The Great Wall of China…and Shopping Tour

Although when travelling, touristy things are sometimes avoided, there was no way that the Great Wall of China was going to be missed.  As my friend and I arrived in Beijing, we were in search of tour information for the Great Wall.  We thought that hostels would offer the cheapest rates for tours, but to our surprise, we found a tour for less.  There were lots of people outside of the Forbidden Wall who were selling the tour at a fraction of the cost of the hostels.  Although, I like the best deal in town, I do get suspicious when I see something that’s too good to be true.

Later that night as we did our research to figure out which part of the wall we wanted to visit, the Lonely Planet (or bible) gave us some helpful hints when selecting a tour.  Ask lots of questions such as 1) How much time do you actually spend at the wall? and 2) How many shops are we going to visit?

The next day, as we booked this cheap tour, we were told 2-3 hours at the wall, one stop at the Ming Tombs and another stop at the Olympic Park and two shops with no obligation to buy.  We decided that 2-3 hours was sufficient time and we could put up with 2 shops.  So we booked this tour.

The great thing about the tour was that because it was low season and we were going to the MuTianYu section (which is the less popular section), we ended up on a private tour. However, the guide was a bit confused about the tour’s itinerary.  So we had to call the person who had booked the tour for us to straighten the guide out.  Then when that was resolved, the guide told us that Ming Tombs was very boring and there was nothing to see and that it would be better to go to the Silk Art Museum instead.

We did indeed visit the wall for 3 hours.  The cost of the tour included our entrance to the Wall, but didn’t include the cable car or toboggan run/ski lift ride up and down from the wall (yes, you can come down from the wall in a toboggan).  There is a free option to walk up, but you do need to save your energy for the wall.  Believe it or not, tickets to get up to the wall were more than the admission itself.

The wall: amazing.  Probably my most memorable part of China.  Be warned…it’s a work out to visit the wall and I hadn’t really considered that it would be exhausting climbing up the steep steps.  There were 23 towers.  Depending on how you go up, you reach the wall at different midsections.  Most people try to get to at least one end of the wall which is at a high point and gives you the best views.  There are old parts of the wall that are crumbling and have shrubs growing through the bricks which I wanted to walk along, but couldn’t figure where to pick up those sections from.  Without a camera in hand to take photos and without stopping to take in the scenery, you can probably walk the entire wall and back to your starting point in 3 hours.  I only made it to one end of the wall and had to turn back to return to the tour before reaching the other end.  I was so close, only 4 towers away, but it was the steepest section of the wall so would’ve been time consuming.  I also bumped into a friend from home who just happened to be at the Great Wall that day too.  1.3 billion people in China, and I meet my friend there.

Back to our private tour.  We had a lunch stop.  Now I haven’t mentioned that before reaching the wall, we had one of our two shopping stops.  We saw cloissening, an ancient tecnhique that they use with copper and enamel to make designs on their pots.  We did really well.  Listened to the 10 minute presentation and walked quickly through the gift shop and back into the van.  After lunch, we returned to Beijing and drove past the Olympic Park (I only caught a glimpse of the bird’s nest) to shop number 2.  This was a tea shop.  We sat down, watched the presentation, drank the tea and didn’t succumb to the high pressured sales lady who just badly wanted to make some commission.

Next, we headed to the Silk Art Museum (which was 500m away) and which was not entirely a museum.  We did learn how the silk is made but then there were 3 rooms to buy silk products: bedding; material for making clothes; and on the already made clothes.  Now, it was here that we faltered and didn’t make a beeline for the door.  I have to admit that some money was spent, but not copious amounts.  In fact, I think our guide made so little commission on our purchases that it wasn’t even worth it to him.

Now it was Olympic Park time, right?  NO!  There was another stop.  Not technically a shop, but a free foot massage…?  I was wondering how this foot massage factored in.  It was a massage school within the Olympic Park.  We started off with a foot soak in 40 degree water with tea bags in it- I couldn’t get my feet in because it was too hot.  The soak was followed by the most painful foot massage I’ve ever had.  Thailand you are the best at massages.  Then the first pitch came.  They offer another service other than the free foot soak and massage.  You can have the dry skin on your feet taken off for the equivalent of 15 USD.  I wasn’t intending to shop and had spent what extra money I had at the silk shop. By telling them I had no money, the aggressive sales pitch came to an end.  Then the second pitch came.  The Tibetan doctor came in who had to speak through a translator.  He was going to diagnose us by reading our palms.  First he started with my friend.  I have to admit, it was impressive.  For everything that he said, she agreed with him.  That was really interesting that he was able to tell this by just looking at the palm.  Then he took out his prescription pad and told her that she needed 3 boxes of herbal tea at 300yuan a box (~50USD).  When she said, she didn’t have that kind of money on her, he advised her that they took credit cards or she could buy one box and if it worked, then they could mail her the other two.

Then it was my turn.  I’m not going to disrespect Chinese Medicine, but once he read my palm, I felt like he was a bit of a fortune teller, and a herbal tea pusher.  He first said that there was something wrong with my digestion.  I have no concerns about my digestion, so I thought, maybe something is starting and I’m not aware of it.  So I asked him for more information.  He said that I was constipated.  Nope.  Then he asked if I’m regular with my eating and I said normally, but I’ve been travelling for 4 months and there have been irregularities.  Next, he asked if at home I’m on any regular medications.  I said only oral contraception.  Then he replied that I don’t need to take any meds.  Afterwards, I realized that the phrasing of his question made me think of what meds I take at home, but I completely forgot that I was on antimalarial.  Had he asked me if I was taking any toxic meds, then I would have been impressed, but he just seemed to be asking probing questions.  Then he asked about back pain.  I said that I occasionally have it, but it’s not a concern to me.  Then he said, well herbal tea can be used preventatively as well, so I think you should buy a box.

Finally at 5:15 (and we started the day at 8:15), 4 shopping experiences later, we arrived at the Olympic Park.  I was so excited to see the Birds Nest and grab some photos of it.  We were given enough time to walk to the Birds Nest, take a few shots, then to the Water Cube, snap snap, and then back to the van.  If you actually wanted to go into these buildings (which isn’t worth it), you wouldn’t have had the time.  Then back to the hotel by 6:45.  We had wanted to see an acrobatics show that night, but we were too tired to go straight to the theatre.

The Great Wall was fantastic.  I could have used slightly more time there instead of having my feet beat upon and pushy sales people trying to get me to buy overpriced goods.  But, hey, you get what you pay for.  So my advice, if you really don’t want to go these high pressured commissioned based shops, then pay the extra money for a non-subsidized tour and maybe they’ll only take you to one shop!  🙂

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Celebrity Spotting

As an avid traveller, I have been to many regions in the world where I blend in and other than the fact that I have a canon camera hanging around my neck, I could pass for a local.  So when I do travel, I don’t really notice when people stare at me because I look different from them.  (Except for India, I noticed them.  But they weren’t staring because I looked different…)  Here in China, it’s unbelievable how many stares I get.  Even in a city like Shanghai that is filled with expats, people couldn’t take their eyes off of me.  There was this one instance where there was a woman from a hill tribe walking in Shanghai in full hill tribe wear and this man was staring at her and as she passed me, he diverted his gaze to me, as I was the much more interesting to look at.

In Xian, a very touristy city, the stares continued and became even more obvious.  My friend and I had people stopping dead in their tracks to stare.  One guy even walked into a pole, he was so mesmerized.  Then it dawned on us why they were staring so much.  My friend and I could pass for Beyonce and Solange Knowles.  When people have been sneaking photos of us, touching us, saying hello to us and even getting into traffic accidents, it’s been because they thought they were looking at celebs!

There could be another explanation for it.  You see when you travel with someone for a few weeks, 24-7; you can find yourself in 1 of 2 situations.  Either you have nothing to say to each other or you make things up.  In Xian, we were making things up.  We decided that life was a musical ala Andrew Lloyd Webber and as we walked down the streets of Xian, we were conversing through song.  (No we weren’t drinking that day, just a little crazy). So maybe the people of Xian weren’t staring because we looked different, maybe they were staring because they thought that they were watching Beyonce and her sister give a free concert in the street 🙂

Mastering Mahjong (or At Least Muddling Through It)

One of the ways to spend your weekends in China, especially if you are a bit older, is to play cards, Chinese checkers or mahjong in the park.  On some of the weekends, my friend and I would stand and watch the people playing in the park.  We decided to see if we could figure out the game mahjong.  But from watching the people play, our confusion grew instead of obtaining any clarity.  This game wasn’t making any sense to us.  They started with a role of a die and then ended by exchanging playing cards.  We were so confused.

Then when we were in Dali, one of the girls who worked in the hostel that we stayed at, The Jame Emu (which i highly recommend), taught us the game.  Thank God, she taught us, because we tried to teach ourselves using instructions from Wikipedia and were even confused more than in the park.  Although you are using tiles, it is kind of like gin rummy.  There are 3 different suits: stone, bamboo and characters.  Then there are special tiles: wind directions, dragons, blanks and flowers.  We learned the most basic version possible as each province plays it slightly different.  (We learned the Yunnan version and didn’t use the flower tiles).  The die in the beginning is used to decide where each player starts selecting their tiles from and the cards at the end of the game were being used in lieu of money as gambling is part of this game.

Once you have muddled through the rules and have ironed them out, it’s actually a fairly simple game to play.  You play with a hand of 13 tiles.  You pick up tiles and discard tiles to maintain 13 in your hand.  Your discarded tile can be picked up only immediately after being discarded by anyone.  You make groups of 3 of a kind or runs with 3 tiles in your hand.  A winning hand has 14 cards (you pick up a tile and keep it in your hand) with 4 sets of 3 tiles (runs or triplets) and a pair.  I know that there are more nuances to the game, but I now own a set a mahjong and can read through the rules and learn them.  When I get home, I’ll be having some mahjong parties, can’t wait!  Bring your money! 🙂  When I return to China, I’ll be in the park playing.

PS  If anyone can enlighten me with any other rules, I’d love to hear them

Hilltribe Villages and Ricefields

I’ve been in Yunnan now for almost a week and I’m struck at how few western tourists there are here.  It is actually really nice.  It is touristy but with Chinese tourists.  So I find that the local Chinese are intrigued with the foreigners.  My friend and I ventured to Yuanyang which is known for its terraced rice fields.  The best time to see them are in March.  At this time, the ricefields are actually empty but filled with water and if you can get the right sunrise and/or sunset, you can end up with amazing photos.   Photographically, this was amazing.  We only were able to spend one full day there, so we prayed that the weather would be good.  The sunrise was a bit misty which added a certain element to the photos, but I was also able to capture some light bouncing off of the fields.  After about 30 minutes, the mist rolled in and covered everything up.  The sunset was clear, but I really do need to invest in a telephoto lense because the distance between me and the ricefields didn’t do the scenery justice.

Between sunrise and sunset, we had to find other things to do and what we found was a wonderful experience.  We were in a tiny village in Duoyishu and we ventured to explore the village and surrounding villages.  We found ourselves interacting with the people in the villages around.  It started with the owner of the guesthouse who couldn’t speak any English.  She was trying to gesture to us if we wanted dinner and was walking around like a chicken to demonstrate to us what meat she was serving.  I took out the language section of my lonely planet and started saying the words (probably with the wrong intonation) and showing her the characters in order to make sure that we were understanding each other.  We were just laughing at the whole exchange.  The next day, it continued with a little boy trying to wet me with his water gun, but I made him run away, when I produced my water bottle.  We did a bit of chasing before I waved good bye.  We had villagers being so happy to just be able to get a response out of us by saying “hello.”  The strangest interaction was when we were walking down a road and a man was walking his two cows and he turned to us and instead of saying something in chinese (like most do), or saying hello, he meowed at us.  We thought it was so funny we laughed, but realized afterwards we should have barked at him or even mooed.  It was really nice to walk around these villages and just see life happening, like the little boy screaming in his mom’s lap as the barber shaved his head; the man buying 5 live chickens and holding all their legs together in one hand; and the woman drying her hair in the middle of the street in her heels and work clothes.   It was refreshing to be able to observe the these villagers from hill tribes live their lives and that was what was so special about the whole experience. 🙂

The Stone Forest of Shilin

Now I’m in China and had a major shock to the system when I left the humidity of Thailand and arrived in the cold winter of Shanghai.  I could only last 2 days in Shanghai before heading to the south westerly province of Yunnan in hopes of some sun and warmer weather so that I could continue to work on my tan.  My friend from South Africa joined me for my time here which has been nice.  She had read up on the Stone Forest which is in Shilin, Yunnan one hour away from the capital, Kunming.  We went there for a day trip.  The stone forest is a natually occuring forest of karsts (I just recently learned this word).  I had already seen different types of karsts in Halong Bay, Vietnam- jutting out of the water; and in Vang Vieng, Loas- jutting out of the land.  These karsts were much smaller with no vegetation and closely packed together so that you could walk through them, like a forest.  We went out there and joined a German couple to explore this forest.  To be honest, I just thought we were going to walk around and look at stones all day long, but not exactly.  As we entered the forest, a labyrinth of paths had been created that climbed to the tops of the karsts and then steeply descended into valleys.  Some paths were quite narrow and you had to squeeze yourself between rocks.  At first when we started, we noted that there were SOS phones along the path which we found amusing and some maps to sort of orient youself to where the next interesting rock formation was.  Somehow we found ourselves exiting the forest at one of its exits.  At this point, we were still in eager to explore so we turned right around and entered back in to take different paths.  But after 2.5 hours, we wanted to get out of the forest.  Everything started to look the same.  We couldn’t find our way out.  We couldn’t find a map to give us an indication as to where the exits were.  We couldn’t even find one of the amusing SOS phones.  Everytime that the path split, we used one principle to decide which way to go: take the path that was going down.  We were exhausted from the steep climbs up to the tops of the karsts, and we rationalized that to exit the forest we would have to be at ground level anyways, so it made more sense to go down than up.  However, this didn’t always work, because after a few hundred metres the path would start to go up again.  We were tired, we were hot and most of all we were scared that we wouldn’t find our way out of the stone forest.  But after an hour of taking all the wrong turns, we found ourselves on a path that seemed familiar, but you could never be too sure, it was all grey rocks.  Finally, we found civilization and exited the stone forest.  Now that was just one of 5 different forests in the area.  So we rested a bit before going to get lost in the next one…. just joking! 🙂

Thai Chocolates

Don’t be fooled.  This is the name that my cooking school in Chiang Mai used for chillies.  I was only passing through Chiang Mai, but decided to repeat a cooking course that I had done 8 years ago.  When I did the course previously, I wasn’t comfortable at all in the kitchen.  So, now being the culinary chef that I am…hee hee… I decided to do it again and try different dishes.  I had to make pad thai again, but was so shocked to see how simple it was to make.  I don’t remember it being that simple the first time round.  I made a curry, massaman curry, from scratch…well we kinda cheated because we didn’t make the shrimp paste from scratch.  But with a pestle and mortor, we beat out the rest of the ingredients to make the paste and it was so good.  I’m not going to pretend that I’m going to mortar and pestle curry paste every week, but I will try and do this every so often because the pastes you buy from the stores are so fragrant, but they are lacking in taste.  Next, I made sweet and sour chicken.  I have to say I was surprised when ketchup was the base for the sauce, but it was still very yummy.  For dessert, made fried banana in a coconut sauce with ice cream.  My mouth is starting to water just thinking about it.  The best part is that I have the cook book with lots of more recipes, so I can’t wait to start cooking up some of this food and eating it! 🙂