Stuff I Know

Just stuff by me about me and my life, such as it is.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


This city is the location of the famed West Lake in China. No, not that west lake or the other one, but the original West Lake.

It is actually a nice place once you get out of the city proper and to the lake shore. Nice enough to stay a few days. I stayed two days, but could have stayed at least a third if it wasn't for my expiring visa. I had places to go, things to see, people to meet. Well, OK, actually no people to meet, but I did have places I wanted to go and things I wanted to see before they kicked me out of China.

The West Lake is surrounded by vegetation; not much, but enough to disguise the more urban nature of the city around it. Walking around the lake, though a bit far, is a nice experience and lets you get a quick peek at some of the tourist sights in the area. Then you can always go back to the ones you want to visit later.

I wanted to ride a bike around the area, but my hostel gave out its last bike just before I had a chance to put my name down. I could have rented one of the many bikes for offer around the lake, but they were all the same kind, and not the kind I was hoping for. The ones for offer were for tooling around the lake, single gear, small wheels, odd frame, and I was hoping for a bike that would let me go further afield. I didn't really trust those bikes to be reliable over the long haul. Oh well, at least I'll have something to do the next time I am in the area.

Hangzhou has a nice botanical park that is worth visiting for a while. Not so much for the different species of trees and plants (though they do have them), but just for having a nice walk in the woods. There is a whole section of plum trees that I assume must be very nice in spring during plum blossom time. There is also a small sequoia tree that was given to the Chinese premier by president Nixon. For those that don't know, the sequoia is an incredible tree that grows amazingly tall with an incredible girth. Some are big enough to drive a car through. The one in Hangzhou has quite a ways to go yet, especially considering they generally live for easily several hundred years.
I thought I would add a quick explanation of a couple of the photos, or you may wonder "What the heck did he take that picture for?"

I am more of a dog person, I think, but I like cats too. I took this picture just because of the cat's eye. It actually made me do a double-take.

The "decorative" fish in this pond are a lot bigger than they look in the photo. One of these fellas could easily swallow my fist and arm up past my elbow.

This rather sad looking creature I rescued from a pond, luckily not the one with the big fish. Apparently he had jumped down onto a ledge and couldn't get back up. When he tried to jump up to an adjacent ledge, he would fall into the pond, and paddle until he could claw his way onto the original rock. I just reached down and pulled him up to higher ground, somewhere where he could walk away safely. He looked so pathetic I had to take a picture.

I think all of the rest of the photos are pretty self explanatory. I hope you enjoy them.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Observations on Traveling in China

Now that I have left China, I thought I would give you some of my observations on traveling here. These are really just random thoughts that popped into my head at random times. They are both good and bad, but not specific praise or condemnation of China or anything Chinese.

  • Ride the train from Lanzhou to Xian during the day if possible. The views of the river and canyon can be amazing at times.
  • Men in China need to learn to aim better. Close enough isn't good enough whether it's a urinal or a squat. Flushing would be a good thing to teach the general populace too.
  • China has some tall women. I am not sure it the average height for women in China is more than Korea, but the plethora of tall ones sure do stand out.
  • Drinking soda at a higher altitude seems to make you (me anyway) belch more quickly than usual.
  • China has some real serious problems with its environment
  • I don't know if I will ever be able to think that another city has clean air, after being in Tibet.
  • Chinese are loud talkers, even louder than other countries I have been too.
  • Cup ramen (ramyun) comes with a fork in China rather than chopsticks.
  • One of the best sounds in the world is wind blowing through pine needles, but if you haven't got pine, casurina works well too.
  • The stars in Tibet, outside the cities, are amazing, just like in Africa.
  • How come on my long train journeys (8 hours or more), I always seem to get stuck next to some disgusting people- the spitters, the smokers, the trash droppers, the smelly ... I am sure there must be some "regular" people riding the hard seats. Why can't I sit next to them? Or at least one good looking woman?
  • China has both coin and paper "cents". Some cities will more often give paper, others coins, as change. In some cities people don't want to accept the coins and in other cities they don't want the paper.
  • Why are train personnel hawking products like socks, flashlights, and other cheap crap on the train? It is bad enough I am captive in the hard seat section. Must I be forced to listen to their sales spiels too?
  • Time on the train seemed to go faster when i had something to write about. Unfortunately that wasn't often enough. I guess I could have written about other things that popped into my brain, but it was probably too personal to put it into my blog, so why bother.
  • Singing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" in your head doesn't help much on long train rides. The song is over too soon.
  • It is interesting how the chant of the touts in Shanghai changes from day to night. Day- "Bags, DVDs, Shoes?" Night- "Bags, DVDs, Shoes, Massage, Girl, Hashish?"

I am sure there were many more random thoughts that ran through my brain, but these are all the ones I happened to write down. They will give you a fair accounting of how my brain works at times.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Suzhou and Disillusionment

Suzhou is a nice day trip out of Shanghai. I guess maybe I spending the night there might be nice, but I pretty much walked around, and I do mean around, the city's sights in about six hours. A little more time and I might have stopped in and seen a few more of the gardens for which the city is famous. It's gardens are listed on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites.

I have to say, though, that after having traveled through a fair bit of China, it can get a bit expensive. It is not so much the transportation, accommodations, food, or any one thing in particular, but the combination of them all together.

One thing that does stand out as being an inordinately large portion of the total cost is entrance tickets to sights. This park requires a ticket, that garden another, this temple actually requires two tickets. You (me anyway) almost feel entry-ticketed to death.

And the price of these entry tickets are not that much cheaper than in other countries. Also, I have to say, in my opinion, with the exception of a few places here and there and several places in Shanghai, the cost to get into each of these temples, gardens, parks and buildings is generally not worth it. Yes, some particular sight might be interesting, but usually certainly not worth what you had to pay to get in to see it.

Toward the end of my time in China, I stopped going into places, especially temples, when I saw the ticket price. I would just look at it from the outside. After all, unless there is something particularly special about a temple, one is pretty much like another.

Off on a tangent ...

One other thing about temples in China that turned me off is how Buddhism (and Taoism) has been turned into just another way to make money. And I don't just mean from ticket sales. Everything from incense, to medals, to statuary, to jewelry, to "special" donations all bring in a heck of a lot of money into a place that is supposed to venerate the idea of doing without, of giving up all earthly desires (money I think being a big one) and leading a monastic life.

Yes, I understand the need for money for the upkeep and care of the temple and those who care for it, but from what I have seen, it certainly looks to me that there is a heck of a lot more money going in than coming out. I also understand that some temples do actually do do community and charity work, but still, when a new golden idol is the main feature of the temple, it seems to me that priorities may be a bit skewed.

Another thing is how Buddhism, which is not really a religion to begin with (rather more a way of life) has been changed into a religion of begging. Of all the statues in a temple, the ones that acquire the most donations, get the most money thrown to them, are the ones representing long life, and the ones representing fortune in life or business

In one Taoist temple, one statue representing the protection of citizens from corrupt city and government officials had only a few coins scattered here and there, while the one representing making a lot of money in business had a pile of money in front of it. Personally, my money would go to the protection from corruption spirit. If no one was corrupt, then people might not have to go begging for good luck in their business.

These photos are mostly from Suzhou. There are a couple at the beginning and end from Shanghai.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On Kungfu ...

Speaking of the Shaolin Temple ...

I am not a real big martial arts fan, but I thought I couldn't go to Luoyang and not visit the birth place of Kungfu. It is a temple and an actual school for teaching Kungfu. They have foreign students, including Hollywood movie stars, real and wannabe, who stay and learn there.

Still though, as the bus drove past the temple and I noticed the parking lot, the first thing that came to mind was "Disneyland." True, it was the National day golden week holiday, so it was probably more crowded than usual, but man there were a lot of cars there.

In actuality, it was in many ways like Disneyland, but without the rides.

  • Disneyland has themes- Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Adventureland, etc. The Shaolin Temple has a theme- Kungfu.
  • Disneyland has shows. The Shaolin Temple has martial arts shows.
  • Disneyland has characters wandering around for your amusment. The Shaolin Temple has actual Kungfu students positioned around, shouting and hitting things for your amazement.
  • Disneyland sells lots of snacks, souvenirs, and assorted crap. The Shaolin Temple also sells snacks (although of an unfamiliar variety), souvenirs, and lots of crap.
  • Disneyland has interesting buildings and things to see. The Shaolin Temple has, well, actual temples and stupas to see.

So in essence, the Shaolin Temple is just like Disneyland, only without the fun. No, it is not that bad. Maybe just not my cup of tea. I was more impressed by the mountain up behind the temple.

Oh, the Shaolin Temple does have one thing Disneyland doesn't have ... Red Army guards tromping around.

Here are some photos for you. A few from Xian, some from Luyong and the Longmen Grottos, and finally from the Shaolin Temple. Enjoy

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Kidnapped! No, Not Really

I was just going to write a short bit about how unprofessional bus drivers are here, but it has turned into more than that. Bear with me and you'll see how.

As a lot, they do seem to be rather unprofessional, though. Of course I haven't ridden with every bus driver in China. I can only make inferences from the ones I have.

First of all, it seems they feel they are the kings of the road, especially when it comes to pedestrians. Get out of the way or I am not responsible for what happens. In some cities in China, the bus driver has a button he can press, other than the horn, that plays a recorded spoken warning to those outside on the street. I assume it says, "Get out of the way, idiot," or something to that effect. On one bus I rode, the driver kept his finger on the button nearly the whole time.

Also, bus drivers know they have you by the short curlys, especially private bus drivers who work a particular route. You either get on the bus or don't; they really don't care. They know there is pretty much no other option than to pay the fare and get on board, unless you feel like walking. And once you have paid, that is all they seem to care about. If they drive like idiots and people are knocked out of their seats it doesn't really matter much to them.

But I have to say, the most unprofessional thing that I have seen so far happened to me the other day.

I had decided to go to the Shaolin Temple. There are always "private buses" that run to the tourist sites, but usually these kind of buses stop at "extra" spots along the way, ostensibly to show you something more, but really holding you hostage until enough people from your bus buy enough things to make the driver's kickback worth while, or until enough people complain loudly enough. When possible, I try to avoid these buses like the plague.

That is why I went to the actual bus station and bought an actual bus ticket, and got on an actual bus headed to the Shaolin Temple. As we got underway, The bus driver seemed to be driving slower than normal, but I figured that was just because we were still in the city. Eventually we passed the last checkpoint. About a kilometer or so later the driver pulled the bus to the side of the road and waited. After a few minutes we were told we had to change to another bus. Why? This bus was running fine. When I boarded the other bus, I found out why.

We had been hijacked! Or more correctly, we had been sold, to a "tour bus" company! When we all got on the new bus, someone up front stood up and started yammering about something. I figured it out when all the heads on the bus turned to the left at once. This guy was playing the nice tour guide. Crap, I thought, this can't end well.

We tooled along and the "guide" pointed out things every now and then. Then he got up, said something, and the bus started to turn left. Here it comes, I thought. But then my spirits were buoyed. Another passenger on the bus stood up and shouted something about this not being the way to the Shaolin temple. Apparently this has happened before, because the driver stopped, right in the middle of the intersection, backed up, and then continued on the road to the temple. Yeah!

All seemed well. The "guide" didn't say another thing until the Shaolin temple was in sight. There it was. We were here. There it goes ... Wait a minute. Why did we pass the temple entrance? The guide said something and most of the passengers revolted. Yelling and shouting ensued. Apparently we were going somewhere else first and then would come back to the temple. The majority of the passengers would have none of that. They stood up and grabbed their bags and demanded to be let off the bus. I hurried and got off also.

I am glad that most of the other passengers stood up for themselves and demanded to be given the service they had paid for. But at the same time appalled at the fact that the actual certified bus driver (he had a picture badge and everything) sold all his passengers to the tour company. But, such is life traveling in the "rest" of the world

I wonder how much I was worth.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

Of Mountains and Men

In my life, I think I have encountered three main philosophies for when it comes to people and climbing mountains.

In the west (America,let's stick to what I know) the general philosophy is to leave well enough alone. Leave the mountain in as much a pristine state as possible. We really only build trails so as to keep people on a path and keep them from wandering wherever they may choose and causing too much damage to the rest of the wilderness. If you are able to get up the mountain, however difficult the terrain may be, then congratulations. Good for you!

In Korea, it seems to me, the idea is to make the mountain more accessible to the general public. Since there are fewer mountains and maybe more of the general public climbing them, then this makes a bit of sense. Build some steps into the trail now and then. Add a hand-rope where the trail may be steep. Even add a few stairs now and then. OK, maybe you are taking away a bit from the "naturalness" of the hike into the mountains, but as I said, this is understandable.

In China though, to me, the philosophy seems to be one of ... "A mountain? Then we must conquer it. Let us build a concrete covered path. When the trail becomes steep we must haul up granite and cement and build stairs. Better yet, let us carve steps into the very granite of the mountain itself. Let us create paths on the sheer rock face where no path should even exist. And when we get to the top? Let us plunk down several hotels, not heeding the fact that water at the top of a mountain is rather hard to come by. But wait, what about those who feel they don't want to climb the stairs? Then let us build cable cars and tramways to haul those people, and many more, to the top."

I generally like my mountains in the more natural state, but when in Rome ... So I climbed Ht. Hua, one of the 5 (?) sacred mountains in China. No, I didn't use the cable car.

It had been cloudy for days, so I didn't expect to see too much when climbing, even though I had read that the climb up was one of the best parts. The climb started nice, in a temple, but then sure enough, I was walking into clouds. You probably couldn't see more than a hundred meters or so in front of you on the trail, and even less if you looked off the trail to see the mountains that were supposedly just across the valley.There was some nice scenery now and then, though.

The hike was nice, until it came to the stairs. Oh sure the trail was still nice, but with a total length of about six kilometers, the last two being nearly all stairs, one's legs can become a bit tired. Stairs may be a shorter way up the mountain, but a nice trail with a bunch of switchbacks is certainly easier on the legs and knees.

Two kilometers of stairs, can you imagine that? I don't have to anymore. But I must say, getting to the top and seeing the scenery was worth the climb. The top of the mountain, at least what I could see from time to time, with its five peaks, was very dramatic. I spent the night up there hoping the next morning would be better. Other people do the same apparently hoping to see the sunrise. I had no such expectations, so my hopes were not dashed when the next morning also brought clouds.

But though the sunrise had come and gone, the clouds did eventually move. Actually, two layers were created. There was still a layer of haze above the peaks, but the majority of clouds were now below the peaks. So for a while, I was in a sea of clouds.

Despite the growing ache in my legs, I scrambled up and down the peaks, around ledges, and across rather precipitous ridges. I was about to head back down when I realized there was still one of the five peaks I had yet to summit, I couldn't leave with just one peak unclimbed, so it was back up, down, up and then down again.

By that time I knew I should be heading back down the mountain. I was a bit worried about how long it would take, so I walked over to the cable car station to see how much it would cost to go down. Sixty yuan(about $8 US)!! They must be crazy. I figured I had enough time to get down the mountain, especially if I took the other trail down. Besides, this would add more conquered trail under my belt. Down into the clouds.

About halfway down this trail, again at least two kilometers or more of stairs, I began to wonder if I had my priorities screwed up. I wouldn't pay 60 yuan to save myself some time and future pain, but I would spend 20 yuan to buy a Big Mac meal. Hmmmm?

Anyway, I made it down the mountain, opted for the bus for the 8 km road back to the main road, found a bus back into town and rested well that night. But damn did I feel that hike the next day. And the next. And still. Interesting how muscles you didn't even know you had can ache so much. My right Achilles' tendon is a bit swollen, still, and a bit painful to walk on. But it will get better. And I climbed the mountain, up and down. Me, with my own legs. Everyone else I saw up there were obviously cable car riders.

Enjoy the pictures.

(You can click the above image to see all the pictures and see where they were taken.)

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

I Have A Feeling

When the time comes for the great exodus into space, I have a feeling that the Chinese waiting rooms and rocket ships will be just as noisy, crowded, and chaotic as the train waiting rooms and train cars are today. It's just a feeling, but ...

We haven't even left the station and there are already spills and trash in the aisles, and people are smoking in the cars. Thank goodness the bathrooms are locked while the train is in the station.

Outside of Lhasa the rivers are a pale blue-white. I watch them go past the window. First one side of the train and then the other. Mountains on either side of the valley rise up and dictate the path we are to take. On what is not exposed rock, grasses climb up the mountainsides coloring them various shades of green. Occasionally a peak reaches up to capture the last rays of the setting sun. The harvested fields mirror the color of those high peaks.

A village passes by. Houses grouped together to make the emptiness of the valley a little less lonely. The rail meets the road and we travel together for a while. Then, we start a slow climb as the road continues to parallel the river below. The tracks go higher, the train slows, and finally we enter a tunnel. And then quickly another. We enter back into the light and the river is again just outside the window. It now winds across a much wider valley as we head toward new snow-capped peaks in the distance. The sun has set, so the light no longer reaches even the highest peak.

The light has faded outside. Only the occasional set of headlights from a car paralleling us on the nearby road can be seen outside. Now starts the long night inside the train car. This is what MP3 players and head phones were made for. Unfortunately I have neither.

Morning light brings a different scene, one that I slept through on the way into Lhasa. Desert. Probably not the Gobi desert proper, but certainly and extension of it. Sand and rock nearly as far as the eye can see. Only in the distance does the terrain change to rocky outcrops and mountains. As we go lower in elevation, bushes and scrub begin to appear and spread across the sandy expanse. Occasionally the mountains move in closer to the tracks, but the distance on either side to those mountains is more than a person would want to walk.

Now and then, what is obviously a tree planting project passes by in the window. While nice to look at, with the green and yellowing leaves, and no doubt well intentioned, I wonder how long those trees will actually last.

A large blue lake takes its time to pass. And later a dry lake bed, even larger. And there! A heard of wild camels. Double-humped, Bactrian camels getting what nourishment they can from the dry scrub. China certainly can be a country of wonders at times.

(Written on my second long trip on a hard seat. It still hasn't gotten any better/easier by the third or fourth trip, either. Sorry, no pictures. The windows were just too dirty and we were traveling into the sun. Lots of reflections.)