To Xi’an & beyond…

There is no beyond, we just went to Xi’an and back but it doesn’t have the same ring to it…

Second round of visitors (only 10 days after the first) arrived safely. After a 13 day tour of China, Joel’s parents Richard and Tracey, took a high speed train from Beijing to Guangzhou. They had a surprise greeting by us at the train station and we arranged a van to pick us up, hoping that some extra space would be appreciated for the hour long drive into the city. Unfortunately this was lost in translation (or something like that) and our vehicle was a sedan. Luckily the two suitcases fit in the trunk and three of us squeezed in the back. The in-laws took this in stride and had no complaints about the cramped conditions of this car ride (I had enough for all of us I think). After 2 days of rest at our apartment we headed off to Xi’an for a long weekend. Luckily our van was organised and delivered. No cramped ride to the airport. Smooth travels up (no delays) and easy taxi ride to our accommodation. This is where the fun starts. We decided to get an Airbnb so we had more space to spread out and room to hang out and play cards at night (which we did every night). We also wanted to be in a good location, able to walk around easily and not rely on taxis. The only positives to this stay. The apartment, while spacious, was a bit dingy on the outside, giving our guests some apprehension about where we decided to stay. Once inside we discovered an apartment with two decent sized rooms, a nice sitting area and a bathroom with an opaque window. How lovely for 4 people to share a place with a view into the loo. The beds also were misleading as they weren’t mattresses, they were the hard base of a mattress. While the window to the toilet could be covered with taped up papers, we had to suffer on the beds for 4 nights. Again, our fellow travellers took it in stride and had very few gripes and groans (mine were enough for 4 people). Once I got over the fact that this apartment was not up to our standards, I was able to enjoy the reasons for taking this trip: to be a tourist!

We visited Terracotta Warriors (along with 30,000 other people), the Muslim Quarter, The City Wall, Muslim Quarter, The Bell Tower, The Drum Tower, Muslim Quarter,  a brewery and the Muslim Quarter. A favourite spot was definitely the Muslim Quarter.

On our way to the Terracotta Warriors, we stopped in to a factory where they make the souvenir warriors. Quite impressive with the detail and hand-crafting that goes on with each warrior.

Once at the ‘museum” as our guide called it, we were awed and impressed by the sheer vastness of this army. Of course I don’t remember any of the actual numbers of each or size or importance of this terracotta army, it was still amazing (even if it was my second visit).

Before launching into everything awesome and amazing about the Muslim Quarter and why we visited multiple times, I’ll share the other activities we did while in Xi’an:

We made it 2/3 of the way around the City Wall of Xi’an. A two hour rental is not enough to make it 13km, with a gift shop stop or two, signs to read and people to dodge on the wall. It was enough though as a few of us had not been on a bike in many many years (sore bums were not uncommon after this activity).

The next activity we did was visiting the Bell Tower and Drum Tower. The history of this city amazes me. We live in a relatively “young” or “new” city. Things here just aren’t old. All old things have been destroyed, torn down and built over, then a new version of the old temples, family halls or buildings are reconstructed, usually including neon lights of some sort. Being in a city that has held on to it’s historical sites and attempted to preserve them (with enhancement of neon lighting) makes you appreciate the true and vast history of this country. We are faced with the manufacturing and trading, markets and shopping and plenty of factories here and forget that this country has been through a lot and has a lot to offer. Xi’an opened our eyes up to that and it was a great experience.

 

Another amazing piece of history we heard about, then stumbled upon, was the Great Mosque. Although we were in the middle of a bustling city and market area, once inside the gardens at the mosque, everything was peaceful and quiet. Amazing pieces of architecture covered the grounds and we wandered through the gardens amazed at the age of the entire mosque. While I enjoy a bit of history and stories about the past, my favourite part were the playful kittens, of course.

So we hit the big tourist spots of Xi’an, mostly inside the city wall. Between visiting those places, we either wandered through or stopped to eat in, the Muslim Quarter. Have a look at the link to read about it. The history is very interesting, it is very unique to China and makes for a great place to visit (over and over again). We enjoyed the street food several times, although never daring to eat the meat (which hangs on hooks in the street). There was plenty of places to shop at, with a mix of tourist trinkets and art and traditional Chinese items. Because we were staying just down the street from this area, we were able to visit time and time again, trying a new food each time, or repeating a favourite (potatoes for Joel). During the day the area was relatively calm, however at night the streets literally filled up with people (locals and tourists alike) queuing for a Chinese hamburger or skewers of (what we assumed was) lamb. Amongst the crowds were also motorbikes, zooming through the narrow streets, blaring horns and occasionally yelling at people mesmerised by the energetic food holders calling people in (or maybe only focused on their phones). Either way, it’s chaotic. Bright lights also stuck out from every restaurant front, flashing neon words in Chinese. Overwhelmed was an understatement for me. Let’s just say I stuck to daytime visits. Plenty of stimulation for me there. Minimal photos because we always had food in our hands.

We had a great family trip to Xi’an. We all survived. No one got lost, and most importantly both our flights were on time (this is a very big deal in China).

Did I mention they like their bright lights on the ancient buildings? Not much of a heritage site, but it sure looked pretty!

Tour Guiding…

GZ is officially a tourist spot. At least it is for the Kaldasaun’s tourism group. We have hosted our first set of visitors and it went pretty well. No one got sick or hurt or lost and I’m pretty certain they had a great time. It was also the busiest and most consecutive days out in GZ I have had thus far.

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OuIMG_2105r first visitors are direct from Melbourne. With only a 3 week lead up to the trip, they booked in, got a great deal and made the most of this city (technically it was one Aussie and one American, but both from Oz). We had 6 days together and made the most of it. Their trip started off with a walk along the river on a gorgeous Friday evening, drinks with some of our “local” friends and completed their first night in GZ with KTV.

Saturday we ventured out on bikes to a local art district and wandered around, Genni making friends with everyone and Helena using her few Chinese phrases with locals. We also had a first with the girls-visiting Canton Tower. It is the second tallest tower in China and the 5th tallest free standing structure in the world. It makes sense, then, to go on the thrill ride at the top of the tower. Which is also the highest vertical free fall in the world. My thrill seeker friend, Genni, was the brave one that conquered this and came down with a renewed love of life.

Sunday was another big day: shopping. The girls got their first taste of real China and the GZ markets. We took them to the Western Clothes Market, which is massive and overwhelming and filled with clothes that mostly only small Chinese girls fit into. The fun was trying to figure out how to let us try clothes on. If it was possible, most likely something was purchased, however neither of my friends were very good at the haggling part of the transactions. If I was there I would go for it, otherwise it was a full priced item (or even more because they were pretty easy targets even if they didn’t mean to be). Joel and I are pretty good at the bargaining thing and like to try it out every chance we get. I am more of a hard bargainer than he is-something I am proud of!

After our big Sunday out and about we stayed in and played a IMG_2147traditional Chinese game of Mahjong. This is one of my favourite games at the moment and I was so impressed my friends caught on so quickly! We actually had 2 nights of Mahjong in the end-I may have created some new followers!

On Monday I took them on my favourite activity in GZ: Cycle Canton. We spent the day riding around GZ (with only one other on the tour from the states). We pedalled our hearts out all day, exploring the temples, family halls, kung fu academy, markets and so much more!

Tuesday was a special treat: making dumplings at a local restaurant. The restaurant is a new one opened up by GETCH and run by students with handicaps that attend GETCH. It is run by a former student, has many staff members and a full time chef. We were lucky enough to be invited in and taught how to make dumplings like a local. This was not entirely successful but we all had a blast and had an amazing lunch! Afterwards we popped into a local temple for some peaceful wandering and a bit of chanting (Helena joined a prayer march in one temple, unsure of what she was actually saying but getting involved nonetheless!)

The final day of their visit, I took the girls back to the market (always more shopping to be done!) and to a local shopping mall. The mall was unimpressive but they had to see what it is like here for all types of shopping! We had a great time braving the metro (train) system and attempting only one taxi ride as people with motion sickness don’t do well above ground here in cars! It was a whirlwind of a trip and showed me how far I’ve come since moving here nearly 8 months ago! I felt like I could handle the city and everything it it entails to get around and explore! I look forward to more visitors and showing off the awesome, if exhausting, city!

 

Terminal Annoyances…

I always thought international flight check-in opened roughly 3 hours before departure time. My departure time was 935am. A car picked me up at 6am, arrived at the airport (with no traffic delays, other than the driver himself being terrified of traveling faster than 30kmh around corners) right on 3 hours prior to my estimated time of departure (estimated is used often here as flight rarely leave or arrive on time, visitors be aware). Again, we had the group bomb testing to get in to the airport but still I found the check in counter (which I was hoping was correct) with ample time. My confusion of counter, H or J, was because two were designated for my airline, one of which was empty, the other had 4 passengers milling about. I was taking a shot in the dark but hoped I was in the correct side.

As the crowd grew around, mostly next to and in front of me, I was confident this had to be the right spot as the other counter was still empty. Plus, our counter was having some movements: staff were setting up all the barriers for queues, which is a long process. I reckon it took the girls (literally all women) nearly 25 minutes to set it all up; drawing out the lines with the retractable nylon strips and then redrawing them because it wasn’t quite right. All the while my certainty was still weak because no signage was displayed above any individual desk with flight number, destination or anything resembling the region which the plane most of us were going to get on was going. And more and more people congregated. There were no lines forming, no one paid attention to the fact others had been there 20 minutes before them, they just walked through the group to get close to where they thought the group would be let into the carefully planned queuing area. However right before check-in officially opened (2.25 hours before departure) the check-in attendants had a pow-wow for about 5 minutes. Maybe a run through of how things need to go, how to avoid conflict and how to take as much time as possible with each passenger.

Once the gate was opened, it was like sheep or cattle or even dogs, being let through into the feed trough. Pushing is a way of life here. China has no rules on pushing through or into people. No one notices when they bump you, at any time with anything (car, bike, trolley, etc. etc. etc.). It was a final China moment as Joel remarked in a message, however I still had 2.5 hours before I actually departed so I wasn’t holding out hope that this would be it. Lucky for me, it was my final “China” moment. Security, while very intimate, was quick and easy and mostly friendly. No diplomat traveling with me to use as a line cutter, but that didn’t matter. At the end of it all was a Starbucks, giving me a little taste of what is to come at the end of the journey. In the meantime however, is a nine-hour middle seat with my name on it. And a full flight to boot! All I can hope for is my luggage to make it as I have a few gifts in there I need to get to some adorable little Americans!  And it appears the Christmas gifts will make it before the Christmas cards. Wishful thinking China postal services would be efficient. More joys of China to come… but first, AMERICA!

Don’t say ni hao in Vietnam

We finally got out of China (for more than a weekend). We ventured to Vietnam for a week for a beach holiday, which was much needed. The only downfall to this was I missed Halloween. Six Halloweens in Australia with very little in the way of festivities, and here I am amongst an expat community filled with Americans and others willing to do the trick-or-treating and decorating and dressing up and I get outta here to a resort filled with Russians. So Halloween was a dud, but the Vietnamese holiday was not (even if both of us kept saying hello in Chinese).

To begin with, leaving from China is an even more rigorous endeavour than the US. You begin by getting a bomb testing before you even enter the airport. As a large group you’re swabbed at the door, wait for the all-clear, then proceed inside. Once you check in, you must stand in line for your own personal pat down, no diplomatic immunity here! Luckily there is a female and male line, but if you really don’t care then join the queue and wait your turn. They are quick, but thorough.

And although I have heard horror stories of delayed-extremely delayed-flights, our was one time, exactly. The most efficiency I have seen in China yet. When we arrived, less then 3 hours later, Joel was confused as to how we have travelled to another country in such a short amount of time in the air since he had only finished his second beer. Typical Aussie.

Airport pickup was a private shuttle to transport us 4 hours (or 150km) up the coast of Vietnam. We opted for the private car because we’ve heard the dangers of travelling in a large shuttle bus in Vietnam. We still had about 27 near misses on the roadways and saw the remains of a motorcycle smashed by a bus (the same kind we would have travelled on). Road safety is not a term I think used in this country. I thought GZ was chaotic and dangerous but I have now changed my tune-it is tame and safe, and I appreciate the lack of motorcycles on the roads. Motorised bikes are fine by me, even if they don’t obey any traffic “laws” or “recommendations” or even “suggestions”.

Once safely to our destination, concluded by a situation where we were asked for a tip from the driver, but unsure if it was an actual practice in Vietnam especially when you risked our lives on multiple occasions, we got into our swimmers and pretty much didn’t get out of them until the last day.

While the resort was not noteworthy and the township of Mui Ne (about 5 km from our resort) was a typical foreigner holiday spot, the clientele was what made our trip interesting. Russians. Everywhere. Literally. We were the only non-Russian speakers (including the staff) at our resort. English was very hard to come by and Joel looking like he does, part Estonian, we were thought to be Russian. Correction was easy when we just replied “English”. They caught on very quickly, even more so when we said we were Australian.

The only touristy activity we embarked on was a 4 hour tour of the top spots to see around Mui Ne. Four hours was generous and we only used 3, most of which was driving, either in the jeep or on a sand dune quad, nearly scaring us to death. The tourist stops were as follows: Fairy Stream, Fishing Village, White Sand Dunes and Red Sand Dunes. Nothing spectacular, nothing amazing, but we had to be tourists for just a few hours.

 

 

 

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If nothing else, this holiday gave us an entire week away from China. Not far, but away. Joel had a great time swimming, every day, all day (when possible) and drinking cheap and nasty beer.

And with all that I hear about Vietnamese food, we were only exposed to food that it was lacked flavour, spice and anything interesting…except for the translations and actual food (we blame the Russians for this because they are the main tourists).

My favourite part, however, was Joel’s reaction to our “assistant” on our quad rental, taking over and running through the steep dunes. And again asking for a tip for nearly killing us. I have never seen Joel so scared. It was pure entertainment, this is when a body camera would have been amazing. Screaming the entire time. We probably scared some other patrons from trying the bikes.

The week was mainly spent on the beach. After we caught on that you must go early and reserve your beach chairs under the umbrellas, because the other holiday goers save the chairs then don’t return for hours. Only took us 2 days. We had prime spots every other day. That is until we decided why use beach chairs when we had two of our own chairs on our little deck facing the ocean. Really paid off having this space when the rain started (nearly every day at some point). The rainy afternoons were then spent playing cards and mixing drinks. The rain probably saved us from some nasty sunburns. And so our holiday ended with a rainy day spent on the deck. Perfect, especially when the pool is so close for a quick rain swim.

After our frightful trip back to the airport in Ho Chi Minh, another 3o near misses, we had our on time departure to GZ and a safe car ride back to our apartment where our foster pup was anxiously awaiting our return.

Sunday morning was an early one with a “Charity Helipad Boot Camp”. Yes, on a Helipad at a hotel in GZ, a little over 62 floors above the busy city. Views were terrible, as was the air pollution, but we all survived and made about 15,000 RMB for The Wilbur’s Foundation. Great fundraiser AND exercise!

We are now back into the daily grind, working, dog walking, and exercising. Tough life we lead here. Now I’m just waiting to see who are first visitors will be!