Saturday, October 27, 2007


Xi'an is most famous for the nearby "Terracotta Warriors." We intended to spend only a couple of days here, but we ended up spending a while longer just relaxing at the hostel with friends.

We did (on our third day) go see the "Underground Army." We had already seen so many photos of the warriors that they weren't all that impressive. The first emperor of China had the army built in secret to defend him in the afterlife. There are over 6,000 warriors, although three-quarters of them still need to be excavated. They were originally vibrantly-coloured, but the paint fades quickly after excavation. Work continues (at night, when the tourists are gone) and they are making several attempts to preserve the original colours.

We also visited a Wildlife Rescue and Breeding Research Centre to see some pandas. Pandas do not seem overly concerned with the extinction of the their species: the female is only fertile for a few days a year, pandas would rather hang out by themselves than mate, a mother will often club her baby to death, and will only nurture one of her cubs (leaving any others in a litter to die). After 20 years of trying, the Breeding Research Centre have only successfully bred two panda cubs - and both in the last four years. Hopefully, they're getting the hang of it now...

The panda cubs were very cute, and we were able to feed and pet them. Unfortunately, the rest of the 'Rescue Centre' was quite depressing. They had a cheetah (which had been kept drugged by a village), black bears (which had been milked for their bile) and numerous other sad animals. While these animals were being rescued from terrible situations, the rescue center seriously lacked financial support. Each animal was kept in a rather small cage, which consisting of only a concrete pad and steel bars instead of attempting to mimic the animal's natural habitat. We left the centre feeling really sad for the animals.

We spent the last few days that we were in Xi'an, actually seeing Xi'an. The city centre is surrounded by a 14km long (in perimeter) wall. The wall has a path along the top (about 5m across) that you can walk or bike around. We decided to bike the wall, so we rented a bike at the top and cruised around for a couple of hours. It was a really cool feeling to be cycling 15m above street level. If it weren't for the admission price for the wall and the fact that you can't bring your own bike to the top of the wall, it'd be a good commuting strategy for the locals...

Another key part of seeing Xi'an was the Muslim quarter. Unbeknownst to us, Xi'an has a sizeable population of Muslims (called Huis, who are descendents of Arabian merchants and travelers that came to the northwest of China by way of Persia and Afghanistan). The quarter consists of a bussling market area and street vendors, and so we spent a bit of time walking through it. We especially enjoyed the fried persimmons, the variety of dried fruits that you could buy (kiwi, tomatoes, oranges, etc.!) and the tasty halva!

Friday, October 26, 2007


The old town of Pingyao, with it's city walls intact, would have been very impressive - if it hadn't been so polluted.

Our guidebook (published in 2004) claims that this small town has escaped the development of much of the rest of China. Obviously, in the past few years, the race to develop has begun. Old parts of town are being knocked down. New buildings are being erected. And, a thick smog of coal dust and desert sands sits over the whole city.

We spent several hours walking (and biking) around the walls, but the whole experience was marked by the sights, sounds and smells of "development."

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Datong is not on the normal tourist route (probably due to the smog), but there were two excellent sites near the city. The Hanging Temple was built by monks, who dangled down from a cliff-top above a mighty river, to drill holes for the cantilever beams. Flooding in the valley below was a big problem, so they built Buddhist, Daoist and Confucianist shrines (praying to anyone who could help). All of the temples in Beijing are fully restored, so this was our first chance to see shrines that were desecrated during the Cultural Revolution (the eyes were knocked out of all of the statues).

On the other side of town, about fifty caves were created in a sandstone hill. Each cave centers around a giant Buddha, with thousands of smaller Buddhas decorating the walls. Ironically, the best preserved Buddha is outdoors (his cave collapsed in an earthquake). The caves are damp inside, and past restoration attempts have crumbled off, leaving pock-marked Buddhas.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Great Wall

We wanted to climb the Great Wall and we didn't want to do it alongside thousands of other tourists and postcard vendors. So, we decided to head to Huanghuacheng- a section that was further away and much less touristic than some of the other sections. Considering we were already going to be heading out so far, we decided to also go to the Ming Tombs (mausoleums for the emperors from the Ming Dynasty from 1368 - 1644).

We met up with Aaron, an Australian that we met on the Trans-Manchurian, at 7am on Sunday morning. We headed off to find a bus that would take us to Chongping, a city closer to the sites we wanted to go to. We spent about an hour on the bus, along with some really talkative early-bird locals. When we got to Changping we hailed a cab and spent about 10 minutes bargaining with the cab driver for the price on hiring the cab for the entire day. When we'd finally agreed on a price, we headed to the Ming Tombs. The cab ride was really fun, striking up a conversation with the driver with our minimal Mandarin, and trying to learn some new words from him (mostly farm animals that were in the farms at the side of the road).

The Ming Tombs were interesting enough - we got to climb underground to actually look at the tombs but they were really restored and not overly exciting. After a couple of hours of walking around, we got back in the cab and headed to the Great Wall.

A few kilometers away from the section of the Great Wall we were going to, we could already see the wall snaking through the mountains. It was really exciting! At one point we could tell that the cab driver had no idea where he was going, but luckily he kept stopping and asking people in the nearby villages where we had to go. When we finally got to the wall, we were told by a guard that it was shut down...We were a bit disappointed as we assumed that we would have to ask the driver to take us to the more touristy sections. We were told however that we could head to a lake where we could hike and look at the wall.

The driver drove us there and then a woman who said she was an official tour guide said that we could pay 50 yuan (about $8) and she would take us to the wall. We thought it might be a waste of money, but we agreed and so she lead us through back alleys around the village, through a construction site and up a slope that would lead us to the section of the wall. She left us at the bottom of the hill and so we clambered up to the top. The view from the top was incredible, and high enough up that you began to feel a bit uneasy about where you were standing.

We ended up climbing for 2 hours - one hour up the mountain along the wall and one hour slowly easing yourself down the wall, sometimes on all fours. Given that our walk along the Great Wall was less than official, we were kind of worried that we would get fined or something as we came back through the village (passing "Do not climb on the wall" signs along the way). Fortunately, the only people we met were an older couple (the woman had a cane) who were heading up the slope to climb the wall. With no language in common we tried to convey to them that the climb was pretty steep and difficult - we hope that they got the message! Anyway, we got to experience something pretty unique!

And as Mao once said, we are now "true men" (and women).

Saturday, October 20, 2007


We got a really good feeling about China the minute we entered. At the border we were welcomed by the border guard, and by the fact that people actually smile in China.

Our first impressions of Beijing were much better than expected. While there are a lot of people everywhere and there is quite a bit of pollution, it is not as bad as we expected. However, crossing the street is VERY scary. Despite the fact that there are traffic lights at intersections, you can't be guaranteed that the cars, buses and bikes will actually stop. The tactic we've used so far is to wait at a corner until a few locals show up and then follow them across.

Another thing is that we've left the places where we can attempt to blend in with the locals. Anytime you go anywhere touristy, you get asked if you want to buy guidebooks, Olympic paraphanalia, rickshaws rides, etc. What I think is particularly hilarious is that we've been approached a number of times by people who want to take their picture with us. We've even been handed someone's baby so that they could have their baby's picture taken with some gangly foreigners!

We've also had great luck with finding vegetarian food! We've found so many delicious vegetarian restaurants (there a quite a few Buddhist monks in China) that serve a huge variety of delicious food, some of which are very realistic mock meats made of soy and mushrooms. Nevertheless, we are armed with key phrases (I don't eat meat and I am vegetarian) for when we leave the big cities...

Over the past few days we've seen quite a few of the sights as well, including Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City (where the Chinese emperors used to live and was closed off from the public until the 1920s), the Temple of Heaven (a park with Buddhist temples), and Beihai Park (a huge park on a lake with an imperial garden and ponds with kai fish). We've also had the opportunity to climb a bit of the Great Wall, which we'll describe in the next post.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Trans-Siberian Railway (part 2)

Six days on the train seemed daunting, but we felt we were prepared - we stocked up on packets of instant noodles, soup, tea and hot chocolate (hot water is always available from a coal-fired 'samovar'), we each had a couple books to read and we could plan our entire trip through China (not to mention learning Mandarin).

As it turned out, the days flew by and we had a great time. We barely accomplished any of the planned reading or language practice and we slept less than expected, but we did eat most of the food. We had hoped for "authentic" Russian or Chinese people to share our compartment with (four bunks per compartment), but we were very pleased to spend the whole trip with a guy from Australia and a lady from New Zealand, each taking the slow way home. It turned out that "locals" in other cars would often fill their compartment with large bags, smoke filthy cigarettes, try to involve you in their smuggling operations and generally disregard hygiene.

We chatted, played "Settlers of Catan - Travel Edition," wandered the train taking photos and generally just took it easy. We developed the concept of "segments of time." Rolling up the bedroll was one segment, breakfast was one segment, a "shower" in the cramped toilets would be a segment, and discussions ranging from vaccinations to politics to the Simpsons could range from 1-5 segments. The important thing was never to attempt too many things in one segment of time - just take things slowly and you'd be surprised how little you can accomplish in a day.

In each car of the train (there were 14, carrying 400 people), there were two attendants - "provodnistas" in Russian. They were a constant source of aggravation, as they locked the doors to the toilets way before any of the stops, yelled at us for simple requests, and tried to be of as little help as possible. Still, many segments of time were spent complaining about them, and comparing the levels of apathy and incompetence between cars.

Oh, and we got to see Siberia too. It was cold, rainy, sometimes snowy, and as uninhabitable as you would imagine. It felt great to sit in the warmth of our compartment, sipping tea and looking out on a bleak landscape. We also got to see the real level of poverty in Russia (state pensions are less than 100$ a month) which was not obvious in St. Petes or Moscow. Many elderly women have to supplement their income by growing their own food in small plots beside their sparse wooden shacks, and by selling home-cooked food to passengers on the passing trains.

The sun came out (and the people got friendlier) the instant we crossed over into China (a ten-hour border crossing) - but we'll write more about this wonderful country later.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Trans-Siberian Railway

Tonight, we embark on a 9,000 km, 6-day, 7-night train journey from Moscow to Beijing. Our train is called the Trans-Manchurian and follows the route below. It's not technically the longest scheduled train ride in the world, but it's close (it's 300 km more from Moscow to Vladivostok). We should have plenty of stories to tell, but we'll be out of contact for the next week. If you're interested, we've posted some photos on Picasa from our travels so far.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Москва (Moscow)

Moscow is less European than St. Petersburg; much more like what we were expecting Russia to be like. It's been cold and rainy and the city is bigger, more spread out, and more clogged with traffic.

Luckily, the Metro is amazing, so we can get over all of these things. The Soviets were particularly proud of three things: the space program, the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Moscow Metro. The stations are decorated like palaces, with marble columns, colourful mosaics, stained-glass windows and chandeliers. And, they're deep enough that they could be used as nuclear fallout shelters (two minutes down on the escalator)...

We visited St. Basil's cathedral (which had been our only mental picture of Moscow), Red Square and the Kremlin. Inside the Kremlin (which is just a Russia word for fortress), there are many more Russian Orthodox cathedrals and an impressive collection of royal jewels, gold, silver and Fabergé eggs (and our fake student cards got us in really cheap). The Fabergé eggs were incredible: fist-sized "Easter eggs" of hard stone, decorated with precious metals, with intricate jeweled 'trinkets' inside - including a five-carriage clockwork train.

We also visited a GULAG museum. It was shockingly small and unknown, considering that it is the only museum dedicated to a system of forced labour camps that killed more than 2 million Russians. After having visited Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, it was hard to believe that Stalin's crimes are being covered up so well.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Санкт-Петербург (St. Pete's)

Russia is not an easy country to get into (visas require invitations, planned itineraries and registration upon arrival) and the warnings can be discouraging ("don't trust the cops", "you will be pickpocketed", "organized crime runs the country"), but it is certainly worth a visit.

We arrived in St. Petersburg without any expectations - not a clue what it would be like - which made for a nice surprise. After a rough start finding our hostel, we found the rest of the city was amazing.

St. Petersburg is a beautiful city, with a very European feel - we could be in Paris, Venice or Amsterdam. The streets are lined with palaces in pastel colours (blue, yellow, green, pink...). There is a huge art gallery (called the Hermitage) that easily compares to the Louvre - and the building itself is as impressive as the art. And there is an incredible Russian Orthodox cathedral, with colourful "onion domes."

And there's not just cultural things to see. On our first day, we visited a museum of "curiosities" - basically a room filled with two-headed babies and other mutations, collected from around the world by Peter the Great. And on our last day, we visited the Russian Erotica museum - located in the waiting room of a practicing sexual health clinic, the main exhibit is (allegedly) Rasputin's penis.

Sunday, October 07, 2007





Friday, October 05, 2007

First impressions of Russia

This was our sixth border crossing, but the first "real" one - not within the EU. We were on a night bus, and we were rudely awoken at 4am. Everyone got off the bus (we slowly realized what was going on and followed). At passport control, the border guard was not impressed with Anthony's arrival card and demanded "ручкой." Due to his uncomprehending stare, she began to wave her hand, giving the international signal for "pen." Unfortunately, Anthony misinterpreted this for the international signals for "sign here" and "waiter, cheque please" and continued to stare uncomprehendingly. Eventually, another passenger provided her with a pen, she made some illegible notation, and we were allowed into Russia (after passing our bags through a metal detector)!

We got minimal sleep on the rest of our night bus ride, due to poor roads, bad driving and squeaky brakes. At 7am, we were again rudely awakened, to find that we were in St. Petersburg (an hour early! - or so we believed until we realized that we'd passed into a new time zone). We were dropped unceremoniously on a street corner, with a small map to our hostel - that did not have a scale, or the street names in Cyrillic (the funky alphabet that Russians use). We had been warned not to look too much like tourists in Russia, as cops will ask to inspect your passport - and then demand payment to get it back. So, we were tired, grumpy, disorriented and trying not to look like tourists as we looked for street signs (and lugged around backpacks with Canada flags on them).

We walked for about fifteen minutes, until we found a street called Лабутина, which we guessed was the Labutina on our map (as it had an 'a' 'b' 't' and 'a' in the right places...). We found the right building, and the right door (entered the security code that they post on the web) and climbed some dark, dirty, unwelcoming, creepy stairs to door #34 (the hostel's "address"). Still no signs of a hostel. We rang the doorbell and knocked repeatedly. No response.

Feeling defeated, we retreated to a nearby park to eat some breakfast and figure out what to do. We were completely unconvinced that we had found the right place (despite the correct security code). We had no way to check the internet, or to call the hostel. We decided to forfeit our deposit and just go find another hostel, but that we should check door #34 one last time.

This time, we rang the bell and someone answered! What a relief! The hostel people were just waking up and I guess no one was awake yet when we first arrived. When we came in we were offered tea (just what we needed) and shortly afterwards we met several nice people staying at the hostel. After Marieke took a nap - she was a bit of a zombie by this point - we all headed out for a day of sightseeing.

St. Petersburg is a beautiful city, easily as stunning as Paris or Venice. Our first impressions quickly melted away.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


After a too-brief stay with Ieva, we left for Estonia (the third and final Baltic state). We spent a very rainy morning in Tallinn - mostly just walking the winding streets, and admiring the medieval towers. The afternoon involved many hot cups of tea, and the day was finished off nicely with savoury Estonian pancakes - a lot like Dutch pannenkoeken.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Marieke's essay about Latvia and Rīga

We've spent the last three days in Latvia, visiting our friend Ieva and her family. After a couple of weeks of traveling and just seeing museums, city centres and hostels, it was really nice to relax with friends and see a bit of countryside.

We arrived in Rīga on Friday evening after an almost five hour bus ride from Vilnius. Ieva came to pick us up after work and we headed to her parent's house in Inčukalns (about an hour from Rīga). Ieva's family built the house themselves throughout the nineties after the Soviet era. The house is on a huge plot of land in the forest, which has fruit trees, veggie patches and even a sauna on it. The inside of the house is gorgeous - very reminicent of Canadian style cottages complete with pine hardwood floors. The whole house has a really cozy feel to it, but for me the highlight was the rustic kitchen, with an old-school aga. Ieva's mother - who is an absolutely amazing cook - makes her own preserves, and dries homegrown linden for tea and dries forest picked wild mushrooms.

We spent Saturday and Sunday driving around the Latvian countryside (after sleeping in late and filling up on a delicious breakfast) and visiting both tourist destinations and places that Ieva really had a connection to. On both days Ieva's friend Elīne came along with us and on Sunday we met up with Ieva's friend Diva and her boyfriend.

On the Saturday we drove south to Bauska (a town near the Lithuanian border) to check out an old castle. Ieva was really disappointed with the castle as it has been destroyed and fixed numerous times, each time using different stones or bricks, giving it a bit of a patchwork look. We then headed to Rundale Castle, where there was a huge rose-themed exhibit. We generally just checked out the artifacts and art inside the building and searched the castle gardens for some non-existent "free wine" that an old lady in the castle told us about. After eating lunch in the castle cafe we headed to Tervete Nature Park. Tervete has number of Latvian fairy tale characters that are carved out of wood, scattered throughout the forest. It was a really fun and beautiful place to walk both for adults and for kids. After a long drive back to Inčukalns, we went out to a restaurant for a hot bowl soup and then came home to find that Ieva's mother had left out wine, cheese and other snacks for us to eat!

The next day, after a delicious breakfast that included potato pancakes, we headed northeast to Sigulda to check out castle ruins and the gorgeous autumn colours of the surrounding area. Since just about everyone else in Latvia was also in Sigulda to enjoy autumn, we decided not to hike around as parking was hard to find. We then headed to Ieva's mother's cousin place, as he has a private museum of Soviet and German artifacts (including a Soviet tank!) that he's collected from the WWII battles that took place in the nearby area. Ieva had so many places to show us so we spent the rest of the day trying to see as many of the sites as possible, including:

  • Araisi, which were castle ruins on a peninsula.
  • Līgatne Nature Trails, which we only saw for about 10 min., where there is a massive rock and hiking trails. Legend has it that the rock was a meeting spot for witches of the area.
  • Cēsis, a cool medieval town with ruins and outdoor choir singers

We then headed back to Ieva's house, where yet another delicious dinner was waiting for us.

On Monday we got a ride to Rīga with Ieva. She had to work, so we spent the walking around the city. We spent a couple of sleepy hours in the morning trying to book hostels and buses for the next few days. We then headed to the huge city market, where we successfully found many of the things that we forgot to buy for our trip when we were in Copenhagen. We met up briefly we Ieva for lunch, and then spent the afternoon generally just walking around the city (checking cool downtown streets and the art nouveau section of town), going to a museum of Riga's history (which was quite interesting, as Latvia has been controlled by several different countries over the years) and buying tea both for Ieva's family and for us on the Trans-Manchurian (from the coolest tea shop ever that was recommended by a British guy that we met in the Czech Republic). Later in the afternoon we headed to a big mall on the outskirts of Rīga, where Anthony had an appointment to get his hair cut. The haircut turned out to be great, but the way that the hairdresser styled his hair afterwards was hilarious! She combed Anthony's completely straight so that Anthony had bangs! Don't worry, we had photographic evidence...After the haircut we met Ieva and then headed back to her place. We had dinner with her parents and watched Little Miss Sunshine (with Russian subtitles for Ieva's parents - they didn't have Latvian subtitles and Ieva's parents are both fluent in Russian). I think everyone really enjoyed the movie, which didn't involve lots of language specific comedy like a lot of other movies have.

On Tuesday morning we woke up crazy early (5am) to pack and to leave early with Ieva so that she could avoid the traffic jams in Rīga and so she would have time to run some errands. Once again, Ieva's mother had breakfast for us, which meant that she was also up around 5 or 5:30 to cook for us! What a wonderful lady! We said our sad goodbyes and then we headed to Rīga for a bit more sightseeing before heading to Tallinn (Estonia) on a 3:30pm bus.

We had a really wonderful time catching up with Ieva, seeing Latvia and meeting her family. Ieva's parents are the nicest people and although we didn't speak Latvian and Ieva's mother didn't speak English we managed to communicate through Ieva translating and with lots of smiles and "Paldies'es" (thank you's).