China (Yangshuo): Moving to the Countryside – by Clay

Ah, the wisdom is seeping in 😉

We left our Xi’an apartment early in the morning to catch a taxi for the airport but this time I asked our helpful hosts to write out “Could you take us to the airport?” in Chinese characters the night before so I could show it to the driver. Our hosts couldn’t very well refuse since our apartment had a leaky ceiling from the apartment above and I managed to negotiate a discounted rate for our stay (bargoons! just warming up for the markets in Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia!).

We carried our gear down to the street, flagged a taxi (which was pretty quick at 7:00 a.m., before rush hour), and I managed to say “Chih-cheong” (airport) and the driver nodded in understanding. We loaded the luggage and I showed the driver my written request to which he kind of looked at me like I had two heads and had this look of “I understood you the first time, fool”. Well the rest was pretty mundane. We got to the airport, flew to Guilin, a driver from our new hostel drove us to Yangshuo and we arrived safely by mid afternoon.

Our hostel is called The Cosy Garden. It’s a typical hostel where there is a shared kitchen, you can cook your own food and clean up after yourself. We noticed there are a lot of Europeans on holiday here with a few French families and couples here and there and a German lady I said “Hi, how are you”, “I come from Canada” and “I’d like a beer please” in German to. Needless to say she hasn’t said another word to me.

The hostel is set about 2km outside of the town of Yangshuo so you have to walk or rent a bicycle to get there. We walked there the first time and found a local eatery out on the street of this trendy restaurant alley. We were told that one end was very touristy with expensive Western-style (i.e., North American) food and the other end was much cheaper and had local fare. Well we walked the row and decided on a local menu, primarily because it had pictures of the dishes they were offering and we could just point to the ones we wanted. Barb and the boys ordered steamed pork dumplings and I had the “outer covering intestine beef noodle”. I know it doesn’t sound that appealing but it tasted great – a little spicy – but great.

There was a group of families sitting at the table near us and they were having a blast watching and laughing at us. Finally, this 12-year old girl, who was cajoled by her mother, plucked up the courage to speak English to us. Apparently they have English lessons in school from kindergarten until grade 8 and the mother wanted the daughter to practice it out in public with real, live English-speakers. She said “Hello”, “Nice day, isn’t it?” (even though it was evening) and “How are you?” amidst a lot of giggling. Being a teacher I’m used to working with children so I listened patiently and answered her back very slowly and clearly, enunciating each word clearly so she could understand. Then in return I would ask “jegga jowshima?” (what is this) so I could learn some new Chinese words like spoon, fork, etc. In the end it was fun and by the time we left all her little brothers and sisters were saying all the English phrases they knew to us. One little boy even said, “I’ll be back” in his best Arnold Schwartzengger!

From the food stall we walked up to the market and picked up some fresh local mango and bananas that we could have for breakfast and headed back to the hostel. Thankfully, most of the accommodation have air con units installed in the rooms. Unfortunately, Caleb and Barb felt horrible in the night and seemed to have food poisoning. A day later Connor succumbed to it as well. We concluded that it wasn’t the local food we had but rather the shared kitchen at the hostel. One French family seemed to have two of their kids out of commission and one of the front counter girls was also ill. A day off and lots of (filtered) water later everyone was back to normal.

Other highlights include Barb and Connor renting bikes to explore the dirt trails up and around the limestone mountains and getting caught in a torrential rain storm, all of us going to the Yangshuo river and light show where they explained and demonstrated the local history and legends of the region and starting Math lessons with the boys. Yes, it’s still summer holidays officially but they’re keen to do some math so we gave in.

We moved from The Cosy Garden hostel to The Giggling Tree hostel, also outside of Yangshuo. This one is even further outside of the town and is much more scenic and peaceful. It is run by a Dutch family who have committed to a 20 year lease before they will return to the Netherlands for a bit of “regular” life. It’s a very nice place to stay but more expensive than our last place. And because it is more remote it is harder to find local food or markets to get our own food. Everything so far has come from the hostel kitchen.DSCF9094 DSCF9175

The boys are currently swimming (this place has a pool, which was a very welcome surprise for them – Barb knew it had one but wasn’t sure if it would be suitable or a breeding ground for disease). It’s 33C, feeling like 38 with humidity. We’re all healthy and continuing on as planned.

China (Yongshuo): Biking Around – by Connor

A few days after we got to the hostel in Youngshuo my mom and I decided to go on a bike ride. We followed the paved road for a while but then we thought we’d go off-road on this dirt path we saw on our map. The path was very rough and had sharp rocks jutting out all over the place. To make things even more difficult the path was also quite hilly. As we travelled along the path we saw dark clouds move in and the rain began to pour down on us. We didn’t mind getting wet because it was 35C and the rain helped to cool us off but all that water made the path muddy and very slippery. At points we had to push our bikes downhill due to the mud. What should have taken us an hour to complete actually took three hours due to the rain. We were exhausted when we finally returned to the hostel. I had to take a shower afterwards!DSCF9090

China (Xi’an): Connor’s Birthday in China – by Connor

It was finally my birthday and I couldn’t wait to see the Terracotta Warriors. The bus picked us up and we drove for 2 hours to get to the Terracotta Warriors. We stopped at huge rock saying, “The Emperor’s tomb is that big hill over there”. The guide showed us which hill to look at and told us that it was manmade and you could take some pictures. We got on the bus again and traveled back to the Terracotta area. Caleb and I had to go with the guide to get special entrance tickets and she took us somewhere and told us to sit on a bench and wait. She came back to get us and finally we met up with our parents again.

When we got to the Terracotta Warriors there were 3 pits that you could visit. We started in pit number 2 which showed you 5 warriors that they had pieced together. In pit 3, there were about 36 warriors. They were all commanders and officials. We went to pit 1. It was a huge dome with 2,000 warriors pieced together. It was very interesting, and they say that workers from Germany and some from China come to work on the Terracotta army every night. They think it will take 40 years to finish pit number 2 and 60 years to finish pit number 1.DSCF9025IMGP0517

When we got home I decided I wanted to play cards and watch a movie for my birthday. We watched Ice Age 4 but then it was too late to play cards so we decided my birthday would have to continue until the next day! (It was still my birthday in Canada until 12:00 p.m. the next day!)

One of my favourite activities is biking, so the next day we went to the Xi’an city wall and rented bikes. You can bike all the way around the city on the wall, which is about 14 km – which I could do! The bikes took a little getting used to because you couldn’t adjust the seats. They were quite tall and Caleb tried to use it but almost hurt himself so he decided to ride on the tandem with Daddy. I tried and managed to get up so mommy and I rode the single bikes.DSCF9071 DSCF9069

When we got back we went to a special café near our apartment and had waffles. I ordered a waffle which was about the size of a dinner plate! The food was really good and you got whipped cream and syrup with it. I ate it all! After that we went to our apartment and played cards.

I would love to have my birthday in China again!

China (Xi’an): Tales of our Xi’an Accommodation Continued – by Clay

Well, we’ve gone to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, the tomb of an Emperor (which was basically a very large man-made hill) and biked along the top of the original city walls in Xi’an. All wonderful experiences but housing still seems to be the bane of our existence. We’ve been locked out of our apartment twice now (the number code on the door just didn’t seem to work) and a leak has developed over the bed in the master bedroom. We moved the bed to one side so then it only dripped on me instead of both of us. Then we dragged the mattress to the floor on the other side of the room, stuck a garbage can under the drip and phoned the guys who rented us the place figuring they’d want to know. Well they dropped by around 10:30 at night after we were already in bed to look at the dripping. “I think it stopped” they both said. “No, actually, it’s just slowed down but it’s still dripping” we said. They said they’d go talk to the tenant in the unit above us and see if anything could be done. They came back half an hour later and reported that there was no water on the floor upstairs. Great, but that doesn’t solve the leaking onto the bed down here. We said we’d deal with it and kept the garbage can under there. I hope they offer us some sort of rebate on the accommodation but I’m not holding my breath. That doesn’t seem to be the custom around here. We leave for Guilin tomorrow morning and I’m sure I’ll have more travel stories!

China (Xi’an): A New Place to Stay – by Clay

Well, you’d think that experience would bring wisdom and wisdom would help make things easier…….but no.

We left our Beijing apartment around 8:00 a.m. and I had downloaded a speaking phrasebook to my phone so I would be able to at least say where we wanted to go and add a few other words to my Chinese repertoire (which only consisted of “ee ping peejoe” which means “a bottle of beer” and “sheh sheh” which is “thank-you”).

We flagged a cab and I managed to say “train station” in Chinese while pointing to the Chinese characters for the West Beijing Railway Station on a piece of paper we got from the helpful proprietor of the City Walls Hostel. He nods and says something back to me to which I reply “I don’t speak Chinese” in Chinese and he gives me this look as if to say “You just did – twice!”

We get there without problem (other than slow traffic), managed to find our gate and board this really sleek, high-speed train that travels at about 300kph. Our trip to Xi’an was about 6h and was very comfortable and uneventful. We had planned to find SIM cards for our phones once we reached Xi’an but there was nothing resembling a phone kiosk anywhere so we decided to head straight to our apartment. No sooner had we left the departure gate and were heading to the taxi stand, when w were approached by a friendly, English-speaking man named Jack who offers us a taxi ride to where we’re going for $100. Plus he’s offering to take us on a tour of the city. He tells us we don’t have to wait in line for the metered taxis which could be an hour or more. Well, I’m far too trusting – he has a big friendly smile to match my own so he must be a good guy, right? Thankfully, Barb is a little more wary and whispers to me that she read we should be careful about scammers at this station (Lonely Planet is our friend). We politely declined and headed for the metered taxis. Turns out it only took 3 minutes to get a taxi since there was about 100 of them waiting.

So we jump in a taxi and it turns out that the driver doesn’t speak a lick of English except to say, “No English”. Well, we were prepared for this and I said “Binguan” (hotel) and showed him the phone number of the English/Chinese speaking proprietor of our apartment. The driver called and tried asking me all kinds of questions which I didn’t understand DSCF8979nor was I prepared for this. Barb had a map showing the location of the apartment and I had my maps app on my phone so between the two I was able to find a rough route to the apartment. The driver in the meantime was talking on the phone and he passed over the phone to me. It was some lady who spoke more English than the driver but not by much. In the end she managed to ask me if I could give the driver directions to which I agreed.

As we went along I saw landmarks that were on the map so I felt better. Eventually we got to the the proper street but we didn’t know which building it was and the driver drove up and down the same street while talking on the phone. We pulled over in front of this one building and this young man comes over and says, “Barbara?”. Wow, deja vu. I’m sensing a pattern here. It’s our contact Danny Zhang. He has a bit of an exchange with the taxi driver, who we pay and he’s on his way.

Danny leads us up the elevator to the 16th floor and shows us the apartment which is much more spacious, bright, clean, and air conditioned than our last place and all for a lower price! The only downside is that the building from the outside and in the hallways looks like a post-apocalyptic war movie set.  DSCF8982DSCF8980

Barb confessed later that she was starting to get a bit anxious about what was going to happen if we couldn’t find the place. I figured there wouldn’t be an issue for housing since there are a number of hotels around. Still this place is seeming to be a bit of a step up from the last place.

China (Beijing): The Great Wall! – by Connor

We arrived at the Great Wall. The view was really nice. The wall was very high up and I wondered how we were going to get up there. Were we going to have to climb when it was so hot? We first got the tickets for the slide. We learned that to get to the top you can take a ski lift, a cable car, or you can walk (if you have lots of energy! And lots of water!) We first took the ski lift up to the Great Wall. We took a few pictures and then went to the slide. The toboggan was basically two metal bars with a plastic seat on them. You have a lever that you push forward to go fast or pull back to stop. The slide was IMGP0428a metal half pipe that curved back and forth from the top of the Great Wall down to the base.

I was too young to go by myself so I had to go with my mom on a double toboggan. At first we started going quite fast but there were about 6 people in front of us who kept stopping. This guy, who was several toboggans ahead would stop to film something, even though there were big signs telling you not to do that and the workers are yelling at everyone to keep going! I would recommend the toboggan ride but it would be more fun if you weren’t behind people who kept stopping!

After our toboggan ride we took the cable car to a higher section of the wall. You can walk for days and days on the wall. We walked a couple kilometres but it was very hot and humid.DSCF8998 DSCF9009 DSCF8994

After walking on the wall we had lunch in a local restaurant. You sit at a table and they bring about 10 different dishes and put them on a big Lazy Susan in the middle of the table. We had to learn very quickly how to use chopsticks because that’s all you had! You put the rice in your little bowl and put the other food on your plate then you would take a bit of food and a bit of rice and eat them together. It was tasty!

China (Beijing): Peking Duck never tasted so good! – by Barb

After a very hot, tiring morning at Forbidden City we thought we would head to a restaurant close by for lunch. I had read about a restaurant that had real Beijing Peking Duck – one of the foods Beijing is famous for. Unfortunately it was closed for renovations which meant we would need to walk further to get to another restaurant. It was now nearing close to 2 p.m. and none of us had eaten since breakfast and we were starting to fade. The heat and humidity didn’t help. We stopped into a small grocery store and got some nuts and juice so that we wouldn’t pass out and continued on our way! After about 1 ½ hours of walking we arrived at the restaurant. I’m sure we looked like a sorry sight, red-faced with sweat dripping and backpacks in tow! The restaurant, on the other hand, looked rather elegant. There was a nice red carpet leading up to the door and you could see the chefs in the back with their tall paper hats working away. According to our reliable Lonely Planet guide, this restaurant is usually lined up out the door, but at 2:30 in the afternoon there was hardly anyone around! What luck!

The hostess was very kind and didn’t even turn down her nose at us but led us to a nice big table in the dining room. We then received a menu, with not an English word or Roman letter on it anywhere. We were too hungry to give up now though! I told Clay that according to my reading it was considered OK to look at what other people were eating and to motion that we would like what they have. He didn’t feel we were quite that desperate yet, however, and decided we should refer to the pictures in our menu. There was a nice picture inside the cover of a duck with some wraps, cucumber, and a few other things. We motioned for a waiter to come over and showed him this page, pointed to the four of us, and hoped for the best.

IMG_0151 Within 10 minutes a duck showed up at our table, along with someone to carve it for us. He stood at a little table beside ours and carved up the duck onto plates. Then they brought several other little dishes of things to the table, none of which we really knew what to do with! I guess we looked pretty lost because a very kind and helpful hostess came over to the table and picked up a piece of duck with her chopsticks and showed us how to eat it with the cucumber, flower petal, onion, and sauce, nicely tucked into a wrap. Once she’d prepared one for each of us she left us to finish our meal. We were so grateful! And wouldn’t you know – the duck tasted amazing! Caleb said he thought this was his new favourite food! I think not having eaten for 7 hours may have had a little to do with it but I’m glad we all enjoyed it!IMG_0152

China (Beijing): Forbidden City – by Caleb

Today we visited to the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is one of the most popular historical tourist attractions in the world. When we got there, there were thousands of people lined up to get in. We waited for ½ an hour in a line just to get passed security. Finally we got passed security and went to the entry gate and discovered we needed to have tickets to get passed this point. The people at the ticket gate told us the ticket booth was 100 m behind us, so we walked back to a small place where a few people were. We asked for tickets but the people said we were still in the wrong place and we needed to go another 100 m behind us! Finally we got to the ticket booth and waited in line for an hour to get our tickets. Once we got in it was worth it. It was huge! I learned a lot of things while I was there.

The Forbidden City consists of 9,999 rooms. 25 Emperors lived in the Forbidden City over 500 years. No one but the royal family and the court could enter the Forbidden City. In the city there are 1,000,000 artifacts. You can tell how important a building is by how many statues there are in it. The most important buildings are allowed to have no more than 10 statues. There is a 26 foot high wall behind the moat to protect the city. All of the buildings are for the emperors many wives. The emperor had to take care of the wives even after they were too old to “sleep with him”. There were huge vats, as big as me, which held water to put out the fires. (Most of the city was made of wood, and it often caught fiIMGP0354re.) They covered the vats with blankets in the winter to keep the water from freezing.DSCF8935

The main downside to visiting the city was that it was very repetitive; every section looked identical; it was hot and very crowded. Other than that it was great.

China (Beijing): The Forbidden City (a Lesson in Personal Space) – by Barb

Today we decided to visit the Forbidden City. Thankfully we had already figured out the metro so we could save a little bit of walking by traveling a couple of subway stops and getting off right at the Forbidden City. When we came out of the metro, however, we were greeted with throngs of people who apparently were standing in line waiting to get in to the Forbidden City. I was a little annoyed that we hadn’t made it out of the apartment earlier to avoid the crowds but figured there was nothing we could do about it now. Of course, the temperature was already a nice balmy 37 degrees, with about 98% humidity so it was oh-so comfortable sandwiched between thousands of sweaty odoriferous people. I’m not sure how anyone thinks that it helps the line to move faster if they press themselves up against one another but that seems to be the norm. After 40 minutes squished in line, we finally went through a security scanner and came out into the open. We thought this was the entrance but it turned out we had to move into another line and go through another gate. Once ‘inside” we were told we needed to go to yet another line to get tickets. By this point Clay and the boys were looking a little wilted so I offered to stand in line to get the tickets while they waited under a tree. The line was, of course, out in the direct sun and moved at a snail’s pace. Again, people left next to no space between one another – making those of us who are used to a nice big circle of North American personal space, feel just a little uncomfortable. To add to the fun, the man behind me seemed to think it was a good time to “yell” at all of his buddies on his cellphone at top volume in Chinese. Then he would step up beside me in line, as though he might just be able to sneak past me at some point, if I didn’t seem to pay too close attention. Well, enough was enough, I gave him my “nasty” look and stepped out in front of him, and put my hands over my ears to show that I didn’t appreciate losing my hearing while waiting and burning to a nice crisp in the ticket line. I think he found this quite amusing and said something cheerfully to his wife and daughter. After 1 ½ hours we did finally manage to get tickets and enter the Forbidden City. Of course by this point we were very tired and hungry – I wonder how early we would have had to have been to be first in line?!DSCF8937

China (Beijing): Lost in a Hutong – by Clay

Well, we left the hotel at noon today, jumped in a taxi and headed to our “Real Beijing” apartment. The driver took us through a mildly harrowing ride through the city (for which I am glad we are not trying to drive through because traffic lights and pedestrian safety seems to be secondary, possibly even tertiary, to driver rights.

Anyway, the driver drops us off on some grotty street and points down an even grottier alleyway. All we have is the address of … Hutong. Hutong means “alley” in Chinese by the way. Barb just starts walking down the alleyway and since we don’t have SIM cards for our phones we couldn’t call our apartment contact. After about 15 minutes it’s apparent that we are just further and further into the bowels of this area and I see that Caleb’s face is registering some mild panic. He even suggested we head back to the spot where the taxi dropped us off. I start saying, “Ni-hao” to everyone who passes us and point to the address written on our piece of paper. They all look and it and shake their heads because it’s written in our English alphabet, not in Chinese characters. My panic level is starting to rise as well!

As we work our way back to our drop off spot Barb suggests we look for a store to buy a SIM card so we can call the apartment lady. I spot this hole in the wall store no bigger than the main floor bathroom in our house and try not to butcher the pronunciation of “Xiaoju Hutong” while pointing to the 33. The man seemed to understand and rattled off about 100 words of instructions on how to get there in Mandarin. My face must have looked panicked and I motioned him to follow me out to the street and I pointed in a vague direction with a questioning look on my face. He pointed down the grotty alley we had just come from but made a “veer to the right through that sketchy arch” hand motion (adjective mine). I smiled and said “shey shey” and headed in that direction with Barb and the boys in tow. We go through the arch and the alley veers right and we spot a number 26 so we keep going to find the 33. At one point we manage to find 32 and 34 but there is no 33! These three little girls sitting in the alleyway call out “Hi” and “Hello”. Obviously we are sticking out horrendously as tourists. I asked the girls where 33 was and they just laughed and shook their heads.

Well, my panic was starting to rise even more and I just prayed really quick for help. We turned around and this man could tell we were in distress and he approached me. Again I tried by best at pronouncing and he looked around and led us a short way back, about 40m. We had passed the place and not even known it. So we head in and this alley makes the alleyway look like the 407. We follow it to a dead end and I’m sure this is where the taxi driver has texted his mugging buddies to lie in wait for us. Then I hear a voice from behind call out, “Barbara?” – it was our contact.

The apartment is very small and cramped by North American standards and some things take a little getting used to – such as the toilet stall that doubles as a shower, never mind that the electronics are all open and susceptible to shorting due to the spray of water but hey, when in Rome…

We explored the inner city a little bit but stayed to major streets and I took pictures every 100-200m or so, not of people or interesting buildings but of street signs. If we got lost I had a “trail of bread crumbs” that we could follow back to the apartment and could show people if we got really lost because the signs were in Chinese characters that they could read.DSCF8943 DSCF8939 DSCF8965

I think the boys are overwhelmed and experiencing the double whammy of extreme culture shock and jet lag. We came back after walking a bit further find out about booking a Great Wall tour and off to bed they went. Not even any bargaining to stay up later!