Monday, October 24, 2005

The Lesser Gorges and the Mini Gorges

We took got out of our large cruise boat and boarded smaller, open-air boats that held maybe 20 people each. As we left the Yangtze and went down the tributary the color of the water changed from a muddy brown to a green, somewhat like the Atlantic off of New Jersey. Before we got to the first of the Lesser Gorges we stopped in an outdoor marketplace. I don’t think there was any other reason for us to stop than to go to the market… this small village seemed to subsist entirely off of the market. There was a telescope in the middle of the square that you could pay 3 RMB to look through… apparently you could see some coffins high up in the cliffs where these people have traditionally buried their dead. I did not look through, but the people who did said you couldn’t see anything. We were there for a short time, didn’t buy anything, and then got back on the boat to head further upstream.

As we entered the first of the Lesser Gorges, we were treated to the most magnificant sight. I had not been been able to really see first of the Three Gorges, but this first Lesser Gorge was amazing. The rock walls on either side seemed to go one forever up into the sky. As we headed upstream, the guide kept pointing out various rock formations that supposedly looked like a Buddha, or a dragon, etc. I couldn’t see most of them, but there was one formation that looked exactly like a giant woman lying on her back and washing her hair in the river. Very cool, although unfortunately too large to get a picture of.

They were called the Three Lesser Gorges, although I could not determine where one ended and another began… they were just huge. It was making me mad that we had gone through the first “real” gorge when it was dark, because if these massive gorges were “lesser” I couldn’t wait to see what the remaining two “real” gorges look like.

Further upstream we arrived at a floating pontoon where our boats docked and we transferred over to even smaller wooden boats that perhaps held 12 people each. These boats headed down yet another tributary for a few kilometers. Apparently this section was called the “Three Mini Gorges”. I guess everything comes in sets of three here. It was strange… the water and the flora changed so much through the mini gorges that you felt like you were in a tropical jungle. There was even a point were we saw monkeys along the bank, although I think they were kept there by the people that ran the boats. The water had turned to a bright shade of aqua… very pretty. Our guide passed out songbooks to everyone on the boat and we were treated to some Chinese a cappella. This was occasionally interupted but the people on the banks who got paid to just sit there and sing or play an instrument for the boat passengers. Once the boats got to a certain point, we just turned around and headed back to the Lesser Gorges. Then, heading back downstream to the Yangtze, we stopped at a temple that we had passed earlier in the day. There was a marketplace and a giftshop at the base of a long staircase. The stairs headed to a Buddhist shrine and a spring. The story about the spring was something to do with a student many years ago who could not pass his exams. He came to this spring to drink, and he passed his exams. Now, everyone that stops at this temple drinks from the spring to make themselves smarter. I didn’t drink any because I am already so brilliant… hehe… no, actually I didn’t drink any because I don’t want diptheria. I am enjoying a record-breaking stretch of non-food-poisoning-related-relations with my toilet.

Ok, well its time to go home now. I still have another few days of my trip to write about. I’ll try and get to that as soon as I can… perhaps I’ll be able to get the photos online soon too.

Qutangzia (Bellows Gorge... the first of the three)

Our guide knocked on our door as 6:00 am to see the first gorge. It was still dark out, and the sun was just beginning to poke through the clouds as we entered. You could tell the rock walls were incredibly tall, although due to the light, you couldn’t really see much detail. There was also a heavy mist that seemed to be covering the river, making it hard to see. Here is what my book says, although the only part that I could make out was the old tow path that people used to use to pull boats along the river:

“The first is the 5 mile Qutangzia (Bellows Gorge). As you enter it, Red Shoulder Mountain appears on the north side, pockmarket with square holes; ancient burial places said to have been used as bellows bu the god of carpenters, Lu Ban. On White Salt Mountain, on the sound bank, are the remains of a 6th century city. Clinging precariously to the rock-face high up on the north side of the gorge is the old tow path. The orge ends at the town of Daixi.”

I was a little disappointed that you couldn’t see these things because of the light, but I think the 6th century city is underwater now anyway.

Well, then it was off to breakfast in the “dining room”, and I do use that term loosely. After breakfast I went back to bed for a while before we arrived at Wushan to change boats and go on a side trip through the Lesser Gorges.

Zhang Fei Miao

“I’m sorry, did you just say Miao?” ~Super Troopers (quality film)

I am not going to talk too much about the time spent on the actual boat, because it really wasn’t that interesting. The food was lousy, room was small and smelly, I saw a rat the size of a small cat, and a cockroach the size of my cellphone. Needless to say, I spent most of the time bundled up on the outside deck reading a book or playing my new guitar. It was nice also because ze germans that I met also would hang out on the outside deck, so I got to talk to them quite a bit.

So, moving on…. The next stop was Zhang Fei Miao. From what I gathered it was the site where calligraphy first started. Other than that I don’t know much about it… let’s consult my book again:

“In the city of Yunyang, the Zhang Fei Temple is dedicated to a Three Kingdoms general renowned for his honesty.”

Hmmm... mentions nothing about calligraphy, but there was a very large statue of an angry looking general. Well, we arrived after dark around seven o’clock. The temple itself was a good ten minute walk from the boat, taking you through another street market, flanked by many restaurants and stores. Here I bought a huge folder of stamps to put into my stamp collection at home, but I think I got ripped off. I couldn’t bargain the guy down below 250 RMB ($30) because he kept pointing to his “price list” for each stamp. According to the list, one of the stamps I bought it worth 160,000 RMB (approx $20,000)… yeah, and I’m the Emporor of China. I also bought an old wooden face mask, carved to look like a Chinese warrior. That was not cheap either, although I am thrilled with it… it is clearly very old indeed (you know how old wood gets a strange smoothness to it that tools could never give it… you can also tell that it was painted at one time and almost none of the paint remains), and it is ridiculously heavy. I’ve grown up seeing my Dad’s wooden masks from Africa hanging on the wall. Now I have one of my own J

We got to the temple walked around for ten minutes and started the trek back to the boat. Along the way I also stopped in a store to purchase some beer and rice alcohol to drink with ze Germans. Turned into a resonably fun evening back on the boat.

Bao Shan Zai

The next stop along the trip was Bao Shan Zai, or The Stone Mountain Palace. The boat pulled into the dock around 1 o’clock and we made our way through the other boat to get to the shore (it is strange… many times we would stop with another boat between us and the dock. We would have to walk through the other boats to get to the gangway onto land). Again, we were herded through a street market along the way to the palace. These merchants were by far the most aggressive so far, but they had some of the nicest things. I ended up buying an old Chinese coin, a silver Mao badge that people use to wear, and an original second edition “Little Red Book” (quite worn, but neat… certain passages are underlined, although I can’t read them).

Once we made it though the gauntlet of the street market, we came to a massive rock face and had to climb some stairs. Here there was an entrance to a large pagoda-like building that seemed to grow up the rock cliff like ivy. On the entrance was a red painted line that denoted where the new water level will be in 2009. Fortunately, most of this temple will survive, but half of the entrance might be submerged. We then started ascending the wooden stairs of the wooden pagoda, with each level getting narrower and the stairs steeper. I was getting quite excited at this point because it was clear that this structure was quite old… perhaps we were actually going to be seeing something authentic for once! The staircase opened up onto a stone veranda atop the rock face. You could continue up the stairs a few more levels, and then climb a ladder to get to the top if you wanted a nice view of the “palace”.

There was this stone courtyard or veranda and behind that was a small temple-like building. I actually cannot remember what the inside of it looked like, so I think it was probably the same as all of the other temples we’ve gone into… they literally all look alike inside… usually one or more very large, colorful deity that looks angry and a bunch of candles and inscense burning. I know this sounds suprising, but once you’ve seen the inside of one temple in China, you’ve seen them all… I hope though that I am proven wrong in the future. While I don’t remember the inside of the “palace” (it was very small and un-palace-like), the building itself and the pagoda were beautiful. I don’t really know what the history of it… let me look it up in my China book… ok, here is what it says:

“Stone Treasure Stronghold (Shibaozhai) is a 100-ft rock said to resemble a jade seal, with a brilliant red pagoda against the side. At its summit is an early 18th-century temple.”

Well, looks like I got the name wrong… but that is pretty cool… early 1700’s… one of the oldest thing I’ve seen in China yet. I guess one of the temples I saw in Penglai was around 1000 years old… but other than that all of the “ancient temples” we’ve seen are about 20-30 years old.

Well, the boat sounded its horn, which meant we had to get back, so we took an alternate way down, navigated our way through the street market, and got back on the boat.

Saturday, October 15, 2005


Wow... I was just looking at the distances I just traveled on my new world map. I knew I had gone a long way (the 36 hr train ride was evidence of that) but I didn't realize quite how far. In comparison to the US:

(The way the crow flies)

Yantai to Jinan = Philadelphia to Pittsburgh
Jinan to Chongqing = Philadelphia to Orlando
Chongqing to Wuhan = Philadelphia to Chicago
Wuhan to Zhangzhou = Philadelphia to Cleveland
Zhangzhou to Yantai = Philadelphia to Detroit

China is big...

Friday, October 14, 2005

Please note...'re going to want to read these posts in reverse-order starting with "Prior to leaving" or the trip won't make sense.

Feng Du

We got off of the boat at 6:30am, and the sun still hadn’t quite peaked above the horizon. Or, maybe it had and we couldn’t tell… most of China that I have seen has a smog-like mist hanging over it all of the time. I don’t know if this is actually smog, and I don’t really want to know. Our very large group started walking through derelict streets, with most of the area looking like bombed out Sarejevo of the early ‘90s must have looked. Up on the rooftops, Chinese laborers were already hacking away at the buildings with sledgehammers, a slow destruction of the city, brick-by-brick. In a few years this whole section of the city would be underwater and the taller buildings had to be trimmed down a little so they wouldn’t harm passing boats. I asked Ngee Siew why they don’t just use explosive to bring the buildings down, and he said it is because many Chinese often used to hid money or gold in walls and under floors… if construction crews do the work, they can find some of the forgotten stashes sometimes.

As we walked through the first inhabited street filled with shops preying on the tourists, the sun started to come up. On the hill ahead of us was a giant Buddha that was built into the side of the mountain. A few hundred yards ahead were gates to the temple, and of course the obligatory ticket booth. Have I mentioned that in China everything is cheap, but nothing is free. If the Chinese can make money off of you in some fashion or another, they will do it. Our boat tickets included the price of admission to most of our stops, so our tour guide handed out our tickets and we headed in.

I was very fortunate to have Ngee Siew on the trip with me. The entire tour (all of the tours on the whole trip) was completely in Mandarin. I feel sorry for the Germans that I met… their group had no one able to translate so they had absolutely no idea what they were looking at. Even with Ngee Siew’s help, I only caught a small portion of the information. I don’t think they temple was old at all, and again had a definitive Disney-like quality to it. Some small parts of the temple remained very reverent and serious, but at the top of the hill in the main building, there was an amusement park ride where you sat in a car and went through a “haunted house” like you would on the pier at Wildwood, NJ. Another part of the tour was a walk though heaven and hell… very much like the London Dungeon if you’ve ever been there… diorama pictations of demons doing terrible things to their human captives, yet all in paper mache. Not impressed at all.

Once we had walked through the temple, we were told we had 90 minutes to climb to the top of the mountain. There were stairs the entire way up, all underneath bamboo and trees. Various more-serious temples were on the way up, and at the top you were treated to an amazing view. At least, I imagine it would have been amazing if the weather had been a little clearer. From up on top, you could clearly see the parts of the town below that would be immersed in the coming years. The temple and pagoda up top were also not very old I think, but they were much nicer looking and seemed more authentic (although there was a gift shop).
After seeing all there was to see, we walked back down the mountain, down the steps, through the deserted town, and back to the boat. Our next stop wouldn’t be until after lunch so I amused myself with the guitar some more.

Phew…. I just wrote a lot… you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for me to write more I think. And I we haven’t even gotten to the Gorges yet!


The train trip to Chongqing was very relaxing, albeit long (9am Sunday to 1:30pm Monday). It was great to be able to just sit and read, sleep, or do whatever as you pleased. The only minor annoyance was the Chinese man who had the bunk above me. He would climb down and sit at the foot of my bed, right by my feet while I was reading and just stare at me. I think he wanted to start a conversation, but didn't know how.

NS and I ventured down the train to the dining car for dinner... overall an expensive and not very good meal. One of our favorite things to eat at the local Korean restaurant in Yantai is finely chopped chili peppers in soy sauce with garlic. Add the peppers to some rice, and thats some goodeatin'. Well, we asked the diner car staff for this on the side, and ended up getting a huge bowl of whole peppers with a sprinkling of soy sauce on top, and no garlic to be found... sigh... just not the same. Even writing this is making me hungry for our beloved Korean food.

The rest of the train journey was uneventful, except when I found out the hard way that they lock the bathrooms when the train is in a station. The toilets empty directly onto the tracks (makes for a very gusty and windy experience when traveling along at 150 kph) and they don’t want the stations getting dirty… makes sense I suppose. But I didn’t know this, and I was seriously considering bribing the conductor with money and/or alcohol to open the door due to a sudden urge.

Anyway, we arrived in Chongqing the next afternoon, and while I enjoyed the train, after 36 hrs I was ready to disembark. Outside of the station we were immediately approched by two men asking if we were interested in a boatride. We hopped into a taxi with them and went to a nearby travel agent where we secured ourselves two second-class tickets onboard a Chinese cruise. NS and I were rather relieved because the Chinese boats were significantly less expensive than the US-run ships. We now had a few hours to kill before the boat left in the evening, so we took a taxi into downtown.

The center of Chongqing was quite nice. It is not a very pretty city (it had been bombed out by the Japanese during WWII and had been rebuilt like many building in the 50’s and 60’s… concrete and ugly), but it still seemed to be bustling with culture and activity. Clearly the people here had a reasonable amount of money to spend (you could tell from the selection of stores… I felt like I was back in Shanghai), and the shopping areas were very nice. NS and I went into a large department store where I found a nice acoustic guitar ($40), which I purchased for the boat ride. We wandered around Chongqing for a while and eventually had dinner at a “Steamboat” restaurant. Steamboat is a manner of cooking here where they put a large stewpot on your table and you boil your own dinner over a fire. The pot is divided into two sections, regular seasoning and spicy. The spicy side was filled to the brim with red chili peppers and cayanne pepper… Being a culinary masochist, I promptly cooked all of my food in the spicy side. Afterall, we were in Sichuan province famous for its very spicy food. When in Rome… It was very good, but my mouth was on fire for the rest of the evening.

After dinner we walked through the old part of town, through a street market, and to the boat office. A Chinese shoeshine lady severly pissed me off... despite the fact that I was wearing grubby sneakers, she wanted to polish them for me. I kept insisting “meyo, bu yao” (no, I don’t want) but she wouldn’t leave me alone. Finally to shut her up I let her start cleaning my sneaker with a toothbrush, and all of a sudden another shoeshine lady comes over, grabs my other foot and starts cleaning that shoe at the same time. The boat company then announces that they bus to the boat is leaving, but I can’t stand up because two Chinese women are holding each of my feet. Despite my yelling at them and trying to pull away, they won’t let go… finally I end up throwing a 5 RMB note past them (which they dove for) so that I could get away. We took the bus to the boat, found our room, and settled in for the night. In second class there are two bunks to a room (so four beds) and I think I annoyed our two Chinese roommates with my excessive guitar playing… oh well. I wandered the boat for a while and met a group of German business school students from Qingdao (in my same province). I stayed up for a while talking to them, and then it was off to bed… the tour guide was going to wake us at 6 am to go to our first stop: Feng Du (ghost town temple), so we had an early night.


I was a little worried about sleeping through our station. Fortunately the Chinese railroad has a nice system to make sure everyone is awake for their station. When you board, you trade in your paper ticket for a plastic tag. You ticket its then placed in a binder under the destination. Half and hour before arriving at each stop, the conductors go around and wake everyone up who appears on that station's particular page. At 6am I was woken and treated to some spectacular views of the mountains as we passed through the Chinese countryside. I was immediately reminded of the train trip from Paris to Zurich, passing through the Swiss Alps.

We arrived in Jinan at 6:30 and immediately left the station in search for some food. We paid a tricycle taxi 5 RMB to take us to a good place to eat. He clearly had taken advantage of us because he took us about 100 yards away, which we clearly could have walked... I guess though that we were paying for his knowledge and not the transportation. The street he brough us to was full of street food vendors. I have often found in China that some of the best food (and cheapest) is the street food. At first I was a little wary of trying the steet food... if you saw some of the conditions that the food is cooked in, you'd understand. Lets just say that the Department of Health would have a field day here. But surprisingly, I have never gotten sick from the street food in China and it has always been very good. And that is something I cannot say for the street food in Philadelphia. I ended up having two of these pita-bread-like things filled with chopped chicken and chili peppers, some onion roti bread, and a deep-fried bread almost like a Mexican churro. Total cost: 3 RMB ($0.36). NS and I then went into a store to buy some food-stuffs for the train journey to Chongqing (and another two bottles of wine although this time I opted for Chardonnay over Cabernet Savignon). Then it was back to the train station to board the train.

Prior to leaving

Well, I actually made it back from my backpacking trip alive. I suppose I have a lot to tell everyone so I will probably separate the whole trip into a few posts.Ngee Siew and I weren't sure whether we were going on our trip until last Friday, yet we were supposed to leave on Saturday! The problem in China is that you can only book a train from one line to another. What I mean is, if you want to travel from Yantai to Jinan, and from Jinan to Chongqing, you can only buy the first ticket in Yantai. The second must be bought in Jinan when you get there and you have no guarantee that there will be any tickets left (especially during National Holiday... 1.3 billion Chinese and they are ALL traveling). The other alternative, which is what we ended up doing, is to buy your tickets through an agent who arranges it all through the mail. We had tickets to Jinan, but we didn't know until Friday whether we had them for Chongqing or not. Obviously, we did end up getting them.

Chinese trains have four ticket classes: standing-room, hard-seat, hard-sleeper, and soft-sleeper. Despite everyone's warning, we opted for the hard-sleeper option. A hard-sleeper has six beds to a compartment (bunks of three) and no door, while a soft-sleeper has four and a door (supposedly the beds are a little more comfortable also). I am pleased to report that contrary to everyone's warnings, the hard-sleeper was very comfortable and I cannot see the point in spending the extra money for a soft-sleeper.

Ok, so... back to the beginning of the trip. Friday after work, Ngee Siew and I stopped by the ticket agent and picked up the tickets. I went and had dinner (probably at the Korean since that seems to be where I always eat) and then headed down to Havana, the favorite local pub for westerners. Since everyone was leaving for a week, Havana was packed with people wanting to get once last night of partying in with their friends before dispersing on whatever adventure they had chose for the week. Needless to say, it was a great night out and I think everyone felt like hell the next morning.

Saturday I spent lying around the house playing my new addiction, Civilizations III (which I purchased online from a Scandanavian video game company, Dad). In the game, you start an ancient civilization off in the year 4000 BC and bring them right through to the 23rd century, managing their economics, foreign policy, invention, war, trade... it really is a great game. I would suggest anyone who likes that type of game to buy it, but I'd wait for Civ 4 to come out in a few months.

Saturday evening I was meeting with a group of people to try out a new restaurant in town. You know, sometimes I have to smack myself... there I was on a Saturday night, eating dinner at a Brazilian BBQ in China, with an American, a Welshman, an Aussie, a Kiwi, a Malaysian, a Frenchman, two Brits, and quite a few Chinese. The dinner was quite good, although the service was poor. You pay 35 RMB (about $4.50) for all you can eat BBQ. They bring large hunks of meat on a skewar to the table and carve it right onto your plate. The lamb was excellent, and so were the chicken wings. The beef was mediocre although I discovered much to my surprise that I really like cow tounge. Speaking of trying new foods, I have heard there is a restaurant in town that sells BBQ
camel hump... I have made it a point to track it down to try.

After dinner, Ngee Siew and I had to high-tail it to the train station. Our train was leaving at 10:55pm and would arrive in Jinan the next morning around 6:30am. On the way to the station we stopped by a store and bought a few bottles of red wine, idea being that if the train was miserable we could at least have some fun on it. Fortunatly the train was quite nice and we did not need to drink the wine (we did drink it, I just meant that we didn't HAVE to drink it). Haha.

I had a bunk next to a younger Chinese couple who spoke some English. They were taking their 13-month old son to Jinan to have a large birthmark removed from the child's face with laser surgery. The husband spoke more English than the wife and I stayed up for quite a while chatting with him until some of the other passenger's complained that we were keeping them awake... oops. After securing my bag and finishing my wine, I feel asleep to the clickety-clack of the Chinese railroad.

Cost of living

I have started thinking in terms of Chinese currency, instead of US dollars. When you first arrive in China you can't believe how cheap everything is. You see a price tag and you immediately divide by 8 to get a rough idea of the cost in USD. It makes buying things very easy indeed, because even relatively expensive things are still really cheap. Now I find myself thinking that the 40 RMB I paid for the steak dinner I had last night was a bit pricey. I have to remind myself that is only about $5 US. I've already touched on the subject of DVD's being dirt cheap (fake, not always reliable, and breaking every copyright law that exists, but still cheap). You can buy full seasons of TV shows for 20 RMB ($2.50) and new movies for less than the cost to see it in the theater. But verything
else is so cheap also. Below is a small list of examples from the top of my head with the approximate prices listed. Clearly some of these items can vary in cost, but these are average prices.

Bicycle: 130 RMB ($16)
Nice shoes: 100 RMB ($12)
Jeans: 15 RMB ($1.80)
Dinner for eight people at a nice restaraunt: 120 RMB ($14)
60 GB external hard-drive about the size of an ipod: 200 RMB ($24)
Adobe Photoshop CS 9.0: 6 RMB ($0.80)
CD's: 12 RMB ($1.45)
Leather Jacket: 200 RMB ($24)
Haircut, shampoo, shave, 2 hr head/arm/hand massage, and anti-hairloss treatment: 60 RMB ($7.20)

Ok, so you get the picture. It seems the only way to spend a lot of money on something here is to buy a western brand. If you want a Sony DVD player for example, it will cost you more than it probably would at home. For some reason the Chinese seem willing to spend a lot of money that they don't have on cell phones, so they are pretty pricey too. And the bicycle listed in my example would not exactly be fit for mountain biking... bikes here don't have any gears, don't always have pedals (hard to explain), and I think are made with Soviet-era steel left over from tank production... these bikes weight a ton. They are the Oldsmobile "boat" of bicycles.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

No, I am not dead or in prison

Sorry its been so long since I've posted. I've been so busy lately that I've hardly had time to do anything. During the past two weeks I've stayed late at work almost everyday. We've been trying to prepare for the National Holiday, which is next week. I get the whole week off! Ngee Siew and I are leaving tonight to take a cruise down the Yantze River through the Three Gorges... it is something I've always wanted to do and since it will only be there for another few years I figure I'd better see it while I can. I undoubtedly will have plenty to tell everyone when I get back... and lots of pictures to.

Ok, must run... I have a train to catch.

1. Train to Jinan (leaves Sat evening, arrives Sun morning)
2. Train to Chongqing (leaves Sun morning, arrives Mon afternoon)
3. Boat to Yichang (leaves Mon evening, arrives Thurs evening)
4. Train to Zhangzhou (leaves Thurs evening, arrives Friday evening)
5. Train to Yantai (leaves Fri evening, arrives Sat afternoon)