sights or meals are included in this price, so all that will be added on, on top.

As we left the Port Authority, suddenly one of the women who helped us came running after us – one of us had given them a counterfeit bill. Cal mentioned that must be why everyone was always checking them so carefully. I had just changed money at the hotel, so we asked the woman to come with us and talk to the exchange desk. Of course they said they didn’t give me the bill. Who knows. Cal, said it was probably his, but it might have been from the hotel.

After that fiasco, I checked out of the hotel. Cal’s room was much nicer than mine and cheaper too. I figured I’d save a few bucks and get a nicer room to boot. So we walked up the hill (Chongqing is very hilly) and wove around the holes in the ground. For some reason every few meters there was a bit of torn up pavement. So walking is a nightmare because you have all these people coming and going, and need to weave around them and not twist your ankle falling several inches into one of these ‘construction projects’. Although, what they are constructing I couldn’t tell you.

At the hotel I asked for a single room, but apparently there were none available. I was offered a double room for Y188 (Y10 less than the posted single price) but bargained the guy down to Y175. Never hurts to ask for a discount. Cal says I’m lucky and doesn’t understand. He then asked to change rooms because he had no water pressure, and they gave him another single! So don’t know why there weren’t any available for me 10 seconds before. So I ended up with this huge room for cheaper than Cal’s single… which kinda made me feel bad, but not for too long ;)

After getting settled we met up again to wander around Chongqing. We started to walk up the hill again. Apparently Chongqing has exploded in the past 5 years. Supposedly it was this little backwater, until the Chinese government separated it from Sichuan province and made it a special municipality like Shanghai or Tianjin. We couldn’t really tell if they were building or tearing down though. There were tons of buildings possibly under construction, but most of them looked a bit condemned.

We came upon a temple called Arhat Temple. We later found out that it was actually the temple mentioned in all the guidebooks called Luohan Si. Walking into the temple we were accosted by beggars – not too badly luckily. I just ignored them. Cal gave them some money, but I was really worried about them following us and begging all day (after what my aunt, Jan, had said in her blog about living in Changsha, Hunan).

The entrance to the temple was lined with stone carvings. They were quite weathered, but interesting none-the-less. They are apparently from the Song dynasty (960~). I went up and to the left, while Cal took a right. To the left was a temple with sweet floral-smelling burning incense and candles. There was also a large Buddha statue, but there were no pictures allowed in the temple. People were praying as well, so I didn’t want to take a picture of the inside from outside the building (good way to cheat otherwise).

I hadn’t realized that the place to the right had all the cool things. After looking around for Cal for a while, I finally found him and he told me to go over there. Inside was a series of like 500 statues, all from the Qing dynasty (1644~). They were amazing. Every single one of them had totally different characteristics. Most had rather large earlobes, but the facial features looked African, Middle Eastern, or Asian depending on the statue. Some were dark brown, others beige, one was even mauve! Most of them had that glass eye thing that freaks me out. It seems like they are looking at me!

Many of the statues had money at their feet, and some of them had money in their hands – I assume from a time prior to them being put behind a glass barrier. The barrier didn’t go all the way up though, so it was easy to see the facial features. Each statue was also doing a different pose – some sitting and laughing, one with a child on his lap, one with a really long arm reaching up to the sky. In addition to the glass barrier, the hall was all roped off so you went through in a specific pattern. Kind of like a maze to ensure you saw all of the statues – and I’m sure also a bit of crowd control. In between some of the aisles, women were sitting in chairs knitting. One thing I have noticed is lots of women knit while sitting around.

After the temple we ran across the street to Carrefour! Figured it was a good place to stock up on snacks and groceries for the cruise. Carrefour was a nightmare. Saturday shopping I guess. It was just like going to the supermarket back home the day before Christmas. Carrefour is like a giant department store and a grocery store together. We went over to the grocery store part and it was interesting. There were all kinds of chicken (including blue ones) and other meat hanging up, fish tanks, tables of dried fish, big bins of rice in bulk food style, and tiny fruit. Actually, it was probably normal sized fruit, but having lived in Japan so long, where everything comes monster sized, it seemed tiny.

All up I spent Y80 (about US$10) on fruit, cups of noodles, some small buns, jasmine tea, 2 500mL bottles of Sprite, and a thermos cup to use on the boat, and a tea ball to put in my loose leaf tea. Gotta keep my tea warm! Well, need a cup to drink the tea in the first place, and keeping it warm is a good bonus. The store had bagged Jasmine tea, but it was made by Lipton, and well, come on, I’m in China. Of course you are probably wondering why we didn’t go to a Chinese grocery store or convenience store – well, there weren’t any. The street was lined with tons of little shops, but they had a really small selection (of mostly the same thing). Essentially, the local shops only sold drinks, mystery Chinese snacks, smoked duck in bags (Beijing duck jerky?) and pistachios. I did buy my pistachios from the local store though.

We walked our loot home so we didn’t have to carry it and then grabbed a taxi to go up to the Liberation Monument area. The guidebook says the taxis are extortionate, but at Y5 (about US 60 cents) split between the two of us, it seemed more than reasonable. The taxi ride from the airport was another story, but seeing as I was kinda stranded without money, even that was good value in my opinion.

The Liberation monument is a rather European looking clock tower that celebrates the liberation of the Chinese people from the Kuomintang (i.e. into communism). What is extremely interesting about the whole area, is that capitalism appears to be thriving more so than in Ginza in Tokyo! The square is totally surrounded by high-ticket-price shopping centers and brand name stores: Rolex, Swatch, Burberry, Armani, Swarovski (? the crystal shop), etc. There were also tons of banks. Everywhere you looked was either a bank or a department store. Is this really communist China??!!

The square itself seemed to be having a festival of some sort. I thought crowds in Japan in Shibuya on a Saturday night were horrible – well, I had never been to Chongqing before. Talk about a mass of humanity. The crowds were unbelievable. Underneath the monument there was a stage set up and there was a woman and two men dancing. Obviously it was a local themed thing, because the woman had a long garland of chili peppers that she was swinging around.

After walking around for a bit we decided to find dinner. We were trying to find a restaurant called Bayi duck but didn’t have much luck. Of course it may have gone out of business. We finally settled on a restaurant in that area because we were tired of looking. Of course no one spoke English so we went thru ordering hell again. It seemed like everything we pointed to in the guidebook was not made at that restaurant. We eventually ordered spinach (which was delicious – I love the smoky stir-fried spinach), a spicy chicken dish, a pork dish and a soup. The soup had cucumber in it which was quite good surprisingly. We also got a bucket of rice – really, it came in a wooden bucket! The food was excellent, but way too much. Next time we have to limit ourselves to two dishes!

After dinner we walked around some more. We found a game center where there were tons of kids and families playing games. The kids kept running up saying hello. One even came up and said “Nice to meet you too” as the greeting. Pretty funny. We wandered around a bit more watching people and being subjected to spit balls. Chinese spit everywhere, and instead of just spitting on the street, which probably wouldn’t be too bad, they hawk and snork and try to be as loud as possible, which is just disgusting. Although based on the amount of pollution, I half wish I could hork out some snot at times too. To be gross and give too much information, basically I’m blowing out black snot whenever I blow my nose. Yuck.

Before wandering home I had to use the rest room, so we went into one of the several department stores around the square. It took a while to find one, but eventually after walking past US$700 coats and US$500 suits, I found the public restroom. I was a bit worried about the state of the washroom because everyone always says the toilets in China are horrid. It wasn’t half bad actually. Walking in I was confronted with half stalls. They don’t use full doors here. I went down to the end (hoping to find a western toilet, but no luck) but they were being used. I pulled open the door of the first available one, only it wasn’t free! There was a little old lady squatting there, and I couldn’t see her because she was so far down below the partition! Ooops! The toilet itself was fine though – no worse than some of the squat toilets in Tokyo. The only strange part was the basket for toilet paper, which was gross. You aren’t supposed to flush the toilet paper here, because the sewer systems are not equipped to handle it.

We decided to wander back to the hotel and just relax – and watch the latest episode of Amazing Race which I hadn’t gotten to see before I left. We checked out a tour to Dazu, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There was a day tour for Y260 (about US$30) which seemed a bit pricey, but it would have been awful trying to figure out the public bus system to do it ourselves. So we signed up for it for tomorrow after assurances that we would be back in time to catch our boat.

Before bed we went to the business center to check e-mail but the connection was horrendously slow. Cal saw a WiFi symbol on the door on the way out though, and after bringing my laptop down to the lobby, we had a fast free connection. Doh! We’d been paying for it all this time! Guess it pays to look around a bit!

Overall, today was really interesting. Downtown Chongqing is totally opposite my view of a communist country. All of the little shops lining the streets, that look like rows of garages, seem more "authentic". It was really interesting to see the difference between downtown and other areas. So far China is a lot different than I expected! I knew it wasn't all temples and pagodas, but I didn't expect the cities to be so modernized in that capitalist way.

To see all my photos from this day, visit my photoblog!

Friday, December 24, 2004

Welcome to China

Woke up this morning after hitting the snooze button several times. I would have liked to have slept in, but I had shopping to do… because I was in shoppers’ paradise you know. Instead of going and paying for breakfast, I just ate my fruit in my complimentary fruit bowl. It took me a bit to get going because I didn’t sleep well. I never do the first night in a bed (I usually sleep in a futon on the floor) and the bed was quite soft. So I drank a couple cups of coffee, watched Discovery channel and got myself organized for the day.

The view across the river was nice in the morning as well. It was quite foggy when I first woke up, but the sun burned that away fairly quickly. I would have liked to have walked along the waterfront, but had too many things to do before getting a plane to Chongqing in China. The first of which was to buy the actual ticket.

I went to the travel agent the hotel recommended. I was hoping to get a discount because it was the same day, but no such luck. Probably because it was the Friday before x-mas and everyone was leaving the country. High season = no discounts. So the ticket cost way, way more than I expected (hoped?), but I didn’t have much choice. The train takes two days, which I don’t really have if I’m going to get to Jan’s for the 30th.

After getting my ticket I ran around doing some other shopping. I picked up Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss for Jan. I also got a protective lens and a polarizer for my camera. They were significantly cheaper than in Tokyo. I’m paranoid about scratching my lens (cuz then the camera would be ruined) so I’m glad I got the protective lens now. And the polarizer will make my river pics look better.

After all that tiring shopping, I went out for Dim Sum. I had egg rolls, pork dumplings and this spicy thing – talk about hot! Wow! Of course I dripped red chili oil all over my white shirt, but what else is new. This is not a good sign, because I brought mostly white shirts, and I’m going into spicy red oil territory in China for most of my stay. Doh! After eating I went to get up to pay at the front like you do in Japan and had some woman come running out to tell me to sit down. I had the bill in my hand, so I’m sure they realized I wasn’t trying to skip out on them. The bill came to HK$79 (about US$10) and the waiter gave me 2 ten dollar bills and a 1 dollar coin. I took the bills to put them in my wallet, and before they were even halfway inside, the waiter had whisked away the coin tray with the dollar in it! Well, ok, I guess you can have that tip LOL. Apparently it is normal to leave the small change as a tip in HK, but I think that just taking the change was a bit bold.

After getting my fill of dim sum, I went back to the hotel to pick up my bag, which I had left there while I was out, and went off to find the airport bus. It was pretty easy to find and for my HK$33 I got another 45 minute ride, but this time in daylight. I made it to the airport 2 hours before, rather than a bit earlier than that because I had all the other running around to do in the morning.

I asked for an emergency exit seat again at check in. Later I would find out, there wasn’t that much difference because it was a tiny plane – so no bulkhead. Just emergency window type things rather than doors. It worked out ok though, because I had the whole row to myself!!!! When was the last time that happened to you on an international flight?

The woman at the check in counter told me to give myself lots of time to get to the gate because they were very busy due to the holidays. I don’t know what her definition of busy is, but she should come to Narita! The baggage screening area had like 6 lines open with only three people in each one. Then immigration had tons of people and hardly any line either. I couldn’t believe it! The day before x-mas in a major transit hub, and I just walked right through.

So, after getting into the airport, I had a fair bit of time to get to my gate. I should mention that the airport is also a shopping mecca. It is just shops after shops after shops. Not that I can afford those shops. I looked around at the exchange rates for Chinese currency, and they were all a big rip off – a good 10% higher than the rates I saw in the city. I decided to just change the money in Chongqing. I also went to a café though and had some fresh fruit and a diet Coke while I was waiting, and read my guidebook on how to get into central Chongqing when I arrived.

The flight was uneventful and 2.5 hours later we landed. For the last hour of the flight, we were flying over a sea of white billowing clouds. You could also see the moon on my side of the plane (the sun was on the other). Then when we started to land, I got my first inkling of pollution in China – the clouds were black underneath. Black like street slush in winter. I don’t think I have ever seen clouds that colour when flying. Pretty gross. But as we were landing, you could see all these terraced rice paddies! It was amazing. It was the first time flying into a country that it actually looked like my imagination. I would have taken pictures, but the smog was too bad to see anything.

After landing, we taxied up to the terminal and had to walk down stairs onto the tarmac. There were actually empty gates (with the walkway ramp), that were essentially directly beside us, but they were all closed down. Weird – welcome to China I guess. So we all traipsed across the tarmac, and up these red carpeted stairs (with the carpet decidedly worse for wear). Then we walked into the immigration area and there were official looking people standing around in green uniforms. I’m in China!

The immigration officer scrutinized my passport for a while. Then asked me if I lived in Japan – I think he was confused about that. Finally he stamped my passport and I was off. I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the airport… mainly because there were guards blocking the entrance. At first they didn’t want to let me through, but I finally got it across to them that I didn’t have any baggage (it hadn’t come off the plane yet).

So, I walk out into this little tiny lobby area, and I look around and see toilets, and a small counter selling things (but that was closed) and nothing else. As in, no foreign exchange desk!! Oh my god! I’m in China and I have no money. At this point I started to freak out a bit. Then a taxi tout came up to me and tried to get me to take his taxi. I’m like do you take HK dollars? I should mention that no one spoke English at all. My phrasebook was useless in this situation as well. Luckily someone at dispatch was able to speak English, so I spoke to her on the taxi driver’s mobile phone. Eventually it all got straightened out and she talked to the driver who agreed to wait until I got to my hotel to be paid. Phew!

Then he tried to rip me off even more than he already was. He originally said Y115 (about $15) to get into central Chongqing. But after everything with the person on the phone he wanted Y200. Ha! We eventually settled for Y150, which was still a total scam, but there wasn’t much I could do. To give you a comparison, the bus cost Y15. Now, we passed some busses on the way into the city and they were overcrowded and crazy, so it is probably just as well that I took a taxi, but I wish I had had a better bargaining position.

The drive into Chongqing was uneventful. Traffic moved well and my driver only honked a little bit (apparently the city has a law against honking). Alongside the highway, people were walking or standing around waiting for buses. That was just bizarre for me because in Canada, you aren’t allowed to walk along the highway. I even saw a motorcycle driving the wrong way down the shoulder of the road! When we finally made it into town, my first glimpse of the Yangtze was kind of exciting. It was dark and I couldn’t see much, but I was beside one of the world’s greatest rivers.

We eventually made it to my hotel (which was the most expensive one in the guidebook, but I figured most likely to have an exchange desk). Luckily they were able to change money. What a relief that was! I was so worried about that. I got a single room at the hotel for Y250 a night, down from the posted Y298. Always good to bargain! My room had a nice view of the river, but I don’t think it is a three star hotel as the guidebook claims. At least according to international standards. The bathroom was the combined toilet and shower – as in just a shower hose on the wall. The carpet was also a ratted and torn. But the view was nice and it was clean, despite being decidedly worse for wear.

After dropping my stuff off in my room, I decided to go out and explore. I first walked down to the river front where I was accosted by touts for river cruises. There were all kinds of people walking with a bamboo pole across their shoulders with goods hanging off either side. It was so neat to see the contrast of that old-fashioned style with young children running around with blinking and glow-in-the-dark toys. The people with poles were carrying fruit and nuts down to the river front area to sell. There were lots of people walking around and I saw some of the cruise ships docked. There were Christmas decorations, which were festive, and music to which a large group of women were dancing to.

I decided to then try and find Cal. I walked up a random street and walked past all these little stores. No 7-11 here! The little stores sold a few types of drinks and some snacks, or medicine (there were a lot of medicine shops actually), or trinkets. Chongqing is quite hilly, so I got a bit of a workout too – it was all uphill! It was a bit of an adventure because I couldn’t see any street signs, not to mention the fact that my guidebook didn’t have the Chinese characters for the street names either. So I was going on faith that I was on the right street and just went were instinct took me, jogging over a couple of blocks at one point.

I eventually found one hotel that I thought Cal might be staying at… and just as I was walking into the hotel lobby, he was walking out! How’s that for finding a needle in a haystack! Chongqing has something like 32 million people. Pretty amazing. So we went out to grab some dinner together.

Just across the road and down a side street, there were some food stalls. One of them was set up with hotpot. So we decided to eat there. After much laughing, and pointing at guidebooks, and the like, we were able to get some food. It was ok, but boy was it hot! We had all kinds of stuff, and the whole bill came to Y35 (just over US$4) for the two of us – including 2 beers! My lips were still burning two hours later though! Spicy, spicy, spicy!

After dinner we made arrangements to meet tomorrow morning to book our cruise, and then I wandered back to my hotel (much easier going downhill). For someone on vacation, today sure was a long day!

To see all my photos for this day, check out my photoblog!