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Further Insights into Creation, Leg Hair and the Chinese Black Market

china2006/travel/changbaishan/

Wow – the national park was really amazing, and as a picture is worth at least a thousand words, I’m not going to attempt to describe it in detail here but rather post some photos and panoramas on my gallery soon. It was so nice and relaxing to be able to sit by the side of the great lake, looking over to North Korea and talk with each other, and meditate on God more deeply – such great times of fellowship; thanks guys!

Anyway, we arrived at about 3pm on the 24th after our 6 or 7 hour train journey. We had some good chats to random people on the train who spoke a little bit of English. There were some students travelling with us, going back to visit their families for a week or two before restarting university elsewhere in China, and they tended to speak quite good English. We also had some fun ‘conversations’ with some Chinese people who wanted to teach us Chinese, but unfortunately we didn’t really know enough Chinese for the purpose, and they knew no English. Many people outside the major cities find white people fascinating because they are seen so seldom. Even as you walk through a town (particularly Tonghua), you can feel the eyes of the multitude upon you and often-times people come up and want to see how much Chinese you really understand. I’ve even had grown men come up to me and stroke my arm and leg hair because no Chinese people have these. It gets quite strange sometimes…

The first person we met when we got off the train at Baihe was a guy called Cao, who was just about the only person there who spoke much English – praise God. It turns out that his family are pretty much the ones in charge of the tourist trade in Baihe and Changbai Shan. We tried to get train tickets for the return journey (I want to go to Tonghua and the others will go to Shenyang and then on to Xi’an to meet up with other people travelling afterwards), however because Baihe is quite a small station (currently being built), they are unable to issue tickets more than a day in advance. Cao was of course interested in having us stay in town and commute to the park each day, however it is only slightly more expensive to live in the park and not pay the entrance fee (150 Yuan = £10) each day, so we chose that option in the end. We stayed in a rather run-down youth hostel place, which, it turned out, gave us free entry into a Korean-style (i.e. naked) hot-spring place for baths. Although it was quite a dump, it was the cheapest place in the park for us to stay (100Yuan (£7) /person/night), the next cheapest was about seven times the price, almost into English hotel prices! That evening, we planned the next day and then went to sleep at about 9pm because we were so tired!

On the 25th, we all went to the Heavenly Lake (Tianche), going past an amazing waterfall and stunning views of the forests stretching to the horizon, and mountains stretching far up into the sky (the highest point in the park is about 2600m, and the air is noticeably thinner than at ground-level, although very fresh and crisp, especially compared to Beijing air). We wandered up onto some of the taller mountains surrounding the lake and spent most of the day sitting there admiring God’s creation. Again that evening, we were so tired we all fell asleep before 10pm.

The next day, Peter was sick several times in the night and spent the day in bed. The four of us went to the ‘underground forest’ (a forest which is in a valley, carved out by the river which runs from the Heavenly Lake), and then went to see some of the less impressive waterfalls (less impressive than the big waterfall; by themselves they would be very impressive elsewhere). I started to feel a bit queasy that morning, and by midday I was pretty faint. Nonetheless, we had to head back into Baihe and so we left the park at about 3:30 and headed back to the town (a journey of about 45 minutes by taxi). We got a youth hostel room at Cao’s hotel (5 people in one room for 70 Yuan (£5.50)) before I started to be sick, and then spent the evening there. We tried to buy train tickets so that I could get back to Tonghua and the others could get to Shenyang, which is a story in itself…

As I’ve mentioned before, trains in China usually have a sleeper section; most trains only have ‘hard sleeper’ (i.e. triple-decker, about 50 people in one carriage) and ‘hard seat’ (like normal British second class trains, but sometimes overcrowded and smelly, especially on 10-hour train journeys). Because China is so corrupt and the rich are so greedy for more gain, only about 10% of these hard sleeper tickets make it to sale to the general public at train stations. The rest, it turns out, are dealt with shadily through travel agents and railway employees, eager to make some mark-up from the demand. Despite knowing some of this, even I had not realised the extent to which the Chinese railways were corrupt before we tried to buy these tickets to Shenyang.

The four people going to Shenyang (about 14 hours by train from Baihe) were naturally eager to have hard-sleepers, which do not cost that much at the train station (about 100 Yuan (£7)). Cao’s brother said that he was able to acquire us those tickets (plus 10 Yuan (70p) per person in mark-up), despite them not being on sale at the ticket-office. We agreed to this and he said he would come to find us at midnight and give us the tickets. At about 9 O’clock, he came to our hotel room and tried to get money from us for the tickets. After about 30 minutes of talking to him in our broken Chinese and his broken English, we worked out that he did not actually have the tickets himself but rather wanted the money to go and buy them. We gave the money to him (the mark-up now doubled) as long as he would allow one of us to go with him to see the tickets, assuming he would simply purchase them from one of the numerous travel agents. He said he wanted me to go with him, and as my strength had returned a bit and I’d stopped throwing up, I agreed. We went out towards the railway station in the pitch-black night with the rain pouring down (yep; the weather was quite English…) but then walked past it and into the car-park which was even darker. At the entrance to one of the hotels overlooking the car-park, he met another man who had obviously stood there for a little while and had been smoking quite a lot. Nods where exchanged, and then they walked a little further, hopping a fence to get into the station and, crossing the railway tracks on foot we entered into one of the stationary trains. We were greeted by two Chinese ladies who worked on the train, one seemed to be the accounts manager and the other the train manager. They took us to one of the smoke-filled hard seat carriages and proceeded to haggle for about an hour with the second man (seemingly a ticket-broker to travel agents) over the price of the tickets. Eventually, a number was arrived at and the broker bought about 20 hard sleeper tickets, all the ones which were left on the train. I don’t know how much of the money which he paid actually went to the railway company, and how much to the ladies pockets, but I’d guess it was about half-half; I had always wondered how the people who worked on the trains had such nice watches given they probably weren’t paid very much.

Leaving the train and crossing the tracks once more, we went to a different hotel where three travel agents were already sitting, cigarettes in hand, waiting for the broker to arrive with the tickets. It turns out that they wanted about twice the number of tickets than the broker had managed to get from the train staff, and so there was quite heated debate between the travel agents as to who would get which tickets. In the end, because I was there in person and taller than any of the travel agents (stature seems to hold quite a lot of sway in China), I managed to get 4 sleeper tickets, rather than the two that the broker initially offered. In the meantime, the others had purchased 5 hard-seat tickets from Baihe to Tonghua in the event that we weren’t able to get the tickets to Shenyang, and so when I left to go to Tonghua that evening I had a row all to myself which meant I was able to lie down and get a bit more sleep than if I had just had a normal hard seat for the journey.

This morning, I arrived in Tonghua and have now spent the day in bed trying to recover from this sickness. I (rather remarkably) managed to find a travel agent here who can get hard sleeper tickets to Beijing, so tomorrow I’ll be getting an overnight train to Beijing and staying there for the remainder of my time in China.

The Joys of Chinese Railways…

Yesterday (23rd) we had a nice lie-in, packed and tried to find some DVD’s to watch on the train. We had lunch in a similar noodle restaurant and then went into central Dalian to try to find the train station. We got a little lost on the bus, but eventually managed to get to the train station, and after waiting in the waiting-room for about two hours, got the 16:07 to Tonghua, which arrived at 6am this morning. Trains in China are rather different to trains in England, not so much in terms of what they are, but rather in their function. England has quite a small railway network by Chinese standards, but almost every town or village has a railway station. In China, to have a railway station a city needs to have several million people or be quite large and on a direct line between two big cities. The trains in China seem to function more like short-hall flights in England, with buses and taxis doing the rest of the transportation. The overnight train that we were on was quite good, we had managed to get hard sleepers somehow, but they were better than the other hard-sleeper carriage on the train, perhaps because we were going the full distance rather than a partial distance. Even on trains which go over the day, you can still get beds because it is much more relaxing than having seats. Six hours on a Chinese train in a bed doesn’t really feel like any time at all compared to six hours on an English train.

This train journey from Dalian to Tonghua was quite fun because we were able to talk to several people, a few Chinese and a few Koreans (heading back to North Korea?). There was no air conditioning, which is probably why the ticket price was so low, but the train didn’t get too hot because we kept the windows open (which helped to get rid of the smoke from cigarettes) and there were also fans which were rather noisy and klunked quite a lot, but I managed to sleep very well. The only problem with hard-sleepers is that they wake you up a while before you arrive at the station and try to take all of your bedding etc. away so it can be washed. This morning, the lights came on at 4:30am and all the bed-clothes were stripped off by 5:30. We arrived at Tonghua at 6am, rather tired but managed to get 5 tickets to go on the next stage of our journey, travelling to Baihe.

I’m writing this on the train, and it’s now about 10am. The train left at 8:15 and we should arrive about 2:30pm. The tickets were an incredible 21 Yuan (£1.40) each; I’m not sure you could even get a 10 minute train journey for that, and we are going for over 6 hours! It seems from what I saw at the station that Baihe is a growing city, whereas the several-yearold internet site with the railway timetable on has no direct trains from Baihe to Beijing or Shenyang (a big city in the north-east of China), there are now trains which you can get on from Baihe which let you go straight to these places. When I tried to buy tickets from Tonghua to Beijing, I wasn’t able to get a sleeper, even 4 days in advance, so I hope that when we arrive in Baihe there will still be some tickets free, or we can get them through a travel agent. If this doesn’t happen I will just have to wait outside the station a while before the train departs because there are always people looking to sell tickets for a small mark-up. If I still can’t get a hard sleeper, I should be able to get at least a seat, but on a 15-20 hour train journey that isn’t the safest or most ideal option, particularly if I’m travelling alone as the other four will be going to Xi’an via Shenyang.

Tonight we’ll be heading to a national park (the largest one in China) which borders North Korea, so I’m not sure when I’ll next be able to get on the internet to update my blog with pictures of the journey and the park.

Dalian: Zip-wires, Weddings and a Pair of Handcuffs…

china2006/travel/dalian

Today we decided that we would walk around the south coast of Dalian to try to find a more secluded beach. The travel guide had indicated that there were one or two beaches that not many people new about and were hence virtually empty. We took the bus (all buses in Dalian seem to be 1 Yuan/7p per person for however long you wish to travel for) to the start of the trail and walked past some of the tourists. We found the retired navy ship which was now a youth hostel, the other one we had looked at, but thought it would be too difficult to find in a taxi). As we walked further along, we saw a zip-wire stretching across the bay, and so I just had to do it. For 50 Yuan (£3.50) I got a speed-boat to the other side of the bay (perhaps 1 kilometre away), ran half way up a mountain to be strapped into a quite worn safety harness, and then got pushed off the edge. It didn’t go too fast, but it was a little scary looking down and just seeing the ground about 100 metres away, and myself moving towards it rather rapidly. The ride itself must have lasted about 1 minute, and there were some really good views from half way over the bay of the surrounding mountains. I should have taken my camera and taken a video or some pictures, but i was a little worried that I would end up in the water, because the zip wire was designed for Chinese people and I had seen someone get their feet a bit wet already.

Just as we were walking along the slightly less touristy bit, I heard a voice call out ‘Mar-k!’ and turned to see Mr Nie, the businessman in charge of ISEC running towards me with a big grin on his face. I had no idea that he would be in Dalian of all places, especially given he lives in Shenzhen, about 2000 miles away, next to Hong Kong. We also met Francis and several other people that we knew, who seemed to be on holiday with him. China seems rather a small place after all. After chatting to them for a few minutes, we went and started walking along the winding hill road. We met several Chinese people along the way and talked (very briefly) to them. Briefly, mostly because they spoke no English and the only Chinese that I know how to say is ‘we are students from Cambridge university). We walked past some glorious sea and mountain views, which explains why so many hotels and restaurants in this area are called ‘sea mountain’ or something very similar.

After about 3 miles we came across this building which had a big Christian cross on top and stained glass windows. It was quite obviously a church, but looked rather like someone had made a list of five important features of a traditional western church building and then given it to an architect who had never seen one before. As we got closer, we saw that there was a white carriage outside it, and attached to it was the ‘century sweetheart wedding store and hotel’. Walking further along the road, we saw that there were several more wedding shops and various hotels which seemed to exclusively cater for weddings. To be honest it was a pretty nice place, and I could understand people wanting to get married there, but it seemed kind of ironic that there were so many wedding places along the road.

Walking further along, we stopped to have some elevenses on a bench on top of a cliff, overlooking the sea – such a picturesque view! A random Chinese man came up to us and started chatting, which was quite nice although again we didn’t really know enough Chinese nor he English to have much of a conversation. Eventually, we came to a rather interesting ‘wedding park’. This was basically a piece of land which you paid 10 Yuan (70p) to go into (half-price for students) and there were various cheesy shots and love-hearts etc. We went in because we saw that it had a private bathing area, and after going down a rickety, overgrown path for about 250 meters, we finally arrived on the beach. It was indeed lovely, and we had it to ourselves save for two other people who left after a while. There were rocks on one end and then a beautiful stretch of small rocks in the middle, with some more boulders at the other end and some caves beyond that which I tried to get to but couldn’t quite manage safely. There was also a small stream which had trickled down the hill and a small hut owned by the person in charge of the beach. We spent a good few hours there before heading up to the top of the hill.

As we were going out of the entrance, we saw a car full of policemen driving rather quickly into the park, with lights flashing but couldn’t really understand why, because we couldn’t hear or see any disturbance. Having left the wedding park, we tried to get a taxi ride back to our hotel, which usually wouldn’t be much of a problem, but as this was quite a remote place, there weren’t too many taxis going by. Anyway, a guy came up to us offering his taxi services (there are many people in China who are just private taxi drivers, but do so illegally without a license). We negotiated a reasonable price with him and then he took us to his car, which was right next to where the policemen had sat down to have lunch. We had a brief chat with the policemen, teaching them to count in English, and then got into this guy’s car. We were also illegal in the sense of having 5 passengers in the car, but the police who were sat there didn’t seem to mind in the slightest, in fact they seemed rather jolly. As we were driving off in the car, I had a look at the front windowsill and saw sat there a police badge, several radios, an electric baton and a pair of handcuffs! On the back windowsill there was also a full police uniform, which would have been a really good buy if we’d had enough courage at the time. It turns out that the driver was in fact an undercover policeman who was on his lunch break and decided to make a little extra money. Such is China!

In the afternoon, we had a bit of a rest and a nap as it is usually too hot to do anything apart from lie on a beach, and we didn’t want to get too sunburnt or face the crowds of fat Russian sunbathers again. In the evening, we got the bus into central Dalian and found a nice noodle restaurant to eat in. We then went on search of Karaoke, but instead ended up at a night market where we bought various souvineers. In the end, we found some KTV but the good ones were full, and the bad ones had no English songs, so we went to bed instead.

More Adventures in China!

Well, ISEC is now over (I’ll write about some of it later, don’t worry) so I’ll finally be able to start updating my blog. I’m currently travelling around northern China with several friends from ISEC, Ellie, Kate, Peter and Ally and we’ll be heading up to the North Korean border area and perhaps further north to near Russia. Having done debriefing at Qingdao, by the sea, we travelled north by coach for 4 hours to Yantai (60 Yuan/£4), on the north coast of the peninsular. We then spent several hours there having a nice meal (60 Yuan/£4 for 5 people) and then finding the port so we could get an overnight boat to Dalian (8 hours with beds, 190 Yuan/£13). The journey was rather uneventful and very smooth, the boat didn’t even rock. There weren’t too many people on the boat either so we had a cabin of 8 beds all to the five of us (after several of the other people put with us had left to find a cabin to themselves).

china2006/travel/dscf0001.jpg

We arrived in Dalian on the morning of the 21st at about 7am and found several buses waiting outside the boat. We seemed expected to get onto one of them, but didn’t know which so after about 10 minutes of pointing at the guidebook and trying to translate addresses of youth hostels into Chinese, they directed us to one bus which in fact took us for an hour’s journey into the centre of Dalian, to the railway station, where we were expected to get a taxi. As it was, we wanted to do some email and book train tickets for the next leg of our journey, towards North Korea, so we did some research on the internet and found the train that we wanted to take. In the event, the train in the railway station was slightly different from the one that was on the internet, but not significantly. Trying to book the tickets was fun, because there was a queue of about 50 people behind myself and Ally, and neither of us knew any Chinese. I’d looked up the word for ‘hard sleeper’ and some other useful phrases beforehand but it was still quite difficult. We tried asking for the train on the 22nd, but (I think) the woman said that there were no beds free on that. Having had a seat overnight from Beijing to Qingdao, I didn’t really want that again, so asked her about the 21st or 23rd. She said that there were none on any of those, but then said (again, I think) that there were 3 beds on the train on the 23rd for 200 Yuan (£14) each. I said that we’d take those and two seats, and then she gave me five tickets for the 23rd, all of which appear to be beds, but only cost 134 Yuan (£9) each. I’m looking forward to seeing what actually happens when we leave, because according to the tickets, we have beds but I’m really still not sure exactly what happened at the train station!

Having found the others still at the internet café, we then tried to track down one of the youth hostels that we found both on the internet, and in the guide book. We spent about 30 minutes trying to find the bus stop for the bus which it suggested you should take, and eventually haggled with some ladies to get us a map of the city so we could find out exactly where we were meant to be going (2 Yuan/15pence). Fortunately, I knew enough Chinese to be able to guess which district the name was in, although I wish guide books would put the addresses in Chinese because no-one in China can really read English let alone understand English people trying to pronounce Chinese names. The map was also useful when we found taxi drivers, to point them to where we wanted to go, because that is about the only way to get a taxi to go to the right place in China – Chinese taxi drivers seem even less aware of where things are than normal people.

We finally got some taxis to take us to the area in which the youth hostel was meant to be, and were dumped in a dusty parking lot next to the zoo. We wandered around for about 10 minutes and eventually found the street that the hostel was on, however the ‘youth hostel’ itself is now called the ‘international business hotel’. After trying to book rooms in Chinese, with a travel agent helping us who spoke marginally more English than my Chinese, we managed to get them for about 100 Yuan/person/night (£7). The rooms themselves are very nice with TV’s, air conditioning and really nice beds, although there don’t seem to be many people at the hotel so I’m sure we could have got the price down a little bit. For lunch, we went out to a local restaurant (90 Yuan/£6) which served quite nice food, including giant prawns, one of my favourite Chinese dishes. In the afternoon, we headed towards a beach which the travel agent had recommended to us. Arriving there, it seemed that the travel agent had recommended it to about half of Russia and China too, because it was jam packed with tourists. Every sign was bilingual, in Russian and Chinese, and Russian pop and traditional music was blaring from everywhere. We had some ice creams (3 Yuan/20p) and then walked up a hill nearby to look at the beautiful scenery. We then went and lay on a less densely populated part of the beach for a few hours, although rather randomly there was a photo-shoot going on at the same time as we were on the beach with a man and woman modelling wedding attire.

At about 6 O’clock, we headed back to the hotel but stopped off at a Chinese food market on the way to get some take-away dinner (about 25 Yuan/£1.70 for 5 people). We ate this in our 3-person bedroom and then we went out to explore the local area and stayed up chatting until about 11.

Pictures!

Hi guys, sorry for the lack of update but the past two weeks have been manic. I’ve put some photos up to show what we’ve been doing. You can find the two galleries linked below by clicking the pictures.

china2006/prefirstcamp Photos from before the first camp
china2006/bfd Photos from the first camp