Giant Panda's outdoor city

Already at first site, Chengdu seemed like a much better city than Xi'an. People here seemed very friendly and were not that surprised when they see foreigners. This capital city of Sichuan is the main hub for many travellers who are planning a trip to Tibet. Either they are waiting for their permits, train tickets or just recovering from the trip to Lhasa, which takes about 40 hrs on the local train.

Our hostel was a true backpacker's paradise with everything geared toward the needs of someone on the road. Also, Chengdu is full of outdoor stores with every possible piece of equipment. We have taken advantage of this and bought a pair of hiking boots for about 40 euro. (so when people tell you, don't worry about buying some stuff before you leave, you can get it there. They are mostly correct :)). Furthermore, if you like spicy food, this is the place to be. The local delicacy is called the hotpot and we of course had to try it (with the help of arms and legs we ordered one). It was a pot full of spicy pepers and one 5kg fish with all of its fins, even the head. To ease the burning pain of the spice, we were sipping a peanut butter milk which was quite tastey. It was only 100 snot filled napkins later we realised, we could have gotten half the pot non-spicy and half spicy :). Very good food though.

What is here to do? Well, there are a couple of mountains to hike on where temperatures go down to -1 degrees in October, so we decided against this as we weren't equipped for this. However, the main attraction seems to be the Giant Panda Breeding Research Center. Even though it sound a lot more natural than it actually is, the research there offers some good insights into pandas' lives. The facilities are pretty large and very zoo like which was quite disappointing. Everything is mainly geared towards tourists, so do not expect any tropical rain forests. On Sunday we have opted to take a local bus about 2 hrs to a nearby small village Leshan where the supposedly largest sitting buddha can be found. And what do you know, there he was overlooking the river and the city. Quite interesting to see a statue so large, but the weather was quite foggy, so the pictures are not great.

Chengdu was great, now onto our next destination, Chongquing and then river Yang Tze cruise through the Three Gorges.

Xi'an, city of warriors

It is hard to imagine that someone would tell you which sites on internet you can visit and which ones you cannot. Well, what do you know? :). Blogger is blocked in most internet cafes in China, so we had to wait until we found one that worked and this was in Guangzhou. I'll try to do my best to summarize our experience of the last two weeks in the next posts.

After 11 hour ride in a sleeper train, we have arrived to the city of Xi'an. Before I tell you a bit more about it, let's summarize Beijing a bit.

Required dose of polution is on everyone's agenda on daily basis :) in this city. I can hardly imagine running a marathon here in the 2008 Olympics. I guess we shall see if the city officials will make some changes (they are planned, but my guess would be, it is a bit late). On the other hand, Beijing has mastered the symbiosis of the new with the old architecture with a magnificent perfection. At one point, one can find himself walking in the biggest slums (with brand new Audi/Mercedes driving out of the tiny streets) and at the next corner a brand new shopping center with full western sortiment overlooks the Forbidden City (with old rikshas zipping by).

Back to Xi'an though. The train ride was quite ok since we really slept the whole time and the train was new. The hostel was unfortunately a bit further from the train station, so we have decided to get a local three wheeler taxi (riksha). The driver, sad looking old man, was showing us two fingers as far as the fare goes, so we have assumed it was going to cost 2 RMB and were happy it was cheap and were giving business to a local non-car taxi community. After arrival to our hostel the driver pulled out his Siemens cell phone and typed in 18 RMB as our charge. We were surprised, but could not really argue with him, so started to put together the money. Suddenly, some gentleman walking by started to talk to the driver in a raised voice and after a little bit, we have realized, he just caught this guy trying to stiff us on the fare. After a short shouting match between the driver and the guy, we ended up paying 10 RMB and were taken by one younger man to our hostel. So, there are nice people out there after all, but still not a good start to the Xi'an experience.

At the hotel we have booked a tour to go see the Terra-cotta warriors with English guide(as that is really the only reason we have came here). This sounds cheesy, but it is really the only way to get somewhere fast and hassle free. Other possibilities would be to organize some bus tickets ourselves, but that could take a while to do and no English subtitles would be present :). In the evening we have decided to go visit the muslim quarters of Xi'an, supposedly well known for their food. We got some courage and entered one of the local restaurants where obviously nobody spoke English, so with the help of pointing and our guide book, we have managed to order some rice, lamb, beer (yay) and noodles. No comments on Chinese cuisine, it is just plain delicious :).

Terra-cotta warriors were the highlight of our day on Wednesday, but it is still not what it is made out to be. Before you enter, guides will tell you there are over 6000 warriors in one of the tombs, however they fail to expand on the fact that 5500 of them are still burried, so you can't see them :) (so sort of a rip off in a way). Our tour also took us into so called "factory for terracotta warriors" (this was not on our itinerary). After about 5 min introduction about how they make them out of terra-cotta, then burn them etc, we were horded (with 100s of other tourists on similar tours) into a huge warehouse of antique furniture and statues which were of course for sale. The Chinese enterprenourship does not know boundaries :).

After 2 days in Xi'an, I'd have to say, we were guite happy to leave for our next destination in Chengdu, Sichuan. Unless, one is an archeological enthusiast, I'd not recommend to make it all the way to Xi'an just for the soldiers (looks better on TV :)).

Unknown insects on a stick in China

It didn't take long (1/2 a day) and we were faced with a few choices of gourmet foods in Beijing. Amongst the choices were scorpions, crickets, squid, some butterfly larvae (or at least they looked like it) and the insect as pictured below. It actually was not too bad with the taste being a bit salty and dry. As you can imagine, there is not much meat in these things, so a full dinner with chicken and rice (mee-fan) had to follow. :)

Beijing Duck and city dust

So we arrived in sunny Beijing on the 16th and started the trip in a jetlag-haze. The original plan was to sleep like a baby and wake up refreshed in the Beijing morning, ready for first adventure. But instead we fell onto our hostel beds and slept until afternoon. The jetlag-haze probably also explains the decision to have bugs of an unknown origin as dessert the same evening. Flavor? Crunchy with a weird after taste, but then again everything tastes like chicken, right?

Once our brain started to work again we headed for the main sights. This being the Forbidden City and the Tian'anmen Square. It was very impressive and astonishing, as all the books had promised. Oh and btw, beware of the english speaking "arts students" around the entrance - do not follow them to see their artwork, knowing that you are not going to buy any. We made our first enemy by the second day!

By this day it was also evident that blond hair will make some people stop and point at you, even take pictures (one pathetic scarf will not cover a thing!). One lady at Tiananmen square even brought her husband to me and asked us to pose for her familyalbum. I am hoping that they might mix me with some famous athlete, since I am constantly wearing sports clothes!

Yesterday we had arranged a trip to the Great Wall of China. There are many different ways to go to the wall and we picked the route from Jin Shan Lin to Si Ma Tai which is about a 10km stretch of a treaturous wall climbing. Hardcore step-up aerobics I tell ya, but absolutely worth it. The hike is further away, but with less tourists and gorgeous breathtaking views. It is also common to be accompanied by some souvenir sellers from Mongolia which will try to help hikers in more dangerous spots hoping for a sale at the end. Some people (the other one :)) get really annoyed by this, however, I figured that a stack of post cards for 70 cents was a small price to pay for 5km and a helping hand.

Today we went to a couple of local parks with temples and pagodas. The most famous being the Beihai park with the majestic White Pagoda overlooking the city. At the top of the pagoda, there is a beautiful view of the entire Forbidden City. However, the view gets even more magnificent from the neighboring park called Jingshan - you can really see the size of the Forbidden city and the contrast between history and the modern buildings around it! After all this walking we ended the day with the classic Beijing Duck meal at a local joint. I have to say, the Lonely Planet phrase book has saved us from several tricky situations - everything we have eaten so far has been recognisable:)

Since the language problems are tricky, our hostel helped us to arrange train tickets to Xi'an on Monday. Before that we still have a few more days in Beijing, hoping to see the Summer palace and The Temple of Heaven before we go. It's definitely not a problem trying to find things to see in this huge metropolis!