A Travellerspoint blog

A Great Wall

Reporting from Jinqiao

sunny -8 °C
View Winter in China on aboo10's travel map.

So about 6am, I stirred when someone was trying to enter our hotel room, phew - it was just Mike, fresh off the redeye flight from Bangkok, freezing after enjoying a week of 30 degree days only to plummet to -10 degrees getting off the plane in Beijing. I'm not sure enjoying Bangkok was quite the right word, as he had been looking for a new job and subject to a number of interviews from schools all around the world! Fortunately he arrived with a job offer in hand, from a school in Düsseldorf. So lots to chat about!!

We went down for a quick breakfast when the kids woke up, and then back up to the room to rug up for our trip out of Beijing to the Great Wall of China. Yes, The Great Wall of China. The driver was waiting for us at 9am, and we started out to the country, interesting as not far out of Beijing there were quite a lot of snow drifts. Walking around Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City yesterday, there was lots of snow which had turned to ice piles around trees and in shady corners, but clearly hadn't snowed for some time.

Finally we got to the Wall, at the Mutianyu section. We parked the car, and bought our tickets for the chirlift up, and then had the option of either coming down on the chairlift or riding down on a toboggan chute ride. As per usual in China, there were a number of stalls selling dongxi - souvenir stuff like T-shirts, plates, terracotta warriors, certificates stating 'I've climbed the Great Wall' and lots of dried fruit and nuts. We weren't quite in the purchasing state of mind as we hadn't yet made it to the top anyway, so apart from a cursory look we headed straight to the chairlift.

It was beautiful. The scenery was gorgeous and we could see the wall snaking around the mountainside as we climbed higher and higher. Then suddenly, we were there, the wall was within reach. As is always the way, we took dozens of photos and looked around right at the top of the chairlift, but really we needed to climb a flight of stairs and there we were, on top of a very fine wall. There were patches of ice and crusty old snow wedged into the edges between the pathway and the battlements, and also in some shady sections of the wall. We started out to try and reach one of the distant watch towers, but quickly realised with all the uneven steps and ups and downs it was really a bit too hard and far. What was also amazing was the distinct lack of crowds, I'm not in any way saying we were the only ones there, but we had space and were able to roam at our own pace.

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The weather couldn't have been more perfect, we had a clear blue sky, the sun was shining, and despite the extreme pollution in Beijing on that day, it was clean and fresh out at Mutianyu. We were up there for almost 2 hours, just taking our time, admiring the view, and climbing up one watchtower. We were fortunate as well to be the only ones on the top for a few minutes, so with our trusty self timer, we took a group photo of just us!!

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Then when we had done what we could, and were ready to get out of the cold, we rode the toboggan down, I went with Jie Jie and Mike took Didi down. It was good fun, and we got some speed up. We looked at the dongxi and bought a few little souvenirs, and then found our driver and went to the Schoolhouse for lunch. I was a bit disappointed with this highly acclaimed cafe, as I expected homestyle Chinese cooking, but it was western food, and posh cafe at that - you know, goats cheese tartlet type food. After lunch we got back into the car to head back to Beijing, and all fell asleep for a good section of the drive.

What struck us when we got back into Beijing was the lack of visibility... the pollution levels had gone off the charts, you could feel the grit in your eyes and mouth and it was filthy. Going into a shopping centre, the grit came too, shop assistants were wearing masks, street lights reflected in an aura of the particles in the air, my cough worsened immediately, and my hands felt dirty.

But we felt we had conquered something great for the day, and were glad to be back in our hotel and relaxing for the night!

Posted by aboo10 22:01 Archived in China Tagged landscapes children family_travel great_wall_of_china Comments (1)

Beijing

Reporting from Jinqiao

overcast -10 °C
View Winter in China on aboo10's travel map.

Mum and Dad have been visiting since Christmas, and very kindly and ably looked after our little darlings while last week we went to Harbin. And as part of their ticket to China received a 'free' domestic flight and we had suggested Beijing as somewhere that after 9 trips to China they should really consider visiting. Aside from which Jie Jie had told me that she needed to climb the Great Wall of China, as she clearly doesn't remember her first visit when she was 2 years old. Needless to say Didi didn't remember visiting it either as a 10 week old baby. So we decided to go along too as an opportunity to visit the Great Wall. But Mike was in Bangkok for a work thing, and would fly in to Beijing on Saturday morning ready to go straight up to Mutianyu.

I decided to make life easy for us in Beijing, as without Mike for most of it, and managing both my small children and my 'old' parents (as described by a number of Chinese) by hiring a car and driver for the whole trip. Unfortunately, I also booked us into a Hutong style accommodation as they had been keen to give authentic Chinese life a go after our great success in accommodation in Yangshuo last April. The owner had assured me he would make everything as comfortable as possible for my parents, and then checked them into a room where the shower was literally above the toilet. There was no way to not get water all over the bathroom, completely inappropriate for 'old people'. I had booked the family room for us, yet it was quite kid unfriendly, well Didi managed to burn his hand (quite mildly) on the heater, but our bathroom did have a bath and shower! So after one night we checked out, and into the super plush Peninsula.

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Our first full day in Beijing was a full one. After breakfast, packing up and checking out, we headed to Tiananmen Square. We walked around the enormous square, marvelling at its size and for Mum and Dad realising just how cold -10 degrees really is. I felt quite at ease, as I had got used to super low temperatures the week before in Harbin! We saw the queue to visit Mao's Mausoleum, and decided that in the cold we were really better off keeping on moving around.

After Tiananmen Square, we headed across the road and through the Gate of Heavenly Peace (the one with the massive portrait of Chairman Mao) and up to the Forbidden City. While we were walking up there, I got a phone call from Mike (who was at an International Job Fair in Bangkok) telling me that he'd been offered a job... In Düsseldorf, so suddenly I was about to visit the Forbidden City, but thinking about a possible move to Germany! All very exciting and conflicting... thinking about Black Forest cakes, castles and sausages while marvelling over Ming Bridges, decorated wood panels and clocks all at the same time. Speaking of clocks, in the Forbidden City, for a small extra fee there is an amazing collection of clocks and watches, mostly made in China over the last 300 years, but also a number of fine specimens from Europe. Some were very elaborate, and exquisitely decorated with jade, gilted gold, pearls and other precious gems.

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But our time in the cold was starting to take it's toll, so from there we called our driver and decided to go and check into our new hotel. Although it was only mid-afternoon, we told him to finish up for the day, because the next day was going to be a super early start...

Posted by aboo10 06:47 Archived in China Tagged bridges buildings children beijing family_travel Comments (0)

Tigers, Beluga Whales and Ice Sculptures

Reporting from Jinqiao

sunny -20 °C
View Winter in China on aboo10's travel map.

Our second day started much like the first except instead of putting on layers of clothes and jeans, we decided to wear ski pants. Yes, around town. Felt a bit funny going out in chunky ski pants, but started noticing others wearing them, and really enjoyed having toasty warm legs. We went down to Costa for another coffee and panini breakfast, and then caught a taxi out to the suburbs of Harbin to the Siberian Tiger Park.

The Tiger Park was a bit like a safari park, after buying tickets we were taken out to a bus with bars on the windows that opened, and loaded on. The bus then drove into the park, which had big signs saying that the tigers were free to roam. It felt a bit like we were entering Jurassic Park with very tall fences and double gates to drive through, where one set would open and the bus would move forward a few metres, the gates would close again before the next set opened, they were even controlled by someone safely positioned with a clear view over the park in a control tower. The tigers were quite active and it surprised me how many there were. At one point we were met by a man in a car with a cage all around it, and as soon as his car came in, the tigers knew he had something good and all prowled around him. Quick as lightning, he opened his door, and threw a live chicken onto the roof. It wasn't live for very long after that. In fact, I would go so far as to say it didn't have a fighting chance at all as when it landed on the roof it just stayed put... maybe it's feet were tied together or something. Very gently two tigers then stood on their hind feet, and got the chicken down, and then ripped into it. At the entrance to the Tiger Park, there was a 'menu' listing food types you could buy to be given to the tigers. Starting at 20RMB for a piece of steak, 60RMB for the live chook, 2800RMB for a whole cow!! Having seen a number of chickens killed on the side of the road in Shanghai, I could quite easily handle the tiger killing one, even though it was a bit like fishing in a barrel! I don't think I would have like to see the tiger attack a real full size cow!

After the safari, we were dropped off for the walking tour, in raised walkways above some pens that the tigers can sleep in at night, and where the cubs are currently kept. There were also some other large cats to see, most interestingly, a liger - a lion father and tiger mother... I thought these were really just myths, but there are apparently about 10 in the world, always bred in captivity, and unable to reproduce. It had a stripy body and a little mane.

Leaving the safari park we tried to find a taxi, but we were in a bit of a tricky spot, and a woman started asking us where we wanted to go, knowing that we'd paid the taxi driver 35RMB to get there from near our hotel, we knew that when she asked for 50RMB to take us about half way she was having us on. But as there were no taxis around to be hailed, we eventually agreed on 20RMB to take us to Polarworld, in this clapped out old van... we got there, and the drvier insisted on taking us in to get our tickets, and then he got something scanned... must get some commission or something! Couldn't believe we were at an aquarium without the kids - but it was amazing... set the scene quite dramatically in each section. A polar bear was swimming circuits of his pool, and each time he turned his big paw pushed off the glass. Two Beluga Whales were performing a ballet with a diver, their tails were moving in sync! Then we watched a sea lion show which was bilingual, in Mandarin and Russian!

From Oceanworld, we walked over a bridge that looked like a falling down Anzac Bridge (from Sydney), over frozen rivers and parkland, and returned to the cable car terminus, where we caught a cable car back, using our return ticket from the day before. We headed back to the hotel to thaw out, before getting ready to visit the big one : Ice and Snow World, Harbin.

We had a little adventure to get there, as the doorman from the hotel hailed a taxi for us, and told the driver where we wanted to go, and all was agreed, but then we headed out into the traffic, and suddenly we were in a dark back alley and the driver said he wanted 60RMB to take us there, even though we knew the fare was about 30RMB, but we agreed as we were really a captive audience! It was bedlam getting there... traffic, and then pedestrians everywhere, and nowhere to stop to be dropped off... but we made it, and then got tickets and went in. It was mind-blowing. We really were in fairy land. There were palaces everywhere, huge four storey buildings illuminated with coloured lights made entirely out of ice. The ice is carved from the frozen river into blocks which are then used to construct elaborate buildings, including palaces, castles, temples, taverns, with carved ice staircases and often with an ice slide down. The ice slides didn't quite appeal to us, as we were cold enough already without sitting directly on the ice! Some were steeper and had either hessian sacks or toboggans to sit on, but the queues were long and the wind cold. We roamed around the Park marvelling at each section, one section was devoted entirely to Disney Princesses, and another was like a mini-Hangzhou with garden walls, and cherry blossom trees, temples and pagodas - all made of ice and lights. Harbin has it's own snow filtered beer, and not surprisingly was one of the sponsors, so we went into the ice bar with ice tables and ice stools and ice shelves and no need for a fridge! There was an enormous Buddha, about 20m tall, made from snow and complete with altar and incense. A light show with dancers and performers was hard to see through the crowds, but the fireworks display at the end was truly spectacular over Ice and Snow World.

Of course leaving Ice and Snow World was a drama too, as we headed out into the crowd with not an available taxi to be seen. I asked a Policeman directing traffic where I could find one, and he virtually laughed in my face and said there were none. So we decided our best bet was to start walking towards the city, and lots of empty taxis were passing us, but were being constantly moved on by the traffic police, unable to stop to pick anyone up (we weren't the only ones looking). We saw some buses, but without knowing Harbin at all well, could not work out whether boarding the bus would help or hinder us... so we kept on walking. About 500m down the road I asked another Policeman if he thought I might find a taxi somewhere, and he hailed one for me straight away, basically directed the taxi to pull over - we jumped in, the driver was a bit bewildered and after giving him our hotel address he said it would cost us 30RMB (the right price) and took us straight there! I'm sure he thought the Policeman was going to book him for something otherwise!

We then went out to celebrate our 7th wedding anniversary (which was actually the next day), and went to a Russian Pectopah and had a delicious dinner, reminiscing about our wedding day, and what we've done and where we've been since, and of course, where we'll go next!!

Woke up on our last day in Harbin, packed up and checked out of the hotel before heading out. We decided to attempt walking across the river. I thought we might have got a horse and carriage across but no, we walked across the Songhua River, which is about 600m wide. In summer it is a port city, so there are docks along the banks of the river, some of which have boats which are iced in now until the ice melts. We walked across to what would be a summer picnic house, and felt quite an achievement for this big walk... then turned around and headed back, before watching all the other holiday makers enjoying playing ice games in the theme park - skating, sledding, dog sleds, toboggan rides, and so on.

After that we headed to Zhaolin Park to see the final selection of ice sculptures. Because it was day time, the lights in these weren't on, and so we could see the true beauty of this ice artwork. There is a competition held here for ice carving, and part of the festival is to always have someone working on the ice sculptures to witness the art in progress, and as this was the opening weekend, there were still a number of 'blank canvas' ice blocks waiting to be carved. It was interesting to see this too though. There was also a barn, or a big shed, which had about 12 teams from all around the world competing in an international ice carving competition. This was fascinating as they used chainsaws, chisels and even axes to manipulate the ice into the elaborate and intricate designs.

As we went around all the different snow and ice sculpture places we were constantly reaching into our pockets for at least 200RMB each for every site. But it was worth it. We feel like we've achieved something visiting Harbin. We feel like we conquered the freezing temperatures. We found our way around, and saw everything on our wish list. We enjoyed a taste of Oriental Russia. We loved the snow and ice sculptures! We did miss the kids, just a bit.

Posted by aboo10 01:22 Archived in China Tagged buildings snow ice harbin Comments (0)

First day in Harbin

Reporting from Harbin

sunny -25 °C
View Winter in China on aboo10's travel map.

Mike and I are in Harbin for three nights and four days, on our first trip away from the children, who are being ably cared for by my parents in China visiting for Christmas.

Woke up on our first morning to news that there was no hot water at our home in Shanghai, fortunately sorted very quickly and easily!!

Got dressed to face extreme temperatures. Layered clothes on, I wore five layers on my top and three on my legs, plus hat, ear muffs, neck warmer and scarf. Found I couldn't bend to put on boots.

Left hotel at 930, walked full length of pedestrian street and over to river. Walked down on frozen river where there is a 'theme park' with dog sleds, horse and carriage rides, a game where with a whip you spin a top which makes the ice hum, ice skating, sit sledges that you pole yourself along, toboggans, hovercraft and other ice games. Then headed back to the warmth of costa coffee in ZY street, for brekkie, coffee and a ham and cheese panini and a choc muffin, then after half an hour faced the -20C cold again and walked to the park where the ice sculptures are, but gates locked.

So headed over to St Sophia's cathedral to look at an exhibition of photos of developing Harbin.

Walked along river to cable car to Sun Island. Went to snow sculpture park- amazing!! Thawed out with poshest two min noodles in a bucket ever in a popup /temporary glass restaurant on a frozen lake but with the sun shining in and the heating we defrosted properly!! Bliss.

Missed last cable car back and random man offered us a lift across the river for 30rmb... In his car!!

Went back to hotel and took ages to actually warm up, but spoke to kids and had little sleep.

Came out again for Russian dinner at Russia 1914. Cute restaurant like a granny's house! Hearty and filling dinner.

Some odd observations about Harbin:
- lots of people seem to be eating ice creams, on a stick and a teeny bit chewy, but its about -20C!!
- Lots of Russian tourists.
- Gangnam Style is Harbin Style!
- Chinese girls still look skinny.
- They don't speak Chinese quite as I know it!!
- Some people appear seriously underdressed (compared to Michelin-man me)

(PS can't publish photos from my phone, so will add when I get home!!)

Posted by aboo10 15:19 Archived in China Comments (2)

Ho Chi Minh City

Reporting from Jinqiao

sunny 30 °C
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Well, our H is for Holiday is officially over, but I thought I needed to retrospectively record our visit to HCMC and also HK, but have decided to do them separately... otherwise it would be way too long and cumbersome.

So with some sadness and wishing we were staying a few days more, we packed up our villa in HoiAn and said good bye to our own pool and headed back to the big smoke, this time Ho Chi Minh City, previously known as Saigon. Flight was nice and quick, and we were picked up and taken to our hotel, the Cap Town Hotel, which although simple, was comfortable with 2 double beds. We arrived in the mid afternoon, and after checking in relaxed in our room for a couple of hours before heading out to find some dinner.

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I'd picked a restaurant out of our guide book acknowledging that the book is a couple of years old, and so headed out looking for it. The restaurant we were looking for had a decent description, and as we were walking to it, we found another one which seemed to match, and I'd spotted it from the car on the way to the hotel, and so we went there - and it rocked! We had a little barbecue in the middle of the table, and we ordered a family combo pack which had several meats, prawns and some veggies which were all delivered to the table raw, but in various marinades. We were briefly shown the oil and given a slightly larger pair of chopsticks as the cooking utensils, and Mike was at it... designated cook for the evening, and it was delicious! The kids enjoyed the meat, but not the veggies or prawns, and we enjoyed the Saigon Red beer too.

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The next day we encouraged the kids to walk from the hotel to the main sightseeing area where we visited Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office. The cathedral was stunning, every bit as impressive as other cathedrals around the world, and well over 100 years old. The Post Office was a lovely French-colonial building with a high arched roof, the tiles and high ceiling contributed to being a cool respite from the humidity and heat outside. We walked too far on this day, as we headed back to our hotel carrying or piggybacking the kids, contributing to our heat exhaustion. We stopped for a fancy cupcake en route, and then headed to the Rex Hotel for lunch.

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The Rex Hotel was the base for a number of journalists during the Vietnam War, and it was from here that US Military gave their daily press briefings, which became known as "The Five O'Clock Follies", now from 5pm it is happy hour and is a popular tourist spot. We of course didn't go during happy hour so paid full price for our beers! From here, we jumped in a cab back to our hotel, and lucky we did because Didi fell asleep about 30 seconds after climbing in! We headed out to the mecca of backpackers and tourists to a hotspot of little eateries and restaurants. When we walked home afterwards, we went through a park where there were some people practising martial arts, might have been a little like Tai Chi, and Didi and Jie Jie decided to copy them. The participants were trying very hard to keep a straight face while listening to their instructor and watching the kids!

We walked too far with the kids, and made them walk too far... it resulted in grumpy and tired everybody really, so the next day we decided to take it easy and go everywhere, point to point, by taxi. Our first stop was the War Remnants Museum, which is home to a lot of discarded equipment from the US, including planes, helicopters and tanks. No sooner had we paid our entrance fee, than we were accosted by a one legged man who had stepped on a land mine when he was a kid. He told us, captive audience, of his plight, and we were thinking how much do we need to give him... but instead he wanted us to buy two books on the Vietnam War - I haven't read either yet, but plan to... after we bought them from him, we saw people selling the same books all over the place. Good on him for working hard and making his 'spot' as somewhere where tourists are coming to see the impacts of the war.

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The museum had a number of interesting displays, a lot of posters and pictures, there was a lot of reading to do in the museum, and many of the images were quite intense. As the kidlets are only quite young, we didn't want them being scared by some of the visuals, so we opted to go through the museum separately, waiting outside each gallery with the kids. The images of the impacts of Agent Orange, or wondering what various torturing devices were used for was just something they didn't need to see, yet. We weren't hiding it from them, but we just didn't feel the need to expose them to it all yet. We talked about war, and impacts, and they were particularly interested in the bomber planes, and uniforms of soldiers, but they didn't need to see the effect of napalm!

We then went to the Jade Emperor Pagoda. As we walked in the front entrance, there were a bunch of women selling goldfish in bags and of course Didi went to have a look. As we tried to drag him away an older lady came up to us with her fist closed, and then she opened her hand right in front of Didi's nose and in it was a tiny turtle, it was only about the size of a large coin. Didi and I got such a shock, he jumped into my arms and hid his face. We went in and then saw other people releasing the fish and turtles into little ponds as sacrifices for the gods. In the back corner of the front courtyard there is a Tortoise Shelter, which is home to hundreds of turtles, many of which have messages written in Liquid Paper on their shells, I presume carrying prayers for those who released them. You could hear the scrabbling of their feet on the concrete as they climbed out of the water and every now and again a splash as they slipped back in.

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The Pagoda is quite small, laid out like a bit of a rabbit warren with smaller rooms off every which way, and each one seemed to be a bit more foreboding than the one before until we were at the main altar. Didi was a bit scared of the faces and expressions of the enormous statues, in particular the evil looking Giant Demon Guards, just before the Main Sanctuary were the Jade Emperor sits. The lighting is minimal, largely candles and a small shafts of light coming in from high windows, and the air was thick with smoke from burning incense. The last room was lovely, it had 12 female statues dressed in amazing robes of all colours. Each statue represented a different lunar year, and displayed near each was their vice and their strength.

This was our last night in Vietnam, so we went out to a Vietnamese restaurant for dinner, and afterwards, we decided to finally have a coffee at one of the cute little coffee shops on the street. The shops are so small, and the chairs are little stools, that mostly we thought it was too hard with the children. Even at 9pm at night, the coffee shop was packed. But the waitresses were happy to talk to the kids, who were happy to play with their iPods while we enjoyed a sweet milky coffee.

What a fantastic trip, and although we were continuing with the next step of our adventure we were a bit sad to be leaving the land of Pho and motorbikes. I think we'll be back!!

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Posted by aboo10 16:46 Archived in Vietnam Tagged churches children temples family_travel Comments (1)

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