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Home and away – and home again

15 November 2010 Leave a comment

I finished watching Prison Break on the ferry over to Korea. It got silly towards the end, in the sense that the writers seemed to have added so many plot threads that it became impossible for them to resolve them in a sensible, self-contained fashion. So (warning – spoilers follow), with Lincoln now trying to retrieve Scylla for the Company, working against Michael, and Michael recovering from brain cancer and working against his mother, a greedy, calculating Company operative who wants to sell Scylla for big money and is willing to kill to bump up the price, with Don Self gone renegade for no good reason other than it ups the drama quotient, with T-Bag toadying up to whoever holds the whip hand, with the FBI finally appearing to do something about all the mayhem, with agents for buyers for Scylla wandering in from the cast of Lost and being rapidly killed off, the hand of the writers intervenes to resurrect Paul Kellerman (killed off in season two) to solve everyone’s problems and hand the magic hard drive over to the UN. The denouement worked nicely, though.

Then (warning – spoilers continue) episodes 23 and 24 saw Sara imprisoned for the murder of Michael’s mother (she shot her in the back as the older woman shot Michael in the shoulder) and the series returned to its original theme – breaking out of prison. And we see how Michael dies. These last two episodes were probably meant to be a whole fifth season and the speed at which the plot flies by and the lack of tension (we already know from episode 22 how everything turns out) make them a damp squib compared to what went before.

I didn’t sleep well on the ferry – lots of rocking and rolling in the literal sense. I did a fair amount of reading. The ferry got in a few hours late, but I had my phone on and charged and Habiba called often for updates. I disembarked and passed through the Quarantine, Immigration and Customs with little problem, walked from the ferry terminal to Dong-Incheon Station and took the subway bakc home.

At home I was finally able to relax a bit in a familiar environment. I laid out everything I’d brought back from China on the table for Habiba’s perusal. She seemed very pleased with her gift – a pair of shiny, colourful bracelets – which I was fearing wouldn’t be quite to her taste. We had a leaving party to go to, but later in the evening we had a chance to (very successfully) try out the sexual position die I’d brought back.

The very next day we had an early start as we were taking a free bus down to Gyeongju a capital of one of the three kingdoms of medieval Korea and site of many tumuli – burial mounds – and other historical structures. We went with Jessica and shared a room at the motel, Nokwonjang, I’d stayed at a year and a half ago. (We had tried to check into a place a little closer to the bus station, but the old ladies working at the ‘Romance Hotel’, wouldn’t allow the three of us to share a room.)

We had a look round one park containing several tumuli – Daereungwon – and the pretty, pavilion-lined pond – Anapji – and east Asia’s oldest observatory – Cheomseongdae – on the Saturday evening. On the Sunday, after breakfasting and checking out and storin our bags at the railway station, we took a bus over to Bulguksa, one of Korea’s most important temples and saw the Dabotap and Seokgatap. The first of which (a pagoda that appears on the 10 won coin) was covered up with scaffolding and screens when I visited Gyeongju in 2009 – so it was satisfying to go and see it in the stony flesh.

Then we had lunch and took a bus up a mountain to Seokguram Grotto, a man-made cave that houses a beautiful statue of Buddha. We paid our four thousand won to enter the site knowing that we would have to be quick to catch the two o’clock bus back to get the free four o’clock bus back to Seoul. After a short walk, we arrived at the entrance to the grotto, but there was a huge queue of people, so we decided we didn’t have time and walked back to the car park. Shame – especially as Habiba and Jessica probably won’t return to this important site. I’d been there before, so I wasn’t heartbroken about it.

After two more bus rides and a taxi ride we were back at the Concorde Hotel in the big hotel area (by which I mean the area of big hotels) a little outside Gyeongju on the shores of a lake, which was our pick-up point for the bus to Seoul. The reason this bus was free was that it’s Visit Korea Year (2010 to 2012 … somehow). And, of course, we weren’t the only ones who wanted to take advantage of the freeness. In Seoul, at least one person had to be turned away; and in Gyeongju, several people were turned away – possibly because they hadn’t obtained tickets – the guide, while he spoke reasonable English, just didn’t express himself very clearly when trying to explain to the people on the bus. This delayed our departure a little, but, by the time we got back into Seoul and off the bus, it was nearly 11:30 – two and a half hours later than advertised. This meant Jessica couldn’t return to her home in Osan, a city south of Seoul, and had to stay at ours and go home in the pre-dawn darkness.

It was a nice enough visit, but the weekend crowds were large and annoying. It’s definitely worth visiting Gyeongju, and it’s also worth going during the week.

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The voyage home

15 November 2010 Leave a comment

The very first part of today’s journey (I’m writing this on the ferry) went well.

I got up at 5:30 in the morning darkness, showered and packed the remainder of my things that hadn’t been packed last night. I checked out of the hostel; there was a bit of a delay when I didn’t hand over the correct receipt with my keys – I needed the one that was specifically for the deposit, not just for the extra days that I’d stayed (and certainly not for the laundry service). I walked to Wangfujing Station, put my bags through the scanners that they have at all the stations and places like Tiananmen Square, bought a ticket for 2 yuan (about 20p) and took the subway to Beijing South Railway Station, where I’d entered the city the previous week. I had a McDonald’s breakfast (hopefully, my last fried, fatty breakfast for a while – my breakfasts at the hostel were generally fried eggs, toast, hash brown, maybe bacon, maybe cornflakes. I navigated the dimly lit concourse and found the correct gate for my train – the departure concourse is huge and has a series of escalators where travellers gather before being allowed to pass through the ticket barriers and down to the platforms. I got on the train and tried to ask a member of staff if two numbers on my ticket were my carriage and seat – I’m sure she said they were. When I got there, there appeared to be a man sitting in my aisle seat – he told me to sit in the window seat; I didn’t complain. The train left at 7:20. I got off the train at Tianjin when it arrived at 7:50 – the English part of the announcement helpful said that it would be a quick stop and people getting off should get ready.

This is where things started to go wrong.

I headed towards an exit of Tianjin Station; it seemed to be the only one available – signs for others had Xs taped over them. The station was huge and new. I ignored a couple of men who wanted me to hire their taxis and found a couple of toilets near the taxi rank – both were disgusting, so I didn’t go. Instead I queued up for a taxi. Once I got in, I couldn’t tell the driver where to go because he didn’t speak English, so, as he drove away, I fished out my ticket wallet, on which the woman at the Incheon office had written the name of the ferry terminal in Chinese, and I showed it to the driver. He looked at it and twigged where I wanted to go and off we went.

Superficially, so far, so good. However, the drive took a while. And then it took a while longer. And then it took longer still. Then I saw a sign that said ‘Tanggu – 30 km’. What’s Tanggu (besides being the Korean for billiards)? Tanggu is the city where Tianjin Passenger Terminal actually is. The driver seemed to be beyond the limits of his usual territory. 9 am, the time I’d been told be at the terminal by, came and went. I showed the driver a little map on my ticket wallet and he stopped and started asking other taxi drivers and pedestrians for help. It turned out the map on the wallet wasn’t relevant – probably the ferry company, Jincheon Ferry’s Tianjin offices. We kept going. I tried telling the driver I was in a hurry and I should have been there for nine. He seemed to tell me not to worry about it, we’d be there in ten or twenty minutes. He kept winding down his window to ask other taxi drivers as we went, though.

We got there towards ten o’clock and I handed over a massive 143 yuan. To find the value in pounds, you just have to divide by ten; £14.30 is not very much, but this is China – consider that the basic fare started at 8 yuan (80p). One of my souvenirs was to have been a full set of nice new Chinese banknotes. I had to hand over the hundred, the largest, of this set to pay; I thought my 100 yuan deposit from the hostel would have been enough for that and for my port fee of 30 yuan. I plan on buying another 100 yuan note once I arrive back in Korea.

I walked into the terminal, showed my ticket to someone behind a window, who told me to go to another window. The person there gave me a boarding pass, so I headed in through the main entrance – but was turned back because I needed my pass stamped. I went back to the first window and handed over the 30 yuan for the stamp.

Inside the main part of the building, after a baggage scan, there was a long line of people with boxes and packages on trolleys. A couple of them ushered me forwards as I tried to line up behind them. My bags were scanned for the second time in about as many minutes. Then I queued up for Immigration. But an officer asked me if I had a departure card – I didn’t and he showed me to the desk where they were kept. I filled one in, but was stumped over the box that asked for my flight number/ship name etc. The officer came back and wrote a couple of Chinese characters in there for me (although he botched one a bit). How very proactively helpful.

Once past Immigration I waited about five minutes behind a small crowd of people just inside the door for a shuttle bus to the ferry. When I got on the bus I realised the ferry was all of about 150 metres away. Oh, well. The wind was blowing hard as we got off the bus and climbed a staircase to gangway on to the ship.

This one is nicer than the one I took from Korea – which is just as well, as I’m going to be on for a whole day. (The scheduled times are 11:00 on Thursday morning to 11:00 on Friday morning – which is a period of 25 hours, taking the one hour time difference into account.) The common areas are cleaner and they don’t have that savoury Asian dumpling smell that I now associate with Chinese people. The other ferry had a restaurant that was only open twice on the journey and for less than an hour each time. This one’s restaurant is more like a real restaurant. The bathrooms are less grim. The demographic on board seems less working class than my outgoing trip.

On that previous trip I’d shared a business class room with three others. This time I plumped for economy. I’m in bed 48 of what I think is a 48 bed dorm. It’s not too bad at the moment – I have an upper bunk, and, once you draw the curtains, it feels fairly private. The bunk isn’t tall enough to sit up in it, though. It also has no convenient power outlet. I’ve spent most of my time so far watching Prison Break in my bunk or writing blog posts out in the ship near a socket.

I’m at 75% charge now. It’s 7pm Korean time. I should start thinking about dinner.

Last days in China

15 November 2010 Leave a comment

When I tried to log into my WordPress account on Monday evening to post my experiences on the Great Wall, I encountered difficulties. I was able to log in through the main page, but I couldn’t access my blog at all. I could only assume that the presence of words like ‘Communism’ and ‘Mao’ had led to my blog being blocked. I had Habiba make the post for me – I would have included some pictures, otherwise.

On Tuesday and Wednesday – my last two full days in the Middle Country – I didn’t do a huge amount. Tried to do a bit of writing. Went to have a look at the CCTV (China Central Television) building – the one that has two legs connected by a bridge at the top. It’s a very big building. Mark explained later on that one of the nearby buildings, a more conventional tower, was built as a companion building – the latter symbolising the male member, the M-shaped building representing the female legs. The ‘penis’ had been gutted by fire after a celebration with fireworks went disastrously wrong. On there I passed by the British Abassador’s residence and the British Embassy. Maybe I could have dropped in to say hello to David Cameron. The Chinese soldiers in dress uniform outside were a bit scary, though.

I had dinner with Charlie and Mark each night; the first night we had roast duck and then went for a walk around a small lake – Hou Hai, I think – one of a series of linked lakes surrounded by park that I should have gone to in the daytime, but didn’t. This lake was actually ringed by bars, each one with a PA speaker outside blasting out whatever was playing inside (many bars had live music or karaoke). It was an interesting sonic landscape.

On the Wednesday, I finally took the plunge and bought a few souvenirs from a little maze of alleys crowded with stalls that I hadn’t actually known was there until I started exploring for gift shops. Along with stalls piled high with what we could probably safely describe as tourist tat, there were stalls selling meat shish kebabs or fruit shish kebabs or live scorpion shish kebabs (I assume they get deep fried before you eat them). I didn’t try any.

I was nervous of the whole haggling process and walked into a couple of shops and past a few stalls without stopping to be sold to. Eventually, though I got a small brass dragon as the first of my purchases. The process for haggling for this was typical of what happened for later purchases – or attempted sales on behalf of the stall-holders. I asked how much it was and the woman asked me how much I wanted to pay. I didn’t know so she typed on a large calculator, ’80’ (£8). I said, ‘Twenty,’ and she was all, ‘No, no,’ so I walked away. Then she grabbed my sleeve (arm- and sleeve-grabbing happened a lot) as I went and as I pulled away she said, ‘OK, twenty.’ And that was that.

The woman I bought my gift for Habiba from complemented my hard bargaining skills – I’m sure she just wanted me to buy other stuff from her. A man pointed out a mah jongg set as I browsed his stall. He wanted 650 yuan for it, but came down to 200 as I walked away. I didn’t want to spend that much money anyway – because I’m a cheapskate. I did also buy a pair of massage balls. Each being maybe three centimetres or so in diameter; one blue, one red, both with yin and yang signs on them. They have bells inside. Your supposed to roll them around in a circle on one hand without letting them touch each other.

Separately, I bought a couple of jars of spicy sauce and a few packets of snacks (one of which promises ‘Odd taste’) from a little supermarket near my hostel.

I also – following Charlie and Mark’s advice – changed my train ticket to Tianjin on Wednesday night to one for Thursday morning – the morning of my ferry from Tianjin to Incheon. This sounds dangerous, but, while I was supposed to be a the ferry terminal at 9 am, the bullet trains from Beijing run very often and early and only take 30 minutes to get there. If only you could go everywhere by bullet train.

Pictures from the Great Wall

15 November 2010 Leave a comment

I was going to include more pictures in my post about going to the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu, but I had some technical difficulties, viz, my blog was blocked in China, so I had Habiba post it for me.

The World’s Most Famous Wall (although Jews might disagree.)

8 November 2010 5 comments

Yesterday I booked a place on a day trip to the Great Wall of China with my hostel. I got up at 6:50 ready to have a breakfast that was included in the price (rather pointlessly, as it was nothing different to the regular hostel breakfast) at 7:15. At 7:45, a woman came into the hostel as I waited in the reception area – she was the tour guide. I was the only person leaving from the Tian An Men Sunrise Hostel. The Chinese woman led me to a minibus, where there were two or three guys – westerners – already in the back. The bus filled up over the course of another couple of of pick-ups, and then it made it way through the early traffic out of the city.

About an hour and a half later, we arrived at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Specifically, we arrived at an area of souvenir stalls, restaurants and car parks at one of the entrances to the Great Wall area near the base of the mountains. The tour guide, Monica, gave a little talk – which I couldn’t hear very well – and basically told us all (there were eighteen of us) to arrive back there at 1:30. She strongly recommended buying a ticket (65 yuan – £6.50) for the the chair lift and toboggan run – which I think everyone did.

The chair lift took me up into the cold, bright air to a point about three quarters of the way along the two kilometre or so length of wall that was open to the public (going from west to east). The weather – as it has been for most of my trip – was pretty much cloudless and the visibility was very good, although it was pretty nippy. I was wearing four layers and quickly pulled on my gloves, so the cold didn’t affect me much.

With the good visibility came fantastic views. On the north side of the wall, jagged, rocky mountains stood crisp in the sunshine. On the south side, a plain sat in the midst of the hills, on the far side of which more hills rippled blue in the far distance. To east and west, the Great Wall of China lay strung along the bare tree-cloaked mountains, like a zip on a great, grey-green fleece jacket. At one point, I could even see Beijing, tiny on the horizon.

It felt special to be on the wall. I’m not often impressed by mere experiences, but for a while I couldn’t help smiling as a walked along and explored the watchtowers.

The landscape was very similar to parts of Korea: mountainous and forested. With the wintry, crystalline air, it particularly reminded me of visiting the Cheorwon Peace Observatory in the Demilitarized Zone (the weekend, long-time readers will remember, that I met my love, Habiba).

When I reached the wall, I decided to turn right and head towards the closer end of the section. There were a fair few foreign tourists there – fewer Chinese people, and, every now and then, vendors calling out ‘Hello!’ to the passersby and selling drinks and snacks. (On my way down and out, I passed some middle-aged American guys, one of whom was impressed by the vendor awaiting people coming off the chair lift at a doorway at the base of one of the watchtowers. When the seller called out ‘Snickers! Snickers!’ one of the American responded with ebullient bonhomie, ‘This guy loves Snickers!’ and proceeded to pretend to hawk the Chinese man’s wares to his friends.) Often, it was possible to take photographs of the wall without any people in the shot.

The watchtowers are interesting little buildings dotted very frequently along the Mutianyu Great Wall. Like the section of wall itself, they are very well preserved (or restored), except for the fact that many of them lack stairs up to the top level. Some, however, have stone staircases. The eastern end of the wall split and headed off in two directions, neither of which were as picturesque as the tourist section – they were broken-down and overgrown.

I decided to head back the other way and see if I could reach the other end of the wall section before I had to head back to the toboggan run. It was a bracing walk, lots of up and down, and many, many points at which I wanted to stop and take copious photos. As a result of this latter fact, I didn’t have time to go all the way to the other end.

The mountain at the western end appeared to be the highest part, and on the southern side of the wall there, on the slope, there were some huge Chinese characters that were visible from miles away. That part of the wall also appeared to be incredibly steep. Several sections of the wall were incredibly steep – such that, looking down, a portion of the steps were hidden by the higher steps. This western-most part looked even more incredibly steep. I would have liked to have gone up, but time was getting on, so I decided to head back as I neared it.

Which brings (and, indeed, brought) me to the toboggan. Habiba had raved about this part of her trip when she had come to visit Charlie a few months ago, and I always thought, ‘What’s so great about a toboggan?’ Well, what’s so great about this toboggan run is simply the length of it – it’s one and half kilometres long. The run itself is made of metal, and the toboggans are black plastic things that look vaguely like baby seats for cars. They run on wheels, and there’s a big joystick-like thing that sticks up between your knees, which you push or pull to control the brakes. The toboggans, once they reach the bottom, are ferried back up on the back of the chair lift chairs.

The prospect of taking a toboggan was a little scary. They were barely 18 inches wide and 30 in length and the track wasn’t much wider. I took a video of some guys setting off just before me and then put my camera away on the principle that it would be dangerous to video the run down. Probably a sound decision, but once I was under way, it wasn’t nearly so unnerving. Without judicious use of the brakes, you could probably reach dangerous speeds, but at one point I came to a stop entirely – as did the woman in front of me – and I had to punt myself along with my hand. After that hiccough, it went more smoothly and was a lot of fun.

At the base, after a short wait, we headed to a restaurant for an all-you-can eat lunch (also included in the price). I chatted with some of the people at my table, told them about the rewards of teaching English in Korea (ie, money). Then we headed back to Beijing. I got back to my hostel shortly after five of the post meridiem clock. All in all, a great day – the highlight of my trip so far.

Sick and tired

8 November 2010 Leave a comment

Yesterday, I went to the Summer Palace, which just outside central Beijing at the end of one of the subway lines, with Charlie and Mark. The occasion was overshadowed by a couple of things: firstly, I’d been sick the night before so I was feeling a little tired and fragile of stomach; secondly, for the first time since I’d been in China, the weather wasn’t great – it was hazy and smoggy – it reminded me of my first day in India, although the sky wasn’t quite as brown as that.

Whereas the day before, I’d been to the Temple of Heaven and taken my time wandering around at will taking photographs of whatever caught my fancy, at the Summer Palace, with a couple of friends, there was a different dynamic. It was more about chatting than sightseeing, and with the weather as it was, the sights weren’t highly seeable anyway.

We had arranged to meet on the platform at Beigongmen Station in northwest Beijing (not the track, as Charlie had originally suggested – a suggestion that my inner pedant could not resist correcting), but I was fifteen minutes late, partly because I hadn’t set out early enough and partly because I got on the wrong train at first and went a couple of stops in the wrong direction. When I got there there was no sign of Charlie or Mark. I walked up and down the platform, went up the escalator, hung around up there for a minute, went down again, up again and finally sat down to read on one of the few benches on the platform. I was still suffering a little from the night before and was dehydrated because I had felt up to consuming anything.

I’d read a page or so before Charlie and Mark turned up, the former apologising profusely. We went out of the station and headed to a vendor of street food. Charlie bought a thing made of a large, thin pancake with a couple of eggs fried on top of it (maybe some other stuff – I can’t remember) then folded up and served in a plastic bag. I tried a bite – it seemed tasty, but I couldn’t really stomach food.

There was some construction or renovation work going at the palace, so shortly after we entered and we had crossed a bridge over a picturesque pool surrounded by buildings we were faced with a barrier. So we went round instead of going straight up to a temple on top of a hill looking over the boating lake. We didn’t go into the big temple just below it, but walked down to the lake. There were hordes of tourists walking along the lakeside. We walked round to a seventeen-arched bridge that led to a small island and then headed out – at an entrance at some distance from the subway station, so we had to walk a long way back. Whilst in the palace, I bought a deck of playing cards with Chinese emperors’ faces in place of the normal spades, kings etc.

After taking the subway a couple of stops, we got out to take a taxi to one particular university in an area of universities. At this university we went to a Muslim restaurant – only it wasn’t there because the building had been demolished. After making enquiries of passersby (a large proportion of which were young non-Chinese – all students here studying Chinese, probably) we found the restaurant in a nearby building – the university dining hall, in fact. It was called ‘Muslim Restaurant’ – which may not have been a direct translation of the Arabic text above the door.

The food there was OK – the roast chicken and lamb shish kebab were very tasty, and there was some delicious bread. I could feel as I ate, though, that it wasn’t such a good idea for me to eat so much. And indeed, later that night, I developed a bad headache and threw up a couple of times.

I slept to nearly midday today, deliberately giving my body some much needed rest. The rest wasn’t very consistent, as people in my dorm were coming and going all evening and morning, but it seemed to do the trick. During the day I went to Starbucks for a tea and did some writing then came back to the hostel, watched some Prison Break and did some more writing. I had dinner at a bare little restaurant that I’d noticed on the main road near the hostel and that is often full of people. I ordered a stir-fry and a bowl of soup that was much larger than I’d expected. The stir-fry was tasty, but very greasy and rather salty, and it started to make me feel queasy. The soup wasn’t great.

Today, I also signed up for a trip to the Great Wall. I’m to be in the hostel’s bar/restaurant at 7:15 tomorrow morning – which means I should probably get ready and go to bed.

Ascending to heaven

6 November 2010 Leave a comment

Last night was marred – as is always the danger when staying in a hostel – by an old guy in my dorm snoring like a hippopotamus. I got up in the middle of the night to apply my patented earplugs – pieces of tissue mushed up with spittle and squeezed into my ears. I slept well after that – but got up at about 9:30 – a bit late.

I went to the Temple of Heaven for the duration of the afternoon. The central hall is a spectacular, circular, three-storied edifice – but there are a number of other buildings within the huge, park-like compound. Wikpedia says:

The Temple of Heaven, literally the Altar of Heaven (traditional Chinese: 天壇; pinyin: Tiāntán; Manchu: Abkai mukdehun) is a complex of Taoist buildings situated in the southeastern part of central Beijing. The complex was visited by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for good harvest. It is regarded as a Taoist temple, although Chinese Heaven worship, especially by the reigning monarch of the day, pre-dates Taoism.

I spent a good long while slowly making my way round, photographing comprehensively. Although the central axis of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven (another beautiful but less monumental circular building and linked to the first by a wide raised road) and the Circular Mound Altar was fairly crowded with tourists, the rest of the place was less visited.

There was also the Abstinence Palace, where the Emperor hung out before performing the ceremonies, and the Double-loop Longevity Pavilion, which was populated by elderly Chinese folk hanging out in the late afternoon. I also passed a man playing a scratchy traditional violin while the woman sitting next to him sang. In the same little square hidden amongst the cypresses were a few kite fliers – one man had a kite that was so high I couldn’t find it in my camera’s viewscreen to photograph it.

After finishing at the temple I headed out of the West Gate and walked to Beijing South Railway Station, where I came into Beijing from Qingdao, to buy a ticket for Wednesday to go to Tianjin. And after subwaying back to my hostel to pick up my computer I went to a duck restaurant and ate duck. Not roast duck, though – perhaps a mistake, but it was a little expensive. On the subject of which, I have 700 yuan left (about £70). Apart from food and drink, my main expense is a trip to the Great Wall – which will probably use up about half of that, all told – and a night’s stay in Tianjin. I also need to keep 30 yuan to be able to get out of the country.

Tomorrow, Charlie and I and maybe Mark will go to the Summer Palace.

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