Back on the train for another overnight journey. This was our fourth and final overnight train; another hard sleeper. However we have grown fond of our nights on the train. It is not a bad way to travel if you can sleep through the night like we can. Terry turned 35 in that hard sleeper that night. We arrived in Beijing the morning of April 4th, Terry’s Birthday! I picked up Starbucks for Terry in the morning to start her birthday right. We had the afternoon free and did some shopping for the next day’s adventure. For Terry’s birthday dinner, we went to a Korean restaurant. We returned by 6:30 pm thinking we had booked seats for the Beijing Opera. But we found out it was not booked and we still wanted to go. So we decided to go on our own. We got there 30 minutes early and got seat in the first row of our section. 5 minutes later a few tours came in and all the seats were filled. Great timing. The Opera was subtitled in English and was interesting. Not nearly as good as the previous cultural show in ChangDu, but we had a good time.
In the morning we made ginger tea in the room in the hot water pot with the ginger and honey we bought from the supermarket. This made a huge mess with the water boiling over but the tea was actually pretty good so we continued to make it each morning. Then it was off to see the Great Wall of China. My first trip to the wall years prior was a huge disappointment. We were given 1 hour total and the first 10 minutes was wasted taking a group photo. We were taken to the most crowded and most touristy section of the wall about 15 minutes outside of Beijing. This trip to the wall was the exact experience I was hoping for. We drove 3 hours to a remote section of the wall, JinShanLing, and hiked 10 km to Simatai which took the group about 3.5 hours passing 30 towers in all. We stopped for lunch at the 15th tower. The weather was cool and overcast, but at least no rain. We have been getting very lucky with the weather in general. Our leader told us that this trip was the first time she was able to see the image of the Buddha riding the elephant on the summit of Mt. Emei. So we felt very lucky. Once we reached Simatai we had two options for getting the the parking lot. One was hiking and we passed this up. Instead we zip lined from the wall across the river to a small boat and were taken back across the river to the parking lot. Zip lining was an unexpected treat.
On the way back from the wall, the group stopped for dinner. After eating, the group broke out a birthday card for Terry and birthday “cake” which was really two muffins with match sticks for candles. The group had messed up the leaders cake plans by going straight to dinner from the wall instead of stopping by the hotel first. But it was the thought that we appreciated. One of the travelers, Trever, bought a round of beers. Thanks Trever! Afterwards, we stopped at a bar for another drink. The bar/club had some live entertainment and so the beers were 30 yuan. Ah, back a in the big city and you got to take the bad with the good. The big city has everything we need but at a price. 4 US$ for a Starbucks grande, $4.50 for a beer, $9 for a White Russian in a trendy club. But he girl/guy combo singing Chinese and American songs were fun to watch.
If there are two things that I cannot stand in this world, it’s people that are intolerant of other peoples’ culture, and all the spitting in China Terry touched on this in our last journal entry. I literally walked around watching the ground making sure I didn’t step into a fresh loogie. I felt like I was back in a Cambodian mine field. It was difficult to get use to the hacking sound made when some one is bringing phlegm up in their throat. Especially when we were eating. But in the name of cultural tolerance, we endured.
Terry also mentioned all the staring. This was something we did not get use to. We developed a number of techniques to deal with this. One was to stare back. This didn’t work well and we were not as experienced as the Chinese who would always out stare us. Next was to just say, “Nihau” (hello). This was hit or miss. We also tried taking photos/video of the offenders and this worked the best and was fun to boot! However, in the end we tried to just accept it and chalked it up to another cultural difference.
In Beijing we visited all the required tourist spots. Tiananmen Square, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the Forbidden City. Our local guide was very knowledgeable. Too knowledgeable. She kept spewing facts and details that we couldn’t remember even if we were interested. We just wanted to walk around, take photos, and relax. So we broke from the group to explore the Forbidden City on our own. I had been there before and Terry was thinking about skipping it anyway because she still was not feeling well. Only the Forbidden Starbucks was temptation enough to draw her out to join us. So we sat drinking our Forbidden Starbucks, reading and people watching. I figured a couple months later when I had forgotten all the facts, I could always look them up on the Internet. But it would be too late to really bond with the Forbidden City, so we spent our hour and a half this way. The Forbidden Starbucks is an honest to goodness Starbucks inside the Forbidden City itself.
The afternoon plan was a Cyclo tour through the city followed by a dumpling lunch, short cultural performance, and calligraphy lesson by the consumers at the Beijing Huiling Community Services for Persons with Mental Disabilities. The consumers were very enthusiastic about their performance.
Travel Lesson #1: Don’t use Traveler Cheques
I learned the hard way, despite a few Internet postings and a friends warning me ahead of time, that Traveler Cheques have lost their usefulness. I wanted to diversify our money reserves while traveling so I chose to use Traveler cheques as well as US cash, credit cards, and debit cards. I thought diversifying our funds was a smart idea. The decision came from my prior travel experiences. This in itself was flawed. Many of my Traveler Cheque-related experiences were over a decade ago. There were fewer ATMs world-wide at that time. And my most recent experiences were in Japan which proves to be the odd man out. Japan, despite its very cool technology, has very few ATMs that except US credit and debit cards. Even in Tokyo. We encountered ATMs that accepted US cards everywhere in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and China. I am told there are everywhere in Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, and even Fiji. For a short trip to Japan you could carry all your cash and still feel safe on the streets. For a 6-month, multi-national trip this was not reasonable. So I decided on using Traveler Cheques for 1/3 of our budget. We got hit up front with a 2% charge. Most credit and debit cards will charge 3% for international purchases to cover various expenses involved with moving the money around and converting it to the appropriate currency I suppose. Amex charges only 2%. And there are even better deals out there now designed specifically for international travel. So it seems that it is no better/no worse. But then you get hit twice more. Once because the exchange rate for Traveler Cheques is always worse than cash, and once because you are also charged a fee for each exchange. Some of the more outrageous fees have been 1 US$ per cheque and 3% of the full exchange amount. With $20 cheques 1 US$ per cheque fee is 5%! 3% on top of the 2% we already spent to purchase the cheques is also ridiculous. We didn’t use our Cheques in these places. Cheques also seem to be accepted in less places as time goes on. And you have to carry all the cheques and keep the recipes in a separate but safe place. Now I keep two cards. I keep the bulk of my cash and my ATM card in a money belt underneath my clothes and my credit card in a fanny pack. Protect your debit card since that is your money. The credit card is the banks money. Besides, I pull funds out of the ATM infrequently, like every 2 weeks keeping the bulk of the cash in in my money belt and 1 or 2 days worth in my fanny pack. Just my 2 cents (Enough venting, Mark dismounts his soapbox).
On our last day, we decide to go to see the Temple of Heaven. This was our first day free from the confines of the tour group and we decide to take the bus instead of a taxi. A taxi would have cost about 20 yuan and the bus was only 1 yuan. I was told bus #120. We waited and got on the bus. I could recognize the kanji for “Heaven” and so I pointed the stop out to the bus operator to confirm. But she kept saying no and pointing to the back of the bus. When I looked back I could see bus #120, the one we were suppose to be on, behind us. Somehow we were talking and although bus #120 arrived we boarded bus #1 by mistake. At the next stop we jumped off and got onto bus #120. We were lucky the two had the same beginning route. Rather than purchase a ticket to enter the temple building, we got the cheaper ticket for the park entrance and enjoyed strolling through the park and relaxing. We had lunch from a cart vendor at the park entrance. It was like a vegetable crape for 2.5 yuan each. They were so good, we had three!
This marks the end of our China trip. From now on we will be leaderless and on our own. No more meeting at 7 am just because the tour leader say so. The following day we would be back to conveniences like not having to carry our own toilet paper and being able to flush the toilet paper down the toilet. The plumbing in China can’t handle toilet paper, so you throw the used toilet paper into a trash bin near the toilet. None of the toilets in China have toilet paper so you must carry your own everywhere you go. The exception is hotels where we would stock up. Each day before the maids would clean, we would ransack the room for toilet paper, shampoo, tea bags and any other supplies we could use and get for free and let them stock the room again so we could repeat the process the next day. Since we had colds, this was still not enough TP and we had to buy a few rolls on many occasions.
- Oh no, it’s over ;(
- There be whales here!
- Bad, bad Leroy
- Killing time near Suva
- Handicap Diver Below!