This is my third trip to Beijing, and it feels a little like coming home. The subway card that I’ve been carrying in my wallet since 2010 still works. My travel companion, Pablo, pointed out I was wearing the same shirt I had on when I met him in Beijing the last time when we were on our way to Mongolia. And the beer is still warm and skunky.
Our plan is to catch up in Beijing and then ride trains to the absolute northern most point in China, which is located in a little village north of the small city of Mohe (pronounced more like Moha).
The first couple of nights we stayed at the Fly By Knight in off the Dongsi Station. Lovely place, although I think overpriced for a hostel. It was nice to stay out of the Qianmen area for a bit, which has gotten so overtly touristy. Although, the locals have a bit of a different take on the overbuilt, brand name, “built new to look old” development. Towards the end of the trip we were traveling with a woman from QiQihaar who had never been to Beijing before, and she loved Qianmen stating that it is so “cultural”. After Dongsi, we did move to Qianmen to try to meet some fellow travelers, and stayed at Leo Courtyard Hostel. I definitely do not recommend it, although the courtyard of the old building is nice, the rooms are cheap, windowless Russian Army barracks.
We’ve both been to the Lama Temple before, but with that obsession with temples of mine, I wanted to go again.
This little lady is 26 meters high, and is carved from a single sandalwood tree.
Walking distance from the Lama Temple, is a less visited Confucian Temple. By definition, the art is less concerned with giant statues as it is with texts engraved in rock and the relics of things used in ritual.
The Summer Palace
The summer palace in the way northwest part of the city is another place I’ve visited before, but Pablo had never seen it. It’s definitely worth visiting, but not on a day like this where the pollution is so bad you can hardly see 20 feet in front of you. Compare these photos to the ones I took back in 2009 on clear day.
Bell and Drum Tower
This is a part of town I’d never visited before, and is a great area to find something to eat.
I don’t know if was a product of the pollution, or the fact that we sure as hell ain’t getting any younger, but we definitely did not have the stamina for walking endless distances and seeing all the sites. Besides Pablo is a Spaniard living in Scotland, he requires Siestas at regular intervals.
Beijing is a city that changes relentlessly, while somehow staying the same.
Last year when I went to Beijing with another English teacher from Korea, we didn’t make it to the Temple of Heaven Park until really late. This whole last year I’ve been thinking that I want to see the inside of that temple. So when Pablo and I met up in Beijing with only a couple of days to spare before the train to UB, that’s what we did.
Night time is much better. At night the park was filled with locals dancing, singing, playing hacky sack, drinking, chatting, wandering. During the day it is full of conspicuous foriegners with sunburns and locals trying to sell you everything from cheap plastic toys, to wooden puzzles of the temple, to expensive bottles of water. After seeing so many elaboratly painted temples, not much is that impressive anymore, so seeing the inside of the temple didn’t compare to the glory of last years lights and vibrancy.
After meeting in Beijing in the tourist hell that is Qianmen, my Spanish friend Pablo and I took the thirty-hour leg of the trans-Siberian railway from Beijing to Ulaan Bataar. A common enough way to get into Mongolia.
I had no problem with the length of the train ride. It’s the four hours the bathrooms were closed while they changed train tracks and went through two different border patrols. Luckily we jumped off the train or we would have been stuck for two hours while the train honked horns and slammed onto a different rail gauge over and over again. The second two hours were getting through the Mongolian border where police kept checking all the bunks, pacing the halls, (this is one in the morning mind you), and of course ALL THE BATHROOMS ARE LOCKED. I was dying. And Aunt Flow was making a grand appearance. And after taking my passport for at least two hours – they didn’t stamp it. We’ll see what happens when I try to get out of the country.
From a rainy but beautiful and cool Qingdao, I took an easy express train inland to Ji’nan. This was my favorite of the cities I visited in China. The least touristy, the most friendly, a little off the beaten path, but I felt well worth the couple days I spent there. It is the actual capital of Shandong province, even though Qingdao is a much more modern, and I believe, much bigger city.
I started the day with some great street food. They make amazing breads heated on a griddle, sliced in half when they start to puff up, and this stand was putting shredded potato, carrot, cabbage, a cut up hotdog of specious origin, and an egg inside. A man waved me over to use his little stool so I wouldn’t have to sit on the curb and was fine trying to talk to me and laughing even though I didn’t buy any of his intestine on a stick.
From there I checked into a Lonely Planet recommended hotel behind a gorgeous neighborhood park. The name of the hotel has changed, and I forgot to make a note of the new name (it starts with a Z), but the rates are the same. I had to haggle with her a bit, but it was well worth it and comfy.
From there I headed out to the Muslim quarter where there is an old Chinese style Mosque as well as some smaller Persian style ones tucked into the streets. It was really a gorgeous little refuge. The folks there were extremely welcoming and had no problem with a western woman hanging around and even let me stay and watch the five o’clock prayers. I was trying to stay out of the way and be respectful, but it turned out I was sitting on the steps of Imam’s quarters and was quite embarrassed when he came regally down the steps when the bells started. He just laughed and motioned for me to stay where I was. The singing was stunning.
Chinese Muslims are known for being the most liberal. The kebab street lined with meat shops and stacks and stacks of beer would prove this. Women sitting down and throwing off their head scarves while everyone passes around the Tsingtao. I’m sure that’s not everyone, but it’s quite a large street. The young men I bought some kebabs from and shared a beer with were Buddhists, and my hosts was more than happy to show off his extensive tattoo, as well as the three scars from knife fights he has on the other side.
They taught me the numbers and hand signals for one through ten which proved extremely useful the rest of the trip.
Jin’an is famous for its natural springs, which are lovely, and really just large parks you have to pay to get into.
Thousand Buddha Mountain
This is a lovely park, but I was just too tired from all the walking of the last two weeks to take full advantage of it. I did wander a bit, and stayed on the low level instead of climbing the stairs. I’m not a huge fan of the chubby Buddha who is the focus of this park. It seems he misses the point of the middle way somehow.
The highlight for me was the Ten Thousands Buddha Cave. It’s a mite bit constructed, but it was chilly, out of the sun and had some beautiful as well as creepy examples of Buddhist art.
Qingdao is a small enough city that I could do something that I normally don’t have the guts to do. Just get on buses and see where they go. Except for the first bus I got on which doubled back and negated the hours I had already walked, this worked out highly in my favor. I discovered the 31 bus goes to beach #1, and the 302 goes to beer street where the Tsingdao brewing museum is, and the number 1 makes a loop around the west part of town to all the stuff you would want to see.
Getting back to the side of town where my hostel is prooved to be a bit more difficult. But two school girls who were sitting next to me on the #15, which ended up going nowhere near where I needed to go, asked me where I was from, and then helped me out. The girl had perfect tape-recorder English. I asked if she learned at school from a foreign teacher, and she said she’s never had English lessons at school, she taught herself at home. They got off the bus and insisted on walking me two blocks away to the correct bus number, saying things the whole way like, “please turn left. Now go straight.” Maybe she is practicing tapes that train people how to be GPS voices. They were really delightful.
It’s been funny how many people have tried to hand me chinese language menus. Unlike Korean, which is brilliant, logical, and relatively simple where most people learn how to read and write before they learn how to speak, I know people who have spoken Mandarin for ten years and barely touched reading. One boy at a bus stop asked why I didn’t just read the sign, when I said I couldn’t, the light bulb went off behind his eyes, “of course!” and he bounded over to find the number I needed.
Even in the rain this place was really hopping. I don’t know if it was a special holiday, or if there are just so many people in this area that it’s bound to be packed even on a Wednesday morning. There was so much incense being lit and thrown in the pyres that the sticks were lighting, causing a flame and ash was pouring out the bottom.
South of the temple on the road running perpendicular to the park, I ran into what is going to be a great new venue. A shop called the Instrument and Coffee Shop where a really hip young lady is opening up a music store/coffee shop/bar/music venue. I wish I could be more specfic about the location, but it was within close walking distance after I left the temple. Bus 314 also passes it. She’s not opening for two more weeks, but it looks like it will be a fantastic place.
And one more thing, this hostel, the Big Brother II, which was the only one not booked when I checked way back in July charged me 3 yuan for toilet paper for my room. TP is a hot commodity here.
This morning I shared my pomegranate with the lady at the front desk. She’s been all smiles and really helpful. She seemed really shocked when I shared my fruit with her, and when I came back this evening she had bought a moon cookie for me. So sweet.
For the dozens upon dozens of times I have travelled with absolutely no snags, plenty of time to grab a coffee before boarding, and all the time in the world, my self-confidence in travelling finally caught up to me. Thinking I could roll into Incheon airport an hour before my flight on a busy Tuesday business morning was not the best move.
Thanks to all the work folks who came out to dinner, and especially to Adam, Dan, Tyler, and Jon for a final beer soaked conversation at the tables outside the Family Mart. It still cracks me up that the tables outside of a convenience store are equally as legitimate a meeting and drinking spot as a bar. After a couple of hours rest at the sauna, I jumped on the subway to the airport to find that it both takes a lot longer to get around the magnitude of that airport, and that it was packed. I missed my flight by a good half-hour by the time I could talk to anyone, but they very graciously bumped me to the next flight to Qingdao for no charge (China Eastern Air).
When I checked back in again, I was told that my visa was not renewed in the fashion that I was lead to believe it was. Because I’m past my initial year, I had to go to the immigration office and get a re-entry permit, even though I was under the impression that my visa and everything was renewed and good to go. That wouldn’t have been such a big deal, except no one would tell me what to do in full. I get a ticket. The first lady says I need to fill out a form “over there.” I fill out the form. Get a ticket. The second lady says I need “permit stamps” to go with the form. Well why didn’t the first lady tell me that? I go to get the permit stamps – which are really just those, three nice stamps. I’ve already changed all my money to Yuan and US Dollars though, so I have to go to an ATM, get more Won, come back, buy the stamps from the lady who is doing Korean yoga in her seat and trying to ignore me, and then: get a ticket.
I don’t know what they do with those lovely stamps. All I know is that they didn’t end up as nice decoration in my passport.
After a final bulgogi bibimbop and some coffee, I make it without further snag onto the plane, and pass out for the brief hour and a half ride to Qingdao.
So far things are going well, and I am extremely grateful that people here are so helpful. There were no maps of the city to be found at the airport, and without the bus drivers prompting, there would have been no way for me to know which stop to get off at. The first thing I notice is that the visibility is horrible. Probably less than 1km. Another thing is the diversity in cityscape compared to Korea. To me, every Korean city and town essentially looks the same. I don’t know if one major developer has dibs on the entire country, or if all the developers build in the same style, but really, the whole country is a carbon copy of itself. Here there are the same highrise apartments in clusters, but the style of each cluster is a little different. The skyline is diverse with some unique buildings, and there is a much more liberal use of color here that doesn’t involve neon signs.
Instead of being a coastal industrial town, Qingdao has taken the route of making money by attracting people to the coast with beaches and parks along the water. It’s really nice, refreshingly clean, and a super friendly city. I’m going to hang out for an extra day and relax. The downfall is that I’m having trouble figuring out where the buses go, and other than taxis, there isn’t another form of public transportation. I have an aversion to taking taxis, even when they are cheap, unless absolutely necessary as a budget backpackers and exploration rule.
Filed under: Taiwan, Travel | Tags: flea market, taipe mosque, Taipei 101 building
At some point during the second day of my trip in Taipei, I realized the city is much smaller than it appears. After taking a little rest for the morning, I headed out on foot to find the next relic of my religious architecture tour. A mosque that was built in Taipei in 1960 and today serves as a worship place for the small number of Muslims living in Taipei, as well as a Chinese/Muslim cultural exchange center. I thought it was a lovely building, and it wasn’t a far walk from the hostel I was staying in at all.
When I got to the Mosque, I had a clear shot of the Taipei 101 building, another destination for the day, so I decided to walk there, just using the building as a guide. It ended up taking only a couple of hours to walk all the way across town. I’m really glad that I did it and had a few nice detours on the way. I stopped at a Sat./Sun. flea market that is one of those places that people who only stick the subway would never find. A parking lot for the surrounding businesses during the week, it turns into a great local wares market on the weekends. An older man who spoke fantastic English invited me to sit down for a cup of tea. It turned out he used to live in Texas for a few years, and was happy to meet a travelling American. We had a great conversation about Asian relations, teaching English in Taiwan, and a little comparison of Taiwan to Korea. He couldn’t help making a little jab at Korea when I mentioned how friendly I found Taiwanese people. “Korea is a colder place, so Korean people are a little bit colder.” I’m not sure if this is justifiable, but his small showing of Taiwanese loyalty was appreciated.
The warmer nature of Taiwan definitely shows in the landscape. The parks are filled with palm trees, and it was a good 15F warmer than Korea. The vegetation was completely different, and after hearing horror stories of what a crowded, industrial place Taipei is, I actually found it to be amazingly green and lush. They’ve done a lot of work to create gorgeous public spaces, and the hills surrounding the city were already completely green compared to the barely sprouting spring at home.
Considering how crowded Taipei is, it’s actually a much, much smaller city than Seoul. By some accounts Seoul is the second largest city in the world at 20 million people. But I almost never feel crowded in Seoul (well, except for yesterday, the Saturday holiday in Myeongdong – that was kind of nightmarish). It’s a spread out city that covers a huge geographical area. Taipei was a rather small city, and at less than 3 million isn’t that populated, but at a density of 10,000 people per square km, it feels a lot bigger. Seoul’s population density is less than half that at about 4,000 people per square km.
The Taipei 101 building is a feat of engineering. Taiwan gets frequent earthquakes (they had a 6.9 the morning after I left), and this is literally the only tall building in the city. But they didn’t build it to be the only tall building, until the Burj Dubai was finished last year, it was the tallest building in the world. (Korea has a Lotte World building in Busan planned that is proposed to be taller than Taipei 101, but shorter than then Burj Dubai). So much planning had to go into the anti-earthquake technology, that an entire Discovery documentary was done just on this building.
Don’t hate me for saying this, but my honest opinion of the 101 building is that it looks like a bunch of Chinese take-out boxes stacked up on top of each other. I had a great Indian food lunch in the international cafe on the basement floor of the building. One really nice thing is that there is a free shuttle bus from the 101 mall to the closest subway station (which to someone who just walked across the entire city, was not really all that close.)
Andrew Zimmerman’s show Bizarre Foods did an episode on Taiwan. It was cool to go back and watch this after I had been there. It’s always exciting to see an exotic street you’ve walked down on TV. There was a horrible, horrible rotting stench that existed on almost every food street. I assumed it was rotting trash, but I was informed that it is actually the smell of “stinky tofu” the national “treat” of Taiwan. A highly fermented half-rotten delicacy of tofu.
A tour of the food court in Taipei 101. There was actually a ton of Korean food.