Getting to Like Xiamen

After nearly a month together, it was time for my dad to return home after his successful (we think) introduction to Asia. We were getting a little bit too comfortable in Beijing and the next day Yann and I took off on a 31-hour train ride to Xiamen, a city in the southern coastal province of Fujian. Admittedly, we didn't really know very much about our destination, not having had that much time to plan this next leg of our trip. We had seen a single photo of a tulou, the name given to the round communal houses of the province's Hakka minority and was determined to get a glimpse of them. Xiamen, right on the coast, seemed to be a good place to relax for a few days. It wasn't until we were on the train and we started studying the map and the rail network that we realised that we were traveling ourselves into a corner, and that there would be hours of travel involved to get out of Fujian and on to our next destination. I remained optimistic but Yann wasn't quite as keen. We met an English-speaking political science student from Xiamen on the train, and he assured us that we would love the city, that the air was fresh, the weather warm and the seafood delicious. When our train pulled into Xiamen after dark, he accompanied us by taxi to the harbour (refusing to let us pay), where he showed us where to board the ferry to Gulang Yu, a small nearby island where we wanted to spend the night. He was exceedingly nervous that we didn't have a reservation for the hostel, and tried to get us to consider sleeping in the Xiamen University dorms, or in his appartment.

Xiamen is rich in colonial heritage and forcibly opened as a trading port by the British in the mid 19th-Century. The island of Gulang Yu was a diplomatic enclave, and most of the crumbling colonial mansions are still standing. We arrived on a Saturday night and every single bed in the youth hostel was taken. We were offered a tent on the cement patio outside which we accepted. Yann was now very grumpy, and I was getting nervous about my claims of the city being a worthwhile destination. Upon exit from the train station we had been greeted by a gigantic Wal-Mart, a McDonald's and rows of skyscrapers. Even the tiny island had a McDonald's outlet right at the ferry terminal. We retreated to our tent hoping that we might discover Xiamen's colonial charm the next day. In the morning, we took the ferry back to the mainland to visit Xiamen University's campus. It wasn't until we located the beach that we cheered up a bit watching the Chinese hilariously dip their feet into the water. We came across three hilarious monks, from the nearby Nanputuo Temple burrying each other in the sand in their full monks' robes. When they caught us taking pictures of them they called us over to pose with them. The one who was buried up to his neck was talking away in his broken English despite the sand filling up his mouth, making us promise to e-mail the photos to him and exclaiming that it was a wonderful day when we agreed. We spent a full day exploring Gulang Yu Island with the Chinese tour groups. By night fall the island was pretty much deserted but by day the groups of elderly Chinese sporting matching baseball caps followed their loud-speaker wielding tour guides around, past the old consulates and ornate residences. The funnest activity was watching them hit the seafood shops, where you can buy all sorts of dried sea creatures. Sitting around tables, drinking the famous local tea, they haggled with salespeople selecting the best pieces of shark fin. Buying ridiculous amounts of "local items" at "great prices" seems to be an integral part of any Chinese tour. We had to pass on the delicious dried scallops (asking price: 300yuan/0.5kg), but bought ourselves a giant bag of dried squid so that we wouldn't feel left out (yet to be opened). In the evenings we discovered the hectic streets of the harbour district. Behind layers of clothes lines, electric wires and alot of grime are enchanting century old colonial buildings. Streets are filled with vendors selling everything from fresh seafood to Chinese pornography, we even spotted a Burmese restaurant. We spent hours wandering back and forth down the busy streets, loving the simultaneously chaotic and laid back atmosphere. Against our better judgment we entered a clean, trendy restaurant and had a terrible meal accompanied by a pitiful karaoke singer. The next night we repented, hitting the backstreets and picking fresh seafood from styrofoam containers at an outdoor restaurant. We had an outstanding meal for less money than we had spent the previous night, enjoying the lively streets and the perfect weather. After three days in Xiamen, we were no longer unhappy about our southeastern detour and we were now mad at ourselves for having booked our train tickets out for the next day.

Beijing for Dummies (That's Us)


The Forbidden City
The quintessential symbol of Imperial China, whether you really want to or not it's a must see. When we visited, two of the main buildings were under construction, so no postcard pictures for us. On the plus side, the ticket price has been drastically reduced to take construction into account. Take a pass on the audio guides, they are supposed to turn on and off automatically as you arrive at the various sights. I got to hear about the Supreme Harmony Gate three times before officially giving up on it. My dad lasted a few hours more than Yann and I, what a trooper. But we had already been there once before. Tianan'men Square
When we first arrived in Beijing, the 17th CCP Congress was in session, prompting topiary statues, neon lights, fountains and even patches of grass to be installed on Tianan'men Square. Thankfully when we arrived back in Beijing, three weeks later, the hideousness was gone, returning the famous square to its concrete, barren massiveness. You still can't get too close to the phallic Monument to the People's Heroes, as in the past it has been the symbolic staging point for many un-harmonious protests. You can't approach the large portrait of Mao hanging at the entrance to the Forbidden City either, as someone actually managed to set it on fire this year, with a gagillion military and police forces and even more tourists around. Chairman Mao Memorial Hall
My dad and I stood with the hundreds of Chinese waiting in line to pay their respects to the great Mao. This is probably the first and last time you will ever see Chinese people queue up in an orderly fashion (somewhat). Once you enter the solemn building, you are quickly ushered past Mao's eerily preserved body to the exit at the back of the mausoleum, where you can get all the Mao Zedong paraphernalia you could possibly ask for. The Chairman would be so proud. The Great Hall of the People
A gargantuan concrete beast. It's where the CCP's congresses take place every once in a while. Otherwise it is used to host foreign dignitaries in its huge lavish rooms. You can tour around a selection of rooms (each named after a Chinese province) and join in the absolute chaos of photo-taking in the main auditorium (where the congresses are held). The Summer Palace
This is where the emperor and his entourage retreated in the hot season. Now on the outskirts of the Beijing City Centre, it's accesible by public bus. My dad and I spent an entire day walking around the grounds. Even the terrible haze obscuring views across Kunming Lake didn't detract too much from our enjoyment of the place. Yonghe Gong (Lama Temple)
Maybe we had overdosed on temples, but the Tibetan Lama Temple, didn't seem to inspire much. Less Tibetan Buddhism on hand than Chinese tourists purchasing copious amounts of incense so that Buddha might grant them good luck. We opted for a speedy tour so that we could catch the sunset at Jingshan Park.

Jingshan Park
Purportedly affords the best sunset views of the Forbidden City. So the three of us literally ran up to the viewing platform only to find a) not so great views of the Forbidden City b) the North Gate of the Forbidden City covered in scaffolding and green tarps c) hundreds of other tourists clambering for better viewing spots at a tiny pavilion. We discovered later that hands down better views could be had from the White Pagoda in Beihai Park, or from the ground, at the Forbidden City moat. Beihai Park
Great people-watching. Non-stop taichi, line dancing, water calligraphing, opera singing, action. Who can resist the adorable senior citizens of Beijing? Apparently neither Yann nor my dad. Lao She Teahouse
The Sunday matinée Beijing Opera show here proved to be a pretty good deal. For a few dollars you get a bottomless cup of tea and three act Beijing Opera sampler. We were pretty close to the stage (but not too close because we hadn't shelled out the big bucks) and we had a good view, but we had to contend with the unbelievably rude staff, who talked loudly to each other just a few feet away from us. At one point a woman from the t-shirt selling booth was holding up a t-shirt and yelling something to another vendor all the way across the room!?! The last straw was when a staff member began imitating one of the singers on stage. This got him a pathetic "Shhhhh" from me, followed by a pointing of the index finger and a "Shut UP" from my dad which proved to be a more successful way of getting him and the rest of the staff to shut up. We moved across the room to an empty table anyways and enjoyed the performance much more. SHOPPING

Wangfujing Street
McDonald's, Haagen Daaz, KFC, Versace, Gucci... not even knock-offs. We checked out the 'Official Olympics Flagship Store', welcome to the land of excessive merchandising. Crystal Olympic mascot sets, watches, pens, bags, everything you could possibly emblazon with the Olympic crest. You can ride down the car-free Wanfujing street in the Yahoo! shuttle train, or watch the congress of the Chinese Communist Party broadcast live on a giant screen surrounded by golden arches. Is this for real? Panjiayuan Market
Beijing's giant flea market. You might have resisted the Terracotta warriors, but can you resist Chinese name chops, minority handicrafts, Buddha sculptures, Cultural Revolution posters, fake jade, pashmina shawls, turquoise and coral strands, Tibetan singing bowls, wooden masks, Chinese porcelain? Impossible! There's a reason why they've installed an ATM machine right outside the main gate. The three of us had to split up for this shopping extravaganza. I really wanted the giant acupuncture dolls, but I didn't know how my dad would feel about carrying them in his suitcase, so I got a set of smaller wooden puppets. Yann got a name chop and my dad employing his haggling techniques learned in Xi'an won a particularly hard fought battle for a decent price on a small incense holder. Sanlitun Yashou Clothing Market
"Hey lady looka looka, you want Gucci, Prada, cheapa cheapa". Welcome to knock-off heaven. If you can handle the annoying salesgirls and have some idea of what you are supposed to pay for things than you can probably pick up a few good value items. We mainly came to the market to get a suit tailor made for my dad, which at 1000yuan seems to have been a successful purchase. He and Condoleeza Rice now own suits from the same shop.


Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant
The longest running Peking duck restaurant in China. If you don't care too much for the duck, come for the lobby/waiting room excitement. Get your number and wait with the hundreds of tourists, Chinese and foreigner until you're called by the girl standing on a pedestal holding the megaphone. The Hepingmen branch where we ate is four floors of duck consumption madness. The corridors are lined with photos of various important people dining at the restaurant. The duck itself is carved in front of you, cooked with crispy skin and little fat. It is eaten wrapped (do-it-yourself) in thin wheat pancakes with scallions and fermented bean sauce. Delicious but extremely rich. Expect a Peking duck hangover the next morning. Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant
We could we rate the Quanjude duck without something to compare it to. We picked the Dadong restaurant, picked as the city's best Peking Duck by the annual reader's poll of an expat magazine. First major plus, free drinks in the waiting room. The three of us hung out by the wine boxes, giddy like underage drinkers whose fake id's just worked. Sharing the prized information with other guests: "the wine is free you know!". Three glasses each later, we were seated. We ordered a plate of duck hearts, which were scrumptious and the full duck. Along with the traditional wheat pancakes, scallions and sauce, we had six other condiments to try. We thought the Quanjude duck had little fat but it was no comparison to the dry, crispy Dadong duck. It felt so much lighter and easier to eat. With complimentary fruit plates and dessert, Dadong was a clear winner in the food and price category. Quanjude remained victorious on atmosphere however, boring expats can't compete with stampeding crowds of hungry Chinese.

November 1st in Chengde

There is only one overnight sleeper train from Qingdao to Beijing and it seemed impossible for us to get tickets for it. There are however tons of the more expensive super fast trains between the two cities, that have been introduced ahead of the Olympics to get people to the sailing events on the coast. The trains are luxurious with giant reclining chairs, lots of leg room and a complimentary bottle of Tibet Spring water (the expensive brand). It took us less than six hours to get to Beijing. From there we had to catch a bus to Chengde, a city about 4 hours north of the capital. It took us a long time to get to the bus station, thanks to the taxi driver who decided to drive us around town for a few more yuan. When we got to the station I had already pulled out the map and started discussing with Yann and my dad about the ridiculous route we had taken (while pointing at the meter) the driver became visibly nervous, and ended up giving us a discount off the price of the meter (which has never ever happened to us and wasn't expected). We still probably paid too much.

We had just missed a bus to Chengde and were forced to wait a few hours for the next one, which was cheaper, so most likely slower. When traveling by bus, Yann always insists that we don't sit in the front seats, to prevent us from flying through the windshield. This time, for some reason, we chose the two front seats (my dad one row back), which evidently cursed us into getting China's most lunatic driver. If it wasn't the accelerating out of the bus station over the six consecutive speed bumps that signaled trouble, it had to be barreling onto the busy highway in the wrong direction down an offramp.

The next four hours are a blur of oncoming headlights, swerving, honking, smoking, and gravel road detours. Thankfully, the driver had an able copilot warning him when he was about to hit a cyclist or ram into a truck backing out onto the highway without any lights on (and of course without checking for oncoming traffic). Most of the trip was made in the dark, which added to insanity of the situation. We knew we wouldn't be taking the express toll highway from Beijing, as we had the cheap tickets, but the alternate route included driving over ditches on temporary mud bridges. Sometimes we would be drive along a side road parallel to the expressway, which we gazed at longingly. Yann cursed my seat choice the entire trip and my dad seemed to be in a state of shock.

Being late October the temperatures were hovering around zero Celsius and low season prices were in effect at the lovely Mountain Villa, a hotel with chandeliers, revolving doors and bellhops. Right across from our hotel was the Mountain Resort, the summer palace and hunting grounds of the Manchurian Emperors. Around the walled resort are the Eight Outlying Temples, giant temples built by various emperors to receive foreign guests on diplomatic visits. The temples are not active, and probably never were they were more about public relations than spirituality. The largest of them is based on the Potala Palace in Lhasa. When you get closer to it you can see that most of the windows have been painted on, and apparently many of the buildings are cement blocks. On our first day in Chengde we dragged my dad around to four of the eight temples, three others are closed to the public and one is falling apart. We visited most of the buildings completely alone, it was cold but the sky was perfectly blue and the views were outstanding. We devoted the next day in Chengde to the Mountain Resort. Compared to the Outlying Temples, this site is more about the grounds than the buildings. Peaceful lakes and forests with a few modest pavilions scattered throughout. We headed to the north end of the grounds where we had spotted tourists on the walls the day before getting great views of the Outlying Temples. As we approached the stairs leading to the walls, we noticed a sign informing us that as of Nov. 1st this section of the park was no longer open. We stood for a few seconds, first to figure out that it was Nov. 1st, secondly to decide whether or not we could access the walls from a different place. A woman approached us to tell us that we couldn't continue, Yann and I questioned her a bit, and my dad was off. By the time we concluded that we should ignore the sign (and the woman) my dad was long gone. We joined him in the off-limits area and came up with a brilliant plan to evade authorities: pretend not to understand Chinese. We spent the a perfect afternoon hiking along the walls, where we got great views of the Outlying Temples below, and through the back section of the park. Alone, but for a few cranky security guards wondering what we were doing there, and herds of deer savouring their first day of freedom from the tourists.

Tsingtaos in Qingdao

Due mainly to my inability to make up my mind, we ended up standing in the middle of the busy bus station parking lot in Zhengzhou (the capital of Henan), not knowing where we were going next. Our original plan was to head north to a small village, to get a taste of rural Central China. This plan involved at least two more bus transfers, a possible taxi ride, and it involved backtracking along the same route on our way to our next destination. The second plan was to go directly to Kaifeng, have two days there, then catch a night train to Qingdao on the East Coast. I think Yann and my dad seemed to be leaning towards the tougher option, but I convinced them that we should go directly to Kaifeng.

Apparently alot of other people were on their way to Kaifeng, only about an hour away. We waited as two extra large buses filled up, including standing room only. The Chinese are still just learning to queue and even the metal gates designed to keep people in lines didn't do much other than create a giant swelling mass, enclosed by metal gates. I stood with my arms outstretched, holding on to each side of the bars to keep people from getting ahead of me, but amazingly, it didn't stop them from trying. The moment when we were almost at the front of the line, an old man lept over the gates right where my dad was standing. Well, he tried to leap over the gates, but got my dad's elbow to the face instead. The three of us managed to get seats near the back of the bus, holding all our stuff on our laps. Shortly after we sat down, the queue-jumping little man appeared in the bus, apparently undeterred by my dad's elbow. He arrived to the back of the bus and had the choice between the vacant seat beside my dad, or a seat in the very back. He gave a long hard look at my dad, then sat down beside him. Once in Kaifeng we gave my dad the task of purchasing our onward train tickets to Qingdao for the next night. That didn't work out, the ticket lady informed us that there weren't any seats available for tomorrow, the next day or the next day after that. What was available were tickets for a train leaving at 6am the next morning and making the 14 hour trip during the day. With no other viable options (that we knew of) we settled for a day of noodle-cup eating. Kaifeng turned out to be a city with more character than expected. It didn't seem to have been hit as hard by the modernisation drives in other big Chinese cities. The rickshaw drivers that ploughed the alleys of Beijing only two years ago have almost all disappeared, replaced by shiny new taxis. But here, they were still around, with the motorbike version being the more expensive alternative. The streets were filled with street vendors and we didn't meet another (non-Chinese) tourists while we were there. We had time only to visit the city's biggest temple, The Temple of the Chief Minister and get mobbed by an adorable crowd of yellow-robed novice monks. A large intersection in Kaifeng's centre is taken up by stalls and foldable tables and chairs for the daily night market. Although it was really nice to sit and dine outside, amongst so many other people, we felt the pickin's were slim in terms of dining options. Too many kebabs and way too much stinky tofu, not much else. We settled for the boring but safe, dumplings and beer.

The next morning we hit the streets before sunrise to catch our Qingdao bound train. With actual berths in hard sleeper class, the 14 hours flew by and we were in Qingdao by late evening, well rested. At least we were pretty sure we were in Qingdao. The main Qingdao train station was closed for Olympics renovations and we could only buy tickets to 'Sifang', which we knew was close to Qingdao, but just how close, that we weren't sure of. Up until we left the station, and realised that the platforms were planks of plywood, and that we were standing in an industrial park, I did finally concede defeat to Yann and admit that maybe we hadn't pulled into the train station, a century old German colonial building in Qingdao's Old Town.

At most train and bus stations in China you have the legitimate taxis queued up at a taxi stand, somewhere nearby you have the less legitimate drivers trying to usher you into their taxis. Due to its temporary status as the main Qingdao station, Sifang was a complete mess, with taxis everywhere, no visible queue and drivers shouting at us from every direction. As we didn't know where we were, we didn't have much choice other than to get into one. All we wanted was someone who was willing to use his meter on, even if he circled us around town for a while, it wouldn't cost us too much. We finally found someone willing to take us, loaded the trunk with our bags and pulled off. He stopped about 10 meters ahead where his associate who spoke a bit of English quoted us a new non-metered price of 30yuan/person. Furious, I opened the door, told the driver to open the trunk and we began getting out. A group of taxi drivers were yelling various things at us, while the driver was trying to get us back into the car. I just kept repeating "meter meter" and they kept repeating "no meter no meter". The tone was becoming more aggressive and my dad was now a bit ahead of me up the road repeatedly giving the double middle finger plus verbal fuck yous to the drivers. Meanwhile (I only heard about this later), poor Yann was watching the scene unfold from the back of the taxi, where he remained locked in, trying to get our attention. He was finally freed by the driver only to be greeted by a chorus of "fack yuu, fack yuu" (these guys were fast learners). The three of us now continued walking up the road, into the darkness, realising that we might have burned our bridges with the taxi cartel. Then a driver pulled up, nodded when I pointed at the meter and had us at our hostel within minutes for 25 yuan (we thanked him profusely, but our gratitude couldn't really express our gratitude in Chinese).

The next day, with the taxi madness behind us, we spent the day visiting Qingdao's Old Town. Being under German administration for a few years has done wonders for the city's architecture (note, that we don't love white tiles and neon lights). From our hostel room window we had views of the red roof tiles, the Catholic church spires and the ocean behind. Around our hotel the old streets were filled with activity, food vendors (lots of live seafood), restaurants and general mayhem. For lunch we lined up with the locals to get our hands on the deliciously fresh, fried fish with cornbread. After visiting most of Qingdao's German heritage buildings, we headed to the Zongshan Park, where we managed to get lost in what is probably the city's last remaining square kilometer of forest. We were trying to walk up to the TV Tower for views on the city (we eventually backtracked to the cable car, that we were trying to avoid taking). Although we enjoyed our day in the park, (who doesn't enjoy fake-flower sculptures, cable cars and TV towers?) it didn't really compare to the city's more historical areas, or even the views from the waterfront. But we managed to make an afternoon of it anyways. But we saved Qingdao's best site for last: The Tsingtao Brewery. The German's longest lasting contribution to China, where your admission ticket comes with a pitcher of beer. The entire neighbourhood surrounding the brewery is a shrine to the famous beer brand, including beer bottle sculptures, beer bottle-shaped park benches and the cleverly named 'Beer Street'. There is an on sight museum with old brewing equipment, photos of the original brewery and viewing windows where you can watch the beer being packaged. We learned about the nutritional value of Tsintao Beer, as well as the four steps to appreciating beer: Look, Swirl, Sniff, Sip. And at the end of the highly enlightening tour we got what we came for, our Tsingtaos, which obviously tasted better in their birthplace, Qingdao.

Touring Henan Province

Luoyang, despite being only a few hours away from Xi'an and home to two major tourist destinations in Central China didn't seem to be overrun with foreign tourists (as Xi'an did). When we checked into our youth hostel, we seemed to be the only guests (and there wasn't anything noticeably wrong with the place). It was late when we arrived, so our first activity was to hit the night market in the old city for dinner. We walked for what seemed a long time, once we got to the spot where the night market was supposed to be, we were told by locals that it didn't exist anymore. So ... Yann and I did what we usually do for dinner, pick the first restaurant we happen to come across. This gave us the chance to demonstrate our perfected food ordering techniques:
1) Point at dishes that other clients are eating (not easy when there aren't any others, this time we ended up with some delightful deep fried fish bites)
2) Go to the kitchen (sometimes you don't really want to see what's there), point at ingredients that you would like to eat
3) Point at ingredients in the 'Food' section of our phrasebook (again, this can sometimes cause confusion, like when I asked for pork and got pork intestines, it's all the same right? Wrong!)
Technique one has proved especially perilous in the past, but this time we ended up eating a good meal, trying local dishes with an enthousiastic owner who spent most of the meal sitting in the corner with our phrasebook. We spent most of the next day at the nearby Longmen Caves, a series of thousands of grottoes carved out of the limestone banks of the Yi River (from about 500-700AD). Many of the carvings are missing various parts, but enough are there, relatively intact, to give you an idea of the immensity of the scale of the site. Especially from across the river, where you can see the hundreds of niches dotting the cliffs (too bad for the giant plastic pink lotus floating directly in front of the main cave). On our second day in Luoyang we made the trip to the legendary Shaolin Temple at Song Mountain. Immortalized in Chinese films and stories (see Shaolin Soccer and Kungfu Hustle), for generations this birthplace of Kungfu is not so much a reclusive temple among the misty mountains as it is a tourist-geared Kungfu Disneyland. Gone are the days of the Shaolin monks enduring grueling mental and physical training, living as quasi-hermits, intervening in times of crisis on the part of the good and righteous. What exists now is still a school, a giant one at that, with hundreds of young Chinese kids in Shaolin tracksuits, aspiring to someday be part of the Shaolin Temple entrance show (which I might add, is quite the show). If there was ever and peace and serenity at Shaolin, it is long gone, replaced by colourful costumes, tacky acrobatics displays and expensive admissions tickets. If you have no shame, you can even pose with a little monk doing the splits (we just took a picture of him instead). The Shaolin Temple itself is quite impressive, although rebuilt less than a hundred years ago after being burned to the ground by a local gangster who didn't get along too well with the resident monks. Behind the temple is the lovely Pagoda Forest, home to hundreds of pagodas, many crumbling and lopsided. Further away still from the mayhem of the Shaolin entrance gate, are the Song Mountains. We rode up by cable car to the path that hugs the limestone cliffs, not coming across too many other tourists (most of them are being whisked on and off tourists buses for speedy visits of the temple and maybe a jade factory or two). Other than the haze, which was pretty bad, the views were awesome and we stayed on the path for most of the afternoon. We were pretty hungry after such a long day, I managed to talk Yann and my dad out of the 24-course Luoyang Water Banquet (served with the speed of flowing water) and into dinner at an American chain restaurant which will not be mentioned here.

Buying Useless Items in Xi'an

My dad had only been in China five days when we were briefly separated from him in the backstreets of Xi'an Muslim Quarter. Separated long enough for him to get his hands on a tiny terracotta warrior for 10 yuan. We forgave him his indiscretion and warmed him to consult us before future purchases.

The Muslim Quarter hadn't changed much since Yann and I had visited two years earlier, although a large sign now hung over the main entrance you "Welcome to Islamic Food Street" and way more vendors and waitresses seemed to be sporting the Hui Muslim caps, part of the new Islamic-themed tourist uniform? Along the backstreets are rows and rows of souvenir shops selling mesmerizing quantities of similar knick-knacks, including the ubiquitous terracotta warriors in various colours and sizes. I personally find it quite difficult to walk through the lanes without buying anything. So what if they're brand new, mass produced items that the vendors carefully antiquified with a bit of scraping and dirtying? They do a good job of making them look like unique little treasures...until you see them a thousand times. Despite ridiculous opening offers, you can still come away with a good deal, with a lot of haggling and the mandatory "I'm walking away now, I'm not interested" technique.

On our first afternoon in Xi'an my dad and I hit Xi'an's most famed tourist attraction, The Army of Terracotta Warriors (or as the Chinese like to call them The Terracotta Warrios). In about 200 BC, Emperor Qin, terrified of the afterlife has thousands of life sized soldiers built to escort his soul into heaven. Wooden roofs housing the army eventually collapse and the tomb of now crumbled soldiers is lost for over two thousand years. Until, in 1976, when farmers stumble upon them while digging a well. Now, thirty years later, you can visit the three pits of warriors, most still in pieces, some having been painstakingly reassembled (an amazing work, still in progress). Or, better yet, you can get the autograph of one of the farmer discoverers. As long as you buy the 20$ souvenir book. I was more impressed by the site the second time around, the first time I had thought that the entire 5000-strong army was still intact, and was shocked by the pits full of crushed body parts. This time I was ready, as I was ready for the army of terracotta warrior salespeople waiting for us when we left the site. All armed with the 5-piece set; horse, archer, general, foot soldier and Emperor Qin himself. Here's how to buy a set (if you really must):

salesman: Hallo 10 yuan, 10 yuan, very cheapa, hallo hallo (holding box)
Emilie: 10 yuan? You mean 10 yuan for a piece, how much for the whole box?
salesman: 12 dolla
Emilie: 12 dollars?
salesman: ok ok 12 euros
Emilie: huh?
salesman: ok ok 100 yuan
Emilie: 10 yuan
salesman: 50 yuan
Emilie: 10 yuan
salesman: 20 yuan, last price
Emilie (walking away): 10 yuan
salesman: ok ok
Emilie takes out 10 yuan from wallet
salesman: ok ok 50 yuan for horse
Emilie hands over 10 yuan, salesman smiles and hands over box.

I actually bought the set on my dad's behalf who had concluded that he really needed a box of terracotta warriors, since it only cost 10 yuan, and he had already paid 10 yuan for a single, smaller warrior without the complimentary box. As with all purchasers of terracotta warriors, the minute he had it in his hands, he wondered why the hell he had bought it in the first place. Moments after the first purchase we were besieged by another groups of salespeople, these ones even more persistent. One of them latched on to my dad, he tried to explain to her that he already had a set. Then she whipped out her secret weapon: the bronze coloured warriors. As she negotiated incoherently "10 yuan, 10 yuan, 12 euros...", my dad became more and more attracted to this lovely bronze set, as I could only stand back and watch in horror. For 6 yuan, he was now the proud owner of a second set of terracotta warriors, and was now averaging a respectable 8 yuan/box. Being of superior quality, if packed at the bottom of your bag, these warriors will end up looking exactly as they do in real life (pre-reconstruction). Although my dad seemed somewhat perplexed and discouraged that a sizable portion of his bag was now being occupied by terracotta warriors, he had nothing on Yann and I. The first time we hit Xi'an we left with a large quilt, half a dozen little red books, 5 cloisonnes boxes, two fake coral necklaces, four mao caps, two mao suits (one black, one blue) and a whole lot more crap that we didn't need (but only one box of terracotta warriors). We sent my dad off to visit some of Xi'an's sites on his own and he managed well, finding both the big and small wild goose pagodas, despite asking around for the big bird palaces (or something like that). On our last day in Xi'an the three of us hit the city walls. I finally got Yann on a tandem bicycle and we raced my dad around the 13 kilometers of wall. Xi'an's large Hui Muslim community offers great food alternatives, especially for rookies to Chinese cooking. At breakfast we replaced our pork dumplings with lamb or beef ones. We dined on roasted lamb covered in cumin and chilli two nights in a row, accompanied by naan bread, also covered in cumin and toasted on the outdoor grill. Sadly, we couldn't get any beer with that. The Muslim Quarter is a lively nighttime dining spot and is packed with people even on weekdays. Most of the restaurants have piles of roasted lamb from which you select a piece and pay for it by weight, it is grilled in front of you. One night we decided to attempt a hotpot dinner at an outdoor restaurant. Hotpots are a Chinese fondue, you sit around a big bowl of boiling broth, select various vegetable and meat skewers, cook them in the broth, dip them in sauce and enjoy. Unfortunately, they are problematic for tourists, due to the sheer number of items you can be overcharged for. The price of every item; broth, sauce, skewers, napkins, fuel, skewers, has to be asked in advance to avoid ridiculous final bills. The manager of this hotpot restaurant seemed to follow the usual pattern and it was difficult to get him to tell us any prices at all. At the end of the meal when a waitress added up the bill, he flew across the restaurant, trying to get her to add something to our bill. Thankfully she wasn't too quick and stood there looking confused (we had already worked our the price of our meal anyways). The usual friendly exchange ensued (my dad had no problems getting into the spirit of things), and we stormed away, having paid the original price quoted by the waitress.

The mood was sombre, until we heard it in the distance, the happy birthday song. The song used by Chinese street cleaners to announce the impending havoc they are about to wreak on innocent street vendors and restaurants. In another triumph of Chinese planning, the street cleaner is scheduled to pass down "Islamic Food Street" at the height of dinner time. The meat is roasting on the outdoor grills, the vendors have their items carefully lined up along the sidewalk, diners pack the streets picking out the perfect lamb leg, and the street cleaner blasts every last one of them with water. But not, without a happy birthday warning. As we watched the cooks and vendors literally diving out of the way, barbecues being soaked (along with the meat cooking on them), we couldn't help but cheer up a bit. Too bad the street cleaner wasn't passing in front of the hotpot restaurant.

Pingyao Two Years Later

Before leaving for the train station, we had to stock up on dinner supplies. An introduction to the wide world of Chinese instant noodles. Most shops, even small ones, have at least one aisle dedicated to them. They come in a little tub in which you dumb the various scary flavour pouches, along with hot water, five minutes later, delicious meal in a portable disposable container. If you're lucky they'll have brands with some English on them, such as "Roasted Beef Noodle" (a perennial favourite), but most of the time you have to make due with the pictures (not an easy task). We didn't have to teach my dad about Chinese beer, he quickly discovered that it's cheap, widely available, you can drink it anywhere and it goes rather well with instant noodles.

Once on the train, my dad settled into his top sleeper bunk with relative ease (we all had top bunks because that's all we could get). We might have had a better sleep had I not told everyone that the train was scheduled to arrive at 5:30 a.m. when it was actually scheduled to arrive at 8 a.m. Yann and I chose to stop in the small walled city of Pingyao because we had enjoyed it so much the first time we visited (two years ago). According to our guidebook it is "possibly the best preserved ancient walled city in China. Pingyao has a movie set charm that makes the hearts of even the most hardened expats skip a beat." Hardened expats meet your match: my dad. When we arrived, it was cold and hazy and the fact that we were in coal country seemed difficult to ignore. Alot of the homes on the outskirts of town seemed to be run down, boarded up or abandoned. Closer to the centre of town we noted a new addition to the city's charm, giant LCD screens installed on the sides of buildings, showing videos of ... Pingyao, in cased you missed it? LCD screens aside, improvements to Pingyao might be in order, especially in the town's museums. Pingyao is famous for being the sight of China's first bank, which you can visit, if you like dark, disorganized displays with ridiculously bad English descriptions. Here we have mannequins dressed in period clothing, no wait, those are silk pyjamas and beanie hats with braids sewn into them, from the tourist shop next door. Actually, the English signs are pretty much the most interesting part of the museums, how is it possible to have such bad translations? The town's temples were more interesting than its former banks, especially the Huanglan Si, 7km outside of town which we got to on our matching one-speed rented bikes. Most of Pingyao's hotels (and there are lots of them) are well-preserved (or well reconstructed), all of them seem to be going for the 'traditional courtyard atmosphere' which pleases us tourists. Ours was set in such a courtyard, red lanterns hanging from the eaves along with unfortunate colourful cardboard goldfish. We got a good price on the room, there were only a few negative points that kept it from being a great price: 1) one bed for three people 2) toilet clogging after every use 3) staff getting huffy when being asked to unclog the toilet.

By the third day in Pingyao, the town had grown a little more on my dad and Yann and I were remembering why we had liked it so much, just in time to get ready to leave for Xi'an. We bought bus tickets from a small grocery store outside the city walls. As we waited in the shop for the bus to arrive, the owner struck up a conversation with my dad, asking him if he was sixty years old. I had to explain to my dad that in China it is courteous to estimate higher when guessing someone's age, in fact, calling someone your age 'grandchild' is an insult in China (two full ranks lower). I swear dad ... I read it somewhere.