Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It's holiday time.....

As I'm sure that the whole world is aware, October 1st is the Chinese National Holiday and this year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the current version of China. And the few of you the have been reading this blog for a while know that whenever a billion people get a holiday in China we opt to leave the country.

But this year is the 60th anniversary, and thus different plans had to be made. October 1st falls on a Thursday so almost everyone is off from Thursday to Thursday, working last Saturday and on October 10th to make up for some of their holiday time. We planned to head to Laos for the holiday, enjoying a few days in Hong Kong at the end of the trip so that we could go on an electronic spending spree, and so we booked a flight out on Friday the second - the best of both worlds, a chance to see the celebrations and then get out.

Then our brother called, the one we had promised him that we would come and visit him in Malaysia again when he was putting on a show in December, and he had some news. Due to timing constraints his concert was going to be in Ipoh the last weekend in September and for one night in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday night, September 29th...

Change of plans then, and so we adjusted our plans and left first thing in the morning for Malaysia (by the time this posts we should be enroute to the hotel so we can freshen up before heading out). We will go and see Alex play at No Black Tie in Kuala Lumpur, click here to see a much younger photo of Alex in the write up about him and the people he will be playing with.

From there we will once again travel the road to Ipoh and spend sime time with sisters Hong and Yih and the rest of the family before returning back to our originally scheduled trip, flying up to Hong Kong first thing Friday morning and then onto Laos.

Due to computer issues beyond my control, and which has made my life incredibly tough these last few days, we will be without a computer this trip and most likely will not be stopping into internet cafes to type in a quick post. However, this time we have pre-written a few posts that will post during the time we are gone, we hope that will hold you over until we return on the 12th...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Construction Update

It's been a long time since we've written about the construction that spent months keeping us from getting a good nights sleep, but once they finished pouring all the concrete supports the movement about the site slowed down dramatically. We talked about how they had just recently started digging down and doing more work to build a retaining wall, but now they've stepped the levels of production back up so that they are working full 12+ hour days. Where one of the workers lodging buildings had been torn down, there were two new ones put up in its place.

When we returned last week we saw that they had even set up a crane on the property.
Now they're starting to section it out and it looks like they have poured some small concrete walls. I'd say that the sections are approximately 15'x20', and their are stockpiles of bricks laying all around the site that we will get to see put to use soon...
So, once again we have something interesting going on right outside our window that we can talk about, only this time we believe that the work will be much quieter...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Last weekend...

So in returning to talking about our regular life here in Xiamen, we will share with you the things that we have been doing. First, as we mentioned before we left for Xinjiang, our friend the Crazy Mexican - Rene, is back in Xiamen for a few months with work. Although it's not the same as when we would head over to the villa that his family was staying in last year, it's still good to catch up with him for a few beers or whatnot.

We took the Mexican over to the barber that I use so that he would look presentable when he was going to work.
Then last weekend over at Havana's they had a party to celebrate the Mexican independence day, September 16th. There was quite a crowd and too much tequila was drunk.
Yep, we were a little slow moving on Sunday and our plans for going to the local massage parlor for cupping were put on hold for a week. We are heading over to Me&You 2 now to meet up with the Mexican again and this week we will make it to cupping, and with a lot less toxins then the would have found if we had gone last weekend....

Friday, September 25, 2009

Meanwhile back in Xiamen...

Things changed here in Xiamen while we were away for those 10 days in Xinjiang, it was like coming home to a new city.

We came back to find that the small store on the first floor in the building next to us was gone. I had just bought a case of beer there the week before we left and Tina commented "They're sweet, they'll probably miss you when we're gone." They know that when we come in it's either for a case of Tsingtao or for bottled water. It was a bit shocking to come back and find their entire store completely cleaned out, and to not even tell us just added insult to the injury.

Then we wandered over to pull out some cash, being the big spenders that we are, only to find out that the HSBC branch has lowered its maximum withdrawal amount by 500RMB. Now it's the same as the other banks and this lower withdrawal rate means that the 3USD that we are charged with each time we pull out will now become a larger percentage of our losses. This will add up to dollars worth of beer that I'll have to forgo.

The third change was the most devastating. The special on wine over at Temptations had run its course and ended while we were away. We had been abusing this special as it made the overpriced amount for wine that one pays in China only slightly overpriced, and it was a good wine too. What now will we do? Can't easily switch to beer now that my favorite shop is gone...

Well, it was nice to see that at least one thing hadn't changed -
Nap time remains the same as it always did.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Xinjiang Wrapup....

So, we hope you all enjoyed reading about our short trip over to the crazy Uyghur occupied world of North-Western China and the Xinjiang Province. Overall this is easily our best trip ever within China, and we are trying to figure out where it goes in our overall list of top trips. That's top trips since we've known each other since earlier Tina already had the pyramids of Egypt and I had trips to Saint Denis. It doesn't quite top Easter Island, but it's edging in on Mongolia and Argentina....

So, we would recommend this trip to anyone, as the tour we took just got better and better with every day. Maybe we were lucky with the weather, but it seems like out in this section of China you don't have the smog and pollution issues that plague the east coast.

What we will do is list our guides and suggest that you contact them - we can't say enough about them and how they would quickly adjust tour plans based on what we wanted to see...

Urumqi, Turpan - Mohemmed Ali
Mobile - (+86) 13999920477
Skype - Burket1129
Email - Burkut1129 @yahoo.com, md_burkut @yahoo.com.cn, or burkut1129 @hotmail.com
He told us not to post his photo since it would only act to break the hearts of hundreds of European women - we respect his wishes.

Kashgar - Hasan Osman
Mobile - (+86) 9982846633
Fax - (+86) 9982843322
Email - Kashgartour @yahoo.com or Kashgartour @hotmail.com
Website - www.pamirtour.com

Right now, as of 09.23.2009, the internet is still blocked in the Xinjiang province so we would recommend just calling them to make plans....

When we get to it we will load copies of their business cards up to Flickr, but right now I'm guessing that's a month away.

Get there soon.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Day 9 - Dunhuang

After a night a relaxing and hoping for some good weather, we found our way up to the rooftop restaurant for the breakfast buffet. The weather was a little cool, but it looked to be a fairly clear day.

Hotel rooftop restaurant looking towards the sand dunes.

About a 90 minute drive out of Dunhuang is the westernmost section of China's Great Wall, so we called an audible and added this to our itinerary. We drive out into the desert to look at the old Han Dynasty's version of the wall, built from 206 BCE to 220 CE (This is Before Current Era and Current Era - as over here they aren't big on the whole Jesus as the basis of a calendar thing...).
It is well worn, but I suppose that 2200 years could do that, and it was interesting to see the old structures built up with dirt, stones, and weeds (one site I read classified them as - layers of packed earth, separated by reed mats or tamarisk branches). You could still see the layers that had be stacked up as the wind does it best to return it to the desert floor.
There were also remnants of the huge beacon towers that were located every 4-5 Km along the wall.

From the area of the wall that we looked at it was only a short drive over to the former Jade Gate Pass which was the main customs entrance/exit to the Han empire back in the day. Apparently this had been covered with jade tiles, but for some reason over the years those were removed and all that was left was a gigantic earthen square building.
On the side that was outside the wall there was a river and an area of green that stood out from the rest of the desert surroundings, this is where the silk road led everyone - what better location to place a large government run toll-booth.

Once we finished with viewing these old ruins we headed towards the Mogao Caves, these are the caves that our friends told us to visit when the read about them in Conde Naste.

When we pulled up our guide told us that no photos were allowed inside, but that the color was amazing and worth it to see. She also explained that she wouldn't come in with us since the entry fee includes local knowledgeable guides. We bought our ticket, somewhat disappointed, and set out to take photos of the front that we could see before we went through the main gate.
The outside view of some of the caves, the front structure covers a 36m Buddha, which is one of the oldest and largest in the world. Further down is a 24m one and then a 17m lying statue. I think other then those three main caves the other rotate throughout the year so that none get too much traffic.
From the outside it just looks lie some sort of fancy cave-side resort complex. They have done a lot of work to protect the caves, so most of the southern caves have been built up and protected. Our guide took us to 11 caves, some different then the other guides were going to, and all amazing with the amount of color that was still inside of them. The rooms are tight to move around it, especially when full with people, and you need a flashlight to really be able to see. The old colors that most of the people are painted with has oxidized leaving the photos an eerie black...
This is a replica room set up in the museum (remember no photos), but it shows how they looked.
Cave entrances on the north side of the site.

When we finished we were duly impressed, and understood how it would have been a nightmare if people were trying to take photos, it's too dark, and the floor space is too small for the number of people. So at least this way they don't have people being disappointed that their photos didn't come out. I would suggest plexiglass doors on the cave entrances so people could look into them, shine their light in, as they passed just to see something more. Actually, what I think would really help everyone would be for them to offer photo tours at an elevated ticket price - only 4 groups of 4 people (or less) an hour and going to caves other then the main ones on the tour. I know that Tina and I would have gladly paid a lot more to have the time to set up the tripod and take some proper photos, it really is that impressive inside.

Done with the caves we headed back to see the sand dunes...
Nice, it's a sand dune. We decided not to pay the 220RMB entrance fee to climb up or take a camel ride, seeing as we didn't care that much and didn't want to worry about getting all that nice sand up in our cameras. But it was a loss as we didn't get to wear the nice "sand-proof your shoes" boots.
So back to the city center for dinner, Dunhuang has quite the setup for food vendors. Apparently the city flooded in '79 and destroyed pretty much everything so they had a chance to do things right, and now there is a new mayor who is really making changes and organizing the city so that the residents are happy and it caters well to all of the tourists that they rely on.

We wandered the small packed food stalls for a while and then sat down on some seats that were being set up out in the courtyard, where for a 10RMB sitting fee they will run to any of the restaurants you want and get food. We ate an excellent "Marco Polo" style burger of a spicy shredded beef packed into pita style bread, actually we ate two.
Mom & son setting up their seats for the night.
A finished seating area.

After dinner we wandered a little, then stopped to buy a pomello and some beers before heading back to the hotel.

The next day was our final day, we slept in and left Dunhuang by 09:00, enjoyed a quick layover in Xi'an which I'll write about later when we run low on post material, and were back home in Xiamen around nightfall.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Day 8 - Jiayuguan

Since Mark was not at his best, due to the donkey episode from the day before, he hadn't slept much, as he was concerned we would miss our stop. The young lady working on the train, woke us up to advise us that our stop would be next. Somehow Mark thought it meant now, and woke quickly woke me, and started panicking. We had 45 more minutes before we needed to disembark. Way too early for this. That worst part about this was that the train locked the toilets so no one was allowed to use them. At least we got to brush our teeth. Once we arrived in Jiayuguan, it was much cooler than we anticipated, but our guide, Lilly, was very good, and offered to take us to a nice hotel, to change, freshen up and have some breakfast. On our way to Dunhuang, we were to visit the Jiayuguan Fortress and Great Wall. The fortress was originally built for passport control, and for the government to collect taxes, for traders using the silk road. It was also used as a pit stop before continuing west on the silk route. The western section of the Great Wall was built during the Han dynasty back in 1372, and took over 300 years to build. The fortress covers over 33,000 square feet.

Entrance to the Jiayuguan Fortress
Once in the fortress the gates closed, trapping the invaders, where the army could use their arrows to kill them.
The Theatre. Actors from the neighbouring villages use to perform for the army.
The Great Wall built during the Han dynasty
We then drove to Dunhuang, which took about 5 hours. After an hour of seeing the same landscape, Mark and I had too the opportunity to take a much needed nap. The hotel was pretty cool. It was similar to what you may expect at a ski resort. There was a beautiful patio where you could dine and see the mountains and stars. It was nice to have a shower that actually worked. Due to the sand storm the day before, our guide Lilly, suggested that we go the next day, hoping the weather would be better. We were more than fine with that, as we relished an evening of relaxation.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Day 7 - Donkey Attack

Ah, our final day in Turpan and it was another full one. We will once again inundate you all with far too many photos, so get ready for it...

First up was a trip to the Astana Graves, this is where they had pulled some of the mummies out that we saw back in Urumqi back on day 2 of our trip. They don't allow photos when you climb down inside of the actual tombs or of the mummies that are still there. It it makes you feel any better we lost a bet and had to buy Mohemmed his lunch when we couldn't tell the man and woman mummies apart. We must have still sleepy because once he pointed out the mummified penis we realized that this should have been an easy one to guess.

On our way there we also stopped by a local families grape drying hut. These raisin makers dot the countryside and it was nice to step into the cool interior and look at the rows of hanging grapes slowly turning into raisins.

I guess it confused me as I only think of raisins as black, but here they dry both the red and the green grapes. We would see stacks of multi-colored raisins when we toured the markets later in the day...

Raisin huts in front of the Flaming Mountains as seen from the Astana Graves.

Once we finished looking at the dead we headed over to Gaochang, another set of ancient city ruins. Different from Jiaohe in that here they built upwards instead of digging down into the ground, but still just amazing in the size of it all. It had a certain Flintstones feel to it, only made with clay instead of slabs of rock.
Some of the paint is still on the wall behind where Buddha statues once sat.
This is quite a complex, and although it is still early it's hot outside. The small donkey cart you see in the photo holds up to eight people comfortably, so most had 10 on them. We walked all the way out to the old temple in the center but bartered with a driver to only pay 10 RMB for him to take us back. That meant the we ended up with a slow donkey, and apparently a donkey with enemies.... When we were almost back another donkey cart with maybe 6 people on it started to pass us, when the donkeys were head to head the overtaking one decided to start a fight and ram us - this is the side of the cart that I was on. I wasn't right for the rest of the day after that, I'm blaming the banged up toes from getting the brunt of the other cart and some poor older lady, the heat, the rush of adrenaline from seeing a cart coming right at you, but after that I felt flush with heat and my stomach was in knots. Donkey fights, they'll get you every time.
Local home - notice the bed on the roof. They sleep there in the summer.

From there we drove up through the Flaming Mountains to the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. There was a story about the Flaming Mountains being created when the Monkey King broke out of a stove prison or something - I wasn't really listening, and I blame the donkey.
The Thousand Buddha caves had mostly been destroyed or taken away by Germans, Americans, some British and other archeologists - so some of the items were lost when Berlin was bombed in WWII, but the museum in London still has some items to display. Almost anything that remained was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but what was still around was impressive. Once can only imagine what it looked like back in the early 1900's when in it's full glory. Again we couldn't take photos so all you get it a picture of the outside.

And then we went to our final sight for the day, the Emin Minaret and Mosque. At this point of the day the sun was on the wrong side of the mosque, so even though we had a picture perfect clear day it was hard to capture that perfect picture of the minaret.
We went inside to the nice and cool central room which also had rooms outside of it that helped the acoustics and could be used for people to relay the messages out during the high holidays. Up until 1989 you could climb up the minaret but it started to crack and they stopped letting guests into it, if you look closely you can see some iron hoops around the lower sections of the minaret helping to hold it together.
I want to say that the story surrounding it was that as people traveled along the silk road they usually stopped here and were always impressed by this minaret and wanted to have copies of it made. The son that had build it in memory of his father wanted to make sure that it was the only one in this style and he had the architect killed so that this one would remain unique.

And that was our day in Turpan, we had a 21:00 overnight train ride to Jiayuguan so after a few hours hanging out in the local markets off to the train station we went. This shocked us when we got there, as it was mobbed with people and an incredibly long line.
Yes, the line goes all the way up the street, and these people all have lots of luggage with them. This was taken from inside the station, Mohemmed pulled the "Laowai tourist" card and walked us straight up to the front of the line, it was nice as we would not have handled this easily on our own. This is a major station for migrant workers coming in to pick cotton, but if they arrive too late then the jobs are gone and they turn around and head home - that is the group we were at the station with.

Mohemmed also had to wait with us as we didn't have actual tickets. In order to secure two beds in the same room (upper bunks this time), they needed to book the tickets from Kashgar. So we had to meet a man at the station who had traveled all day on the train on two tickets and then exchange with him once the train pulled into the station. Made it somewhat fun, but it was sad that we didn't get to enjoy a full cabin to ourselves. The lower bunks had an older couple and their granddaughter, seeing as I was still feeling slightly off - the donkey - once we climbed up into our upper bunks we quickly drifted off to sleep.