Backpacking Northern Vietnam Part II – Bac Ha and the surrounding minority villages

January 29th, 2017


You might say we chose a less than optimal time of year to travel from China to Vietnam, because not only was the whole of China on the move, Vietnam also was amidst the New Year celebrations, which is more commonly known as TET. Since we have never been to Vietnam before and did not have any particular expectations, I have to admit we did not notice the effects of the holidays all that much. We might have been able to make more frequent use of public transportation instead of having to rely on private cars to go somewhere. But since neither of us speaks or reads Vietnamese, and the results of our online research suggested that especially the far North does not have a formally organized bus schedule yet, it might have been our vehicle of choice no matter what. That is also why we were greeted by a private driver the moment we made it over the border and entered Vietnam, which was fairly straight forward to organize: During the travel preparations we contacted one of the suggested (and tested) hotels in Bac Ha and the owner, Mr. Dong, turned out to be a very valuable contact in the Vietnamese hinterland. He confirmed that no buses would be serviced during the TET and offered to help us organize a car from the Chinese-Vietnamese border into Bac Ha. Admittedly not the cheapest way to take on the 90 minutes drive over narrow and winding country roads, but an earned luxury after the 5 hours train ride to get here. And indeed, we did not see a public bus until three days later when the holidays came to a slow end.

The first night we slept a few kilometer outside of Bac Ha in a rural homestay. Virtually all hotels in the main part of town were closed for the holidays anyway, and the cute Vietnamese family of four that took us in welcomed us into one of their newly renovated rooms. Although this wasn’t a standard hotel (or even hostel) room, it strikingly demonstrated how scarce the living conditions up in Northern Vietnam are. And yet, our room was clean and furnished with a matress on the floor and a thick blanket with two cushions. That was it – no other furniture. A tour around the house reveiled that the homestay owners had a similar bedroom, which they shared with their two children. The building’s roof was covered with palm leaves, the windows had no glass and the door to our room could only be closed with a small padlock. We shared a wet cell with the owners, which to our surprise had a western style toilet but no shower, just a tube that could be fitted onto the faucet.

Dinner with our local hosts in Bac Ha.

The cooking fire was built in an adjecent building, and was fueled with bamboo, which as we learned is not only the main building material but is used in almost every aspect of life as well. In the evening, our host family invited us to a generous dinner with them and we had the chance to meet other relatives that lived a few houses away and came over for the joint meal. Unlike many other Asian countries that we visited so far, where people tend to stay awake way after nightfall, bed time in Bac Ha came at around 11pm, and everyone retreated into their own homes/rooms. I didn’t expect to sleep well, because I was not aware that the temperatures would drop so steeply after dark, but have to admit that I had a chilly, but pleasant night.


Our hosts and the owners of the Highland Homestay.

The next day we planned to hire a trekking guide to explore the mountain ranges and small minority villages of this part of the country. Since the family with whom we stayed the first night drew their main income from tourism, we hoped that someone we already met would also be able to show us the hinterland. So when our young host (and father of the two curious kids) offered us his tour guide services, we gladly accepted. We set out early and took the steep mud trail up and into the hills. Thick clouds of early morning mist obscured our view and added an eery flair to the landscape. Sometimes the clouds would allow a few glimpses of the fields and valleys far below, while at other times we lost each other out of sight only meters apart.

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After an hour and a half of ascending and descending misty mountains, we arrived in the first small minority village. The harsh landscape and farming conditions have made water buffalos an indispensible help not only for farming, but as a general lifestock and family investment as well. They were the dominant sights in all the small villages we walked through. The people we met mostly kept to themselves and stayed in small group among themselves, with a clear distinction of gender roles. While the women tended after the children or stood together and chatted, the men played games or drank high volume corn liquor. As for the drinking, the way this worked was that one person would invite another one to raise their glass with them, drowning the liquor all in one shot and then shake hands. As guests we were asked to drink shots of the homemade booze together with the men, while the women stayed in the kitchen and mostly remained out of sight. I felt a little bit out of place among all the men, and I still wonder if they made an exception and allowed me to drink with them. Unfortunately, the men would not agree to shake hands with us unless we drank the whole glass in one draw. We tried our best to dodge the majority of the glasses going around, but ended up pretty tipsy when we continued our hike some time later.

The Eastern Qing Tombs and Dowager Empress Cixi’s Final Resting Place

Sunday, 30th of April 2017


Strolling towards the tombs of one of the most powerful women of the Qing dynasty – the dowager empress Cixi.


Weekends are for daytripping – at the end of last month that motto brought us to the Eastern Qing Tombs in Zunhua, almost 130km northeast of the Jing in the province of Hebei. Since online research suggested that regular public transportation wasn’t an option we went to Qianmen to buy a bus ticket with one of the public tourism companies a day in advance. We must have scored two of the last tickets, because early the next morning when we entered the bus, almost all the seats were taken. Five hours later, when we finally arrived at the Qing Tombs, we definitly learned some lessons:

  • Always arrive some 30 minutes ahead of time if you want to have adjecent seats

    I’m not gonna translate that (go ahead and use the translator)

    in the bus (that one should go without saying, and it proved to be true once more);

  • Boiled eggs are a type of “fast food” snack in China and a fart-like smell that creeps through the centre aisle does not necessarily mean that somebody couldn’t restrain themselves;
  • No matter how innocent an intersection looks, you can be almost certain that traffic will jam for miles nonetheless (giving you the time to stretch your legs and buy some ice cream at a rural 小卖部);
  • If you didn’t think about “doing your business” before the trip, you better be prepared to pay 10 Kuai to use the roadside thunderbox for a No. 2.
  • Never trust that the bus driver knows the way – even after continously consulting his cell phone map, he chose a road that allowed only vehicles no taller than 2.9m (yes, a long distance bus is taller than that). Luckily, pragmatism wins, and ten minutes after being stuck here a

    Our bus driver didn’t agree with the hight limitation of the road he chose, so he asked the gatekeeper to lift it.

    chubby gatekeeper arrived to ramp up the steel barrier and let us pass.


Exploring the Qing Tombs

The burial site was too large to see it all in three hours, and we will definitly come here again with a rental car. Along the way many locals offered rural homestays for rent, so it might even be an option to make this a weekend trip. The imperial mausoleum complex is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and requires a whole day of sightseeing if you want to see it all. On the tomb grounds, shuttle buses and golf caddies transport visitors from one grave to the next.

Again, I have embarrassingly little to write about the historic significance of the Qing Tombs. In fact, I am still waiting to discover a tourist site in China that actually has meaningful descriptions that provide some background information about the place you are visiting. So instead of paraphrasing Wikipedia I trust that the images convey the grandeur and splendor of the Qing Tombs. Enjoy.

At the entrance to the expansive tomb grounds ponds with water lilies and marble bridges greet the visitors.

Three gates granting access to the necropolis of the Qing emperors. The left (eastern) gate is the entrance gate for the emperor, whereas the west gate was used by the ministers. The coffin was carried through the center gate.

The Eastern Qing Tombs.

Yu Tomb (Qian Long) Stone Tributes, representing an altar with an oven, two candle holders and two vases on it. It was used to worship the ancestors. During the Qing dynasty, the royal harem could go no further than here.

Yuling, the tomb of the Qianlong emperor is one of the most magnificient royal graves in Chinese history. A series of nine vaults separated by four solid marble doors, weighting 3 tons each, are located at a depth of 54 metres. In 1928 the underground palace was robbed by the warlord Sun Dianying.

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Down below in the Yuling tombs, all the walls, vaulted ceilings, and gates are covered with Buddhist imagery and more than 30,000 words of Tibetan scripture and Sanskrit.

Reenactment of a royal ceremony.

Marble bridges leading to the Xiao Tombs Tablet Tower. The double eave gablet roof covers the tablet on which Emperor Shun Zhi’s title is carved in three languages – Manchu, Mongolian, and Chinese.

Cixi Tomb Small Tablet Tower.

Looking down from the Ming Tower of Cixi’s Tomb, the highest site of the mausoleum.

Below, the grave grounds span all the way to the mountains.

The Pride of Lions guarding Beijing’s Marco Polo Bridge

Saturday, the 29th of April 2017


One more of Beijing’s sights is down from our tourist bucket list. Last weekend we took a bus all the way out to the suburbs of Beijing and visited the Marco Polo Bridge, a historically significant place in the south-west of town. There is not much else out there, but the bridge in itself is definitly worth the trip. Along the railing over the river some 500 different lions from different eras of Chinese history guard the bridge, and myth has it that no two persons will count the same number of lions there. One of the reasons why is that each individual lion is oftentimes joined by many more small baby lions hiding all around the stone sculpture. Below is a small selection of the creatures that can be seen there.

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A short trip to the Ancient City of Pingyao, Shanxi

Saturday, 1st of April – Sunday, 2nd of April


Extended weekends are ideal to take short trips within China. Especially in Beijing we have the advantage of an excellent railway system, so you don’t necessarily have to take a plane to reach sights that are within a 500-1000km radius. There are night trains that can bring you all the way to your far-off destination while you sleep. Although I have to say that we haven’t done an overnight train ride yet, I’m tempted to try it on our next trip. The rail routes are not too spectecular, so I figure we might as well get there well rested. On this trip though we booked an early morning high speed train to the ancient city of Pingyao.

By now I am wondering why we did not make better use of extended weekends while we still lived in Germany. You can discover quite a few travel gems that are only a few hours' trainride away from Beijing and fit nicely into a two to three day holiday. Beijing's West Railway Station is our point of departure for a short weekendtrip to Pingyao Ancient City today. The EMU hightspeed train that services that route is affordable, has comfortable spacy seats and quietly take you all the way to Pingyao in just over 4 hours. Of course, traveling in a highspeed train in Germany will most likely drop you off in different country after traveling a few hours, instead of the bordering province😜 #china #instachina #beijing #instabeiing #hypebeijing #igersbeijing #peking #thatsbeijing #timeoutbeijing #pingyao #ancient city #travel #tourism #travelchina #unesco #wanderlust #railwaystation #beijingwest #fellowtravelers #livingabroad #holiday #extendedweekend #weekendtrip #shorttrip #ritnb #riceisthenewbread

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We rose early to catch our train at 7:45am. Like everything in China, the West Railway station is quite large, so you definitly want to be there ahead of time in case you don’t find your platform right away. Also, security checks at the entrance will slow you down, not because they search you thoroughly, but simply because a few hundred people try to push into the station with you. Everyone just throws their baggage onto a conveyer band that carries the suitcases, rucksacks and travel bags right into a large scanner. So far that’s just good security practice. The interesting part is the person entrusted with checking the contents of the baggage. They’re either fast asleep, are chatting with their coworkers or play candycrush on their mobile phones – surely anything but their job. On a regular day that is a fairly funny sight to behold (when you ignore the security implications). Not so when you are in a rush to get to your platform and still have to endure this work creation program (I apologize for the rant). At any rate, we were in a very good mood this particular morning and actually factored in enough time to go for a coffee before bording the train. If only we had known that the West Railway Station had a McCafé (and a Starbuck) we wouldn’t have bought a black coffee at the regular McDonalds. It still served it’s purpose and refueled us for the four hour train ride some 600 km all the way down to the south-west of Beijing.


A city within a city.


We had bought our tickets over the CTrip platform for 183 RMB, had assigned seats, and an unobstructed view out the window. Early as it was though, we slept most of the train ride anyways, but as mentioned above the scenery isn’t too impressive, so bring music or a good book/magazine to pass the time. And before you know it, you will arrive in Pingyao Gucheng (平遥古城). Prior to our trip we had asked the hotel if it was possible to arrange for a pick-up into town and thus we were greeted by a guy holding a “Fly By Knight Hotel” sign upon exiting the railway station. Once on the road, the first few kilometers take you along an industrial highway, looking nothing like the imagines you saw online. Only after a 15 minutes car ride do the ancient city walls of Pingyao come into sight. To our astonishment, the car drove right through the gates and into the tiny hutong-like alleys. As comfortable as this car ride right to the front steps of our hotel was, being a tourist trying to explore the city on foot among all the cars and golf caddies was quite annoying. You are constantly being honked at, and the streets are too narrow to accomodate cars and people (and cyclers) at the same time. Car drivers on the other hand have figured out that driving at top speed into a group of pedestrians is the best method to get them out of the way as quickly as possible, and so we were constantly pressing into buidling walls to avoid being hit. Fortunately, this was the only issue we faced during our time in Pingyao.


Jelte had been to Pingyao before with his family and recommended the Fly By Knight Courtyard Hotel, which didn’t fall short of his praise. Not only is it located right in the middle of the Old Town, the courtyard atmosphere adds a calm extra layer to your holiday. Many of the rooms have their own bathrooms with good water pressure and hot water, and some even have a small glass conservatory in front of the entrance to their bedroom, which makes for a relaxing reading spot. As the name suggests, the center of the hotel features a large inner courtyard that blocks out the busy city noises and may be used to have an early morning coffee or as ‘basecamp’ to plan your day trip.

Since we were not here to stay in the hotel all day, we just went for a quick shower and headed right out to explore Pingyao. Conveniently, tourists can buy a “through ticket” at one of the visitor center (130 RMB, half price if you have a student ID), which grants them access to each of the small museums and the city wall as well. Just make sure you keep the ticket at a save yet quickly accessible pocket of your bag, because you will need it often. There are more than 20 or so noteworthy houses where former accountants or other prominent bank employees used to live and/or do their business. You walk past them as you navigate the main streets and can easily hop from one museum to the next with only a few steps to walk in between.

Pingyao offers a variety of 'mini museums', each one featuring a different facette of Ancient Han Chinese culture. Since this city used to be a financial epicenter, many display the workings of famous banks and accountants. When visiting Pingyao, it is advisable to buy a round pass for 130 RMB to avoid missing out on any of the sights you might pass by. Especially if you plan to discover the historic streets by foot (rather than booking one of those annoying golf caddies that honk pedestrians out of the way) you are bound to walk past many smaller attractions showcasing a famous person's house and their role in the building Pingyao's (former) wealth. #china #instachina #pingyao #unesco #worldheritage #ancienttown #ancientcity #finance #banking #history #chinesehistory #sightseeing #travel #travelgram #wanderlust #architecture #tourist #tourism #museum #chineseculture #hanchinese #ritnb #riceisthenewbread

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Two of the major sights to be explored are the Pinyao Confucius Temple and the City God Temple. Whereas the ‘house museums’ are centered around the families that lived there and their role in buidling up Pingyao as a financial center, these two temples exhibit the religious facet of life in the ancient town. Though they may not have known it at the time, especially the interior designers of the Temple of City Gods had a pretty sarcastic sense of humour. When you enter the temple, the two buildings lining the left and right of the courtyard feature all sorts of gods. The left side was reserved for the ‘good’ and gentle gods, that smile at you and have a serene facial expression. The right side of the courtyard however was set up for the evil gods, that torture and torment people you have sinned (or at least that is my explanation).


An astonishing feature of the building shown last in the galery above is the way its gable was constructed. There are no nails or screws involved and it holds togethers simlpy by a very elaborate plug system.


Of course, one of the main reasons for everybody to visit to Pingyao is the enormous and intact city wall. We saved this bit of sightseeing for the evening hours, so that we could enjoy the sunset as we strolled along the top. Before climing up the wall though we each bought a bottle of local beer so that we could make a quick break and have a drink together. But be warned: each of the four sides of the wall have only one entrance/exit, so you better take a restroom break before visitng this part of Pingyao.


The morning of our second (and last) day of our visit to Pingyao we spend strolling along the smaller streets and eating our way through the local specialities.


The Residence of the Ma Family – 马家大院


A pleasant surprise was a recommendation from our host at the Fly By Knight Hotel. He pulled out a map of the Ancient City and pointed at a sight called the Residence of the Ma Family, the biggest courtyard in Pingyao. The short 15 minute walk there led us through homey hutong alleyways and past private living quarters. A large signs attached to the neighboring building soon announced that we have found the 马家大院. The ‘through ticket’ we had bought the previous day also granted us access here, since it is valid for three consecutive days. Once inside, the English-language tourist descriptions again left room for a lot of speculations, which didn’t deminish the fact that this courtyard still allowed passage to all of its rooms and towers, from the highest of which we had an impressive view over the city below. Since the Ma family accumulated quite a large sum of money over the course of their business activities in Pingyao, the family vault below the property exhibited the equivalent of their wealth in fake gold barrels and was accessible though a whole in the ground and a very steep flight of irregular stairs.

Another quite ironic tourist sight was the Tingyu government building, in which our personal highlight was a wall painting of a naughty fox flirting with an almost nude woman.

The last building on our travel itiniary was the Xietongqing Banking House. Unfortunately, the lighting below in the vaults was too dim to capture it accurately, but in the first room after descending into the cellar there was a tall round stele on which a dragon was snaking up. I didn’t quite catch the exact meaning of this – it sure promised good luck/fortune –  but almost  every visitor walking past it ended up placing their hand on the lowest part of the dragon’s tail and walking clockwise around it tracing their hand all the way up along the dragon’s body to the top. This made for quite an absurd dance a few meters below the bank’s main building in which some 10 people could participate at the same time.

 

 

Backpacking Northern Vietnam Part I – Crossing the border from Hekou to Lao Cai

January the 28th, 2017


Not too long ago we had this idea of traveling from China to Vietnam, crossing the border from Hekou (Yunan, South China) to Lao Cai (North Vietnam) on foot. The easiest and most straight forward preperation we did was to buy a Lonely Planet of the destination country and do some googleing to research the feasibility of this endeavour. Turns out it is much easier than anticipated. Since we live in Beijing we booked a flight to Kunming, which took around 3 hours to bring us from the eastern capital to the southern edge of China. Since our flight touched down late that night, we took a cab from the Kunming airport to the Jinjiang hotel close to the train station. That way we gained some extra hours of sleep the next morning and only had a 10 minute walk up the road to reach the train station.

In order to save time and to avoid the masses queueing up at the ticket counter at the train station, find one of these ticket offices and collect yours well before starting the trip. It's 5 RMB service fee per ticket.

In order to save time and to avoid the masses queueing up at the ticket counter at the train station, find one of these ticket offices and collect yours well before starting the trip. It’s 5 RMB service fee per ticket.


Tipp: Claim your train ticket before heading to the station. We bought the train ticket on CTrip some days before the journey and only needed to present our original passports at the small local ticket booth to be able to receive it ahead of time.


Boarding the train at Kunming’s main station the route all the way down to Hekou Bei (North) took around five hours. The landscape was unexpectedly unremarkable: 70 percent of the time we passed through tunnels, while the remaining 30 percent were equally divided between highly unsustainable coal factories and small valleys. Since one of the main objectives of the journey was to cross the Chinese-Vietnamese border on foot, we were bound to take the train, but just for the joy of riding a train through “rural” China I would not recommend this particular route. There is no direct flight from China’s capital to Hekou – the bordering city to Vietnam – and as far as we know Hekou does not have an airport anyways. Arriving in Hekou North in the early afternoon, we walked out of the train station and expected to be pointed into the right direction by a billboard or an information counter. There is none, only a long line of small buses headed for the city center of Hekou. Board any of these buses for 2 RMB and get driven to the river that divides the two countries.

Once you cleared customs and decended the escalator, you are allowed to pass through to the other side.

Once you cleared customs and decended the escalator, you are allowed to pass through to the other side.

It’s another 30 minutes walk from where the bus drops you off to the actual border control. Keep on walking down the same road along the river until you see the massive triangular gate to the border bridge. The access to it is blocked by a high fence, so you will have to continue down the road to the left, then take the first street right. On the day that we crossed over to Vietnam there were not particularly many tourists there, but enough people were entering the inspection center to guide us into the right direction. Don’t expect helpful signs to guide your way, just follow the other travelers and take the elevator on the far left side of the government bureau up to Chinese customs. Much like the country exit on the airport, you are asked to fill out the small yellow departure card when leaving China and queue up to have your passport reviewed by a border control officer.


Tipp: On the small yellow departure card, simply put in “Walking” in the field “Flight No./Ship’s Name/Train No.” as a means of exit.


Once you handed your passport and departure card to the border officer, smiled into the digital camera to take the picture for the data base and passed the usual checkings at the border, you will receive the Chinese exit stamp into your passport. Now you are free to decend the escalator on the other side of the building and cross the bridge over to Vietnam.

Lao Cai International Border Gate Administration Center

The next building to come into view is the Lao Cai International Border Gate Administration Center, where you must first pass the usual “quarantine control”, which mainly consists of a woman checking your passport and a heat camera measuring your temperature, before going through the Vietnamese border controll and receiving your entrance stamp into your passport. Interesting side note: As a German citizen you don’t need a VISA for Vietnam unless you plan to spend more than 15 days in the country. Congratulation – you made it over the South China border and into Vietnam!

Temple of Ancient Monarchs Li Dai Di Wang Miao in Beijing

Saturday, the 21th of January 2017

The Temple of Ancient Monarchs


Today is another day of brilliant blue skies and sunshine in Beijing. Three weeks into the new year the weather is freezing cold, but due to the icy winds the air is clear again and you can see the mountains surrounding the city miles away. Naturally, we always want to make good use of bright days like this and decided to go visit the Temple of Ancient Monarchs, also called The Historical Emperial Temple of Beijing [Li Dai Di Wang Miao 历代帝王庙].

Personally I get the impression that many of the sights in Beijing look quite alike and I’m sure architects or historians see the many unique features in every one of them. Risking to appear ignorant I’d say I rather visit the temples that are a bit off the trail and attract less visitors but appear to be carved from the same wood than join the masses and squeeze through the entrance of the Forbidden City. First time visitors to Beijing will probably disagree and will gladly endure the crowds to enjoy the magnificence of the top rated tourist sites. And I have to admit that you probably cannot travel to Beijing and later tell your friends and family that you wouldn’t visit the Lama Temple in fear of too many people. I will still try to convice you that the Temple of Ancient Monarchs is very worthwhile even though it might not be the number one priority on your Beijing bucket list.

Since we only have one week left until Chinese New Year – a week of holidays with abundant fireworks and merry family get-togethers – red laterns and lucky symbol appeared all over the city virtually over night. Contrary to the jammed experience of tourist sights during the Spring Festival itself, today the Temple of Ancient Monarchs was almost completely deserted. On the one hand, that might be due to the fact that almost nobody is actually a “native” Beijing citizen and thus returned to their home provinces for the festival already. On the other hand minus 5 degrees C and a stiff wind probably convinced people to stay indoors despite the beautiful sunshine.

The Historical Imperial Temple of Beijing is easily seen in an hour’s time. There are three major halls, all of which contain religious artifacts. There are also two halls housing a large buddha, and two pavillons with traditional Chinese “turtles”. In the west annex hall leading off the main structure to the left you’ll find the small Guan Di Temple. Outside, a small steel oven is used to burn incense, while inside a regious entity may be adressed for prayers. In the east annex hall visitors may see the Well Pavilion, used to make sacrificial soup and to clean up after the animals were slaughtered for sacrifice.The well’s roof has a square hole in the center facing the mouth of the well, symbolizing that heaven and earth were linked together.

For an overview of the temple’s layout see the map below.

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Winterly Temple of Heaven in Beijing

It’s our first week back after the Christmas holidays and I have to say the weather treated us very nicely. Over newyears our friends who didn’t return home as well as the German media repeatedly reported the devastating smog situation in Beijing, and I already expected the worst. Fortunately, we brought the clean air back with us and the last few days have seen brighter and brighter skies. Exploiting the opportunity to be outside without wearing a mask, we paid a visit to the Temple of Heaven, one of the few sights that I haven’t been to in the 16 month that we have been living here. It’s quite an amazing monument and is conveniently located at it’s own subway station (Tiantan Dongmen, Exit A). As it so happens the Pearl Market is directly across the street, so you could also get some (souvenir) shopping done since you’re already in the far south of the city. Tiantan one of the less expensive tourist attractions of Beijing and a regular “through ticket”, which grants you access to the main temple and some other importants parts of the area, costs 28 RMB (student price is 14 Kuai less). I recommend to buy the through ticket immediately and pay the extra 18 Kuai on top of a regular ticket, otherwise you can only get access to the front plaza and won’t be let through to the main temple. You’d have to buy a seperate ticket for 20 RMB if you haven’t gotten the through ticket right at the entrance.


Walking towards the main temple, you will see groups of elderly people playing cards and mahjongg. I’m always inspired by this routine, prefering to spend the sunny hours of the afternoon with old friends outside, rather than sitting isolated in your living room and counting the hours.

Many parents also took advantage of the clear and sunny day and visited the temple grounds today. A mother with her two kids positioned themselves in front of the main structure and captured the trip with their cell phone camera. She tried to convince her daughter to let her sister give her a smooch on the cheek, but as you can imagine she wasn’t too fond of the idea.

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Roadtrip to Panlongshan Great Wall, Gubeikou, Beijing, China

Having a drivers licence in China (or a boyfriend/girlfriend/good friends that don’t mind bringing you along who have one) turns out to be of great great advantage when living in Beijing. On weekends you can spontaneously rent a car (i.e. from Avis near Dongzhimen for 290 RMB/day), pick one of the many sightseeing spots that lie just outside of the city, and get started. So yesterday we did just that and started our trip Friday night after work – en route out of the city center traffic jams are notorious and unavoidable anyways, so you might as well get it over and done with then, and start the saturday and first day of your weekend trip after a good night’s sleep in closer vicinity to your destination.

Yesterday we set our target on Miyun 密云, a smaller district some 50k out of Beijing proper, and spend the night in a hotel there. Although a very Chinese-style breakfast was included, we quickly packed our stuff at 6:30am the next morning and drove the remaining 50k to Panlongshan, east of Gubeikou Village. With a nice headstart on all the other tourists, we arrived there at around 9:30 am, but we needn’t have worried: although it’s supposedly the only part of the Great Wall that has never undergone any reconstruction, it doesn’t attract many visitors. The small parking lot was almost empty except for some 10 cars, and during the entire time of our walk along and on the Wall we met only a handfull of hikers. And a hike it was. The short ascent through the “forest carnival” (= the obligatory tourist entertainment park/trap along the entrance area, complete with jungle gym and rope garden) leads you up a few hundred steps, before you reach the actual Wall. Compared to other much more popular parts, Panlongshan Great Wall doesn’t have such steep climbs and/or hilly sections and it simply continues on the soft ridges of the surrounding mountains. It is however far less developed and you oftentimes walk next to the wall due its high degree of decay. You definitly have to have good physical condition and some experience walking on uneven terrain. The trails are littered with debris and the steps up (and far worse – down) are crooked and of various sizes, shapes, and hights, so make sure to wear sturdy footwear. Yet, all of this contributes to this tour’s unique charme and natural beauty which all the other parts of the Wall I visited so far lack of completely. You won’t have all the souvenir shops and map sellers here, so remember to bring enough bottles of water and some snacks, because there are also no vendors along the way.

As the pictures below will show, we were exceptionally lucky in terms of the weather conditions. Even though it was already fall according to the Chinese moon calendar, temperatures still climbed above 30 degree C during midday, and those of us who remembered to apply sun screen in the morning definitly had an advantage.

There are two major watch towers along this tour, the General Tower, which has two sides with four windows and the other two sides with three windows, and the 24 Window Tower, which has – as the name correctly suggests – six windows on every side. Or used to have: two sides of the tower were destroyed during the Japanese invasion, so you need some imagination to envision the whole building today.

After making our way back down from the wall we were pretty starved (remember, no vendors along the way), so we entered the Gubeikou Ancient Village and were suprised to find it almost deserted. Lucky for us two lonesome men dressed in military uniforms (wtf?) were just setting up chairs for a wedding ceremony (WTF??) and the guy instructing them on how to align the rows was married to a women living close by who agreed to cook lunch for us. Obviously she didn’t have a menu to guide us through the food options, so she prepared us a meal from the ingredients she had at home (…I hope we didn’t eat all her supplies for dinner with her family…). We ended up with a fairly delicious choice of dishes, ranging from chicken marinated in soy sauce, over a cooked cucumber salad, to thick slices of bacon with a side of crispy onions.

Shortly before we began our drive back home, massive storm clouds darkened the sky and a major rain and hail storm came pouring down on us. It was quite impressive to see the weather change so quickly, having bright blue sky on the one side of the horizont, and dark menacing clouds on the other. As suddenly as the storm came, as quickly it was gone again, leaving the streets and everyone who didn’t make it home in time soaked and steaming in its wake.

 

Five Day Trip to Seoul, South Korea

One of the banes of living abroad (and especially in China) are visa runs – being forced to leave the country simply for the purpose of renewing your residence permit. So why not use the compulsory trip to catch up on some long due traveling, in our case bridging the 1000km distance from the Jing to the South Korea. More precisely to Seoul, the capital of South Korea, a stone’s through away from their atomic neighbors. The pictures below were taken on our five day trip to the capital, which is about the time you need to get a rough idea of the friendliness of the people and the cleanliness of the food. But first, let me (take a selfie…) give you a small list of impressions that were the most remarkable about Seoul, either compared to Beijing or compared to the general public opinion about Seoul:

  • You don’t need a visa to enter the country (at least not as a German passport holder), which was a very good thing given that we talked about looking up the visa regulation for Korea but in the end totally forgot to check again (that would have been one nasty surprise at the border)
  • Flight time between Beijing and Seoul is something like two hours (again, I didn’t have the time to gather more concrete travel information about this trip, so I simply assumed that it would take more than a few hours to get there. Which is also why I devoured that aweful plane meal, being under the impression that I wouldn’t get any food for the next couple of hours…)
  • The traffic (and the general demeanor of pedestrians and car/bus/taxi/motorbike/bicycle drivers) generally adheres to the rules
  • People in the streets don’t spit/fart/burp on a crowded sidewalk
  • Contrary to common notion the people of Seoul don’t speak English (at least using English won’t get you much farther than it would in downtown Beijing and sign language is still the means of communication for any non-Chinese speaking visitor)
  • You can buy beer that doesn’t taste like stale water (which is especially nice for people used to German brews)
  • Juice is actually made from fruit (we bought the most amazing fresh apple juice in an ordinary convenient store)
  • Koreans have a high quality coffee culture, so even smaller cafés tend to have portafilter machines (plus the milk that’s used tastes much better than in China)
  • One can receive ashtonishingly decent public wifi connections (we didn’t manage to buy a mobile phone card, so we used the public wifi, and except for some smaller bumps we got along quite well)
  • Art & history museum are for free, because the government provides cultural education for everyone (you do have to pay to gain access to the shrine and temples)
  • Shockingly we weren’t able to use WeChat in every store (which is a major problem once you fully got used to the comfort of not having any cash in your pockets). AliPay would have worked though
  • People tend to have good oral hygiene, so you don’t keel over everytime someone yawns in a crowded subway next to you
  • The public education videos in the subway actually seem to have an effect on the behaviour of the metro users (i.e. the majority sits with their ankles crossed instead of shoving the soles of their shoes into your knees
  • Contrary to the general opinion, Seoul didn’t turn out to be a shopping metropolis for us. With a european size 42 and shoe size 39, I didn’t find a single piece of clothing that didn’t look ridiculously like something a manga character would wear.
  • It was however ok with regards to their assortment of cosmetics. Especially in the main shopping street in close vicinity to the M Korea Tower, stores specializing in body lotion, facial creams, lip sticks, fake eye lashes, contact lenses, neon eye shadow, skin masks, hand lotions, and whatever else you can think of to smoothen out those wrinkles or lighten up your tone of skin was offered in one street.

So without furher ado find some of our travel pictures below…Enjoy.