IndyJunior © Bryan Boyer

Friday, June 30, 2006

The Chairman Himself

Who would have thought that we would be able to see the Father of the PRC? Yes that's right...Chairman Mao's body has apparently been preserved since his death and is now on display in the Mausoleum built in Tiananmen Square.

We took a trip there and unfortunately, you can't bring anything in, no camera, no bags, no water bottles, so needless to say I'll try to describe it for everyone.

The mausoleum is huge. I'm thinking it's about 200 x 200 m and about 8 stories high. We lined up in one long line 4 wide. As you go into the building the line is split into 2's and we go around a large statue of Mao sitting. Lot's of people were laying flowers at the statues feet. Once around the statue and behind the wall, the lines meet up and go beside both sides of a glass room where in the center laid the Chairman with 2 guards behind his bed by the wall. So strange to see. After all these years that his body is still out for display. It's up for debate whether this is a tribute to the man or not.

I did get and extra special treat by being dragged by a security guard cause I guess he wanted to keep the 2 wide line going. We were just coming around the corner after the statue and this guy is shouting something at me and motioning with his hands to move up...I motioned back that I was with Jenni and all I hear is "aiy" and then he grabs my arm and yanks me up about 5 feet. I was pretty much laughing the whole time and Jenni was coming up right behind me laughing too. Lot's of fun. I guess the good thing that came out of that was we were in the inside lane, right beside the glass to see Mao without people in front of us!


Thursday, June 29, 2006

What Line?

Well, we made it into Beijing with no problems other than the mad scramble we had to make to get onto the train to Beijing.

Line ups are a funny thing here. When we got onto the platform, there were these workers holding up signs for which car we go into and they spent a lot of time to get everyone into a line up two people wide.

I tell you it's not easy to get people here to line up but in the end, it was all good. Unfortunately, the train is late so everyone is getting a bit frustrated but hey, we were still in a line!

Once the train came, it ended up stopping about 10 feet to our left and from the moment the train stopped, it was pretty much "what line"? A free for all ensued to get to the door. And since we have pretty big bags and wanted to get them into the area we were sleeping in, we both made a rush.

I tell you I was shoving old ladies, little kids and anyone else who got in my way in a rush to get on.

My apologies to everyone...

Monday, June 26, 2006

Hohhot's not so hot...

Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China. A stone's throw away from Mongolia which much of the same scenery plus the usual Chinese influences.

As our LP book says, if you want to see Mongolia, go to Mongolia...

Advice which I say can be taken seriously. For whatever reason something about this town has irked me.

Could be from the multiple tour guide touts trying to sell us trips into the grasslands while we were looking at a room, or from the fact the hotel reception warned us about watching our money if we are at the train station, or from the fact that the restaurant we just ordered lunch at didn't have the beef noodle soup we wanted but instead proceeded to give us some noodle soup with egg and tomato! WTF?!? rage aside, there's not a heck of a lot to see here and unless you want to go to Mongolia, I wouldn't bother to stop here.

An aside to Mongolia, there's a consulate here you can get your visa at, and you can buy the Hohhot to Ulanbaataar train tickets directly from the train station thus avoiding those expensive travel agent fees.

3 sleeper trains in less than a week...

We're now set to go on our third sleeper train to Beijing. Woo hoooo! We have gone from Turpan, Xinjiang to Beijing in 5 days. Why you ask? You'll have to check out Jenni's blog about that. Needless to say, we are once again killing time in these internet cafe's.

Our first leg had us going 23 hrs from Turpan back to Lanzhou. One night there and we were on our next 16 hrs trip from Lanzhou to Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. Another night here and we are now waiting for our 11 hr trip into Beijing.

You can only imagine how we smell since I'll have been wearing the same "train" clothes without washings in between. NICE!

We've also slimmed down the east coast sights since our visa is running out soon. I do plan to get drunk at the Tsingtao Brewery though(don't worry, I'll have a beer for everyone! :) ). But other than that and the main cities, we'll be done within a couple weeks.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Sleeper Buses vs. Sleeper Trains

We were told that taking overnight trips to new places is a great way to reduce cost since you don't need to pay for a hotel and you are moving while you would not normally be doing anything. It is so true and here in China there are two ways to go. Sleeper buses and sleeper trains.

We had only taken sleeper trains up until just recently. Being in Hotan on the Southern Silk Road, there were no railroads in that part of Xinjiang Province and so our only choice was to take a sleeper bus. It was the "express" bus (which really means it stops in less cities as opposed to going direct) and was set to take 20 hours to go from Hotan back to Urumqi.

What the heck is a sleeper bus right? Right! I had never seen one until we hit China. They're the size of a Greyhound bus but instead of seats, they've got a bunch of beds 2 high in 3 rows running the length of the bus and NO washroom (that's what the road is for.) I pictured us stopping by the road side and everyone getting off and scattering for cover, but that wasn't always the case. Although sometimes it might have been better! :)

We didn't know what to expect going in. From the outside, you think the beds are high up off the ground so when we bought the tickets we asked for the lower beds thinking you can sit with your feet on the groud like a chair. Well, once getting on the bus, we found out the lower bunk is about 3 inches off the floor! Nice. And you (well, I) couldn't sit up straight without hitting the top bunk. I guess you're supposed to lie down the enitre trip. In any case, take the top bunk. It's much less stuffy and a wee bit more headroom.

We also got yelled at because we didn't take our shoes off. But we had no idea that they do that and provided a little bag to put them in too! Cool.

I tell you there's not much room to move! The beds not much bigger than your body width. And for those with motion sickness? Don't even think about this. You feel every bump and roll of the bus so much more while lying down. When turning corners, you almost have to hang on.

Now, being an overnight bus, you think you can sleep right? Other than the bumps keeping you up, the bus stops about every 3 hours for washroom breaks. You want to sleep but the driver is screaming at you to go pee!

I didn't mention that there are 2 drivers and they take shifts driving throughout the trip. They were in the bed behind mine and I guess when one of the guys shifts ended at 2:30 am, he wasn't sleepy and proceeded to try to talk to me. For some reason the usual "I don't understand" didn't work and he kept going and going. I kept not understanding but by the end of my conversation, I know that he thinks Canada is a good country, and that I have a great wife (his thumbs up to me was what gave me the impression!). Don't get me wrong though, these 2 drivers were really nice to us and always made sure we were back on before heading out, it's just; it was 2:30 am man! :)

We have taken many sleeper trains recently as distances between cities have been quite far. The shortest ride has been about 10 hours with the longest coming today. Our trip from Turpan to Lanzhou is going to be 24 hours. Within these trains, they have hard sleepers and soft sleepers.

Hard sleepers have beds stacked 3 high (6 per compartment) while softs have 2 and doors to separate the compartments. Softs also have nicer washrooms, attendants to do stuff for you, slippers to wear etc. Hards have a bed.

Of course the soft is more expensive than the hard sleepers. Almost double the price. We decided to try it once on a 23 hr ride and found that it's not really worth the extra money. The room was stuffy with the door closed and you end up being locked in a room with up to two other people you don't know. Are they gonna rob you? Who's gonna hear? etc...I admit the beds were wider, you get a reading light and less noise but double the price?

I didn't mention that prices (trains and buses) for the bunks are different with the lower bunks more expensive than the upper ones. Don't know why but that's the way it is. There's usually about a 10-20 Yuan difference in the bunks.

Overall, I would say, if you can go by train, do it! Much more comfortable, less bumpy and we have actually come to enjoy it a bit. Cool scenery and you get to walk around. But go hard sleeper instead and spend the extra money you saved on food and beer!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Rolling Casino

We've made it to Hotan and have been resting up for our first ever sleeper bus experience through the desert (I hope the bus doesn't break down!).

Our trip in to Hotan however was much more interesting. From Kashgar, we stopped one night in a small town named Yecheng. It's small...real small it's not on our map because it's that small! ;) Anyhoo, one night and next morning we're off to Hotan. A 5 hour bumpy ride. We reached the "South" Hotan bus station and some people got off and some people got on and just as the bus took off again, some guy starts yelling something in Chinese and pulls out 3 playing cards. 2 Jacks and a 4. Puts them face down on top of his jacket over his lap and starts to move them around like in the carnivals where they shift cups with a ball or cards around and you need to guess where it is.

Well, he starts this and some other people on the bus were pretty eager to play. First dude puts in 50 Yuan. The guy starts by showing where all the cards are and proceeds to shift them around. You can totally follow the 4 and for whatever reason, this guy picks the wrong card. He looked so surprised too. I was thinking no way he couldn't have followed. Then he decides to put in another 50. Shuffle shuffle shuffle...bam, same thing. Picks the wrong card!?!? "No way" I'm thinking.

Well, after that, some other guy across the isle beside me starts talking and so the dealer moves into the seat in front of him. Great, I can see clear now and so can Jenni. This new guy decides to put in like 90 Yuan and AGAIN picks the wrong card. We both saw the way the dealer shuffled and there's no way you can miss it.

Another guy from the front of the bus comes back, throws 100 Yuan in and loses the same way. I think this guy overdid it a bit, he's asking about all the rules really loud. "What if I put 50 in, what do I get?" (That's what I think anyways.) And then the dealer tries to get some other people to play including us.

We're not suckers, so we said no and the charade kept going. The guy beside me checks out the cards to make sure they're legit by crimping the corner of the 4, the dude who was asking all the questions put more money in but this time won back what he had lost. Then the dealer keeps trying to get us to play. I'm thinking everyone who has played so far is in on this. No one wanted to play and after a while, the bus comes to a stop. I don't even know how far we went but all of the guys who played in the beginning got off...and I was watching the dealer as he was trying to sucker some more people, but he ended up getting off too!

Looking back as the bus drove off you can see the 5 of them chatting together! What a riot. It WAS a scam! The locals behind us started laughing too cause they knew it was all faked.

I wish I knew what they would have done if we decided to play. My guess is, he would have saw the crimp in the card and said he needs new cards and these would have the trick in them. The driver had to be in on it too.

What great fun. I just hope we can recognize other scams when they occur.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Are there any goat's left?

I thought only Germans ate a lot of meat but was I wrong! Xinjiang province, China is equal to it for sure.

The Uighur staple here is goat/lamb/mutton and it is everywhere. Kebabs are a favourite and is made in a very interesting way. It's always 1 piece meat/1 piece fat (pure)/1 piece meat/1 piece meat. There's another style where they use minced meat and put it around a skewer. They are both really fricking good! Normally chewing fat would be kinda gross but not here. Delicious! Get a Nan bread and you can't ask for much more! We have had it EVERYday and I can't believe Jenni hasn't gotten tired of it yet!

They've also got a rice dish with a big piece of mutton in it. They've got noodles with mutton in it. They've got baked dumplings with...yup, mutton in it. They even use the head! I must admit I don't have the guts to try it though...ick!

By far, this area is the best for food! We've never eaten so well. And for 1 yuan per skewer, we can gorge ourselves for under 10 yuan (1.50 CDN)! SWEET!

I do hope the Uighur way of life stays this way. It's so much fun to see how they live and go about their daily lives...the food's pretty good too!

Mo' Crazy 8 Talk...

Thanks for all the comments on the rules for Crazy 8's. Jenni wants to say something here too so I'll go first and we'll see what she has to say afterwards... :P

Ian says:
Yes, we currently play the Queen of Spades picks up 5. Been toying with the idea of stacking 2's on that too!

Jacks AND 4's are miss your turns...sometimes we can put them together sometimes we can't.

Looks like we have a tie in the rules for the 2's, although I think the 2nd comment isn't based on the actual rules (Jenni's always right...what up with that?!?)! ;)

The Crazy 8 countdown sounds great! We will have to try it sometime.

We've implemented the dreaded "MISTAKE" clause and it's a pick up 2 fault and the last game we tried drinking with it. Needless to say I was plastered early in the game! But prevailed in the end as I was "Champion of the World" two nights in a row!


Jenni says:

Sam is also always right! :)

Jenni's rules are so great, Ian has now decided to use them for the game! He now LOVES the stack the 2 rule and says it is so much more fun that way. He mentioned the rule about stacking the Q of spades with the twos above (which I suggested but he thinks it's too much (wimp)).

The mistake clause is a lot of fun and Ian did introduce that because I kept screwing up!:P But it ended up screwing him over in the end.

We also have a last card call rule which adds to the excitement. If you fail to call last card, you have to pick up 2! Yes, this is becoming EXTREME Crazy 8s!

I like the sounds of the countdown too! We'll definitely have to try that.

Ian says:


Friday, June 09, 2006

Rules to Crazy 8's

Jenni and I have taken to playing Crazy 8's and we've gotten into arguments over the rules for handling the 2's

I say 2's are pick up 2. Another 2 on top is pick up 4 etc...

J says another two cancels the first and makes the other person pick up 4, etc...

I need to know! Who's right?

We've even taken to changing some of the other rules now too. Ie. Can't end with an 8, person can cut in right at the beginning if they have the same card of another suit before the person who was supposed to start goes but has to say "CUT".

It's reminding me more and more of EXTREME UNO...we're even getting more rowdy! I think the drinking portion may start soon too! ;P

What other rules can we add?

You decide...

Ok, we had a really interesting experience trying to find a hotel room once we came into Kashgar. Our book listed a hotel with 10 yuan beds and we thought we'd head there to check it out.

The Noor Bish Hotel it's called, and was tucked into an alleyway. We go in and there was a westerner and and middle eastern guy talking, we said hi and they pointed us to another fellow who was supposed to be the boss.

We spoke in english (since we weren't sure what language they spoke here, either Mandarin or Uighur) and asked about rooms. This guy started to say something to some other fellow to our left in what I assume is Uighur because I couldn't recognize any of it. After that the other fellow motions to Jenni that there was nothing available. We said "No more rooms?" and he just kept on waving his arms. The western guy seemed really surprised cause he also questioned "no more rooms?!?".

At the same time, I am looking at all these open doors with empty beds in them so I really don't think they were full. It's mainly a backpackers hotel too and there aren't that many out here right now.

So what do you think happened here? I've got an idea (the first one). It's not nice, but I'll throw it out with another. Let me know your opinions too...

1. Uighur and Han Chinese have a similar relationship as Tibetans and Han Chinese. We are basically seen as invading their land and forcing them to be a part of China. Apparently there's a bit of tension between the two groups. We both knew this coming in but and hoped to portray ourselves as more Canadian (hence the english) but we didn't expect to discriminated against so outright. Crappier food, worse rooms sure, but to be shut out completely? Wow. What a feeling that was. I am still amazed at having experienced that.

2. We had thought that being a Uighur guesthouse, they maybe had some issue with Jenni staying there (all the occupants did seem to be male). I don't know enough about Muslim religon but maybe this could be it.

I don't know what was going through their minds, n any event, it has changed my whole perception of this culture. It is still amazing to see the difference in how they go about their daily lives, and just how different they are from the rest of China, but I can't stop thinking in the back of my mind how much some of them may hate us just because of what we look like.

I wouldn't recommend the Noor Bish to anyone because of this. It's just not worth it.

23 hours...

We had a huge amount of distance to cover to get from Urumqi to Kashgar and we were going to be on a train for 23 hours. The longest ride yet. We decided to splurg for the "soft sleepers" which were supposed to be more comfortable.

I'm still up in the air about that but I did manage to get some really good sleep so maybe it was worth the extra money. Then again maybe not cause you end up being in a locked car with other people you don't even know which is just a wee bit weird for my liking. I think we'll be heading back to the hard sleepers next trip.

The scenery was cool. From desert to snowcapped mountain tops, back to desert and then rain! What a ride!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Urumqi (Wulumuqi)

Wulumuqi, Wulumuqi, Wulumuqi...the chinese pronounciation of Urumqi. I don't know why but I just love saying it!

After a jarring 2 hour bus ride into Liuyuan, we hopped onto a 10 hour overnight train to Urumqi, the Capital city of Xinjiang province and the city furthest away from any ocean!

The city is huge and with a population of over 2 million, it looks like any other major city in China. The only difference being the minorities which live in this province. There are 47 of China's 56 different minorities here. Some with very eastern european looks, you'd almost think you were in Europe. Amazing!

We didn't stay long here. We needed to head out west to Kashgar to renew our visas. Deeper into the Uighur areas. So far their food has been great. We tried a sweet potato and rice with lamb....sooooo good! Can't wait to try more. Kebabs are also a staple and we were able to enjoy some with a sort of cold beer in an open square.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Gobi

When we were arriving in Dunhuang by bus, you can see off to the left these massive sand dunes. They must've been 400 - 500 m high.

Wicked! What can we do to get out there?

Once in Dunhuang, there are many cafe's which cater to tourists and we saw a posting for camel rides! Cool, who thought we'd be able to do that here?

After doing the Mogao Caves, we signed up for an overnight trip into the Gobi on camelback! We were taken out to a nearby village where Mr. Li (our guide) lived. We sat in his living room while he got the camels ready and once all saddled, we went out back to get going. I must say, they are BIG animals! Bigger than horses for sure.

I need to get on this thing somehow and since it had stirrups, I figured it's like getting on a horse. One foot in. Grab the saddle and up and over with the other leg. Nope. Mr. Li motions to just straddle the bugger! Hmmm...ok. Well the only advice I have after straddling a camel is to fricking hold on! Once on, the camel started to get up and I tell ya, I almost flipped off the back of this thing cause I wasn't ready. What a site that would have been.
So we're on and heading out. First through the town with locals asking our guide where we are from and other things we couldn't through a cemetary...then on into the desert. You know we are in the desert when the guide takes his shoes off! Cool....heading into the dunes for the first time was amazing. So much and dry, I was happy to be riding instead of walking.

Up, down, over and around dunes for about 2 hours and we reach our campsite. Smack dab in the middle of nothing but sand! Sweet....

We had about 2 hours before dinner so we headed out (and up) onto the big dune behind our site. Things started out really hard. Walking on soft sand at the crest is crazy hard. I think we made it up a third of the way before we figured there's no
way we'll make it up and back in time. So a couple pictures there then Jenni tried to use this sled to go down the side...well I think you need to have a really, really, really steep slope to go anywhere. Jenni hopped on and went 2 ft!

We ended up just walking/sliding down. Every step you take you go a couple feet so if you keep walking, it's almost like sliding down the dune! We ended up at a smaller dune to wait for the sunset. I tried being artsy with some footprint shots! Here's my free plug for Ecco Receptor shoes. "Built for the Gobi" is my tag line!
Just remember Ecco that these pics are copyright! ;)

The sunset was unfortunately obscurred by some clouds but it didn't change the magnificence of being alone in the desert. So quite, no cars, honking, spitting...just a pesky fly and silence! Beautiful.

Dinner was instant noodles (don't know what we would do without these things!) and followed by stargazing. Not quite as spectacular as what we've seen in Algonquin, but nice nontheless.

Morning came to quick. We were up early to see the sunrise (again obscurred by some clouds) then some tea and bread and we were off, back to civilization!

What an experience!

Things we learned?
Camels spread their legs when they pee.
There is absolutely no humidity, none, I tried fogging up my lens to wipe it and nothing, very cool.
Your butt will be very sore after the trip!
Always, always, HANG ON!

Intrepid Silk Road Travellers Jenni and Ian :)