I think most of you know that I quit my job in Tokyo in June and embarked
on a two-month summer vacation to kill the time (and waste some money)
before starting the phd program at UC-Davis in September. Some of you
read about the four-week bike trip as reported by my travel partner, my
mom. After the successful completion of that 2400km journey, I then met
my girlfriend Yuki for ten days in Turkey. Anyway, I plan to write a few
short (?) emails about my travels here in China. If you find them a
nuisance, feel free to mark my address as a spammer and/or flame me or
whatever it is internet people do these days.
I remember when I first flew to Japan and realized that I was in Russian
airspace; I thought that was pretty cool. Well, if you fly from Istanbul
to Beijing on Qatar Airways, you fly really close to Lebanon, spend an
hour or so over Iraq, and pass by places like Bahrain (an island?),
Afghanistan, Kazakistan, etc. I find these flights to be a great way to
learn geography as you find yourself paging to the back of the inflight
magazine looking for a map. Actually, Qatar Airways had the best
entertainment set-up I have ever seen with dozens of on-demand movies
(they start when you say "jump") and a map that allows you to zoom and pan
at-will. Needless to say, I did not get much sleep on these flights, but
I did enjoy reading my copy of the Gulf Times which I picked-up during our
stopover in Doha.
I wasn't so lucky with finding English reading materials upon arrival in
China. I skipped the Starbucks and headed straight to the two bookstores
in the airport hoping to pick-up a copy of the Lonely Planet or any
similar travel guide (which I did not want to carry from the US).
Unfortunately, the only English book I found was a China travel guide
published by some expats in Beijing. It has good info about the major
sites, but it assumes that you will fly everywhere and stay in expensive
hotels. I was looking for more info buses, trains, and cheap hostels
along the Silk Road. I was also looking for the latest copy of the
Economist magazine, but heh, this is China. I was able to get some cash
from the ATM (though my account is still overdrawn!) and buy an onward
ticket to Xian, the starting point of the Silk Road.
Some of you read about my brother's recent business trip to China where he
lambasts China Eastern Airlines for being a second-rate show. I had good
luck with them during my first trip to China (Guilin->Kunming) in 2000,
and I heard they even started direct flights from Shanghai to Frankfurt.
Even though I bought the ticket two hours before departure, the price was
only 120USD one-way, and eveything went smoothly. I got the last seat on
shuttle bus (next to the driver?) into Xian city when I arrived, and took
a few pictures along the way. These roads from the airport are often too
big and too quiet, so I don't know why the driver didn't go faster. It
seems that the speed limit may be the only rule that drivers observe here
All right, so this first email is full of nuts-and-bolts details and no
meat. The thing is, when you travel abroad, especially alone, half of the
fun/challenge/adventure is getting there, getting a hotel, finding a
bathroom, and finding food. Luckily, as soon as I got off the airport
shuttle there was a travel service (scam?) waiting to help me find a room.
Since my local guidebook only recommened the three most expensive places,
I decided to give these people a chance. Actually, they set me up with a
great place with a great location for only 20USD. Plus, the May Fair
Hotel had this point-and-order Chinese fastfood place on the ground floor,
so I was set. The only thing missing was a few English channels via
satelite which was obviously keeping these people from getting their
After a quick shower, I headed out to explore the town. My first
impression was that it was big! On the map, it looked like this cute old
town enclosed by an old fortress wall, just like Europe. The difference
was that this wall must be more than 15km in perimeter making the place
almost too big for an evening walk. I guess a 6.6million people, you
can't expect it to be too small. Anyway, I found a market that was open,
selling a lot of dried fruits. I pargained 500grams of dried figs for
about 1.50USD. Originally the woman asked for 2.50 and I countered with
1.00, but since I don't know what figs cost anyway, I was just bluffing.
That's the way bargaining always is overseas. You are always buying
something you are unfamiliar with, so you just start with half of what
they say and hope for the best. My other major purchase was from a shop
that makes signs. I have some "Mno Smoking" and Mens Room" signs form
Korea and Japan, but now I bought a bilingual "Person in Charge" sign that
will look nice in my office at Davis. And by a stroke of luck, the guy at
this hole-in-the-wall shop offers me a tired and tattered copy of the
Lonely Planet for free. Evidently he found it in the garbage or something
because this guy didn't speak anything other than Chinese. Unfortunately
for me, the book was in French, but it is better than nothing!
Chinese train stations are infamous for bad manners and bad service. And
why not? Trains are so popular that the staff don't have any incentive to
be courteous and customers don't have time to wait in line properly.
There were signs, though, that things improved some since my last trip in
2003? I waited patiently in the "express lane" for trains leaving
same-day only to be told that the normal line would be better for me.
There were 5-6 guards in the ticket hall making sure that people didn't
jump-line or cause any trouble. A couple of the young staff at the ticket
counter even spoke Chinese, so I finally figured out that all the trains
to Chengdu were standing room only today. I could get a seat tomorrow, or
a bed the following day. I opted for a seat on the comfy air conditioned
train. Only 15USD for the 17-hour trip.
My main goal here in China is to just see some sights, relax, read, and
ponder life. Anyway, trains are a good place to do some studying (I
brought an econ refresher book) while enjoying the scenery. My seat was
in the aisle with a set of five other young Chinese. As you might
imagine, they looked a little surprised to see a loan foreigner sit down
with them. The woman next to me asked (with hand gesters) how I was going
to sleep in these straight-up seats. I demonstrated how comfortable the
seat could be without even invading her part of the bench. Actually, it
turns out that one of the group spoke some English, so we all got along
all right. We all ate instant noodles together (free hot water hear each
door) and shared our snacks as we went (though my figs weren't popular).
After Baoji, the train turned south and meandered through some scenic
valleys, so I was content. Since I didn't manage to sleep more than two
hours in total, I also did a lot of studying, reading, and thinking.
By the Way
Just to demonstrate how enlightening it can be to travel alone in a land
where you don't know anyone or anything, I offer the following story about
sunflower seeds. Yuki and I saw fields of sunflowers growing in Turkey,
but this is the first country where I have seen a whole flower (dried,
without stalk) for sale at a market. One of the people on the train had
some sunflower seeds (removed from the flower, but not from the shells)
which I learned how to eat after 10-20 minutes of practice. The first
kernel I just swallowed whole. Then, I tried to bite them open from the
smaller end. After observing the others for awhile, I realized that you first
bite the bigger end to crack it open. Then, you push it further in your
mouth and bite the smaller end too. If you have done this right, the seed
is now exposed and you can find it with your teeth by searching for the
thickest piece of the shattered kernel. It takes some practice, but it is a
skill worth picking-up, just in-case you are stuck on a train in China
with nothing but figs and sunflower seeds.
18 August 2006