I feel safer already

I’ve traveled by air within China a number of times before, and in general it has been much less hassle than traveling within the US. All the TSA’s security measures of questionable effectiveness seem to provide much bother for little real safety gain. Until recently, you could take up to a liter of liquid with you on a domestic flight here, and there was none of that take-off-your-shoes foolishness.

Well, I don’t know if it was just in honor of the Olympics or a permanent change, but the convenience factor here took a nose-dive on the recent Yunnan trip. To add to the confusion over what you can and cannot do or bring, each airport seems to have its own interpretation of the rules.

The hassles started more or less from the moment we left home (and were not actually security related). The new rapid transit train to the airport is open, so we decided to take advantage of it and save on the taxi fare. It’s normally about ¥80 for a taxi from my place to the airport. The train is ¥25 per person. As far as we were able to tell, there is no way to get to the train without navigating stairs. You can take a big lovely set of escalators from the ground level down, but that puts you on a landing where you have to go down a short flight of stairs to a security checkpoint, where you have to run your bags through an X-ray machine.

That puts you inside the Beijing Subway system. To get to the Airport Express, you have to go around to another area to purchase your ticket. Then you go through a security checkpoint where you have to run your bag through an X-ray machine. I think there must be some way to get to this point without going through the first checkpoint, but that would also mean that you can get to the subway without getting X-rayed. Hmmm…

Anyway, from there you go down an escalator to a very small landing area where you wait for the train. It’s a relatively nice train, but there is not a lot of room to stow bags, so unless you’re willing to put your bag at the end of a car and sit where it is out of view, you have to stand up if you have more than a carry-on.

It takes 17 minutes to get to the new Terminal 3. Our flight to Kunming, however, took off from Terminal 2, so we stayed on the train. Total time to T2 is about 30 minutes. All of which are faster than a taxi.

When you get off at T2, you go through another security checkpoint, there’s only one officer checking everyone, so when a train lets out, you end up with a big long line. All they do here is run the little chemical-sniffing paper over parts of your bag. (At T3, they have a fancy sniffing machine, but T2 has to be content with the old tech.)

After you check in and get your boarding pass, you get to the regular security line. The usual, laptop out of bag and so on, but no need to remove your shoes. We were only going for a weekend, so we hadn’t planned on checking anything, and crammed all we had into our carry-ons. They ran D’s backpack through the machine twice before opening it to search. They dug through it for what seemed like forever, not finding anything to complain about, then finally triumphantly held up a tiny bottle of Purel sanitizer. Aha! Not allowed. They confiscated it and let us proceed to our gate.

Right on time, we got onto our plane. We could see out the windows that it had started raining outside. By the time everyone was on board and they went through the safety spiels, the plane was rocking back and forth from the buffeting wind, and rain was hitting the windows as hard as if we were already in the air. We started to see flashes of lightning outside.

They announced that we would have to wait for the weather to clear before we could take off. A wise decision, of course, but it was already getting pretty stuffy inside the cabin. Before long they brought around the drink carts. They did not seem to have any alcohol available.

After twenty minutes or so, the storm slacked off a bit, and we could see other planes taking off. They told us we were waiting our turn in queue, and would take off soon. But before that time came, the weather took another turn for the worse and all take-offs were halted.

Then they brought around the food cart. It was a mid-afternoon three-hour flight, so we normally would have had dinner an hour after take-off. Feeding us seemed like an admission that we would have at least an hour more on the ground. Just after we started eating, there was an announcement that operations had resumed and we would be leaving soon, so we all hurried to wolf down the food.

It was another false alarm. By the time we finally left the ground, we were almost two hours behind schedule. I had built a two hour layover in Kunming before or connection to Lijiang just in case, but this pretty much ate that up.

Aside from a bit of turbulence and the lack of any further food, the flight south was uneventful. Beneath us we saw nothing but clouds until just before landing.

Of course we had missed our Lijiang flight, and as it turned out there was no other one for us until the following morning. I guess that’s one down-side to buying steeply discounted tickets.

We stopped at the ticket window and arranged a replacement flight at 11 the next morning, then called the hotel in Lijiang to tell them we were stuck in Kunming. We asked at the airport information desk where we could find a hotel, and they said there was one across the street.

The less said about our hotel arrangements that night the better. It was really cheap and not really worth the pennies we paid.

When we got to the airport the next morning for the Lijiang flight, D’s carryon again had problems. It contained exactly the same things that had passed muster in Beijing after the Purel was ditched. This time they pulled out a 14oz. (396g) tube of skin lotion. On reflection, I have no idea why they let something so large through in Beijing. This lotion is fairly expensive stuff (and not readily replaceable in China), so we dropped out of the line, put the hand lotion into a different bag, and went back to the check-in counter to check it. So much for our carry-on-only plan.

That did the trick and we whizzed through the Kunming security line this time.

I’ve already written a number of posts about our short time in Lijiang and our visit to the Stone Forest. But getting home again presented challenges. At the little airport in Lijiang they have a big sign that informs you in Chinese and English that you have to remove belts and shoes in order to pass through security. That’s something I’ve never had to do in China. But we complied and there was no problem.

Back at Kunming, we had already worked through their process, so it was no problem.

I think that now the Olympics are past, things may have lightened up a bit – maybe someone else can confirm that in a comment. It strikes me as odd that in China, a country widely regarded as featuring strong monolithic central control, should have such regional variation in a matter that is so tightly regimented in the US.

I’ve used the Airport Express train since then, and this time the first escalator was closed down for maintenance, leaving me to lug my big bag down a long flight of stairs. As far as I can tell, the train is not accessible for a wheelchair at all. I looked all over and did not see an elevator. The airport stations seem to be accessible, and the trains themselves have fold-up seats in designated areas for wheelchairs, but I don’t know what a person in a chair would do once they got off the train on the Beijing end of the line. It is possible to get onto the Airport without going through two X-ray machines, however. When the attendant saw me approaching the first one with my bag, she asked if I was going to the airport; I said yes and she waved me past it – which of course means that if I had lied, I would have been able to take my large unscanned bag onto the subway.


Olympic memories

Being a compendium of recollections about the 2008 Beijing Olympics told through pictures that didn’t fit in other posts.

Here’s a local scene that is symbolic of Beijing during August and September of 2008:
That’s the eastern entrance to the building where our office was, the one I used on days when I either walked from home or took a taxi. You can’t read the sign from this angle, but you can see the red arrow telling you to go around to the north entrance. This was a frequent minor irritation, as the bicycle parking area is on the south side of the building.

Note that the doors are chained shut with bicycle locks. The people with the cart are making a delivery of vegetables to one of the restaurants in the building, and the security guard just finished digging through the bags looking for...whatever he was looking for. This was part of the increased security initiative all over the city. Around on the north side, they were checking building passes for all who came in, and visitors had to sign a log. At least that’s what the sign said – my Chinese teacher walked right in a couple times, and another time she had to wait while I came down to vouch for her. Anyone with an Olympic credential was also let in without question.

With the chains on the door (note that the one on the right side is on the outside of the door, while the other is on the inside), I couldn’t help thinking that in case of an emergency evacuation, people could easily get trapped trying to go out this way, depending on where the key is kept and how quickly the chain could be opened.

Here’s another typical scene.
The town was full of volunteers. This is a bunch of them at the Yonghegong Lama Temple subway station.

For the Opening Ceremony, I went to a place called Club Obiwan, which is along the shore of Xihai, one of the lakes in the western part of downtown.
Club Obiwan has three levels of fun, as well as a pretty cool name.
They had a big projection TV on the roof for the Opening Ceremony, and it got pretty crowded.
That was early in the evening, just before the show proper started, and before the place really filled up. Given all the hype about 08/08/08 8:08, I was a little surprised that the festivities started so much ahead of time. At the actual appointed time, I couldn’t tell any difference from what was happening at 8:07.

Several hours later, the festivities were over, and it looked like this:
I’m not sure how they managed to accumulate so many bottles. There was so little room on the roof that I went four hours without having a server get anywhere near me. I must say it was quite inspiring to see the amount of pride the Chinese people watching obviously felt in this whole thing. This was their moment, and they were very proud of their country.

From our rooftop, we could kind of see a little of the fireworks, and we clearly saw a couple of the infamous footprints that were computer-enhanced on the broadcast. They just looked like rings from our angle.

As I mentioned in my Beach Volleyball post, RR and I had to walk a long distance around Chaoyang Park after leaving the competition area. Here’s something we passed on the way.
Giant inflated kids, one doing martial arts, and one shooting a gun. Near them was another oddity.
I knew Shaq was tall, but dang!

At the Fencing session I attended, there was some entertainment in the break before the medal ceremony.
I clearly remember them dancing with swords, doing a kind of martial arts choreography, but you can’t see any swords here.

I mentioned a few of the corporate pavilions on the Olympic Green, but only showed a few pictures. Here’s the China Mobile building.
I’m told that’s the face of a famous Chinese actor known for comedy. Around the side, you can see a basketball player breaking through the wall. It’s actually a pop star, not an athlete. There were several other pop stars represented.
And the hostesses wore strange costumes that made them look a bit like anime characters.
Volkswagen had one of the few exhibits that was actually interesting. OK, to be fair I didn’t go inside any of them, but they looked really dull. VW had an outdoor display area with some cool cars behind glass.
Of course people like to pose with such things.
But you can occasionally get a clear shot.
They weren’t all race cars.
Several times a day, they had an aerial acrobatic show above the cars.
The Olympic Green was really huge, and given how restricted access was, it often looked like this over large areas.
While walking to the Closing Ceremony, I saw a group of volunteers (possibly with some kind of celebrity) showing the love.
I don’t know if it was a spontaneous outburst of collective spirit, or if they were rehearsing for something.

Near them were some cool statues on a historical theme.
In the large pond running up the middle of the Green, there were fountains.
And we saw a proud member of the Fire Department.
There you go. An assortment of Olympic-related odds and ends.


I Gotta Get outta This Place

If there was any chance I was regretting the choice to make a quick trip back to Seattle now, this sealed it:
That’s what it looked like at 8am from my window this morning. Obviously the good air we had during the Olympics is nothing but a memory.

For comparison, here’s the same view on a reasonable day (29 December 2007):
Then again, it’s 8am and my flight leaves at 4:20pm and I haven’t even started packing. I’m trying the new direct Beijing-Seattle flight on Hainan Air. Saves a lot of time, but I was kind of liking the relatively easy Customs experience in Vancouver. We’ll see.


Beijing rock scrapbook, volume 3

Here's another installment in my series of photos from live music shows in Beijing. These are all from Day 3 of the Modern Sky Festival, 2 October 2008. Two of the bands I saw, 33 Dao and Cold Fairyland, warrant posts of their own, so this one is a grab-bag of the other bands.

Wu Zhuoling
Note the camera guy on stage right in the face of a performer. He did this all day, sometimes standing directly in front of the person. I have a bunch of pictures where he was blocking my view. In addition to playing guitar and singing, she also played kalimba and harmonica.

The Linga

Carsick CarsThe Cars played on the mainstage outdoors, and I couldn't get very close.
Pirate hats: always in fashion.
When they turn on the bubble machine, you know you're having fun.

Ourself Beside Me
But when the bubbles come on for a band like this one, you have to wonder.
OBM played a really short set. Milk@Coffee ran over time, so they started late, but even so they finished early. I've heard they hate to be photographed, so maybe they were mad about the camera guy being in their faces all the time.
Still, their version of "Interstellar Overdrive" was cool. I wonder how many people in the audience knew it was a Pink Floyd tune.


No reservations, part 1


When I travel, I normally have things planned out to a fair degree. I have reservations for transportation and lodgings, and sometimes even for specific sights that require them. This is a story of the opposite tactic.

A few weeks ago, as the week-long Golden Week holiday approached, everyone in the office was talking about travel plans. Most of them were going to visit their hometowns, and they told many tales of difficulty getting train tickets. With the improving economic situation here, hundreds of millions of people all want to travel at the same time. The government has instituted measures to try to spread out the rush a bit, but so far without much effect. But when I was asked, I had no plans.

Then I was talking with a former coworker (with the end of the Olympics and reduction in our staff, I have a lot of these), and she was talking about visiting her home province of Gansu, but at the end of the holiday instead of the beginning. There would probably be fewer people on the move at that time. I’ve seen pictures of the area around her home town and said, “Wow, that’s amazing. I should go along!” So we started tentatively thinking about a trip.

But it turned out Gansu was just too far to go. We started looking at alternate destinations. Hangzhou and Suzhou? Qingdao, maybe? Then she remembered a place I once told her I wanted to visit, the big Buddhist carvings at Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi. It seemed like the right combination of distance (roughly eight hours by train) and desirability. A little bit of research added another Shanxi destination to the list, and we had a vague 4-5 day itinerary. And two of my friend’s old college classmates from Gansu who now live in Beijing signed up to come along. A friend of a friend who is a travel agent helped out with the train tickets.

Being a typical American, I packed for five days, with five changes of underwear, five shirts, a couple pairs of pants and so on.

I’m a big fan of Anthony Bourdain’s TV show No Reservations, but I’m well aware that its title is misleading. He’s traveling with a TV crew, so of course he has everything worked out in advance when he goes somewhere. He has a local guide and translator, he has the restaurants picked out, he has a schedule to keep. But still, his philosophy (Be a traveler, not a tourist) is appealing, and if he can’t completely live up to his title, maybe I can try to. For one trip at least.

So here begins a series of posts that are much longer and more detailed than my usual habit. I hope you enjoy them.

Continue to part 2.

No reservations, part 2

Back to part 1


At a little after 5pm I arrived at Beijing West Train Station to begin my adventure.
After a bit, one of my traveling companions arrived, and we decided to grab a quick meal at KFC before boarding the train. We had tickets for the overnight train to Pingyao. Or at least some of us did. The ticket agent was apparently unable to get us four tickets to Pingyao, so we had two tickets (yingwo or hard sleeper) to Pingyao, and two only as far as another city partway.

We met up with our other companions on the train and immediately sought out the conductor to try to remedy our situation. We stretched the truth a bit and played the “stupid foreigner didn’t buy the right tickets” angle, and she had mercy on us and found us another pair of beds for the whole trip.
In this class, there are six bunks three high in each area, with no door or curtain between them and the corridor. Some of the cars don’t have the partial wall at the end of the bed, and instead have a ladder up the outside.

We sat together and talked for a while in the place where two of us had tickets. Each car has an attendant who comes around and matches up your ticket with a little card for your berth. What we didn’t know is that if you’re not at your berth (so the card for it is still in the attendant’s book), they will give your bed to the next person on the waiting list. So when it came time for two of us to go to the beds in the other car, we found them occupied. Which meant another trip to see the conductor. She managed to come through again. I ended up in the top bunk in a different section than the others. It’s kind of a challenge to get up there, and there’s not much room once you’re there – certainly not enough to sit up.

The cars are not heated, and it’s actually cooler on the top because of the vent in the ceiling. But I slept pretty well, and oddly enough, dreamed of trains.

Continue to part 3.

No reservations, part 3

Back to part 2.


Once it was daylight, we saw we were passing through a mixed agricultural and industrial area. Corn dominated.
Around 7am we arrived at Pingyao. From here on out, we had no reservations for transportation or lodging. At the little train station, there were a bunch of taxis, which in Pingyao are mostly either open electric golf-cart-like vehicles or three wheeled things kind of like modified motorcycles. We found one and asked him to take us to a hotel in Gucheng (the Old Town), haggling for the price until he agreed to ¥2 per person. It was not a long ride, but it was really cold in the open car.
Once we passed inside the city wall, we could see why there were very few full-sized cars as taxis. The streets are very narrow and mostly dedicated to pedestrians, bicycles, and scooters along with the taxis. There are barriers preventing any wheeled vehicles from proceeding, and if you’re on a bike you have to pick it up to get past.
We paid the driver and looked at the first hotel, then three others. Actually they’re called guest houses, and are not really like a standard hotel. There are a bunch of them around the old part of town, just as there were in Lijiang.
We settled on the second place, which for no reason I could tell, was called the Catholic Guesthouse in English (the Chinese is 永庆斋客栈 Yongqingzhai Kezhan, which has nothing to do with religion as far as I can tell, something like Perpetual Festival Guesthouse), and they agreed to let us stay for a ridiculously low price.
We got two rooms like this one for two nights for a total of ¥100 (a little less than US$15). Right, that is ¥25 per night per room.
It had a Western style toilet which was a bit old and stained, but worked just fine. What we didn’t check was the hot water. Apparently they claimed hot water was available 24 hours.
These guest houses all feature at least one courtyard, and are basically repurposed old buildings.

So we checked in (and they never had me fill out the government’s foreigner temporary residence form), dropped off our bags, had a quick breakfast there, and went out to take care of our first order of business.
We rented four bicycles for the day, and rode off to the train station to arrange for the next leg of our journey.
This is us discovering that there were no seats available for any trains to Datong on the 8th. Well, there’s always buses, right? We asked direction to the bus station, and rode there to see if we would have better luck.
As it happens, bus tickets can only be purchased on the day of travel, so we checked out the schedule and prices, and headed back towards the Old Town.

We passed through what you might call Auto Row, where a bunch of new and used vehicle sales and repair shops were located.
This type of vehicle seems to be the area’s equivalent of the American pickup truck: the farmer’s general purpose work and delivery machine. We saw them all over the place, sometimes loaded with truly amazing cargoes. There are also electric versions, including many outfitted as taxis.

Aside from its Old Town, Pingyao is famous for a type of preserved beef, so we rode to the factory store for the most famous brand, but all the staff were on their lunch break and the store was closed. While we stood around discussing what to do, one of the sellers came and let us in for a look. My companions bought a couple of boxes for gifts, and I agreed to take one bag myself.

Then it was back to town to drop off the boxes at our rooms.
This is the outside of the West Gate.

Then we rode around town to get a feel for where things were, and to find lunch. Just down Nan Dajie (South Street) from the Catholic Guesthouse is Shilou, sometimes called the Bell Tower, though the Chinese just means City Tower.
Pretty soon, one of the themes for the Pingyao portion of the trip made its first appearance.
There are lots of cats in this town. It seemed that about half of the shops had one or more hanging around somewhere, even curled up in the display cases.

For lunch, we wanted to try out some of the local specialties, so we picked a restaurant and ordered some.
On the far side are some fried balls (“poms” on the menu) filled with figs and red beans, sweet and gooey and tasty, if a bit greasy. And watch out for the seeds! Then there is a noodle dish that was pretty good, and a soup with tofu and fatty pork (bacon, essentially).

After lunch, while my companions were busy haggling at a jewelry stall, I rode the short distance to the South Gate.
This was the city’s main gate in its heyday. I think the area just inside it here was where the guards were garrisoned. During the middle of the 19th Century, Pingyao was the banking center of China, with several large nationwide banks headquartered here, and that great wealth made the city a showpiece of Chinese culture at the time. However, once the imperial situation started changing around the turn of the 20th Century, the banks didn’t adapt, and within twenty years, had all failed, reducing the city to a quaint backwater. And fortunately for us today, leaving it untouched by modernization. With the troubled banking situation in the US right now, it makes me wonder...
After the jewelry shopping was done (at least for the moment), we continued our ride, and came across something not listed in the guidebook.
This Christian church near the East Gate is still in use.

Along the inside of the eastern wall, you can see that behind the brick facing is a pile of dirt.
And you can see another of the wide variety of vehicle designs in use. And speaking of vehicle designs...
These larger three-wheeled things are very common as well. You can’t see it from this angle, but the engine is between the two seats, and it uses a belt to drive the rear axle.
We rode around the inside of the wall from the East Gate around to the north and discovered that the east side of town has very few tourist attractions. Just normal everyday life over here. That’s a pile of ears of corn set out to dry.
And that’s a pile of coal in the street with buckets to carry it inside for heating and cooking.
By the time we returned the bikes, it was after dark.

For dinner, we went to a somewhat more upscale place that was recommended in a guidebook. There was a guy in an old-fashioned costume who beat on a drum and announced the arrival of customers.
You can tell it’s upscale because the dishes all match. On the left is a local snack consisting of mashed potatoes formed around a stick and deep fried. You dip them into either the sweet sauce or the spicy salt powder. Interesting, but not outstanding. At the back is a chicken and vegetable dish that was good, and nearest is a nice eggplant dish.
I had been fighting off a cold for several days (living on Sudafed and Halls lozenges), so didn’t feel like a late night (and honestly, Pingyao does not have a bar scene like Lijiang does). We went back to the Catholic and arranged for a driver to take us to a site out of town in the morning.

Continue to part 4.