Part 3: China

I have to admit that I was not that enthusiast of going to China: especially after the calm of the Baikal Lake and of a week spent in Mongolia, an immersion in the civilized, crowded and super-industrialized world scared me. However, contrary to my expectations, China was the country DSCN3312that most impressed me, for its interesting history, culture and traditions that are so far from the
stereotypes we have in Italy about this country. We also had a lot of fun thanks to the vibrant night life and to the special behavior that Chinese have toward foreigners. I liked especially the atmosphere of China, people staring at us, asking us to take pictures with them, Chinese singing in the streets, playing chess and using umbrellas to cover themselves from the sun.

02.07.2015 –  Arrival

Flying over China with our enormous plane of Air Mongolia, we passed above the enormous arid lands of the Gobi desert, then above the green forests of the North of China and finally, before landing, above an immense agglomerate of buildings that lasted for around 20 minutes. I was impressed: I had never seen such a big territory covered by contiguous palaces. I did not know yet that all China is like this!

11260717_10153272230808292_8233876555140799552_nThe first step into China was really funny. As we got off from the plane, we had to pass the medical control without even knowing it: an automatic machine measured our body temperature. After me and Paola passed, we turned behind and realized that Gianmario had been blocked at the control, and was forced to follow two little Chinese ladies in medical clothes. I asked him were they were taking him but he did not know. Then they entered a door with the inscription: “zone of quarantine: do not cross” and as soon as they stepped in the two Chinese put on a mask for the respiration and gave one to Gianmario. In that moment I started to panic. Inside the door there was a sort of medical room, and I saw the Chinese ladies, that had became three, that were surrounding Gianmario, asking him questions and trying to measure again his body temperature. Since I hate not being aware of what is happening, I entered the room, asked for a medical mask and tried to help Gianmario to escape the medical control. After all, his body temperature was only 37!

When he coughed, they asked him for how long he had the caugh, and he answered “two weeks”. Another moment in which I became pale, as the three women opened their eyes at the same time, as if he had an incurable disease. Thus, I gave him a punch on his flank and I said “no, it’s two days!”. The three Chinese, whose English was really bad, started to look at each others, confused, and then looked at us, also at the same time, and started to ask “two weeks or two days? Two weeks or two days?”. They looked like a computer in tilt. I said, again “two days, my friend does not speak good English”. Then another difficult question: “Do you have MERS?” they asked. Gianmario answered by asking what is MERS, and they soon said “okay, you can go”. What a strange experience! As if I would tell them if I really have MERS! And then we discovered that MERS is a disease that comes from the camels of the Middle East. For us Italians how many chances could there be that we were infected?

After this little inconvenience, we passed the border control with no difficulties, a part from the fact that in the meanwhile another plane had landed and the queue became three times bigger than before. Once passed the controls, we explored the whole airport to look for an ATM that worked, but all the Chinese banks seemed not to accept our cards. Finally, only Gianmario’s Mastercad managed to withdraw money, while neither Visa nor Maestro succeeded. Thus, Gianmario was elected our boss for all the trip in China. Fortunately, we found easily our hostel, in a narrow dark street at a Metro station that was impossible to pronounce: Zhangzhizhonglu. We even had a room upgrade for the same price, and we received a triple room instead of a dormitory room.

03.07 – Walking around                                

The following day, after a coffee and biscuits breakfast at the hostel, we decided to walk to Tien Ammen Square. Considering that our hostel was in the same district as the square, it should not have taken more than 20 minutes. It took 40, a walk that I will never forget, with a destination that seemed never to arrive, a temperature of around 35 degrees with a super high level of humidity. But at least we had the chance to experience the real Chinese life: the traffic in the streets, Tuk Tuk running in every direction, the fruit shops that sell any possible variety of DSCN3403tropical fruit, the young girls walking with their umbrella not to get tent, we even saw a death corp in the street: it was an old man, and a boy next to him was asking for money to give him a funeral. I was shocked. We also experienced what would have accompanied us for all the travel long: Chinese people staring at us. Why? We don’t know, it was so strange for us! No matter whether they were young or old, men or women, they always turned around and stared us three poor western guys, with children catching the attention of their parents and pointing the finger at us.

Before entering the main square of Beijing we had to undergo the security controls, a long queue where all people pushed us and we could not breath. Finally, when we entered the huge Tien Ammen Square, we were so exhausted and it was so late that we decided to posticipate the visit to the forbidden city to another day. However, we had in front of us the huge square, of which we could barely see the end. On the side of the Forbidden City, on the top of the entrance pagoda building to the city, the majestic picture of Mao staring at us, with all Chinese flags around him, while an enormous quantity of people went up and down the square making a normal picture impossible to take. I was a bit disappointed from the Square, it is so gray, controlled by hundreds of policemen under their green umbrella and so crowded.

We decided to go having lunch behind the city, another big mistake because we had to walk for another half an hour before found some restaurants. But we found a nice district, full of restaurants around a lake, with many varieties of places, street food and pedals on the lake. The prize for the funniest restaurant name was won by the “Shit restaurant”, that had a door made in the form of shit and a big shit picture next to the name. Also funny was the lunch moment, as we went to a place that had only nudel soups. First, the restaurant did not have an English menu and nobody spoke English, so we had to point with our finger the dish that we wanted. When the 11403133_10206194383394546_4952984552161025309_nsoup arrived, we realized that the restaurant did not have forks or knives but only chopsticks and a spoon. I was afraid. How the hell could I eat a soup with chopsticks? We tried to look to other people how to use them, but the first attempts were not successful. Even if we managed to pull a nudel out of the plate, it broke with the chopstick pressure and the efforts were vain. We soon realized that all the restaurant’s waiters were laughing at us, and even the boss of the restaurant came to us to give us wooden chopsticks instead of plastic ones and to show how to keep them in the hands. After this lunch paid less than 2 euro, we walked around the lake in the narrow streets full of bars and shops, where they sold Buddhas, Mao’s pictures, scorpions, insects, coconuts and a strange beverage from which a smoke went out.

Afterwards, we climbed up the little mountain next to the Forbidden City. We paid a really low sum to enter a wonderful garden with a rock in the middle and we walked to the top of it, reaching a Buddhist Monastery. From there, e could see an amazing view of the Forbidden City from the top. A huge ensemble of yellow roofs was exactly below us. The only problem was that this place was so crowded of people taking pictures and watching the fabulous landscape.

In the evening our hostel organized a “dumpling evening”: a Chinese girl showed us how to make home-made dumplings with meat and vegetables. Quite easy once you understand how to do them. After making almost one hundred of dumplings she brought them to the kitchen and they cooked them for us, so we had our dinner fresh, served and above all for free!

After dinner we went out to inaugurate our first day in China. Some friends suggested us to go to the University district, quite far from the center but really cheap and nice. After a taxi ride for only 5 euro since the metro closed before 11pm, we went to this amazing district full of bars and discos, most of them with free entrance and one with free drinks for girls. Sorry Gianmario, we could not lose this great chance!

Outside the discos we met many people, both from China and from abroad, and we had a really funny story. We were bargaining for a taxi to go home, with almost ten Chinese touching and staring at us and trying to offer us the best price. Some of them even kissed me and Paola on our cheer. When we got into a taxi, before leaving the driver turned down my window, so that the other drivers could put their hand inside the car and shake our hand. And one of them, after shaking his hand with me…Literally touched my boob! And not gently, he pushed it violently! I started to scream and I begged the driver to leave immediately! I was very upset, but after all it was funny.

04-07 – Lama Temple, Temple of Heaven

The following day, after a long sleep, we decided to go to visit the main temples of the city. First, we went to the Lama Temple, a wonderful structure made of many Buddhist temples one after the other, with people praying and honoring their Gods. Around the Temple there were many shops of Buddhist items, and we stopped there to buy souvenirs like necklaces and bracelets.

Then, we went to the Temple of Heaven, a really beautiful temple in the outskirts of Beijing. We got up late, we had a bit of headache because of the alcohol of the previous night, and we had to refuse the offer of the cleaning lady of the hostel to tide our room. The weather was really bad, the sky covered with dark gray clouds and as soon as we entered the temple it started to rain. We even split by mistake, and the park was so huge that each of us continued the visit on his own. The Temple was really worth visiting, with its multiple circular levels, its blue, green and golden decorations and the beautiful park around it. I DSCN3361have to admit that at the end of the day, with the sun going down the atmosphere became very scaring. Fortunately, there were people playing everywhere, they were really funny and we spent time listening to their music and voices. Other people gathered in the park to play cards or another game, similar to chess.

After a quick lunch in the restaurant in front of our hostel, we prepared ourselves for another crazy night in the city of free entrance and free drinks. This time we wanted to try a real disco. A friend of mine that lived in Beijing gave me the contact of a PR that arranges the entrance of foreigners in this amazing disco, called “Liv”, in the Soho district. You just have to text this guy how many people you are and at what time you arrive at the place and you’ll find him waiting for you at the entrance of the club. Then, he takes you into the club, takes a picture of you and accompanies you to the table “for foreigners”, right in front of the console. Around us, other foreigners drinking, dancing and having fun. Fours Djs that were supposed to be famous were playing, dressed as the white guys of Star Wars. The place was amazing, a huge disco with psychedelic lights, people dancing on the tables, super cool music and… THE ALCHOOL WAS FREE also this time! Bottles of vodka, rum, gin, beer, wine, even the original Champain was there! And waiters kept on coming to the table and bringing new bottles! It was a paradise… Guys, those of you who did an Erasmus in Beijing… How could you survive and study in such a country?

We had a lot of fun that night, even if we all split and got lost. The next morning each of us had a different, funny story to tell the others.

05/07 – Silk Market

Do not blame us, but this day, Sunday, we decided to go eating at Mc Donald’s, tired of the Chinese food. We decided to enjoy the day and take it easy, so we went shopping to the Pearl Market. It was a funny place, a huge shopping mall where you can find everything. All the Western brands are here at half a price, and you will have to fight with all your forces for buying at an even cheaper price or not to buy at all. Mm, maybe this last option is not possible. We did not want to buy anything, but the Chinese are so convincing and the cloths were so beautiful that we could not resist. There are so many items, distributed in five floors, each floor is specialized for something. Particularly good are the silk cloths, so smooth and so beautiful. Me and Paola decided to invest in two very nice t-shirts, while Gianmario bought a shirt on measure for only 20 euro! A guy measured his neck and body circumference and gave him appointment for the following day to take the shirt done. Great!

06/07 – Summer Palace

The following day we visited the Summer Palace, an amazing park that used to be the residence of the Emperor during the warmest days. Since it was the only place where he could go around alone, he had everything he needed here: a park, a forest, his own temple, a theater and a huge lake. We spent almost 5 hours in the park but we could not visit it all since it was really huge. By walking on a hill we reached the top of the park, where we could enjoy an amazing view of all the palace. Then, we entered into the Monastery that was a multilevel construction build inside the rock, with its yellow, blue and green colors. It was so strange to see the tall gray buildings right outside the park, they seemed to belong to another dimension, another country. This is what is DSCN3511great of China: it is a fast developing country, but it is still keeping its traditions and history.

During our walking along the park, we split again by mistake, but this time we had an appointment at the entrance once finished the tour. I remained with Gianmario, and again a funny story to tell you. We asked to a Chinese woman to take a picture of us with the temple in the background, and she started to take a series of pictures of us in every position, telling us where to go and how to stand. Then she told us to sit in the field and to hug each others, trying to show us the positions since she did not speak English. I guess she thought we were married or something like that, because the pictures she took seem those of a pre-marriage advertising! And that’s not all. Paola was waiting for us at the entrance, when a Chinese man came to her, gave her his baby and asked her to hold him and kiss him while he took a picture of them. We laughed when she told us the story, but apparently it is rather common in China!

7/07 – The Great Wall

Finally, after four days in Beijing, we went to see the Great Wall. We wanted to go there on our own, but after having studied all the possible transports, we realized that the cheapest and most convenient option was the guided tour. A bus took us from our hostel early in the morning, and after a one hour and a half drive we reached the majestic wall. The bus stopped and we had to continue on our own until the entrance of the site. We decided to take the funicular to go up so that we could save time for being up the wall. This guided tour left us only three hours to walk around, and we wanted to get the best from it. Unfortunately, the weather was not so nice, the sky was gray and cloudy, and the farthest hills were covered by the disgusting mist that we saw also in Beijing. But the important thing is that we could see the Wall, right below us, around us and everywhere, going up and descending the DSCN3557green hills that it was supposed to defend. We walked North for almost one hour, on the part that has been restored as the original wall was. We were surprised to see that the wall was so civilized, with music coming from the speakers, Chinese selling water every ten meters and even a Subway at the entrance of the funicular. After one hour of climbing and descending the stairs, and after a final climb that literally destroyed me, we reached the highest peak of the modern part of the wall. A woman gave us three golden medals to take a picture with and we took some time to relax and enjoy the view. We had been told that that was the end of the touristic path, and the following towers were not safe. Obviously, we did not care, and together with some friendly English guys that we met in the bus, we went up to the old part. It was amazing, with the wall half crumbling and the trees growing around the bricks…That was the real wall worth seeing! No tourists and no music, only us, the nature and the breath-taking view of one of the seven wonders of the world.

We went down to have lunch in a restaurant with other people, and for the first time I liked the Chinese food! It was chicken, vegetables and rice, simple but very tasty.

In the evening we went to Shishahai, the place with the lake and the thousands of shops and restaurants where we had been the first day. At night it was even better. There were so many people that it was difficult to walk at your normal speed, but every pub had live music and cheap drinks. Before having a beer by the river, we bought something to eat at a kiosk, looking like fried calamari, smelling like potato and tasting like mushrooms, nothing easier to recognize! But the place was really nice and definitively worth spending a relaxing evening.

8/07 – Forbidden City

After the Great Wall, we still missed the Forbidden City, the ancient palace of the Emperors. We went there very early to avoid the crowd, and this time we took the metro to avoid arriving there already tired from the walk. Still, we had to queue for more than half an hour, because there were so many people and many of them were skipping the line in front of us. Once inside the DSCN3322city, we realized why it has this name: it is so huge that we spent half a day walking around it. It is so beautiful, with its pagoda houses with the yellow roof and blue and green paintings. And its story is so fascinating, since every single piece had a different function, there were the residences of the Emperor, of the concubines, of the servants… During our visit we also met Mathieu, a nice guy from Belgium that spent with us the following days in China.

After visiting the whole palace, we went to the park in front of it, and we climbed the high stairs of the hill to reach the monastery on the top of it.

At night, we went again to the University district, where we met two friends of Paola that studied in Beijing. It was another crazy night, with only 10 yuan for open day bar at the famous Propaganda. After having spent memorable nights at the Propaganda in Moscow, we had to try also its twin in the Chinese capital. It was funny, we danced, we drank and we listened to commercial music and we enjoyed our last night in Beijing.

9/07 – Art district, train to Xian

The last day in Beijing we went to the Art District of Beijing, a bit far from the center but a really nice place. It is an ancient factory that has been turned into a whole district of shops and art galleries, where various artists show different kinds of items, from pictures to jewellery to ceramic and so on.

The funniest part of the day was the night train experience. For 25 dollars we had bought hard seats – sleeping seats costed more than twice. The length of the trip was 13 hours. A Chinese friend of mine had strongly persuaded me to change the tickets, since according to her these wagons are “for immigrants”. We didn’t listen to her, and it turned out to be one of the craziest decisions of our trip. At the train station of Beijing we had to queue ten times for the security controls, to finally get into the huge station full of fast foods, supermarkets, shops and even a cinema. Every train platform had its own waiting room, full of small shops and of people sitting and standing everywhere, on the floor, one on the other. We barely had the place to walk. It 11141193_10153170787543292_2756744016880479024_nlooked like a refugee camp, with all these people keeping on staring at us! And the train was even worse… We barely had the place to sit on the chair and no space at all for our legs – I had to keep them folded or on Gianmario’s legs. There were people sitting on the floor pushed one upon the other, in the corridor and in the space in front of the bathroom – the so called “standing seats”. It was crazy, there were even families with babies on the floor! In addition, we were not prepared for such a strong air conditioning, we had to wear scarf, jacket and something to cover
our head – thank God I had my Aeroflot lines. Everybody looked at us as if we were aliens. The train was so crowded that when dinner time came, the smell of nudeln covered any other smell, and people started to eat nudeln in any possible position – Gianmario found a guy eating his soup on his head.

10/07 – Xian: biking on the walls

We arrived to Xian after those terrible 13 hours and we took a taxi for our hostel. It was a nice place, very typical, with these Chinese colored masks on the walls and full of Chinese people that – useless to tell – stared at us. Our friend Mathieu was in a hostel only for foreigners right next door, so we spent the day with him, jealous of his “perfect sleep on the train”, in his 11899766_10153272236593292_5658623522471423808_ncomfortable private coupé. The center of Xian is super nice, you have the impression to be in the real China, with all these Chinese shops and street food stands. The wall surrounds the ancient city and in the middle of the city there is the pagoda-style Cloak Temple. We visited the Temple and after a lunch of nudeln with vegetables we went up to the walls and rented a bike. It was a really funny trip, two hours of biking on the walls, in this wonderful ancient construction that allowed us to see the whole city from the above. For dinner, we ate in a place in front of our hostel. Street food: there was a barbecue and you could chose among several dishes of meat or vegetables that they cooked in front of you. For 2-3 euros we had a great dinner, beer included!

11/07 – Terracotta Army

Amazing day and amazing place, one of the most famous in China. The story of the most mysterious archaeological site in China is the following. The fist Chinese Emperor, afraid of the afterlife, ordered to build a terracotta army to protect him after his death. This army was huge, 11695795_10206270710542677_7113525240854179053_nmore than 10.000 warriors, each of them made by a different slave and similar to him and in human dimension. After the slave finished his work, he know he would be killed, so the construction of the tomb turned out to be a real massacre, since the Emperor also ordered to kill the killers of the slaves. And, to complicate the story, he was so afraid of dying being poisoned with mercury, that he assumed every day a small amount of mercury in order to get used to it. Guess what? He killed himself by mistake by assuming too much mercury, before the construction of the army was finished. As he ordered, the army was covered, since no one had to know about it. It was discovered only some decades ago by some peasants, and since then the Chinese have been working to reconstruct every single statue, since all of them were broken in a thousand pieces. The result of this work is impressive. There are three separate sites open to the public. In one of them you can see the rests of the statues that are still to be assembled, in an other a wonderful carriage with four horses in the middle of other warriors, and in the third one – the biggest – you see thousands of terracotta warriors perfectly assembled standing in front of you. The Chinese consider it the eight wonder of the world. We went there on our own, no more guided tours after the Great Wall! We took a bus from the central station and we got there in almost one hour by a really cheap ride.

At night, after or usual street food dinner, me and Paola went out with some guys that we met in Mathieu’s hostel. They took us to the “bar street” of Xian, to a really strange bar. Well, it looked normal: house music, drinks, a pool table, but inside there was a dog hiding under a sofa and in the outside space they had a cage with a huge white rabbit inside. Very Chinese, I would say.

12/07 – Pagoda Temple, Shopping

Sunday of relax, as always. We woke up late and we went to the Pagoda Temple, outside the 11745856_10206270712742732_7064000229142949129_nwalls. Nothing special, but typical. That day we received a message from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs warning us about a tornado that hit Shanghai and that forced an evacuation of the city. The message shocked us: we had planned to go to Shanghai exactly in those days, but
fortunately we didn’t!

After the Temple we went walking on the Chinese shopping district, a nice place full of typical Chinese restaurants and souvenirs, included a pearl market. We saw how they make necklaces and earings with pearls and, of course, we bought them at a real cheap price.

13/07 – Huashan Mountain

Last day in China, and last adventure in this country. Dulcis in fundo, I would say. The Huashan Mountain is one of the highest mountain chains of China and it is famous since the monks built their monastery there, passing from the so called “death path” climbing the mountain. Now there are two funiculars to go up to the top from different sides of the mountains.

We went on our own to the site: we took a train – this time with standing seats – and then a taxi to the entrance of the mountain. We also had a little misadventure with the taxi driver, that wanted us to buy tickets in his friend’s restaurant and to eat there. In the restaurant, they started asking us money for the tickets, but they did not speak English and what we wanted was just to reach the mountain, not to eat or buy tickets from them! Lucky us, there was a Chinese girl in the restaurant that spoke English and DSCN3973helped us to bargain with the taxi driver and convince him to take us to the mountain, not to his friend’s places! So finally he understood and he did as previously stated.

From the main entrance of the site, buses take you to one of the four peaks entrances. As Mathieu told us, the best way to visit the attraction is to go up West and go down North. So we took the funicular to go up to the West peak. It was amazing, it is the longest funicular in the world, built by the Austrians, and the most scaring and fascinating. It goes from one peak of the mountain to the other, so when you look down the earth is hundreds of meters below you. And, even more scaring, the funicular literally enters into the mountain! And the mountain is so particular, it seems made of rock but there are random trees and bushes on the top. That day t was misty so we were surrounded by this magical mist and it seemed that we were above the clouds, up in the sky, surrounded by rocky peaks and by the sacred Buddhist Monastery.

The view from the top is amazing. We got up until the West peak in the middle of nowhere, following the stairs that led us to a Monastery on the top. Thousands of red laces cover one site of the path, made by prayers that climb the mountain in their religious path.

After taking pictures and observing the amazing landscape, we begun marching North to reach the other peak. Thousands of stairs divided us from our destination, but fortunately we had to go down, not up. The walk was amazing, we passed through forests, monastery, paths on the side of the rocky mountain, with breath-taking panoramic views of the other peaks. There are no words to describe this wonder.

Finally, after four hours of walking, in the late afternoon we reached the Northern peak, where we took a funicular to go down. Next time, we thought, we have to go up and down on our own – it is a six-hour walking to reach the highest point of the mountain, but it must be definitively worth!

Of course, with our usual luck, the train to go back to Xian was late, we had to wait almost two hours in the station, and in the train we all had separate seats, so I ended up sitting near two Chinese teens that tried to speak with me in English and kept on saying “you are so beautiful, where are you from?”. At the same time, four children were running up and down in the corridor and every time they stopped in front of me and they touched me, looked at me and they even gave me candies. The same happened to Paola.

14/07 – Flight to Almaty

Day of travel, destination: Central Asia! We were sad of leaving China, it had been a really pleasant trip, and unexpectedly fun, but at the same time we were so excited of going to Central Asia.

The trip to go there was so tiring that we almost regretted not going by bus or train this time. The alternative was taking a ride to Kashgar, in the extreme East of China and from there passing the border with Kyrgyzstan. We preferred to flight to spare time and to arrive there more relaxed.

For money reasons, we had bought two different flights with the same company, China Southern: me and Gianmario left earlier, with a layover of 5 hours in Urumqi, while Paola left two hours later for Urumqi as well.

The airport of Urumqi was big but rather empty, with few shops and restaurants, all super expensive. I had finished my money long before arriving there, and they did not accept credit cards, so I had to wait the next flight to eat something. After three hours of sitting on a chair we decided to pass the security and passport control, where we met Paola. After passing the security checks, we were surprised to find out that the names of the shops and the advertisements were all in Russian and Arabic, no Chinese anymore. And in Russian was the voice of the speaker that said that our flight was delayed until 1 am, five hours later! We were shocked. Five hours waiting in that airport were not sufficient? At least they took us to a hotel outside the airport, after passing again the passport control where they stamped to our passport a stamp “annulled” on the exit stamp from China. Never seen that before!

A bus took us to a hotel where they gave us a private luxury room, with super comfortable beds and a dinner at the restaurant was included. It was a buffet, so we ate so much food and we slept a bit before leaving again for the airport. After a third passport control, a queue to receive 100 yuan (14 euros) from the company as prize and a two hours flight, we finally reached Almaty at 3 am. And our adventure did not end here. Our luggage arrived late, at the border control a lady could not recognize me from the passport picture, and the taxi driver was not able to find our hostel so he left us in the middle of the street and we started to wonder if we should try to find another hostel at 4 am or wait somewhere until the light came. The phone number that Booking.com provided was not right so we couldn’t reach the hostel. It was crazy, after all that trip we didn’t even have a place to sleep!

We went to a bar to look for a wifi and we were so lucky to meet three guys from Almaty that helped us in finding the hostel we booked, by using their local websites and managing to call the reception. So after that very long day, we finally had a bed, and the whole merit goes to these three wonderful Kazakh guys.

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