Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Parting thoughts

Slide show at http://picasaweb.google.com/carolapucci/China2009#

We're wrapping up our trip to China today. It will be interesting to see what swine flu precautions are being taken at the airports in Beijing and Tokyo.

Some parting thoughts:

--We traveled on our own in China three years ago. Independent travel then wasn't all that difficult, and it's even easier now. We flew between cities on our last trip, mainly to save time and hassles with trains, but this time we found the night trains more convenient and of course, less expensive. Nevertheless, air travel within China is easy to book from here. No real need to book flights from the U.S. Any hotel can book the tickets here and at a much cheaper price.

--We've been taking buses to get around, and in Beijing, the subway. Very easy, with stops announced in English and everything well-signed. Buses cost about 14 cents; a subway ride is 28 cents.

--All the young people are learning English. It seems there's always someone around who will step in and help if you're in a jam. It helps to have your hotel write down in Chinese any information you might need, but phone numbers help too. All the taxi drivers have cell phones and can make a call if they can't find the hotel or understand where it is you want to go.

--More and more menus are printed in English and Chinese. We went to a very good restaurant near our hotel the other night that we found suggested on someone's blog. Everyone there was Chinese. At the time the person wrote the blog, they warned that the restaurant had no English menu. Now it does.

The coffee craze has hit the big cities. Starbucks has competition from European-style coffee houses such as Klub Coffee, above, and UBC. These spots provide a nice break from the usual bright lights and hustle and bustle of Chinese bars and restaurants. Most of the customers are Chinese who seem to be looking for a different atmosphere as well.

--It's much more fun to travel around independently than with a large tour group. If you want a personal guide or a car and driver for day, that's easy to arrange from here. Hotels can arrange most anything anyone needs. That goes for hostels, small inns or big hotels.

--No one thinks of taking a "vacation'' to China the way they do to Thailand or Vietnam, but why not? The historical and scenic sites are incomparable. The food is great. The hotels are great values. Service is excellent. Dress is casual. Even the international air fare is a good value compared to fares to Europe. We paid about$750 round-trip. The only catch is a visa, but even those are easy and quick to obtain now that the Olympics are over.

If you're thinking of a trip, start planning! The Chinese people are welcoming and friendly. They seem to really anxious to help foreigners enjoy their country. You won't regret coming!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Walking the birds in Beijing

Most Chinese have neither the money or the room for pets such as dogs and cats. Both, in fact, are considered food. We saw dog on the menu a couple of times. Birds are the most popular pets. Men take them "walking'' in their cages. These men relaxed this morning in a park in Beijing while their birds got some fresh air.

We took a six-hour bus ride back to Beijing from Datong - during the day. No more night trains. The ride was simple to arrange. The hotel asked our taxi driver to help us buy the tickets at the station, and female "bus attendants'' in red sashes, were there to direct people to the right buses. .

The surprise came when we arrived in Beijing. The bus let everyone off near the Third Ring Road instead at a bus station. We still don't know why. But the result was that we were let off on a busy street corner in the suburbs, and we had no idea where we were.

Luckily there were taxis. I had the name of our hotel written in Chinese plus a phone number. The taxi driver called and got directions. We were miles from the hotel, and in rush hour traffic, it took us another 45 minutes. The ride cost us $10, only a few dollars less than the six-hour bus ride.

We're staying at a hotel that's around the corner from a subway station, so no hassles getting around to do a little shopping and last-minute sightseeing. Above is the Panjiayuan Market. It's like a giant flea market with all sorts of vendors selling kitschy knicknacks and antiques, some real; some fake.

Theses wooden Buddah figures show all the acupuncture pressure points. We didn't ask for the price, but anyone interested in buying anything has to be prepared to bargain hard. Tom bought a little bronze four-sided face for about $4.50. The vendor's first price was $35. Even more outrageous was the price a woman quoted me on a "real leather'' Prada bag (or if I wanted, she had a Gucci in her drawer) at the Silk Market, a huge market that specializes in designer fakes. She opened at $250 and came down to $9.

The government started an anti-spitting campaign before the Olympics. Apparently it's still going on.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

"Hello. Can I take your picture please?''

Most of the time when people approach you with a camera they want you to take their picture. Here, people want us to pose for a picture with them. It doesn't matter that we're complete strangers. For some reason, young people especially, want to take home a photo of themselves with a Western foreigner.

These two girls approached Tom while we were out sightseeing yesterday. I took this picture while their friend was also taking one.

It's not that Americans or Europeans aren't around. It's that mos come either on business or in tour groups. When the kids or their parents do see the opportunity to stop a couple like us, they're usually shy at first about asking. After one works up the courage, they all want to pose. It's been fun. They especially seem attracted to Tom's beard.
This is part of what I like wandering around a city like Datong. It's a workaday, middle-class city, pretty ugly in parts. There's tons of construction going on. It's almost as if it was bombed and is being rebuilt, common these days in many parts of China where the economic engine is still running strong despite the global downturn.

But that's the physical part. Look beyond the rubble, the piles of boxes stacked up on the sidewalk, the mish-mash of ugly signs, and spending a day or so in a city like this is a chance to meet real people, eat great local food and see normal life.

"Hello, Nice to meet you,'' is a common greeting we've received from strangers as we walked down the street. They know a little bit of English, and are anxious to try it out.

Re our donkey meat dinner, apparently donkey is not only eaten in China. My French friend, Madeleine , shares this story:

"We have a neighbour here in Peyriac whose donkey we could hear from our terrace from time to time. One day we invited this lady for coffee (indeed to quiz her on the history of our house) and among the small talk I said : "We don't hear your donkey anymore..." --"Oh no, she said, we ate it". We had trouble refraining from laughing. Come to think of it a famous specialty in France is "saucisson d'âne". (Saucisson=dried sausage which you nibble on with a drink before dinner).''

Buddah Caves and Hanging Temple

These Buddah carvings were started around 1,500 years ago in sandstone caves at Yungang near Datong. They're similar to the ones that were destroyed in the Buddhist site of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. There are around 50,000 in all, some as tall as 50 feet and others just a few inches. The caves are numbered, and it's possible to walk inside some.Some of them look like frescos, with every inch of walls and ceilings covered with carvings.

Twenty caves are spred out along a three-quarter mile stretch of park. Most of the statues were carved between AD 460 and 524.

About 40 miles away is the Hanging Temple, clinging to the side of a cliff and suppported by wooden pillars. Building started around 1,500 years ago, but flood waters from a river below regularly washed the buildings away, until finally the temple was relocated high up in caves and hollows in the rock. It was covered with wooden facades.

The rooms are connected by wooden walkways and stone and wooden steps. There aren't any real guardrails to to speak of. It's surprising they let so many people walk around here, but busloads come everyday. We happened to be there at a slow time. It's hard to imagine what it would have been like with crowds.

It was a little scary getting into position to take this picture of Tom. I had to lean out over the edge of this little balcony. Best not to look down!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Datong: From hard sleeper to four stars and a donkey meat dinner

Hard sleeper again to Datong, our next destination, because all the soft sleepers were sold out. This time, there was a surprise at the end. The clerk at our hotel in Pingyao told us the train would arrive at 6:30 a.m. She must have had some numbers mixed up, because it pulled in at 4:48 a.m.! Lucky for us, a conductor came around and woke everyone up around 4:15 a.m. We had to scramble to get our things together and get off. One woman ended up trapped in the bathroom after the conductors came around and locked all the doors.

We've been playing this leg of the trip by ear. Datong is near the border of Inner Mongolia. It's a commercial center for the coal mining industry, and if you believe, the guidebooks, not worth much time. I disagree if part of the reason you come to China is to experience everyday life. But one big reason most people end up here are to see the Yungang Buddah caves, 10 miles out of town, where there are some 50,000 statues carved into sandstone cliffs.

The other reason is to climb to the Hanging Temple built into a cliff in the mountains about 40 miles away.
We'd read the guidebooks, but really still weren't sure where to stay or how to arrange to get to both of these places and make onward connections to get back to Beijing.

Two choices: Check in to a $30-a-night room in gloomy-looking hotel across from the railway station and wait for the China Travel Service office to open, or ask a taxi driver to take us to a four-star hotel downtown with the aim of using its services to make all the arrangements. It could be hit or miss, we knew, because there's no guarantee that even a four-star hotel staff speaks English, but at 5 a.m., the four-star idea won out.

We got lucky. The Datong Garden Hotel not only had a room, the desk clerk quoted us a price of $80 vs. the posted rack rate of $160.

Within in an hour of checking in (Most Chinese hotels will let you check in anytime), the assistant manager had helped us make all the arrangements for getting around for the day. We booked a taxi and driver for the day for $42, only about $12 more than we would have paid to go on a group tour.

The best part: This buffet breakfast that comes free with the room. I've really never seen anything like it. On the table were all the Chinese specialties. There were several types of cooked greens, sweet potatoes, jack fruit, noodles, steamed dumplings, rice dishes, yogurt, five different kinds of sausages, pastries, breads, eggs and all the American breakfast staples.

Hotels make great travel agents for anyone traveling on their own in China. You can pretty much count on them if you need airline or train tickets, an all-day car and driver, or just about anything else. We've found this to be true whether we're staying in a small inn or hostel or a four-star hotel like this one.

We were looking for a place to eat dinner tonight, so we asked the hotel's desk clerk. . She recommended a restaurant down the street called Yonghe, and called ahead to alert them two foreigners were on their way. They had a table waiting when we arrived. The menu was thick as a picture book, and since it had pictures, we were able to compose a fantastic meal of fresh veggie rolls with a seseme dipping sauce, a tofu dish, and donkey meat (that's right!) stir fried with green bell peppers and cilantro. With two bottles of beer, the bill came to $9.

Besides trying donkey meat, we enjoyed observing how the waitresses in their yellow jackets stood at attention by each table, even before any customers arrived. Service is taken pretty seriously in China, whether it's in a hotel or a restaurant or a store. We found it a little uncomfortable at first to have someone watching so closely while we shopped or ate, but it's definitely an important part of the culture.

Hell on earth and other temple scenes

Pingyao's sites include some amazing temples. Some of the carved statues are pretty humorous, although they were meant to be taken seriously. This one is in the temple of the City God who was supposed to protect the town and the citizens from people like this unfortunate soul.

This warrior was among 2,000 or so huge, painted statues inside Shuanglin Si, a Buddhist temple four miles outside of Pingyao.

There are few cars around Pingyao. The streets inside the walls are closed to traffic, and even outside, most everyone gets around by bicycle or these motorcycle taxis. It took us about a half an hour to go the four miles to the temple with this man. We ate a lot of dust along the way.

Pingyao is filled with little antique shops like the one above, run by this woman and her husband, below. We stopped to look at some knick-knacks they had on a table on the sidewalk. I spotted a little vase with a picture of Mao on it, and asked how much. They started with the usual outrageous high price, and I countered with some words in Chinese a friend taught me for "Too much! Discount please.''

Well, they really were amazed that I knew this Chinese phrase. "You punch,'' they said, handing me a calculator. This is the typical way bargaining goes. They start high. You knock off at least one zero and after taking turnes punching the calculator, they accept a price that's about one-third to one-half the original asking price. I got the little vase for $3, probably a little to much to pay, but we were having so much fun trading "final offers'' back and forth, I finally just gave in. We all "won'' which is important in any transaction, and as you can see, we celebrated by having our picture taken together.

Off on another night train, this time to Datong to see some ancient Buddha caves and a "hanging temple'' clinging to the side of a cliff. These are two of the girls from our guesthouse holding a postcard of Seattle which we gave to them before we left. Postcards are great to bring along when you travel. Many people are curious about the U.S. and they make nice, impromtu gifts.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Hard sleeper to Pingyao

Another overnight train ride, this time in what's called a "hard sleeper,'' a step down from "soft sleeper,'' but not as bad as it first looked when we stepped on the train in Xian at 11 p.m. Our destination was Pingyao, a small, restored medieval town enclosed by a mile-long, 40-foot-high wall, one of the few in China, besides the wall in Xian, that wasn't destroyed during Communist revolution.

"Hard sleeper'' is a six-person compartment (no door) with three narrow berths on each side. Lucky for us, we got the bottom and middle because once you're at the very top, getting down looked like a major chore!

This time we shared our compartment with a family, so not so bad really. The Chinese really come prepared for these overnight rides. The train puts a themos of hot water in each compartment and everyone brings their own insulated cup, tea, snacks etc.

Pingyao is the "middle of nowhere'' China, more specifically in the Shanxi Province, surrounded by dusty coal-mining areas and broken-down mud brick buildings. The natural surroundings are hardly scenic, but the town inside the walls is amazing. About 40,000 people live here. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Pingyao was an affluent banking center and the banks and wealthy merchants built temples and elaborate courtyard-style mansions, many of which have been turned into small guesthouses like the one above, owned this man, Jackie Deng, who was born here.

The banks - 22 at one time- shut down after the Qing Dynasty defaulted on its loans in the early 1900s. With no money to modernize the town and no interest on the part of the Communists, it was left pretty much frozen in time until restoration began in the late 1980s.

Our guesthouse, the Tian Yuan Kui, is in a 300-year-old wooden and brick building that was originally built and used as a hotel, most likely to house wealthy banking clients. More recently, it was a shoe store until the owners began restoring it in 2000. Now there are 32 rooms tucked into a succession of little courtyards. They have three sizes and three prices- $30, $45 and $60.

We splurged out on the $60 room with a big, new bathroom and shower and a huge "Kang'' bed, a traditional-style Ming Dynasty bed that at one time would have been heated from underneith by a coal fire. The hotel's owners are a local couple, but it seems that about a half-dozen girls, all 18-19, basically run the place. They all speak some English and are very curious to know about everything we are doing, why we came etc. It's a safe bet that none of them have traveled more than 50 miles from here.

This is really small-town China. The old city is only about one square mile. About 40,000 live inside The walls, 20,000 fewer than were here a few years ago. Tourist shops, restaurants, cafes and guesthouses have pretty much taken over the main street and a few of the sidestreets, but people seem to go in pretty much living their lives in spite of it.

The food here is the best we've had in China. There are lots of local specialities including sweet potato balls filled with dates and sweet red bean, a beef dish cooked with potatoes, a pasta called "cat's ears,'' and flat buckwheat noddles rolled and served in a bamboo steamer with a side of tomato sauce.

We ran into this funeral procession while taking a walk. Someone explained to us that there are two kinds of funerals: happy and sad. Happy if the person was over 65; sad if it was a younger person. This was a happy funeral.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A temple visit: Coming soon: DQ, McDonald's

We haven't seen many overt signs of religion in China, at least not the way it's visable in other Asian countries such as Thailand or Cambodia with their elaborate Buddhist temples. But the Chinese do practice Buddhism, along with Taoism and even a form of state-controlled Catholicism.

This Buddhist temple in Xian, the Dacien Si, is an oasis of calm in a hectic city. The centerpiece is the seven-story Big Goose Pagoda built at the request of a Tang Dynasty monk to house sacred texts he brought back from a pilgramage to India. Above is an image of the "Happy Buddha.''

Unfortunately the area surrounding the pagoda is about to be turned into a major tourist mecca. Under construction is a Westin Hotel and a shopping complex with a Subway, DQ, Baskin- Robbins and McDonald's, all of which are hugely popular in China. So is Walmart which appears to stock the same cheap junk in China as it does in the U.S.

We spent a couple of hours wandering through the pagoda gardens. Tom appears to be chatting up these monks, but they were just talking to each other, apparently oblivious to his presence.

If things don't work out at The Times, I'm thinking of applying for a job translating signs into English. The Chinese love rules. There's usually a long list posted in front of any attraction or public place. This one above was posted next to the ticket window at the pagoda.

Another one warned that it is "forbidden to litter up the floors with trashes.''

Thinking of "scrabbling up the buildings or trees?'' The fine will be "no less than five yuan (about 75 cents) and no more than 50.'' That's a maximum fine of around $7.50...hmm...could be worth it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Seven-cent buns and the warriors

My friend Matthew in Seattle writes wondering if it's possible to get vegetarian meals in China. The short answer is yes. Meat dishes, especially mutton and duck, are popular, but vegetables are less expensive, and in some small villages, that may be all that's available during certain times. I remember once eating a meal composed mostly of pumpkin and squash because those were what was in season.

In the bigger cities, small street vendors, such as this woman who runs a dumpling shop in an alleyway across from our hotel, turn out many cheap and healthy vegetarian snacks. So do many restaurants.

I walked over to this woman's shop this afternoon to see what she puts in her steamed buns, called bao. The only way to find out, of course, was to buy a couple. She spoke no English and I don't speak Chinese. She got a kick out of having a "foreign'' customer.'' Western visitors walking around on their own, not part of a tour group or with a guide, are a curiosity to the everyday Chinese. They aren't used to much one-on-one contact, even when a hotel is right next door.

I held up two fingers to signal that I wanted two of the plump buns. That didn't seem to work, so I tried again. Then I realized that she wanted to know what kind I wanted. She decided I should take one of each. I handed her a five yuan note (the equivalent of about 75 cents) and got most of back in change. The buns were about 7 cents each.

I asked if I could take her picture. At first, she wanted me to take just the buns. But I wanted her to be in the picture. She laughed and nodded "Yes,'' and I said "Thank you'' in Chinese, one of a handful of phrases I've learned. The others are "How much,'' "Too expensive,'' "Good morning,'' and "Good!''

For me, this little encounter will be as memorable as the three hours we spent visiting the excavation site of the terracotta warriors. Seeing the sights is only one reason to visit China. Meeting the people is another. Doing this is as easy as riding a bus or buying a steamed bun.

Memo to Matthew: One of the buns was filled with boiled greens and chopped onion; the other with cabbage and bean sprouts. Both were delicious. Maybe tomorrow I might visit the the bun lady's next door neighbor. He does arm and shoulder massages.

The clay warriors - about 8,000 soldiers and horses - were discovered in their original burial pits in 1974 by peasants digging a well. They were made to guard the tomb of the Emperor Qin 2,000 years ago. Excavations in three pits uncovered the life-sized statues, many of which have been restored and are on display in the pits enclosed in covered buildings with walking paths along the sides. Notice the faces. Each one has a unique expression.

It was surprisingly easy to get here on our own, without a tour or a guide. Greyhound-style buses (No. 306) leave the train station every half-hour or so, and are clearly marked. The round-trip fare is $2 and the trip takes about an hour. You can rent an audio tour or hire a personal guide at the site, but it's really all pretty much self-explanatory with good signage in English. We spent about three hours looking around, including some time in one of the pits where excavations are still going on. There are supposed to be more in-depth explanations and more artifacts in the history museum in town. We'll go there today to fill in the blanks.

It's raining so it's a good day to do something indoors. We brought umbrellas, but no worries if you don't. As soon as the rain started, women appeared on the streets out of nowhere with fold-up umbrellas for sale. There's nothing you can't buy in China! And the price is almost always negotiable.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Xian: High up and Personal

I've heard stories of people coming into Xian in the morning on the night train from Beijing, jumping on a bus to see the terracotta soldiers, then getting back in time to catch then train out later that night for their next destination.

What a shame. When I get back, I think I'll write a story about how much else there is to do and see in Xian. Biking around the city walls, for instance. Xian's 14th century walls, above, are still intact, forming a nine-mile long rectangle around the city center. It's easy to get the impression that all of China still looks like the scene in this picture, but of course it doesn't.

Much of modern China looks like this, and from high up, it's easy to get a sense of the whole picture including what's old and what's new.

Xian's walls were originally built on the foundations of an imperial palace, using earth, lime and glutinous rice extract. They were last restored in the 1990s, making it possible for visitors to climb them from several locations around the city. Bikes rent for $3 for 100 minutes (why 100 instead of 90, I don't know). It really wasn't enough time to take everything in, but it was quicker than walking! The bikes weren't bad - one-speed Chinese bikes with hand brakes and rear baskets.

There were some interesting views from the top. These women were exercising to music in a park below the South Gate entrance. It's a fairly typical scene most mornings and evenings in parks all over China.

The Chinese are trying hard to raise their standards to international levels. This goes for everything from public transportation to restrooms. I spotted this sign in a museum called Forest of the Stelae near the South Gate entrance to the walls. The museum houses ancient carved pillars and stone tablets containing writings of Confucian classics and other important documents.

Xian is an interesting mix of old and new, and getting a feel for both is a good reason to spend a few days here. Bicycle vendors selling fresh, sliced pineapple and watermelon show up on the streets every afternoon. It was fun to contrast this scene with the Datang Shopping Street where we ate dinner last night at the Cacaja Indian restaurant. The street was lined with ethnic restaurants - Korean, Maylaysian, Japanese etc. All the customers were young, sophisticated Chinese. It was our most expensive meal here so far - $17 for two- for chickren and spinach entres, green pepper nan, rice, rice pudding and beer.

Xian's Muslim Quarter

Most people come to Xian to see the terracotta soldiers. We did too, and we'll get to that on Wednesday, but we spent our first afternoon exploring one of Xian's lessor-known attractions, the Mulslim Quarter.

The people living here are the Hui, descended from 8th century Arab soldiers. They live and work in an area near the Drum Tower where the alleys and low buildings contrast with the wide streets and massive new shopping malls that have changed the character of most of the rest of downtown Xian.

The centerpiece is the 1000-year-old Great Mosque, a park-like complex of stone and wooden buildings built in the style of Chinese temples. A tower in the middle called the "Introspection Tower'' serves as the minaret. The quarter is a hectic area, and it was a surprise to experience a place as quiet and peaceful as this in the middle of it all. In fact, we had a hard time finding it due to some construction going on, so we hired one of the three-wheeled carts that people in the quarter use as taxis to get around, and went on a wild ride with a driver who first quoted us a price of $3.50, and after some friendly bargaining, came down to 75 cents. Tom tried on several skull caps sold in the shop above, but they were all too small.

Afterwards, we walked from food stall to food stall, sampling the Islamic treats sold by vendors lining both sides of the streets. Mutton grilled on skewers is the specialty, but we passed on the meat and instead put together a movable feast of snacks made from dried fruits, bean paste, sweet potatos, rice etc.

Our favorite was "Eight Treasures'' pudding, a 20-cent disc of sticky rice flavored with dates, sugar, seseme, nuts etc., cooked in a tiny wooden box, then removed intact and served on a stick. Yum!

Tom has put together a photo gallery of more of our pictures. It's at http://www.china2009.puciello.com

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What $23 a night buys in Xian

There's nothing wrong with checking into a chain hotel hotel now and then, especially if it's Ibis, the European chain of budget hotels with several nice hotels n China, including the $23-a-night Ibis inside the old city walls of Xian.

Here's what we're getting: Big, modern double room; TV; clean, modular bathroom with high-pressure shower; free Internet; fake wooden floors; big Chiinese bed; early check-in (9:30 a.m. this morning); and for an extra $2, an all-you-can eat Chinese and American breakfast buffet.

The furniture looks like it came from Ikea. All the staff speaks a little English. Couldn't really ask for more, except for maybe a little more help from the front desk with train information, but we solved that problem the way we usually do - by walking into a four-star hotel, in the case the Hyatt, and asking the consierge. He didn't even ask if we were hotel guests. He asked a bellhop to walk with us to the train ticket office above the bank across the street where he helped us buy the tickets to our next destination - Pingyao- in a few days. This kind of help is so typical in China. He didn't even expect a tip, but of course, we gave him one.

Dinner our first night was at a place next door to the hotel called "How Sunny Life.'' It was packed with families an everything was in Chinese, but lucky for us, they were doing Dim Sum. The carts were filled with little dishes like we see back home. Lots of green veggies, dumplings, and chicken, shrimp and beef stews. We put together a tasty meal of six or seven different dishes plus beer for $6.40 for the two of us.

"Sweet morning everyone!''

There are some advantages to having three men (one was Tom) as roommates in the same sleeping compartment on a night train. One was a Chinese army officer who lifted our suitcases into the storage area above the top bunks. The other guy was a businessman who brought Dvds to watch on his laptop. They both offered to share their dried fruit with us.

It was just about time to turn off the lights and go to bed by the time we got on around 10 p.m.at the Beijing West station. I remembered tips from my friend, Tracy, skilled at changing her clothes in her car without anyone seeing, and managed to get pants off and leggings on under the covers.

The 11-hour, 800-mile journey was incredibly smooth. The trains are electric and very clean, with comfy bedding, free slippers and Western toilets. Only disappointment was no dining car. There were plenty of boiling hot water for mixing with packaged noodles, and the car attendants took orders for coffee and tea which they delivered in the morning.

The Chinese government made a big push before the Olympics to get train stations, bus stations, airports and streets signed in English and/or Roman numerals. This has made getting around on your own incredibly easier than it used to be. The Beijing station could have been anywhere in Europe, except it was cleaner and maybe even a little less chaotic.

Best part was recorded "wake-up'' call announced in English about an hour before the train arrived in Xian.

"Sweet morning everyone. Wish you had a good night!''

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Playful pandas

Rain foiled our plans for a hike through some villages on the outskirts of Beijing with a group called Beijing Hikers, so we did what thousands of Beijing families do on Sunday, we went to the zoo to see the pandas.

Bamboo seems to be their meal of choice. The one above cooperated nicely for our photo shoot. The other reason to put the zoo on a list of things to do is the Beijing Aquarium, one of the world's largest if not the largest. A really amazing collection of sharks, whales, stingrays etc. where kids can get close-up.

It struck me today how important children are here. Almost every parent we saw had one child by the hand - and just one - since that's the quota in most cases. I also love the way the Chinese turn everyday activities into exercise. Dancing in the parks, above, is a favorite passtime. Someone brings a boom box and everyone joins in.

Most people don't think of China as a "budget'' destination, yet it is, at least if you're traveling independently as it's getting easier and easier to do. Air fares are in the $700 range round-trip.  The overnight train we're taking to Xian tonight was $60 each for a "soft sleeper,'' a compartment for four people. I don't know yet who our "roommates'' will be, but that's part of the adventure.