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.


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.


The Rescue of Baobao The Brave, a street kitten in Beijing

October 04th, 2016

It’s the Chinese National holidays at the moment and everyone gets a week off work, returns home and visits their family. Last year (2015) during this time the weather was brilliant, with days on end with clear skies, bright sunshine, and wonderful early fall weather. This year, however, we didn’t get that lucky. The days are gloomy, starting with a combination of smog and fog in the early morning, and bringing rain and clouds all day long. It was on a day like this that we found BaoBao [宝宝]. We had planned to invite friends over for dinner on Thursday night, so we went out into the rain to the grocery store to buy vegetables & meat. Two different supermarkets already didn’t have the ingredients we would have needed to prepare the meal, and after the disappointing stop at a third one we decided to bring the stuff already managed to buy back home and take a bus into town in the hopes of finding the missing pieces of the food puzzle there. Entering our compound through the east gate we took the small path through the miniature ‘park’, side-stepping the occasionnal dog droppings and puddles of mud and rainwater. I was concentrating so hard on making my way safely through this maze that I initially missed the faint sound of a cat whining under the bushes. Jelte was the one who stopped and listened intently into the continuing rain. I heard it then, too, an almost inaudible meowing coming from our right. Wedged between the trunks of a bamboo grove, shivering wet in the red dirt, lay one of the most desperate looking bundle of furr I have ever seen. Completely soaked, his black hair was matted to his spindly thin body and breathing quickly and all too shallow he kept calling out for his mother. I didn’t think much before I stepped into the bushes and pulled him out of the mud, feeling his rib cage and spine right below his cold skin. His left eye was glued shut, I feared he had already lost it, while the other glimpsed up weakly at us. Only after a quick inspection of his all-over health condition did it occur to me that his mother might still be around. As hard as it was I placed him back on the ground and we took a few steps away from him to see if she showed up. Once we knew there were kittens around and focussed on the small sound coming from this side of the walkway, we could also make out the cries of a much stronger kitten whining out of the cellar of the next building’s cellar. It came from below the basement vault’s barred windows. As one of the neighbors opened the front door we went inside after him, climbed the flight of stairs right down to floor B2 and tried to find the other kitten, fearing it had fallen though the cracks upstairs while hoping that we had discovered the mother’s nest. We have never been to this part of our compound and found an empty basement, partially flooded with rain water and smelling of mildew and rotting leaves. Lighting our way with Jelte’s cell phone flash light most of the rooms were easy enough to access, yet the one in which we assumed the kitten to be in was shut and secured with a padlock. We took this as a good sign and imagined one of the neighbors must have taken pitty and gave them food and shelter down here. Since there wasn’t much we could do (and having decided against breaking and entering), we headed back up and found Baobao still lying in the rain, trying to crawl further into the bushes. While picking him up with my bare hands the first time, I noticed that he was not only extremely dirty from the wet earth, but seemed to be covered in dog feces as well. That’s why we quickly took the elevator upstairs, grabbed tissues, plastic bags, and a small cardboard box, and headed back to the rescue. Once again upstairs in our apartment, this time with the little guy securely placed inside the box, we immediately filled a steel bowl with 3cm of warm water and rinsed him from the neck down, hoping this procedure would not only clean but also warm him up a little. As it turned out this wasn’t a very good idea. Not only did I learn later from a visit to the vet that the additional stress of bathing a stray kitten further weakens its immune system, it was also the trigger for an armee of fleas to start jumping off out of his furr. All of a sudden the little guy became a crawling mess of small insects running away from the water and looking for a drier spot atop their pray. I stopped bathing him then, wrapped him into a small towel and placed him back into his cardboard box. Meanwhile Jelte had heated up some water in the kitchen and had filled a hot water bottle that we then placed below his box to help raise his body temperature. But it all didn’t seem to help, especially since we had no clue as to how to treat a bad case of fleas. By that time it was already 6:30pm and we hurried to look up the address of a vet online. Luckily, Jelte found one less than a kilometer away from our home, and we took him there immediately. Admitted, our Chinese language skills are far from perfect, but definitly not good enough to describe all the symptoms and illnesses the kitten has shown us so far, so we were very happy to discover that the young female doctor was able to speak English. They didn’t hesitate and gave Baobao an initial overall inspection, concluding that the first step in trying to save him was to eliminate the flea pest. We bought a spray can of Frontline with which the Chinese doctor and three nurses headed back into the examination room to get to work. The procedure was a little harsh for my taste but turned out to be quite effective. They placed Baobao into a plastic bag, sprayed a generous portion of anti-flea tonic into it and kept it fixed around his neck for an entire hour. Meanwhile, all three of the assistants started picking off fleas from his head using their hands, squashing them dead with their fingernails. Odd was also that all this happened in one of the bigger examination rooms, with other pets being carried or walked in and out. They didn’t seem too worried that other animals might catch the fleas and kept treating dogs for overgrown nails, bandaging operation wounds, or setting up IVs. We were told that the Frontline spray works better than a drop of another type of medication that is placed between the shoulder blades, especially in extreme cases of investation such as Baobao’s. Another diagnosis was that Baobao also suffered from severe anemia caused by all the flea bites, decolouring his tongue and gums an odd white colour. By the time it was 9pm the doctor and nurses seemed satisfied with their defleaing efforts, and the vet went on to describe to us the usage of two kinds of eye and nose drops which would help remedy the kittens swollen eyes and inflamation of the respiration system. Appying one drop in each eye and into the nose four times a day, this medication should help cure these issues over the course of to weeks. micromsg-1475591681585Baobao was also too weak to eat or drink by himself, so the doctor advised us to buy a can of goatmilk powder which could be administered using a small syringe. I later realized that they didn’t charge us for their services, only for the medication and nutrients we bought from their in-house drug store and pet shop. On top, they gave us three medical blankets and a syringe for free, so we could prepare a better sick bed for the kitten and feed himt the milk. Thanking everyone for their hour-long efforts, we hurried back home to get some of the goat milk into Baobao. He greedily licked some 20ml out of the syringe, before he grew tired again and had to lie down. That is why the vet advised us to try to feed him every two hours throughout the night, like a much smaller kitten, even though he already had teeth and should have been able to eat solid food. All night long the fleas kept dropping dead from his black furr, but he barely seemed to get stronger. By morning, he first started to drink one more syringe of the liquified goat milk powder, but then quickly got worse again, whining non-stop as if to call for his mother. He had us very worried after 30 minutes of meowing like this, and I remembered that one of the women in a Cat Community WeChat group had offered to meet us in another vet clinic in Wangjing. By the time we boarded a taxi to go there, his condition had degraded rapidly, only taking in small quick gulps of air, and he was unable to sit or lie down properly.BaoBao when he first arrived in the vet clinic. He was a pittyful sight and we feared that he was too sick to make it. Traffic was against us that day, and out Didi took more than 30 minutes to get from our home near the south entrance of Chaoyang Park to the Wangjing vet. I sat in the back with Baobao in his banana box next to me. I peaked through the small openings, he had his head stretched up high into the air, mouth half-way open, moving his jaw like he wanted to try meowing, but no sound came out. Jelte & I were both equally relieved the moment the cab driver pulled his BYD over to the curb and we got out quickly to look for the entrance to the clinic. Easy enough to find another pet owner carried her dog inside, so we followed right behind her looking for a doctor. The night before I contacted the Doc running the place via WeChat, and since she knew we were coming this morning she singled us out of the small group of newcomers and led us right into a quarantine room. When we opened Baobao’s banana box, he had collapsed against one side of the cardboard walls and was barely breathing. The second picture shows him before they started to treat him with glucose and an IV with fluids and vitamins. He was dehydrated and low on sugar, in addition to hypothermia. When they took his temprerature, he only measured a low 36 degree C, whereas a healthy kitten his age should at least have 38 degree C body temperature. Refilling his hot water bottle and wrapping him in a thick blanket, we stayed in the international clinic for over five hours until finally Baobao showed some improvement and they could take his blood for testing. Luckily, he didn’t show any viruses or bacteria, and apart from his eye infection, his malnutrition and flea infestation he had the day before, he was basically ok. The pictures below show Baobao in his blanket ontop the hot water bottle right after we arrived in the examination room in Wangjing. To help him breathe more easily, the vet plugged the outlet of the oxigen tank into an upturned paper cup with a whole in the floor and tucked the whole think onto the kittens muzzle. He stayed for this for about 30 minutes until he seemed to recover some of his strength.

And then after all this trouble and pain, the little guy suddenly surprised us all when he started eating the wet food we wanted to feed him this morning. He didn’t even noticed it then, but now the smell of it drew him in and he gulped down the whole plate. img_20161005_134759This sight alone repaid us for all the stress we had in the past 24 hours worrying if kitty would make it or not. The folks from the clinic did the rest to make our day, granting us major discounts on all the treatments because Baobao is a rescued street cat. It’s programs like this that hopefully encourages more people to take in stray cats rather than buying them in pet shops and feeding into a system of over-breeding. There are countless homeless kittens and grown cats out in the streets, and now that summer is almost over and Beijing’s harsh winter is about to set in, many of them will starve or freeze to death. In case you think about getting a pet yourself, please consider adoping one from the foster care in and around Beijing. Feel free to contact me at ritnb[at] if you seek further information about the topic of this blog post.

Andy Warhol’s “Contact” in 798 Art district

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Probably the best (and arguably only) way to visit the Andy Warhol exhibition currently shown in 798. Its a ridiculous 80 Kuai entrance fee and really has close to nothing to offer. I knew AW had a very common and simple take on things, but now I'm convinced that he was just one of those people who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and had a whole lot of luck to become famous. On the other hand it was very inspirational: even if you have virtually no talent and even less creativity (cmon, he even copied this cow motive from a cheap magazine), you can have a career as an international pop artist. Way to go, Andy. (Apologies for speaking ill of the dead) #china #instachina #beijing #instabeijing #peking #798 #artdistrict #andywarhol #popartist #campbellsoup #riceisthenewbread #ritnb

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