Two stays in Hong Kong within a year made me feel right at home. I arrived safe and sound after having my flight diverted to Taipei for an unexpected overnight because of a typhoon that was skipping about in the China Sea. Actually I think I was the only person on the plane that was glad to be diverted, as I didn’t have a hotel reservation in Hong Kong. I was due to arrive at 10:00 PM (not too late to look for a hotel) but we were late leaving Tokyo and would have gotten into Hong Kong very late, and in a storm, so I was glad to arrive the next day during daylight.
My backpack weighed 30 pounds when I left home which is up three pounds from last time, and I thought I took less stuff! It will lighten as I use up toiletries and books, and wear my jacket.
Hong Kong was 90 degrees with 90% humidity (I heard it on the radio). I did some sightseeing such as the Tram to Victoria Peak (nice views but a carnival atmosphere on top), the kilometer-long sidewalk escalator from Central Market to the mid-levels, Man Mo Temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Hong Kong, and I took an old fashioned double deck tram around the city.
The Hong Kong subway is wonderful and goes to and from the airport, and since it’s so hot outside, it’s double comfortable. Several people in Hong Kong approached me to offer help, even when I really didn’t need it! “Are you doing OK with your map, there?”
I got my 90-day visa for China—the reason for going in and out of Hong Kong as it’s the only reliably easy way to get 90 days. I also got an airline ticket to fly to Xian and then Lanzhou, where I start my Silk Road journey, a place where Marco Polo spent a year recovering from an illness (malaria?) in the 13th century. The Silk Road really starts in Xian, but I jumped ahead a bit as I will come back to Xian and meet my friend, Jan Neff, there so we can ‘do’ it then. It will also be more comfortable then, too, as it was very hot now.
Lanzhou is a city of 2 ½ million people that has grown tremendously during the last 20 years. It’s full of highrise buildings and modern construction. I doubt that Marco Polo would recognize it! It is on the banks of the Yellow River so it is long (25 miles) and skinny.
I was trying to get rmb (Chinese currency) from the ATM in the Xian airport and had lots of trouble, but finally it did give about $100 worth at the time, so I got three of those.
The Lanzhou airport is 50 miles from the city so I took a bus for the ride in. In Lanzhou I showed a taxi driver the Chinese characters for the hotel I wanted and after volunteered help from two onlookers, all was clarified. At the hotel I looked at several rooms—a bottom end triple with communal down-the-hall bathroom. There was nobody sharing the room now, but later there might be as here one only buys one bed! I took a normal twin bedded room with bath (the whole room!)
I had a wonderful dinner in a restaurant around the corner from my hotel. There was a wok at my table, divided into two compartments, each with hot broth, in which the waitress put every imaginable seasoning—chilies, cilantro seeds, garlic, ginger, and then orange things, red things, yellow things, etc. At her suggestion I ordered mutton (raw), which was sliced very thin like prociutto, and mushrooms. These you cooked in the broth, then scooped them out into your serving dish. It was really intended for a group of people (as is all eating in China) and one could order a dozen different things to cook in the broth.
After dinner I had my shoes shined by a young girl in a row of shiners who had set up shop on the sidewalk. This was good as my shoes really needed it, which, in a poor country, invites one to be pestered by shoe shiners until your shoes look respectable.
Next day I took the number 1 city bus to the Gansu Provincial Museum during rush hour, hanging on for dear life. I pointed to the Chinese characters for the museum, showing the young woman ticket taker. I motioned for her to tell me when we got there and she did, even letting me disembark off the front of the bus, for which she had just scolded another woman.
Never have I been so surprised and delighted by a local museum. The museum showed that the ancient Silk Road had a huge impact on the development of civilization by supporting the exchange of goods and knowledge—silk, gunpowder, porcelain, astronomy, etc. going West, and religion, spices, horses etc. coming East. The Yellow River area in Gansu Province is one of the oldest well-organized settlements in the world. Luckily much of the information was in English as well as Chinese.
The museum displayed 12,000-year old utensils, gorgeous 9,000-year old pottery (of which I bought some reproductions) and 2,000-year old bronze horses and riders in formation, among other amazing art. I got so carried away that, at the shop, I bought a decorative lacquered screen with all colors of jade flowers. Now when it arrives (?!) all I need to do is figure out where on earth to put it!
Talk about modern technology! On the Internet I checked my bank account to see what exchange rate I had gotten at the ATM the day before in Xian. It was 8.1, somewhat more favorable than I thought—making the screen a ‘good buy’!! And my bank doesn’t charge per transaction, either (way to go Wells Fargo, Alan) although now my Visa card does. Another reason why I always try to use ATM money as much as possible when I travel.
The chair lift up and over the Yellow River and on up to a mountain was kind of scary but fun, too. It took me up to Baita Shan, the White Pagoda. When I took a taxi to get to the chair lift, the fare was 9.80 on the meter (about $1.25). I gave the taxi driver a ten and he started digging for change. (They don’t tip taxi drivers in China). I waved it away but he insisted. Then he gave me 2 Y, bringing the fare down to 8 Y. I don’t get it! The meter said 9.80!
Another time I tried to tip a waitress, who, in fact had been especially helpful as the restaurant was on an ‘Eat Street’ but none of the restaurants had English menus. This waitress could speak a little English and with a Mandarin phrase book, we did OK. When offered a tip, she said, “No, no, no, no, no!”
Only two days in China and I had already seen two photos of Nixon’s trip to China, all those years ago. How things in China have changed since then, and our relationship with China as well.
What a surprise—when I put on my Walkman on Friday afternoon I tuned into a classical station and heard, “This is Mindy Rattner with the China Radio International Afternoon Concert”! Does anybody know anything about that? She is one of the main announcers on KSJN Minnesota Public Radio.
Saturday I had planned to go to Bingling Si, a bunch of Buddhist grottoes carved in the cliffs of a gorge on the Yellow River. I had checked with some local travel agencies, but I seemed to be the only person wanting to go just then. Heck, I decided that I could do it on my own!
I started out at 6:15 AM (in the dark) by standing on the corner to catch the number 1 city bus to the West Bus station. From the bus I noticed many people doing their morning exercises including a number of people walking backwards on the sidewalks. I showed the Chinese characters for the bus station to the young woman ticket taker. She put me off at the correct stop and after asking directions again (it’s always my finger on the Chinese characters) I found it. I found a ticket counter inside and approached the window that seemed to have some (butchered) English words above it. I was invited in behind the window as I had to purchase ‘insurance.’ (I had been forewarned by my guidebook). This is a government scam to nick the foreigners for extra money—it doesn’t insure the traveler, but insures the government that you won’t sue and collect money! Anyway, it cost 40 Y ($4) and is good on bus travel for 20 days. I also bought a ticket for 10.50 Y. My bus would leave at 7:30 AM.
Outside again, there were several dozen buses coming and going and people milling about. I saw a western young woman with whom I struck up a conversation. She was from Israel, had lived in Beijing for 1 ½ years, and was going to southern Gansu Province. She said she liked the country but didn’t like the people. “I thought when I traveled in Peru and Bolivia six years ago that the people there were incredibly stupid, but the Chinese are even more stupid!” she said with great conviction. Oh well, it takes all kinds of people!
While waiting I went back out to the sidewalk where I had noticed some vendors selling food (always at every bus station) and since I hadn’t had breakfast and maybe would not get lunch, I bought three hard-cooked eggs and a breadroll flavored with tumeric, some sugar and a few unidentifiable black seeds. Roberto, eggs in China are all brown shelled, you’ll be pleased to know. (My Italian son-in-law insists that good eggs only come with brown shells!)
I asked lots of times for my bus destination (Liujiaxia, pronounced Lu-jah-sha) which I had to learn to pronounce as there were no Chinese characters in my book for it, and finally the right bus was pointed out to me. I boarded and ate my breakfast.
As we got underway, we drove very slowly through the city streets with the ticket taker shouting ‘Liujiaxia’ out the door, trolling for additional passengers. Several got on. Then we stopped at a gas station to fill up. A couple of people got off to use the toilets.
The four-hour trip to Liujiaxia went through interesting scenery—rugged dessert mountains with little valleys and plateaus where they raised lots of corn, onions, potatoes, and other vegetables. The bus was packed (of course) and had to negotiate lots of highway construction. This area has some minority people living here including Tibetans. They had decorated the road construction sites with colorful prayer flags that were flying from the small cement mixers, from piles of sacks of cement, from the workers’ tents, etc.
At 11:30 I arrived in Liujiaxia and was met by many touts wanting to have me choose their motorboat for the 1 ½ hour trip up the Yellow River to Bingling Si. I finally negotiated the price down to 300 Y ($37) and was the only passenger in a 16-seat speedboat with a 200 hp Mercury motor. Beautiful cliffs of many colors adorned the sides of the river, and it was a beautiful, blue-sky day. The grottoes are not accessible by road, which protected them from destruction during the ‘60’s Cultural Revolution when much Chinese art was destroyed.
I had 1½ hours to explore the grottoes. There were various priced tickets to buy depending on which grottoes you wanted to see. #169 was the biggest and oldest (420 AD) and #172 had the biggest Buddha (90 feet tall)—these carried the highest prices. Since I’m unlikely to pass this way again, I bought the whole package. #169 required negotiating six sets of rickety wooden steps with trap doors (watch your head!) which was almost more thrilling than the grotto itself! But no, it was worth it to see all these beautiful old, old carvings of Buddha and bodhisattvas as well as wonderful paintings on the rock walls of the cave, still with lovely colors.
Before leaving on the boat, I sat at a walkway ‘café’ and drank a very tall, very cold Chinese beer. Off again on the boat, off again on the bus back to Lanzhou. When I paid for my ticket on the bus, the ticket taker insisted it was one Y more than the 10.50 I had given her. I showed her my ticket from that morning from Lanzhou to Liujiaxia, that said 10.50, but she insisted it was 11.50! OK!
When I arrived in Lanzhou at 6:30 PM there was a frightful wind kicking up frightful dust. All the pedestrians were covering their faces with scarves. I got the number 1 city bus back to my hotel—an exhausting, although rewarding day!
It’s Sunday today, just a week since I left home, and after an easy restful day today, I’ll be heading to Linxia and then Xiahe for a week of side trips from Lanzhou.
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