A Travellerspoint blog

Hanoi on a Million Dong a Day

Dispatches from the Old Quarter

rain 24 °C

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Hanoi traffic. The sign probably says "Wear a helmet only if it makes you happy, and ignore all traffic lights!"

September 20th

(Jenn)

Well, we finally left our beautiful Central Plaza Holiday Inn behind and took a taxi to the Beijing West Railway Station for our 40 hour train ride to Hanoi, Vietnam. Our trip to the station was uneventful and we found the soft seat waiting lounge without much fuss. The waiting lounge is one of the perks of buying a soft seat or soft sleeper ticket. It comes with comfortable chairs, private bathrooms, its own cafe and store, and best of all, its own check-in line and early boarding privileges. Contrast this with the hard seats, squat toilets and roof-raising noise of the regular lounges and you can see why it's such a bonus.

Having put one overnight train journey under our belts, we felt much more prepared for this one, until the conductor started arguing with us that we had only purchased two berths (the adult tickets were at the front with Anica's at the back). I showed him again and again where her ticket was but it took several tries and several more minutes for him to finally pay attention. That resolved, we were freaked out again by his taking our tickets (the whole thing) and not giving us anything in return. On our first trip, and we'd read this was the way it was supposed to be, the conductor had taken our tickets and given us these metal tags in return, as a sort of receipt.

Of course, as we usually do in this sort of situation, which happens a lot, we tried to ask (to no avail) whether we were supposed to get or keep part of the ticket, then sat down and hoped for the best. Having an Australian couple turn up next door and confirm that they too were now ticketless also helped :)

Since our train left shortly after four, we spent the first few hours watching the world pass by and were able to convince Anica that we should wait until it got dark before breaking out the cards and games. We counted gas stations, private cars (there aren't many of them on the non-city highways), animals, two bridges where the water had dried up underneath, countless bicycles, mopeds and motorcycles and lots of fires - brush, refuse? - burning.

We spent lots of time talking to the Australians in the next cabin. A married couple (Jane and Ben), they'd travelled for several months last year, worked in London for six, and are now taking four months to make it home, using rail to do as much of it as they can.

Thanks to a huge buffet breakfast in the morning, muffins and donuts before we left the hotel and KFC at the station, we only raided the stores of food we'd brought for snacks last night. The dining car was (reportedly) insanely busy and the food very spicy so we're thankful once again for the research which led us to bring noodle cups and crackers.

Our soft sleeper cabin has four berths, each with its own pad, comforter, 2 pillows and nightlight. This time we've lucked out and so far no one's been put in the extra upper berth.

Looking out the window has proved to be my favourite past time. Watching the landscape change as we've moved further and further south is really cool. Right now, as I continue this entry, we're back in Guilin, land of the amazing karsts. Earlier on, close to Beijing, ignoring the Chinese signs and lack of private cars, you could have easily believed we were in Canada since the foliage really didn't look that different.

Anica had one of her first formal lessons this morning. Rob used a deck of cards to explain the concept of multiplication. She's keeping a daily journal, seeing (and taking in) a lot, and is reading books far above her grade level so our only concern is math and science where's she's at or above grade level but where it would be easy for her to fall behind. We have two "game" math and science DVDs installed on the laptop and one multiplication/division program, but we need to teach her the basics before she can use the last and they had only just started with multiplication at the end of last school year (grade 2).

(Rob)

Continuing on with the train ride, we knew the second night would be more...lively. First, an employee came to show us a card explaining that we' be stopping for an hour around 8PM. Hey, handy cards explaining things in Engish! What a great idea, and why didn't they have more of these, as there were so many English speakers on the international cars? The stop allowed us to stretch our legs, within reason. We were actually locked in a departure lounge. It didn't say "you will be prisoners, but comfortable" on that card! Now our train was down to just three cars. Then came the Chinese customs stop at midnight. They come on the train. "Knock, knock. Passport? We'll just take that away, thank-you. Anything to declare?" "No," I said. Luckily, it was true, because it's impossible to lie in your bed and fool a Chinese customs officer. "Your baby?" she asked, pointing to the lump on the top bunk. "Yes." "Can I see?" So I pulled the covers back and proppred Anica up. She nodded, and I let go. She fell, literally, back to sleep. After about an hour, our passports were returned, and away we went.

A little more sleep, then came the stop in Vietnam. This time we all got off (and we took ALL our luggage, no mistaking that), and we went through Vietnam entry, which includes getting your temperature taken. So, it's 3AM, and we're about to get on a not quite as nice Vietnamese train. Some "express" ticket this was! At least we knew about these stops from reading the incredibly informative website Seat61 in advance of the trip. We knew, then, that the next stop was the final one: Hanoi. As a bonus, we were in an hour earlier time-zone, which meant an extra hour's sleep!

Sep 22

(Rob)

Waking up on the train in Vietnam was unexpectedly delightful. They gave us plenty of notice that we were coming into Hanoi. We threw open the curtains, and immediately could tell we weren't in China anymore. The outskirts of Hanoi featured French-colonial style, albeit crumbling, houses painted in bright colours. Some were the "tube" style we'd read about: very narrow across, but long (to avoid the taxation done by street frontage). These looked especially strange when the houses on either side were no longer standing. The remaining tube houses looked like dominoes on their sides.

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A typical tube house

Oh, I also got served coffee on the train. What a boost! It was probably the most expensive coffee in all of Vietnam to come in a paper cup, but worth every dong.

We continued to chat and visit with Jane and Ben, then said our goodbyes and hopped into our respective taxis (and promptly got ripped off by another crooked meter, but it didn't matter, it was only for pennies).

Hong Ngoc Hotel turned out to be a very attractive choice, right in the heart of the Old Quarter, and we bargained hard to bring it in under our budget. The room is so pretty, with dark wood, a wardrobe and a print of old Hanoi over one of the beds. For $40 in Canada, you'd be lucky to get any kind of sleazebag motel at all!

After much-needed showers, we set out on the streets of the Old Quarter. At first we thought there were no stoplights at all in this city of several million. There are, but it took us several hours to spot them. The traffic here is the craziest we've seen, but, somehow, is a lot of fun. It might be that the streets aren't wide, like KL, Chengdu and Beijing, but we've been enjoying winding and picking our way around. It's 99% motorbikes, and the rest are "cylos" (a kind of rickshaw). Cars come through the Old Quarter only rarely.

Eating a vegetarian lunch, and hearing American '70s pop classics on their stereo, I had another one of those surreal moments. This was Hanoi. "North" Vietnam. Some of the songs were from Vietnam war movie soundtracks. And here we were as tourists! Growing up, I'd heard a lot about Vietnam - but it was all about the American war experience here. Plus, the recovery, economically, only really took off from about 1993. The Old Quarter certainly does seem older, and poorer, than the Chinese cities we'd visited, but also far more fun and atmospheric. We even ran into Jane and Ben again as we explored the area.

"The Lake of the Restored Sword," or "Hoam Kiem Lake," however, is a quieter, gentler walking place that's usually described as the soul of old Hanoi. We walked around the lake, stopping for ice cream, looking at the three-tiered monument in the lake's middle,

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The Tortoise Tower

and then visiting the ancient (Confucian-Buddhist-Taoist-etc.) temple across the red bridge to a little island. It commemorates a Vietnamese general who warded off the Mongols in 1288, and also the giant turtle who stole a famous sword on the lake about 500 years. So, it's your all-in-one temple, really.

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Men playing a traditional checkers-like game outside Den Ngoc Son temple

We ate baguette sandwiches for dinner. This is authentically Vietnamese, right? Well, actually, it is. It's a holdover from the French colonial days. The restaurant was wedge-shaped, and the traffic looked like it was coming through the front window until it veered off to either side at the last second.

Braving the streets, now with night fully-fallen, we realized that each street had a specialization of store. We only looking for a "convenience store," but apparently these are few. Instead, we inched our way along "silk street," "religious shrine street," etc. (these are our names for them). Our hotel, appropriately enough, seems to be on "toy street."

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Luong Van Can, just down from our hotel. Or, as we dubbed it "Toy Street"
Sep 23

(Anica)

Today we started walking on the street. I had just bought somthing when we saw the family Ben had ended up slepping with (i.e. sharing a train berth with -Rob). started talking with the kids and diseded to go have ice cream at Fannys together. then we said lets go walk around the lake and buy water puppet ticket for 3 kids and 3 Adults. Me, Mommy, Daddy, their mom, Julia and Jacklen. went to Mama Rosas Italian food for lunch. Me, Julia, Jacklene shared Spagithi Carbonara with egg and bacon and their mom and my Dad, Mom shared pizza. We walked down toy street and to the covered market, brought them to our hotel, played nitendo fairly. walked to their hotel and watched them play nitendo. watched water puppets. neat. had dinner. good night.

(Rob)

Today was one of those wonderful days where the plans go out the window and something much better happens! We were just heading out to do some souvenir shopping when we ran into three people from the train: Sherry and her two adopted daughters, Julia and Jaclyn, from Washington (state). There trip was to China, where Julia was born, and Vietnam, where Jaclyn was born.

We started talking and realized how well Anica and the girls were getting along, and all of us decided to spend more time together. Before long, the girls were begging us to spend the whole day together! The "grownups" agreed, and we had a great time. It was even harder and yet more fun to cross the streets as a unit of six people, for instance. We had ice cream, walked around the lake again, had Italian food for lunch, browsed the Old Quarter and the (awful) covered market.

The girls took turns showing each other their hotels, then it was off to the water puppet theatre. Water puppetry is a unique Vietnam dramatic art, and was very endearing. Basically, the puppeteers stand behind a screen in hipwaders, and manipulate the puppets using poles that are hidden by the water. So the puppets swim, skip and thrash about on the surface of the water. The themes and stories are fairly universal, so it's easy enough to follow.

After the theatre, we shared some more traditionally Vietnamese food at a restaurant just on the other side of the lake. We had exchanged emails and fully intend to stay in touch. All day the three girls got along great. It was also pretty special to be part of their trip, as it was an emotional journey for them.

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Anica with new friends in Hanoi

Sep 24

(Anica)

we walked around the shops, walking in and out of shops, looking for clothes or paintings when we finally found a shop and bought a picture at last. walked by the lake and got some money from the ATM and sended home painting. took taxi to a place called Koto and how cute. there a charity for poor people, bring them to their place and tech them how to cook and give them a house & bike. walked to Ho Chi mins musem but it was closed. walked to a little area and stared talking with a Autralian faimly and they told us they were going to go to Halong bay with Handspan but didnent because of tiefoon and ours was cancelled too. ate at little Haoni. good night :)

(Rob)

Anica always writes her journal independently of mine, and I'm amazed how similar they sound today! But if you want to hear more, read on!

Finally, the weather caught up with us! We were talking with an Australian family outside the Ho Chi Minh museum and they mentioned their Halong Bay trip had been cancelled due to a coming typhoon. They were with Handspan Travel for that, same as us. We were set to leave tomorrow morning at 8AM. It turned out to be a good thing we booked with Handspan, because they had already contacted our hotel, and when we did see them, they gave us a 100% refund, no questions asked. We were able to get the hotel here in Hanoi for the 25th, the night we would have been on the boat.

Other than that today, we did some shopping in the Old Quarter, where we bought a small framed artwork (I would say "painting", but it's done in the medium of coloured fallen leaves, a scene of Hanoi streets). Then we headed for the international post office, where we filled out many forms, and sent it away, hoping for the best.

Lunch was at a unique venue: "Koto" is a not-for-profit restaurant staffed by former Vietnamese street/disadvantaged kids. We heard about it originally from Jane and Ben, because it was started by Australians. The food was great and the place quite stylish. I had "Chao Tom," where, like Peking Duck (or fajitas for that matter), some assembly is required. I even bought a t-shirt from the restaurant because it's a place and cause I don't mind promoting.

Anica had a fun time with the Australian kids today, especially the nine-year old girl because they looked so much alike. As Jenn and I talked with the parents, we realized a photo session was breaking out. Two little curly-haired blonde girls! We even took a picture of them on a bench with two young Vietnamese women. She didn't get to play for long, though, because we had to go over to Handspan travel.

The area of Ho Chi Minh's museum, house and the "One-pillar Pagoda," with its wide-open public squares and wide avenues, was quite a contrast to the Old Quarter. We didn't stay long, but enjoyed walking past the old embassies and mansions.

Sep 25

(Anica)

Today we walked around to the French qurter and saw the musem of Vietnamese woman but only two exibts that we could see. Ok we said. after (the great) musem we had lunch at a famus mexican, westran and ribs place. Mommy and Daddy got nachos and tacos (ha ha) and I got Hot Dogs kids meal wich came with a toy, french freies, and salad ad ice cream. when I reached in [to the loot box -ed.] I touched somthing and pulled it out. it was a crown with pom pom thing, a giant Butterfly on the front and silver on the side.

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Anica's kids-meal crown. Perfect for Moon Festival!

Got to our hotel and realized we were going to have dinner with Julia, Jaclyn and their mom at another little Hanoi. Went on a fun rickhaw ride for an hour. had ice cream at fanny with Julia and Jacklyn.

(Rob)

The French Quarter seemed somewhat...French. The Musuem of Vietnamese Women was next to a French-language school, with the children dressed in tri-colour uniforms. Streets in this part of Hanoi are laid out on a grid, and the trees are broader, with many Banyans, dripping with vines. The Women's Museum had a floor devoted to the war, showing all that women did. There was a lot of rhetoric about American aggression and American puppets. The third floor was devoted to contemporary stories of mothers who overcame disadvantages to provide education for their children. Inspiring, more in a Horatio Alger way, than that of a socialist "the state will be provider" way. A large, ex-pat place around the corner provided a very North American lunch, complete with kids meal and colouring.

Our extra time in Hanoi gave us a chance to see Sherry and her girls again. Eerybody got along just as well today. We ate Vietnamese at a second-floor restaurant (up very steep stairs!) called Little Hanoi (no relation to the one we'd been to before). The rain had come as we winded through the streets back to the Lake. We had ice cream at Fanny's and watched the motorbike traffic go by. Apparently, with the Moon Festival coming, it was the night to dress up. The young people had devil's horns, witches and wizard hats, or masks on as they circled the lake on their motorbikes. The occasional firecracker exploded, and sporadically a small group would parade by with drums and dragons. Anica and the girls cheered and waved them on.

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The motorbike promenade, even as the rain came, complete with devil horn costumes

On the way back to the hotel, it rained even harder, and we took refuge under an awning. The storm that kept us off Halong Bay eventually was classified as a tropical depression, but even that was enough to bring the rain inland to Hanoi. We said a soggy goodbye to our new friends from Washington.

Tomorrow will be the typical packing, eating, errands and then catching an (overnight) train day. Our next stop is Hue (pronounced in one syllable as "hway"). Of course you never know what might come up...

Check this entry in a week or so for photos!

Posted by jennrob 21:36 Archived in Vietnam Comments (7)

40 hours to Hanoi...

September 20-22

( Anica )

wow today we had just got on a overnight train to hani. we met this young couple Jane & Ben :) nice. unpacked a bit. no worry for food. dinning cart and we bought Lays chips, rits, saltines, noodle cups, and Jane gave us fruit and buns. oh thank you. fun. fell asleep quickly. goodnight.

good morning. today is my full day on this old train. we disced [decided] to watch the landscape for a while because we were in guilin. we talked to the nicest nicest Australian couple in the world Jane and Ben. had noodles for lunch and dinner. rested. we had to get up at 3 in the morning. woke up that time, went through customs and got onto a new train. Ben and Jane got a faimly, one mother and two kids, only 4 tiny beds, nobody was with us now so Jane moved over to ares [ours]. yay. got to Hanoi and we were happy.

Posted by jennrob 19:27 Archived in Vietnam Comments (6)

Beijing: Things Once Forbidden

and sad news from home

rain 21 °C

Sep 14-15

(Anica)

Travel days, wow! We got on a over night train to Beijing from Xi'an. We fell asleep quickly. Wow we were there. We got a taxi to the Hoilday Inn quickly. Great, they let us check in early, a really nice room, we went swimming to

Sep 15

(Rob)

Our train pulled in to Beijing today at 7:30 AM, and despite immediately gathering up our things, we were practically the last ones to get off. The "soft sleeper" class was everything we were hoping for, and the eleven hours seemed like nothing because we slept for eight of it (well, I did. Anica woke Jenn up to go the bathroom, and that was it for Jenn's sleep). The hardest part was negotiating the wild: no signs in English train station in Xi'an.

We had a bit of a splurge lined up in Beijing with a Holiday Inn, and they let us check in at eight in the morning! This is, I'm guessing, one of the nicest and best-run Holiday Inns in the world, and seemed more like a 5-star hotel to us. Before our official check-in time, we'd already had the huge buffet breakfast, had a swim, put our laundry in, booked a tour and gone on-line. We even had the seafood buffet dinner to complete our day of luxury!

Sep 16

(Rob)

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Chairman Mao once said you haven't visited China until you've walked on the Great Wall. Well, as of today, we've visited China! We opted for a bus tour to take us out to the Mutianyu part of the wall, about 100 km from Beijing. After the obligatory stops at other people's hotels, and a factory (this time it was cloisanne, the enamel on pottery process) where we once again bought nothing, we arrived at the Wall. Actually, at the bottom of the hill where we rode a cable car up to the wall (Anica never gets tired of cable cars!). All of the Great Wall runs along the ridges of moutain and hilltops. This stretch is much quieter than the Badaling section that's closest to central Beijing. It's steep, too! Although restored, you still have to watch your footing. We loved the Ming dynasty-added stations every few hundred feet, with their steep staircases to great look-out points. I learned you don't just "see" the Wall, and look out from it. You really get a physical experience. It goes up and down, and twists so much that the best place to look at the Wall is...from the Wall! Even though it was cloudy/foggy, we could see as far as the highest peak in either direction, over which the wall disappeared, continuing on.

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Sep 17

(Anica)

Today we went to the Forbidun City. Great. Went to imperail wedding and birthday palaces. And Tiannanmen squre saw picture of chairman Mao and saw army guys too. After Forbiden City headed over to a park Bei Hai park and couldn't ride boats because it's closed. Walked to the other side. Just as we got close to these covered places with bences we pulled out our rain poncho and umbreallas. It started pouring. ran to the covered palce and met a man doing calligraphy and spelled me and mommy and Daddy's names in Chinse. The girls started smelling my hand! And they said 13, no 7. what! everybody gasped. We disided to go home and get room serve. Took 3 hours to get taxi. finally we got taxi and watched shark Boy and Lava girl. good night.

(Rob)

Having seen the Great Wall yesterday, today we tackled the other can't-miss sites of China: Tiannanmen Square and the Forbidden City. Both seemed every bit as huge in person as they do on TV. It was a day of walking. Lots. It was also a day of all-out smog. Everything we've heard about Beijing's air quality problems was true today. My eyes itched, my throat burned, and I coughed when I tried to read outloud from a tourist description. All of us smelled the smog with every breath, and could barely see the length of the Square. I don't think they'll be many Olympic track records set if the weather's like this!

Tiannanmen Square was packed, even though we got there by nine in the morning. Anica once again today drew lots of attention; several times she agreed to have her picture taken with people. One time, a young lady picked her up and held her like a baby. This doesn't bother Anica, but people who sneak up on her, or take pictures with huge cameras and then run off, really get to her. We try to shield her from getting poked and pinched, but occasionally someone just reaches out and strokes her hair. Anica continues to complain at times, but mostly thrives. She seems to like posing with the young tourists for their pictures. Almost everyone shows her how the picture turned out on the back of their digital camera. Those are shared moments.

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metaphoto: We took a picture ofAnica agreeing to have her picture taken with Chinese tourists in Beijing

Yes, then, the Square. Well, Mao is not on display currently, so we missed that macabre moment. We admired the huge Qian Men and Arrow Gates at the south end, the sculptures of revoultionary heroes, paused to seem some marches, and were stunned to see (this is new) floral re-creations of Chinese landmarks (think Rose Ball parade, but not moving). Then, we crossed the road (underpass) and emerged right in front of Mao's picture, ready to pass through Tiannanmen Gate. We'd been all over the Square, and seen nothing about 1989. We quietly told Anica the story of how we best know the Square.

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Through the Gate and into the outer court of the Forbidden City. At what point (just a century ago) would we have once been stopped, and, as foreigners, executed for entrying? There are a series of gates, really, and I guess where we paid our admisssion was the truly "forbidden" threshold.

The official name for the Forbidden City is now "The Palace Museum." As a museum, we chose to focus on the exhibitions concerning Imperial birthdays and Imperial weddings. These were interesting to all three of us. Anica seemed quite taken with artwork and treasures they contained.

As far as the grounds, they were monumental. It will be interesting to see how Versailles or Vienna compares, because the Forbidden City is vast. "City" is no misnomer. The five bridges over the golden waters are gracefully beautiful, and the marble carriageway impressive. Some of the grand halls are under renovation, but there was still so much to see, and even more that's never been open to the public. It's said there are 9,999 rooms, 9 being a lucky number.

Anica pointed out the huge iron cauldrons everywhere, and told us they once would have been filled with water in case of fire. She remembered reading that in a guidebook. Jenn pointed out the "roof guardians," those animal characters carved on the hip of the eaves, were also a form of fire prevention (of the spiritual sort). More good luck detail was found on the huge doors to every building and gate: each had exactly 81 studs on them (9 x 9).

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One of the many doors/gates as described above

Eventually, heading north, you pass into the Imperial Gardens. Until this point, there's not a single tree. The garden area is very artfully manicured, and smaller in scale. Soon after, you exit through another double gate/courtyard complex. Across the busy street are two parks, both of which used to be for Imperial use only. In this regard, they're similar to London's Hyde Park. We walked through both. By the time we got to the second, Bei Hai Park, it was like night was falling at 4 PM. The smog was bad, but was it this bad? And why were they not renting boats to take out on the pond? Soon, a thunderstorm began. Even with our umbrellas, we took cover in the pavilions by the pond. We weren't alone, and everyone seemed content to bide their time. A couple of men did calligraphy by writing with rain-water on the concrete ground. One of them struck up a conversation with me by asking where we were from. "Canada?" he said. "Do you play hocking?" I assured him that many of us did, indeed, play hockey. By this time, Anica was bouncing around like a bunny rabbit, and he drew a bunny picture. It was turning into one of those magical encounters that you just can't plan. Quite a crowd was gathering, watching the show being put on by the calligrapher and the little white girl. "How old is she?" he asked. "Seven," I replied. He frowned. Then he wrote "13" in the ground. "No," I said. I dipped my hand in the rainwater and wrote "7." There was a gasp and a murmur from the crowd. I could see women pointing at Anica and then to themselves, as if to say "she's almost my height already." The calligrapher turned out to be a real gentleman, and charming character. He asked Anica all of our names and wrote them (on paper too) in Chinese. He wrote that Jennifer was "very nice," I was "very cool," and Anica was "very beautiful." If this had been London's Hyde Park, he would have been the singing chimney-sweep. Meanwhile, the less-charming women were taking turns petting and smelling (yes, good curious sniffs) Anica's hand. She was mostly too distracted to object, but we laughed about it afterwards!

This delightful interlude was followed by an absolute ordeal in getting back to the hotel. Apparently, rush-hour Beijing in the pouring rain is a very difficult time to hail a cab. As in impossible. I once made a joking list of "all I really need to know about travel I learned from the Amazing Race." Well, today we used one of those tactics. When we couldn't get a cab, Jenn suggested we head for the Crowne Plaza, which was nearby. Within a few minutes, their bellhop had us in a cab. Rule #3: if you're not sure what to do, ask for help at the nearest luxury hotel. Even then, it was an ordeal for the taxi driver to get us across town. We could clearly sense that traffic was far worse than usual. In the end, it took us three hours from the time we left Bei Hai Park to when we got back to our hotel. We were so wet and tired that, for the first time ever, we ordered room service for dinner. It turned out to be yummy, comfy, and not all that expensive. Anica loved this, yet another new experience.

Despite the rain later in the afternoon, and taxi/traffic woes, it was a great day.

Sep 18

(Anica)

Today we went to the musem of natrul history and saw Animal Freinds of human Being with Dead animals but real. Same with all other exhabithans. Most of them have glass over them but not the panda. Insect world with insects that our dead. Animals at night is just like it sounds. Babys Discovery fairyland, Gallery of ancaint mamlles, Gallery of the Origin of Life, and Gallery of Invertebrates, Dinosaur park, Gallery of preastoric life. The aqurium though had real fish. After the musem we went on a serch for a (closedown) peking Duck restrunt. Ended up eating at youth restaurant. Good Night.

(Rob)

More rain. But since then the smog is practically gone. We were going to go see either the Temple of Heaven or the Summer Palace, both massive, sprawling, mostly outdoor sites, but decided to change plans for the rainy day. Jenn suggested the Museum of Natural History, and from the get-go Anica was keen on the idea. After four hours (!) there, she declared it "the best museum I've ever been to." Now this is not a world-class, state of the art museum, but it did have its kid-friendly aspects. There were a couple of little indoor playgrounds, for instance. There was a set of fun-house mirrors. We're not sure what point they made, because the English labels came at sporadic intervals throughout the museum.

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Anica experiments with the funhouse mirrors at Beijing's Musuem of Natural History"

The majority of the place was taxidermy. That made for quite a few "Night at the Museum" comments. There was even a dinosaur hall. Then there was the basement aquarium. The colourful blue paint did little to lessen the creepiness of the below-ground maze, where pickled fish lay still in tanks next to living fish.

We knew from our Chinese guidebook that there was a collection of "human bodies." We found it in an annex, where the entry stated "no photos." No kidding! Here were formaldehyde-preserved jars of human parts, and even whole bodies. Anica was taking it all in, with a kid's delight in things gross, but fascinating. "Anica, look, there's the left half of a baby's head." "Neat!" she'd say. "Anica, look there's a woman's torso floating in a big jar." "Neat!" We paused to gently make sure she understood they were real people who had died. Yep. On we went, through the deformed fetus collection and the full-body Chinese man, with all the skin flailed off him, except the belly button, pubic area and fingertips. Another full cadaver had a bag over his head. That really makes you wonder. (Jenn: Did he come that way?) So, this part of the museum, too, was a big hit.

Having worked up an appetite (?), we headed up the street for the famous, nearby Peking Duck restaurant. We passed a hutong (alleyway neigborhood) that was crumbling, a hutong that was torn down, and a hutong that was being rebuilt in a "cleaned-up" way for tourists.

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A hutong in the process of being razed

Unfortunately, the restaurant had been located in the latter, so it was gone (being restored).

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A giant wall hides renovations being done on a hutong just south of Tiananmen Square

After a typical taxi struggle, we had dinner back in our own neighborhood, called the "Youth Restaurant," where the food was unlike most Chinese food we've had before, but pretty good. No idea if it caused Jenn's gold crown to fall off her tooth! We're seeking dental advice from afar, but so far it doesn't appear to be a total emergency for her. Not what she needed, though!

Sep 19

(Rob)

Bright sun, and great visibility greeted us today. Sadly, though, when Jenn checked our email we got the news that her grandmother had died. This was not unexpected, but it's always a shock. Anica had lost the last of her great-grandparents. She had been lucky enough, however, to really get know her great-grandmother.

So here we are in Beijing. We took things slowly this morning, but eventually decided to go out and see the Summer Palace on our last full day in China. It turned out to be a lovely excursion, and just the thing for Jenn to take her mind off being so helplessly far from home.

The Summer Palace is just what it sounds like: a specially-constructed retreat for Emperors, built in the 18th century, but greatly expanded by Empress Cixi in the late 19th. We climbed to the top of the Buddhist monument, and enjoyed a glorious view of the lake and Beijing in the distance. We walked the length of the Long Corridor. Well-named, it's a "breezeway" over 2,000 long. Each wooden crossbeam and each wooden panel has a painting hand-painted on it. That's over 14,000 paintings of scenes from Chinese classic literature and of the grounds of the palace.

The highlight of the visit for Anica was when we rented a battery-powered four-person boat. We hopped in, and the guy tapped on the dashboard twice, the full extent of our instructions. But it was easy to manuever, and we let Anica drive it for about 30 minutes. She did a great job!

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We boated through the 17-arch bridge, and past the "Marble Boat" that Empress Cixi commissioned rather than modernizing the navy.

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Our goal for dinner was to get to a Peking Duck restaurant. We got a taxi right away, which was indeed too good to be true. He had a phony meter, and I argued with him over the price when we got out, eventually paying about half what his crooked meter showed.

The Quanjude Peking Duck dinner was a true feast. As in: more than we could possibly eat and costing a lot. Still, it was a great experience. We all loved the duck itself, which you actually roll up in pancakes like you're eating Mexican food. The many side dishes were not all loved equally, but we had room for dessert, and staggered out quite full. One of the hostesses helped flag us a cab and we got back uneventfully.

We're going to squeeze all the luxury services out of this hotel, including a late check-in before we hop on a train for Hanoi. This is our craziest train-ride: 40 hours, overnight, for two nights. It comes at a really weird time, with the news of Jenn's grandmother's passing, but we already have the tickets, and there's really nothing we can do here, either. On we go.

Posted by jennrob 21:56 Archived in China Comments (7)

A Grand Time in Xi'an

Walls and Warriors

semi-overcast 22 °C

September 11th

(Jenn)

Chengdu to Xi'an: A travel day that finally went right...

After the last couple, we were beginning to wonder if we'd been jinxed. But today we managed to grab some breakfast at Starbucks, debate the bill successfully with hotel reception (they seemed to want to charge us for our sponsor's membership), get a taxi to the airport, check in okay, have lunch at a great but expensive Chinese casserole restaurant, catch our plane on time, land on time, get the airport bus to the centre of the city (75 yuan for 3 versus 150 for a taxi), find a decent hotel (Xi'an City Hotel - twin room for $40 CDN) right around the corner from the Drum and Bell Towers, book a English-guided tour for the next day to the Terracotta Warriors among other sights, locate an office that sold train tickets (after much running around) and buy tickets for our overnight train from Xi'an to Beijing, find the Muslim Quarter (just as we were about to give up and eat at McDonald's), get lucky and find a waitress who spoke a little English so we could ask for her recommendations (we ended up with a spicy beef dish, a sweet and sour chicken dish (for Anica) and a basket of delicious steamed vegetable dumplings with sweet soy sauce), get an internet connection in Starbucks long enough to pay the balance on our Beijing-Hanoi overnight train tickets which we're buying through China Trip Advisor, and find (omg, finally, after /hours/ of looking, thanks to the cut and paste rough guide files we put in notetab light) the one and only ATM downtown that takes foreign debit cards.

At that point, our brains stopped working and our bodies demanded we take them back to the hotel and collapse. We obeyed.

September 12th

(Rob)

There was an early call - unexpectedly - to our day tour. Luckily, we were up and got ready in time anyway. The minibus held an interesting mix of people: couples from Australia, New Zealand; a student from New York; a woman from Scotland. And we're Canadian, as most of you know! The main attraction was the Terracotta warriors but the other stops turned out to be interesting. The first was a palace at the foot of a mountain, complete with hot springs, and baths that dated back to the 7th century AD. The next was a Buddhist temple said to contain a fragment of the Buddha's skull. Ashoka, the Indian emperor, was distributing authentic Buddha relics, and this one has endured. We were still skeptical. Perhaps it's our Protestant heritage kicking in. The stop at the first emperor's tomb site was not too visually dazzling. Basically the whole grounds remains unexcavated. We knew that from our reading, but still. Anica enjoyed the dance/pageant performance, however.

After lunch, we walked through the grounds to where a simple farmer, in 1974, found the first piece of a terracotta warrior. That same farmer (kind of a relic himself) signs autographs in the giftshop. He does look the the same guy, but again, skepticism. We all liked the "circle vision" (ie. 360 degree) movie theatre that introduces us to the history of the first emperor, the tombs, and the unification of China.

Then, breathtakingly, we stepped into the famous "Pit 1." It does not disappoint. It's a huge room, and the fact that not all the warriors are dug out only underscores the enormity of the place and the task.

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Apparently, it takes weeks to restore just one warrior. We saw ones assembled from fragments of hundreds. We saw rows of fallen, broken soldiers. Decapitated stone heads stared up at us. In the other buildings (Pits 2 and 3), we saw the famous "Kneeling Archer" and other special figures, including horses, that are in glass cases. One of the pits has a thrust viewing platform (like the new grand canyon platform) so you can look straight down at the ramp, horses, soldiers, etc. Each building is huge, and the grounds are monumental.

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A detail of the most recently restored terracotta warriors, including one with a touch of yellow paint still visible

Our tour guide explained how, for better or worse, the government moved farms, a village, and a market to create the present site. We also saw the nice, big home that the farmer now has (allegedly...).

The last stop was anticlimatic, a "tour" of a silk factory. None of us bought anything, which confounded the guides, we think. It was neat to see the stages of the silkworms, the looms, to stretch out the silk by hand ourselves, etc. Centuries ago, the process was a secret we would pay with our lives for uncovering.

September 13th

Today was another monumental day in Xi'an! We decided to see the main city sights: the Bell and Drum towers and, of course, the city walls. The towers were built in 770 and 780 respectively. There was a nice musical performance (mostly bells, of course) in the Bell Tower. The restoration of the paint colours on every roof, eave and gable is quite striking. The "shingles" are actually jade, too! Each "hip" has a row of animal characters carved into it.

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The Bell Tower, and public square, as seen from the Drum Tower

Then, came the wall. To me, this is one of the most atmospheric and evocative things about being in Xi'an. The walls form a rectangle 14 km long around the city. They date from 1370 in their current form, and boast giant gates at the four compass points. They are as wide as a six-lane highway, and there are 78 steps up to the top (this last detail is by Anica's count).

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We walked along the walls a very long way! We walked 1 km from the Bell Tower to the south gate, paid the admission and climbed up. Along the wide, wide top of the wall, we walked from the South gate to the West gate (got the only sustenance we could there: ice cream and soft drinks), then from the West gate to the North gate. At the West gate, a sign reminded us that this was the start of the silk road. Looking down at the gate and courtyard, this certainly fired the imagination. With somewhat overcast, cool (around 20) weather, it was the perfect day for walking. It was also really peaceful. Because of the fee, and the size, there are very few people up there. Most rent bicycles or rickshaws. So, at times, there was no one on the wall for as far as we could see. What a contrast to the teeming streets below!

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From the north gate, we walked back to the area of the Drum Tower and Muslim Quarter. Another kilometre or two. That brought the total to 11 km for the day, and we still weren't done. We found an even better restaurant (that Jenn and Anica in particular loved) on Islamic Street than the night before. There was just enough English-speaking for us to order lamb skewers, a spicy rice (in cubes) concoction, baked Chinese bread, a vegetable dish of mushrooms and bok choy, then..more skewers! Very yummy. Even with drinks, the whole sit-down dinner cost about seven dollars.

Sunset saw us atop the Drum Tower. Anica gave the traditional three strikes of the giant drum. This would have once been the nightwatchmen's signal to either close the gates, warn of midnight, or announce the coming dawn. From there, we got some great pictures of the Bell Tower and of the market at the Muslim Quarter.

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Anica's turn at the drum

September 14th

After a couple of busy days, we've slept in, and caught up on email, etc. before getting ready for our overnight train to Beijing. Being Friday, our favourite Muslim-Chinese restaurants were closed today (yes, there are 60,000 Muslims here, the descendants of a community begun by Silk Road traders), so we took the path of least resistance and ate Western (Pizza Hut, KFC). This is also because there are surprisingly few Chinese restaurants that aren't obvious tourist traps.

We've been the subject of a lot of attention here. Anica found some of it more aggressive than in Chengdu, and thus unwelcome. People touched her hair without asking, and some ladies poked and prodded here while she and Jenn were washing their hands. Mostly, though, Anica has continued to get a kick out of interacting with curious locals/Chinese tourists. If they're just looking, she'll give a wave. She also happily posed for pictures when asked, and then told the story of doing so to other Westerners we've run into.

We've really enjoyed Xi'an. Our hotel here, the City Hotel, has seen better days, but is good value for its current price (we paid $41 CDN per night, including breakfast - but that was for two twin beds only; Jenn and Anica were quite snug in one). The old-school looking bellhops got us a taxi to take to the train station, which was a major accomplishment in rush-hour Xi'an, so that was another plus to staying at the City Hotel.

Posted by jennrob 02:37 Archived in China Comments (9)

Fever and a Free Hotel

Chengdu, Sichuan province, China

semi-overcast 23 °C

Rob

(Sep 7)

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One of the star attractions to Chengdu, China

Getting settled in Chengdu has been much more difficult than we thought! We knew we were dealing with Anica being sick. Motrin every six hours was keeping her fever in check, but only just. The first additional obstacle came at the Guilin airport with the announcement that our flight would be delayed by an hour. Nothing unusual, but we called Sim's Garden Hostel and tried to make sure their driver would still be waiting for us.

After grabbing our bags, we found a girl holding a "Sim's Cozy Guest House" sign. We knew they were the original Sim's, and the girl, though not really expecting us, eagerly ushered us, and another couple, into a pair of taxis. I wonder how that other taxi ride turned out? Our driver started to curse, mutter and spit, and, after a while, motioned to us that he needed our help. No kidding! Lost looks the same in any language. Apparently, phoning them didn't help him too much, because he still got out and asked for directions about three times. Did I mention it was raining?

Over an hour later, we arrived at Sim's Cozy Guest House. "But this is not it," we tried to say! Everyone ushered us out, and Sim himself explained the situation. The "Garden Hostel," his new place, had been shut down the day before due to lack of permits. He offered to put us up in a "Cozy Guest House" family room for the night, but explained that it would only be available for that one night. We would then have two options: stay illegally - for free - in the "Garden Hostel" or he would put us up (again for free) in a "business-class" (his words) hotel. Guess which one we picked?

So, one night then at Sim's, but it did not turn out to be too cozy. Our room, on the roof-top, arrived at by way of labyrinth, was right beside a construction site. If you've ever wondered what time of night construction stops in Chengdu, the answer is never! I think there was a short tea-break about 1:30 AM. The work going on was organized by periodic shouting matches. The three of us, in our two beds, particularly found these outbursts, shall we say, rousing! Anica's fever was high again towards dawn.

Random Observation: Air China calls their moist towelette a "wet refresh turban needless wash." Kind of catchy, eh?

(Sep 8)

In the morning, at least, the offer that was too-good-to-be-true turned out to be true. A Sim's employee walked us to a hotel, which has just been remodelled, and we got to see the room we would stay in. It looked fantastically new, and clean and bright, and Jenn immediately said that it would be fine. The Sim's guy then paid for the three-night stay in advance!

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Not how Anica showers! She is demonstrating the unique configuration of this hotel room's shower stall.

At last, we could focus on Anica's fever. Since it kept returning, we decided to see a doctor. The cost was well worth it for the great care we got at a private clinic called "Global Doctor." Anica had tonsillitis and some bronchial infection, which was causing the fever. So we got antibiotics, a combo of fever reducers, a nebulizer, and we were at the clinic long enough for the Spanish-born doctor to see some results. "My baby," she kept calling Anica. "I don't like to see my baby not well," etc. Jenn and I felt like we were just the babysitters. She even called us later to see how Anica was doing, and gave us her own cell number. By night, Anica was feeling well enough to help call my Dad and wish him a happy birthday!

As for the sites in Chengdu, we knew it would be a write-off. The main thing is getting Anica healthy again. At least we're situated near the historic district, and, walking over from Sim's, and even when we're out to get supplies, we get some nice streetscapes. Also, Chengdu is booming. It's a huge city (12 million?), capital of the Sichuan province. We saw stores for Rolls-Royce, Prada, and other high-end Western brands. There are people here, and it's not the tourists (a few blocks away from Sim's and you won't see any Westerners), with huge disposable income.

Random Observation: We will never badmouth the ubiquitous Starbucks again, after the comfort they've offered here, and in Shenzhen, when we were just trying to get through the day.

(Sep 9)

Anica was feeling better today - fever gone - but still weak. Late in the afternoon, we took her to the nearby WenShu Monastery. Bad idea, in the end, for Anica, but we still got something out of the visit. The monastery is surrounded by a huge red wall, which hides the massive complex of temples and gardens inside.

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Part of the Wen Shu monastery walls, Chengdu

There has been a monastery on this site since the sixth century AD, which is mind-boggling considering the political and military turmoil China has seen. The Peace Pagoda does date back to that first era. Most of the other impressive buildings, such as the library, the shrines to Buddhist "saints," etc. are from the 17th century (just a few years removed from the end of the Ming Dynasty in 1644). Anica was most impressed by the pond, which had dozens - if not hundreds - of turtles in it (and some huge bullfrogs). Much of the grounds had signs saying "no photos," which were largely ignored. We eventually took a couple of photos where we thought it wasn't too inappropriate. Before we left, a "nun" gave Anica a couple of apples. Was it how cute Anica looked, or her sad, sick expression that prompted this kind gesture? We headed home wondering (arguing) about whether we'd be able to go to the panda base the next day.

(Sep 10)

It was touch and go to the last minute, because Anica was so tired this morning, but we made it out on the tour to the Panda research and breeding base. Are we ever glad we did! And, later in the day, Anica got a clean bill of health from the Doctor in our follow-up appointment. To the get to the Panda base, we signed up for a tour through Sim's Cozy Guest House. Nine of us left there in a mini-van at 7:20 in the morning. This was ideal, because it got us there right when the Panda base opened, and into the heart of the grounds in time for the feeding. After they're done feeding, pandas pretty much sleep most of the time, so we really were fortunate.

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The grounds are beautiful, with spacious habitats for the animals. The driver, using Mandarin and gestures, got us around the whole base at just the right time to see: the adults feeding, the "kindergarden" of pandas playing, the one-month babies being nursed, and the two-month old cubs rolling around a big crib. Anica loved it. All three of us loved it. Those were all the giant pandas, then we also saw the smaller red pandas (they seemed more active!).

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Red Pandas

Why are giant pandas such a national treasure of China? Aside from being endangered due to loss of habitat, and aside from being cute, I learned today that they are a mysterious species. They've been around for eight million years, longer than most mammals ("living fossils," according to one description). They were once carnivores, and still have the teeth for it, but now they just eat huge amounts of bamboo, which they can barely digest. Pandas are picky, difficult breeders, so any success in captivity is nearly miraculous.

Anica was so enthused, so glad she got to come here, and it was great to see her bouncing along again.

In the late afternoon, back in the city, we stocked up at a bookstore that carried English titles. Then we walked around a large, outdoor, pedestrian shopping area. Especially when we sat down on a bench to rest and people-watch we found we were attracting a lot of attention. People were doing double-takes, staring, smiling and pointing, or even looking confused to see us (we labelled one man "confused guy" because he passed us several times, same expression each time). Anica enjoyed the attention, and we said "hello" and/or "ni hao" to many people. This never failed to to get a smile! To be fair, the area was probably a big draw for Chinese tourists, so many of the gawkers weren't from big-city Chengdu. One older lady came up to us and asked in Mandarin something like "can I pet her?" and then stroked Anica's hair. Although in multicultural Canada any form of staring at "differences" would be considered rude, if not racist, here, today, it seemed benign and not at all overwhelming.

Posted by jennrob 07:34 Archived in China Comments (5)

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