By Anita Hamilton
After we left Chenjiagou, we took the train to Luoyang in order to see the Longmen Grottoes — over 2,000 artificial caves and tens of thousands of carved Buddha sculptures (from bunches in finger size to several metres high) in the side of a hill. This, our first train ride in China, started on a stressful note as we found that on our tickets (which we hadn’t inspected closely in advance) we were seated in two separate carriages on the train, four carriages apart. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we hadn’t had all our suitcases (all way too heavy) to lug around with us.
What to do? We decided to play stupid and both just get on the same carriage. That, however, was not an easy thing to do. On entering the railway station, we had to pass through security just as one does at an airport. To get to the trains, we had to pass through inspection again. And then, to our woe, tickets were checked yet again before we got onto the carriage! Once more — what to do? Play helpless and plead is what we did. It worked. We then found out why we were booked in different carriages. The train was chockablock full. I got the seat reserved for us and Stephan had to stand, with no fear of falling over because of all the bodies around him. And our suitcases were a total pain in the butt the whole time.
This three-hour trip, though, turned out to be a delight in a most unexpected way. Since there was no need for conductors to check tickets, the time was used to sell us things, the weirdest assortment of things: belts, manicure sets, umbrellas, microfibre cloths…. Vendors took turns to sell and demonstrate their items in the most amusing ways and while we couldn’t comprehend a word they were saying, we certainly got the gist and the other people travelling with us were in stitches.
In Luoyang we enjoyed the luxury of a three-star hotel after our modest lodgings at the tai chi school. Our two nights there were a treat, though Luoyang itself as a modern city with lots of skyscrapers didn’t have much of interest to offer us. We enjoyed seeing the Longmen Grottoes but found the crowds there overwhelming. We were there on a Sunday and a long-weekend Sunday at that, with the temperature rising to 40 degrees Celsius, moving at a snail’s pace, trying to get around people and to take some shots that weren’t totally obscured by crowds. We were beginning to learn that being in China means being among a lot of people everywhere, all the time.
From Luoyang we took another train to Xi’an, where we wanted to see the Terracotta Soldiers. This was a high-speed train and we had our hopes set on more sales demonstrations but such was not the case. It was more like being on a plane, with stewardesses coming around with their trolleys, selling food and drinks. Travelling by train in China is wonderful. The trains are very reasonably priced (in second class), are clean and on time. To the minute.
We were looking forward to our hotel in Xi’an as it was a four-star hotel. Our three star in Luoyang had been so fabulous, we wondered what another star would add. As it turned out, we moved into a near-dump. How stars are worked out or earned is beyond me. However, it was cheap, the sheets and towels were clean and the shower worked, even though the air conditioning didn’t. We kept our shoes on, as the carpets were dirty. Having slept in many a hostel during our pilgrimages, it was not a huge problem, though I can’t resist showing you our four-star shower.
We loved Xi’an! Neither of us is a city person, but this very old city is absolutely lovely. It has an old quarter that one can wander in for days on end and never run out of things to see. The new part of the city is well laid out and interesting, with a lot of splashy stuff. We spent three days there but could easily have spent a week and still not gotten tired of it. Life is lived right onto the street, with restaurants cooking and shops displaying their wares right onto the sidewalks, and shopkeepers sitting outside or even lying on lounge chairs outside their shops. At night the city is alive and buzzing.
On our first night in Xi’an, we wandered right into the thick of it in the Muslim quarter (that’s mutton being grilled in the shot above). Wall-to-wall people. Normally such a situation in a new country, in which I don’t speak the language, might make me somewhat nervous. None of that. There was a very strong police presence and, again, that is something that could make me feel pretty uncomfortable. Not here. The crowds wandered peacefully and the police were there to make sure that all remained safe. They were in groups and faced all directions so they had an overview of all the goings on. Anyone trying to steal something or start a fight would have been shut down pretty quickly, as was one fellow who tried to ride through on his motorcycle.
We wandered all around the city and when we got to a park, we went into it. The parks were just as alive as the rest of the city. In the mornings there are exercise groups, tai chi groups, all sorts of groups doing their thing and anyone could join in who chose to. In the afternoons and evenings we were drawn by music in the parks and what did we see? Couples dancing. Different parts of the park, different dancing. It was wonderful. Added to all that, the city is clean. Even with all the crowds eating and drinking as they walk along, there is very little garbage about. First of all, there are garbage cans everywhere and, second, there are people cleaning the streets day and night.
Another “good thing” in China (in general): public toilets everywhere. Signs point in their direction and even tell you how far away you are from one. And they’re free to use and are clean, as each one seems to have a person responsible for it right on the premises. The result is that you don’t have to walk by areas that reek of urine or worse. With so many people, this would be a huge problem.
And, yes, we did actually see the Terracotta Soldiers.
After our four-star experience in Xi’an, we were nervous about the three-star hotel we were booked into in Beijing. After another super high speed train ride, we realized that we were right to be nervous once we found our hotel. Fortunately, we had a non-smoking room on the fifth floor, away from the side that had the garbage piles. The air conditioning worked, the shower worked, and the sheets and towels were clean. We kept our shoes on at all times and decided to forgo the inclusive breakfast, as the dining room was in the basement and one had to go past piles of dirty laundry, garbage bags and stacks of empties to get to it. To add insult to injury, the Chinese breakfast looked like it was reheated on more than one occasion, as it was very limp and had a distinct grey tone. One trip down there (and right back up) was enough. We spend very little time in hotel rooms in any case and expected we would survive the four nights we were there.
Beijing was a disappointment. Oh, is the air bad! Never mind breathing — your eyes sting! The city itself is all concrete and skyscrapers, yet has older sections just off the main drag. We found the wiring in many parts of the cities we were in of great interest. I wouldn’t want to deal with an electrical problem here.
After two days of walking we found a park — and had to pay to get into it. The park itself was surrounded by a high wall. We only saw the green as we passed the front gate. That was the only large green space we saw in our time there. Of course, it was interesting to see all the sights one has read about and seen pictures of: the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Ancient Temple, the Great Wall; however, finding them proved to be difficult as we were not part of a tour group that was driven there by bus.
We start our stay in any city by first going to the tourist bureau and getting maps and information. In central Beijing, there is no tourist bureau. Nada. Fortunately, Stephan is great with directions and had downloaded maps of all the places we wanted to visit, so we made it to all we wanted to see. Another good thing in China: the Internet is fast and accessible almost anywhere.
We walked miles and miles. This concrete jungle is huge and there is a lot of paved and concrete space between things, and most buildings are guarded and surrounded by fences. We found guards and police everywhere, so that the sheer numbers were a bit overwhelming when there seemed to be no reason for them. To get to Tiananmen Square, we had to pass through security checks on one day, whereas we had walked right in on a previous day when we came from another direction. Walking along the boulevards in the central area, groups of guards and police are positioned every 100 metres or so. At least the police are allowed to move about. The guards stand rigid, upright, with their arms at their sides, never moving.
The Forbidden City also consisted of vast spaces between the buildings, with most of the buildings being closed. Those that were open as museums really didn’t have a lot of museumy stuff to offer for viewing, so we walked and walked and saw it all and it was lovely enough, but I have no desire to go back.
We enjoyed being in The Ancient Temple, in part because there were very few people there. We even found a lovely quiet spot and practised our tai chi. The biggest use of the temple seems to be for wedding photography. Bridal couple after bridal couple were all around having their pictures taken, some in the oddest places. I don’t know whether the plan is to photoshop tourists and other couples being photographed out of the pictures or if that’s considered part of the charm. In case you feel confused, brides in China mostly dress in red.
When we visit a place we mostly make our own way, either by walking or using public transportation. This proved to be difficult when we wanted to visit the Great Wall. Due to our total ignorance of the Chinese language, public transportation was not an option given that the wall was 80 km from Beijing. Our option was to rent a taxi for the day or take an official tour through a tourist agency. As the latter was much cheaper and even included lunch and a visit to the Ming Tombs, we chose it.
We discovered that the tour was cheap, because it included a visit to a jade shop where attempts were made to sell you jade items (from jewellery to huge sculptures) and a tea ceremony, where you could buy rather expensive tea. Both were official government stores. It was a bit like being given a gift for attending a holiday condo time-share sales spiel in Florida. We did learn a lot about jade, however, and enjoyed the tea ceremony so much that we put out for some of that expensive tea — and Stephan has since ordered all the paraphernalia to make it and even makes it regularly. Yes, we also saw the Great Wall and great it is.
By the time we were done with Beijing, we were also done with cities and with travelling. We would have preferred to go home; however, because our flight home had already been booked from Moscow (since that’s where we were to end up if we had taken the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing), we still had to deal with one more city and so to Moscow we did fly.
Well, what a pleasant surprise — we loved Moscow! Our hotel (huge but good) was on the outskirts of the city, but that was no problem because it was only a couple of hundred metres from a metro station. This is how we fell in love with Moscow — through the metro. It’s a system of 14 lines, which are all numbered and colour-coded, interconnected and easy to figure out, so that one can access virtually any part of this city of 10 million. There’s no need to run for a train, as the next one follows within about a minute and not just in rush hour. The stations are works of art in themselves — each one different from the other, often with sculptures or grand facades, chandeliers, you name it. And the fare is really cheap — we’re talking cents here. We’ve both decided that if we ever get to Moscow again, we’ll dedicate a part of the trip just to visiting metro stations.
Reading signs was a bit of a challenge, but I had brought along a sheet with the Cyrillic alphabet and the pronunciation of the letters, so we were able to spell out the words. It’s funny to see a word and have no idea what it means, and then you figure out the sound of each letter and, voilà, it’s a word you know. We felt like children learning to read.
Take for example the word I’m pointing to: the first letter = l as in lamp, the reversed N = i as in if, the o with the line through it = f as in face and the T = our t as in table. You should now have “lift.” In our five days in Moscow, we got pretty good at reading signs as we memorized more and more letters. I had a lot of fun with it. Many of the words are close enough to the English version that we had no problems getting about. One time I burst out laughing when the name I sounded out, letter by letter, proved to be McDonald’s — I would have guessed it more quickly had I seen the arches.
Moscow has a lot of beautiful buildings and is certainly colourful. There is also a lot of green space and the parks are all free to enter.
Art abounds everywhere, not just in the metro. Parks are filled with statues and not just of war heroes or politicians, but of whimsical and fairy-tale images as well. We saw many art school classes out sketching and painting.
Big money is alive and well in Moscow. We saw the most beautiful shopping centre that I have ever seen anywhere there, with every big-name brand there is in the world: Gucci, Prada and on and on. Totally out of my class or taste or even desire, but I like to look.
Of course we visited all the famous “must see” sights: Red Square, Kremlin, Gorky Park, etc. All interesting, all wonderful to see, but I think you get the picture, so to speak. For now, we’re glad to be home again in our beautiful Eifel and happy to take our walks with Jerry and practise our tai chi on our own piece of the earth.
Photo credit: Stephan Kettmus and Anita Hamilton