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Ferry from Korea to China

Finally I found a travel agent through my recruiter in Jeonju. He offered me the best fare when I was looking for flights to Montreal. He runs tours in and out of Korea and speaks relatively good English.

So last week I asked him to book me a ticket from Incheon to Beijing. But then I came across this web site:
http://korea.wikicities.com/wiki/Travelling_around_Asia_from_Korea and decided I'll give it a try if the ferry is not like the Rainbow boat connecting Mokpo to Jeju Island. So I called the Incheon ferry terminal and talked to an English operator. The prices are starting from 115,000 won. It's a better deal compared to a plane ticket, considering the huge amount of free time I have in my hands. I booked a top bunk for Friday at 7:00 pm. It goes to Tianjin, the closest port to Beijing. I heard from some folks in Mokpo that the ship's amenities aren't too bad. The ride takes about 25 hours. I booked the ticket but I can't help thinking about Titanic! hehe

Incheon - Tianjin - Beijing

Friday just before noon, I took a bus from Mokpo to Incheon. Got to Incheon around 5 pm and hopped into a cab to go to the ferry terminal. I bought a ticket and looked for an ATM machine to withdraw more money before leaving Korea only to find out that there is no ATM at the ferry terminal!!! and I had to go to an E-mart nearby. I was told that I should board in 10 minutes so I took a taxi and asked the driver to wait for me at e-mart to take me back to the ferry terminal. I withdrew 1,200,000 won from my account and tucked it into my purse. My Korean debit card is only domestic not international. It's not going to work anywhere outside Korea. And I had promised myself not to use my Canadian credit cards. I've just finished paying them off.

At 7 pm the ferry left Incheon for Tianjin. The ship was nice, with a decent coffee shop and restaurant -- although the food could be better -- sunny lounge, trilingual reception staff and large washrooms. The bunks were comfortable, although my neighbors were two little kids, a boy and a girl, with their mother, and like any typical brothers and sisters in the world, the boy abused and the girl screamed. At some point I had to throw a loud SSSHHH to the boy who was singing to himself early in the morning.

On the ferry I was told that the last bus from Tianjin to Beijing is at 8:00 pm. We were supposed to arrive around 8:30, pass through the customs, and probably be out of the ferry terminal around 9:30. So I thought I had to stay in Tianjin that night and take a bus or train to Beijing the next day. But luckily I meet Martin, a professional backpacker from Chile. He introduced me to two Chinese students who study in Korea and they told us there is a shuttle bus from Tianjin ferry terminal to Beijing waiting for us. Awesome! We took it and spent New Year's Eve on the bus, taking pictures and watching some fireworks from the bus window.

When we got to Beijing, the students helped Martin and me to grab a cab to Leo hostel. I gave the cab driver the phone number. He called and was told that the hostel is full. Martin pulled out his China Lonely Planet and gave him some other phone number to call -- Saga international Youth Hostel. The taxi driver called the hostel and got the address and we headed to the place. After few minutes we noticed that we are going in circles and the cab driver doesn't really know where he's going. He was looking at the street signs and murmuring in Chinese, even asking people for direction while the meter was running. I thought if he doesn't know where he's going, it's only common sense if he stops the meter until he is on his shortest way to the destination. But no, the meter was running and he was wandering all over the city.

after 10 minutes or so, Martin and I decided to get off and take another cab who knows the city better, but the taxi driver wanted us to pay the full charge on the meter which was 40 yuan (not much but still unfair). We refused to pay since we were not even close to our destination, and he refused to open the trunk for Martin to pick up his backpack. All through sign language he convinced us to get back in his cab. And we did. Martin really needed his backpack!

After another 10 minutes we were Finally at the hostel and although it was past midnight, we decided to celebrate the New Year with a Chinese beer at the under-construction lobby. After a long day, around 2 o'clock in the morning, I was finally in bed. It was my very first night in China. I was excited and looking forward to the rest of my 16-day stay.

New Year's day - 1 day in China

A Damned start in Beijing

Today is the New Year and my first day in China. What a shitty start for a new year! What a shitty way to start a trip!

I got up early and headed to the bathroom for a shower. Oops! Showers were dormitory style: no walls, the bathrooms were basically open stalls with showers installed on the wall 3 feet from each other. So what I'm trying to say is: no privacy what so ever. I took the quickest shower of my life and got myself at the tour-booking desk at the hostel's reception. First place I want to visit was of course the Great Wall. There are several tours to different parts of the wall. The old not-renovated part sounded more intriguing but it was 4 hours drive away. I didn't want to spend 8 hours in transportation. So I booked the Balading tour to the renovated part. The tour leaves at 7:30 in the morning, includes lunch and comes back at around 6.

I had the whole day to explore the city on my own. The first impression I had from Beijing is that, boy, everything is so enormous. The buildings, roads, restaurants, .... The roads are wide and to prevent the pedestrians from crossing the roads wherever they feel like it, there are fences all around the roads and between opposite lanes, so you have to cross the road only at the intersections and designated areas. It means that you have to walk the whole block to get to an intersection. And one block in Beijing means a long walk.

I decided to visit Forbidden City. I had the receptionist at the hostel to write it down in Chinese and hopped into a cab. There is a square where the taxi drops you and then you'll have to walk to the gate. I was on my way to the gate when a Chinese woman approached me and tried to sell me Forbidden City Tourist guide. I didn't want it but she was persistent and lowered the price from 90 yuan to 40. I bought it. Then a Chinese man approached me on a taxi-bike and offered me a ride to the gate for 50. Everybody was walking so I refused. But he too was very persistent and reduced the price to 20. It was cold and he looked poor and desperate so I agreed. I sat on the chair behind the bike and 30 second later we were at the gate. He got off the bike and asked me for 20 US dollars! I said I taught you said 20 Yuan, and he said he meant 20 dollars. 20 dollars in China would probably equal to two days average salary! He got aggressive and started to yell. I was not going to ruin my New Years Day arguing with this guy. I paid him 15 US dollars and walked away. What a rip off! Later I was told by other travelers that in a case like this you must say: "Hold on, I'll call the cops and if they say pay him $20, then i'll give you 20 dollars." As soon as they hear "cops", they will disappear.

The imperial palace was occupied by only the royal family and their servants. There are 9,999 buildings in total, surrounded by a wall separating Forbidden City from the rest of the town, There are two gates on each side of the wall opposite each other. To walk from one gate to the other, visiting all the buildings and the imperial garden, it would probably take at least 3 hours. It was amazing to see how much detail is put into each palace. Their architecture is all traditional Chinese and gets repetitive after a while. But each one served a different purpose; for example palace of longevity (Tranquil and Joyful), palace of harmony (Supreme, Central and Preserved), mental cultivation, hall for ancestry worship, ...

It was cold and windy in Beijing. It would probably be much more pleasant to walk around the garden in spring or summer.

After a long walk, I went to the Tian'anmen Square -- the biggest square in the world. I was tired, cold and hungry, so I decided to find a place to get lunch and coffee. The square is huge and I couldn't see anything but enormous government buildings and museums. Then this girl walked up to me and introduced herself as an art student who studies at the Beijing University. and politely asked me if I would be interested to see their painting exhibition. My North American telemarketing experience kicking in, I immediately asked her "What are you selling?" She replied: "Nothing, just look and if you like something, we'll give you a good price, and if you don't like anything, you don't have to buy." I said: "I love arts and I would be more that happy to look at your work, but I'm starving and need to eat first." She was not about to let me go. She took me to a "safe" restaurant, ordering Peking duck -- the famous dish in Beijing -- , sat there patiently as I ate, and after lunch took me around the square to show me the open market where I would have never found on my own. It was a local market, not built for the tourists. She helped me to buy a long warm winter coat (only 100 yuan, very inexpensive), and asked me if there is anything at all I needed help with.

Two hours or so later we were at her art gallery, looking at the traditional Chinese paintings on silk. I bought two long vertical traditional paintings. I don't know if I felt obliged after all the help she provided me with, or I just really liked the paintings of half-naked girls.

It was around 6 in the evening and I thought before I head back to the hostel, I go back to the market and look around. On my way I saw a bag store and I figured I probably need a suitcase after all the shopping I am about to do. The store was crowded and people were bumping into each other with no apologies.

I couldn't find a small suitcase, I left the store only to find out that while I was bending over some bags, I was pick pocketed. my purse was opened and all the money in there was robbed. 700 in US bills, 600,000 Korean Won and some 1000 Yuan. Almost two third of the money I had brought to China for my trip was gone.

I was outraged and felt invaded. I was extremely mad. I didn't know what to do. The thief had probably disappeared by then, or maybe standing in a corner, watching my reaction, thinking how stupid and easy this one was! I went back to the store and asked the salesperson if she saw anything falling off me. She didn't understand a word of course, so I showed her my opened purse. She threw her shoulders up and walked away.

There was absolutely nothing I could do. I was so mad I could kill a Chinese or two. I got into a cab and went back to the hostel. I found it very unfair. How could someone do such a thing? How can they live with that? The money would be as much as 1-year average salary in China and someone just unfairly earned that in a second!

I had been warned to watch my purse by shopkeepers and other travelers, but I'm not a paranoid person. Korea has spoiled me. This would not have happened in Korea. I lost my suitcase when I first arrived in Korea at the bus terminal. Two weeks later I got a call from the Iranian embassy, asking me to go to Seoul and pick it up. My Iranian passport was in the suitcase and whoever found it, sent the suitcase straight to the embassy. Everything was intact.

Then there came the second phrase of the frustration, sadness and helplessness. I broke into tears. I called my then-boyfriend and cried. Then I went to my room and counted all the money I had left. 600K Korean won and 50 something Yuan. Only almost 600 US dollars in total. Would it be enough to go ahead with my plans, 15 days in China and 12 days in Taiwan? I didn't think so. I decided to go back home, take the next ferry to Incheon and go to my safe home. I blamed myself for carrying so much money on me, all in one place. How stupid of me!

It was my first day in China and the first day of the year. What a wonderful beginning!

2nd day in Beijing

The Great Wall

So I was robbed and gone from rich to broke on my first day in China. I decided to not make a rational decision. I went to bed and got a good night sleep. The next day, I saw things differently. It wasn't a good beginning but it might get better. If I stayed away from the shopping malls and traveled only by train, I would be fine. Now that I came this far, why not try to see what China has to offer.

If I hadn't booked the Great Wall tour, I would probably stay all day in bed, thinking about how everything happened. But I had to be at the lobby at 7:30. While waiting for the tour bus, I met a lovely older man from Vancouver who gave me some advice on how to carry money while traveling, and then offered me some cash. I had no Chinese yuan on me, so I accepted only if he agreed to get it back later when I exchanged some Korean won into yuan.

On our way to the great wall, the tour took us to a Jade factory and store, where I saw two young boys working on the machine, carving pieces of jade with electric razor under running water. Their fingers were blue out of cold. Beijing in January is very cold and the factory was not heated. I can imagine how cold the running water was, I was thinking to myself how they are able to carve such great details when their fingers are cold, blue and numb.

We then were taken to a Chinese medicine clinic, where if we wanted, we would be examined by an old Chinese doctor and prescribed Chinese medicine. I was told I have poor circulation system and if I don't fix it now, it will lead to anemia. I wonder if he told the same to all the female "patients".

After lunch, we were finally at the Great Wall, sitting in a cable car to a place where we could walk on the wall to the top. Legend says you can only become a true hero if you walk the wall to the very top. It was too windy and cold, I was in heels and didn't feel like becoming a hero at all. I was just happy standing on the bottom of the wall, enjoying the mountains and my coffee, watching people walking their way toward the title.

On my way back to the hostel, I asked the driver to drop me at a Bank of China to exchange some Korean won into Chinese yuan. I was dropped an ATM bank of China instead, and had to walk an hour to find a branch. After, I went to the Tian'anmen square. This was the place where I got robbed, but I was not about to give up the market. On my way to the market, I saw a police station with 3 foreigners in there. It was right next to the bag store where I got robbed. I knew filing a report would not get my money back, but I thought reporting it might help fixing the problem. I walked in the police station. There were a couple, reporting a stolen camera, and a French lady, reporting stolen wallet. We all filled out some forms and pointed to the location where it happened, and walked out, feeling like these cops we just spoke to don't give a damn and nothing will ever change by our reports.

I went to the market, holding tight to my purse, bought some gloves and a scarf and called it a day.

3rd and 4th day in Beijing

On my third day in Beijing, I bought a train ticket to Xi'an for the next day through the tour desk at the hostel and then took a long bus ride to the Summer Palace. It's on the northwest side of Beijing about one and half hour from the Tian'anmen square. Short ride buses in China have a fixed rate (1 yuan) and there is a box next to the driver that you must put the fare in. Long rides are different and depends on the distance there are different charges. There are one or two ticket persons on the bus who will ask you where you're going, sell you a ticket and give you a receipt. This is a job that doesn't exist in North America. Well, it takes a lot of creativity to have jobs for a billion people.

Summer palace must be visited in the spring or summer, when there are actually some green trees to see. The fact that half of the palace was under construction "For the Benefit of the Future Generation" as it read on the sign, didn't help neither. The only things that looked like a garden were the evergreen trees. The architecture was similar to those of Forbidden City. The river, or lake I'm not sure, was frozen and people were walking on it as a short cut. I thought to myself it would have been a good idea to make it an ice-rink for skating.

The garden is huge and there are several bridges connecting two sides of the garden. I didn't get to see much of the palaces since it was under construction but I walked around the hills, watched the imperial boat, dragon statues, phoenixes and enormous stones. After 3 hours of walking in the cold, I was happy to get back on the bus.

The city of Beijing is preparing for Olympic games in 2008 and they are building new stadiums and accommodations. There are huge sites under construction everywhere. Beijing must feel and look differently in a year from now.

That night, I went to an Internet cafe and caught up with my emails. Shopped around for a flight ticket from Hong Kong to Taipei for the 16th of January and found the best deal at a travel agency inside a hotel near the City Center Station.

Next day, I checked out of the hostel before 10, went to the travel agency to pick up my flight ticket. I found a Starbucks, and while sipping on a cup of hot chocolate, I tried to figure what to think of Beijing. It was extremely cold on the 4th, felt like a cold winter day in Montreal. At 5 o'clock pm, I was at the train station's cafeteria, having Chinese noodles.

I had bought a long distance calling card to call home and noticed that the card is valid only in Beijing. I looked for a public phone at the train station. In Canada, you can call the toll free number on the calling card from any public phone without having to put a coin. But in China, of course, it's different. The pay phone worked with phone cards and wouldn't dial the number on the calling card. Even when I bought a phone card and put it in, it still didn't dial the number. I was frustrated so I asked the information desk if there was any coin public phone. There was none. They tried to help me by taking me back to the card public phones, and I had to explain that I've already tried it and it doesn't work. I asked if I could use their phone at the reception since it would be a local call and free. They said they couldn't let me. I was being persistent when a young man in uniform with relatively good English asked me what the problem is and I explained that the card is only valid in Beijing and I need to make a call before my train leaves. He was helpful and asked the reception staff to pass him the phone. Dial the number for me, entered the password, and pass me the phone to dial the destination number. I talked on the phone for 5 minutes or and had to hang up because the reception staff was asking me to "quickly" end the phone call. Later when I was sitting in the waiting room, I saw the kind man in uniform and insisted to take my card and use the rest of it. It was the only thing I could do to return his help.

On my way to Xi'an, as the train was going through the outskirts of Beijing, I realized that I didn't really like this huge city, and decided that I would never want to live in the capital city of China.

Xi'an

The train ride to Xi'an was 13 hours. Not bad, since I was sleeping all the way to Xi'an and woke up right before we arrived. Because I had made reservation from Beijing, the hostel staff was there to pick me up. I saw my name waving above the crowd and met the driver to the hostel. Some other guests were also picked up from other trains and we hopped in the minivan to go to the hostel. On the minivan, a staff asked us if we wanted to go to Terracotta Warriors right away since there were enough people singed up for that day's tour and it wasn't certain when the next tour will be. We agreed and after dropping our luggage in our separate rooms, went back to the minivan and headed to the 1.5 hour away biggest tourist attraction in Xi'an. Like the Great Wall tour in Beijing, we were not taken straight to our destination. We first went to a factory where then made little terracotta warriors to sell. I wonder if the tour guides get any commission from the factory. If so, they wouldn't be very happy with us because none of us bought anything. Then we went to a museum with old pottery pots and coins. After, we had lunch, and finally we were at the terracotta site. There are 3 pits, where they dug the worriers out of ground. The first one is the biggest and it's amazing. The warriors are life-size and each face is different from the other. Each warrior is unique. There are hundreds of them and they look like a real army, on standby to defend the town and protect the emperor.

When I went back to the hostel I did some laundry and met a Korean employee at the hostel, Mr. Kim who must be the friendliest person I've met in my life. I took a shower (thank God this one had separate, covered stalls), went to the lounge which became my favorite lounge in the entire universe. So cozy, warm and welcoming. On my first night at the hostel, we watched "Dodgeball" on DVD and all shared a good laugh. Around 10 a.m., I went out to look around the neighborhood, and decided that I am beginning to like China.

On my second and third day in Xi'an I visited the Muslim quarter and had barbeque beef, signature of the Chinese Muslims in Xi'an. I walked around some expensive shopping malls and an inexpensive street market, climbed the Bell tower and Drum tower, walked through the cultural street -- similar to Insadong Street in Seoul -- where they sell antiques, handicrafts and traditional art pieces. Visited a temple and walk to the city wall which is made of black bricks and surrounds the center of the city. There is so much to see in the small city of Xi'an. The terracotta warriors were only discovered in 1979 and it was opened to the public around shortly after then. The city has a feel of old China, the way we've seen it in old movies and photos.

Beggars with little kids are all over the city, not only Xi'an but also Beijing. First the mother comes and holds her pot in front of you, but when she fails to get any money, she leaves you and sends a little kid with cold purple cheeks and frozen black fingers. The kid follows you, pulls your jacket and begs for some money. Once they get it, they run back to the mother, or the "manager", while other managers start targeting you with their kids. Reminded me of Oliver Twist's dark times. These kids are everywhere. Every time I saw one, I taught what I can do to help these poor little kids used by their parents and ignored by the world. It took me one whole week to stop shedding tears after seeing one, and realize that it is what it is and I just can’t save the world.

Shanghai

Sunday night I took a train to Shanghai. I enjoyed Xi'an so much, I could stay longer. There was still more to see and the hostel was very friendly. Nice coffee, free Internet, fantastic western-style breakfast, dinner at the Muslim quarter with Mr. Kim, quiet rooms, good location, etc. It must be packed in the summer but now it's low season in China. It's too cold.

Sunday night I took a train from Xi'an to Shanghai. Apparently, it's very difficult to get a train ticket to anywhere from Xi'an since Xi'an is a major university city, and the university holiday season had just begun. All the students were trying to get a train ticket home. They go to the ticket sale outlets from 4:00 in the morning and line up. I was lucky, the staff at the hostel got the ticket for me through a travel agent. The ride was 15 hours. I was sleeping most of it, but towards the end, felt extremely dizzy. The food on the train was not so great and the loud Chinese TV in each room didn't help either.

When I got to Shanghai, I hopped into a cab and checked into a hostel close to the Bund. The Bund is one of the main tourist attractions in Shanghai. Shanghai just doesn't look like China. Skyscrapers, cars, noise and lights everywhere. I have never seen New York, but this is how I picture New York in my head. If you hate noise, do not come to Shanghai. Scooters and cars are everywhere and they blow their horn as they go. It's just their way of saying: "Watch out, I'm coming through whether you move your butt or not." The streets are filled with taxis, buses, bikes, scooters and people. When you want to cross the street, you'll find yourself closing your eyes, saying your prayers and hoping for the best.

There are so many things to see and do, but not too many historic sites like Beijing and Xi'an. There are thousands of ethnical restaurants, cultural events, shows, exhibitions, art galleries, pubs, clubs, colleges, …

On my first day in Shanghai I went to the Bund, went up the Pearl Tower and watched the sunset as the neon lights were coming to life one after the other. I saw a sex museum at the underground tunnel, which displayed the paintings and pottery pieces. It was interesting and sad to see how Chinese men used to worship male sex organs (Men haven't changed. Have they?), and control women by feet binders, etc. A female was considered property of a man, and by keeping a woman's feet small and disable, they would have ultimate power over her since she could not walk far away. Therefore she would have to stay home and never consider leaving. The old pottery pieces were astonishing. I learned that two fish in 69 position and also a duck holding a fish inside its beak are symbols of male and female. On a girl's wedding night, they used to give her a book with pictures of different sex positions to teach the bride what was about to happen to her and what she was supposed to do!

In front of the sex museum, there were some aquariums and small boats. Nothing too impressing.

On my second day in Shanghai I took the subway and went to the "working class" market. Everything is ridiculously inexpensive here in China although I found Beijing and Xi'an cheaper than Shanghai. I bought some sweaters, shades and accessories. Although shopping makes me happy no matter what, I was annoyed by how some shopkeepers greeted people with a big smile but then turn away, frown and even sometimes swear if the customer didn’t buy anything. At times, I felt like I am looked upon as a walking wallet rather than a traveler exploring China.

On my way back to the hostel, I bought a train ticket to Hong Kong for Thursday morning. I would rather leave on Wednesday but there are no trains to Hong Kong till Thursday. I was surprised that there are no daily trains between these two major cities.

On my third day in Shanghai, I went to Shanghai's library and caught up with my emails and blog. I spend almost 5 hours at the library and this I guess makes me officially an internetoholic. On my way to the hostel I decided to get off the subway at the People's Square to look around. The name sounded interesting. I saw some huge crowd a block away from the square and walked toward it. In 5 minutes, I found myself in a pool of countless neon lights, hotels, boutiques, restaurants and pubs with thousands of people, mostly tourists. Now THIS is how I had pictured Las Vegas in my head. WOW!

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