Trip to China 2019-2020. Longmen Grottoes. December 22nd.

When looking for things to do in Zhengzhou, the Longmen Grottoes is a top option. But, I almost discarded it. I look into it in the early stages of the trip planning, and I was not knowledgable of how Amap works.

A quick search on how to get from Zhengzhou to the Longmen Grottoes returns a four hours route. That is too long to be able to comfortably go and come back the same day.

But, after using it for a while, I learned the ropes of the app. The default search does not include railways. The first time, I missed that detail. So, I looked for the specific train tab. It just takes just 30 minutes from Zhengzhou East to Luoyang station!

Nowadays, I use mainly Amap to move around China. I find it more useful than Apple Maps, as it seems to have up-to-date or even real-time data.

The Longmen Grottoes like the Terracotta Warriors are far from unique. There are other caves around China with similar carvings. But it is a first-timer for me.

As I walk along the side of the river, I see the first carvings. The site has a mini-museum, gift shop and easy access to all the carvings (unless you need a wheelchair).

The Buddhas are far from the most elaborated that I have seen. But it astonishes me its sheer number and the variety of forms and sizes. Many signboards explain the symbology of the figures, and there is much symbolism.

While admiring the big central statues, another tourist asks to take a picture with me. I am the only western tourist, and my beard helps to get people’s attention. I get asked twice more to pose for selfies in twenty minutes. And, I lost count on how many times someone took a picture of me from a distance.
My guess is that many of the tourists here are part of some group from the countryside as they do not seem so used to see western visitors.

In these circumstances, I always ask for a photograph back. It is a way of getting unique pictures and to show that they may be as strange to me as I am for them.

The carvings are in different states of preservation. The most elaborated sculpture-like Buddhas in the exterior are the most damaged as their protuberances are worn down by the elements. Some carvings are closer to two-dimensional drawings and less prone to erosion.

From the upper stairs, the views of the Yi River (伊河) are disappointing. The river is a wide, beautiful and full of life. Birds fly over the water and stay around in big flocks. But, the fog tones down the view to a dull grey. What it seems a layer of smog has been present since I arrived in Zhengzhou.

Back in Zhengzhou, I visit one of the new neighbourhoods. Chinese cities are growing so fast that academics can study the impact of city design in a way that it will take decades in any other part in the World.
Many people are walking towards a modern-looking mall. Western brands are trendy, the clothes are made here anyway. But, there are also many Chinese labels with unique designs.

Going back to the hotel, I visit a close-by mall. Many shops are already closed. I go to the upper floor where I find a supermarket. But, there is no cashier, the place seems empty. As I get out, I see a China Central Television sign. I suspect that I got into a TV show set without realising. The supermarket was fake. It is not the first time that being in a mall, I end up in an offices area. At New York, I got to Google’s offices. I leave without anyone noticing.

Trip to China 2019-2020. Beijing-Zhengzhou. December 21st.

Early in the morning, I will visit my las museum in Beijing. And, then, I will take a train to Zhengzhou. I planned for a slow day, so I do not need to hurry to the train station.

The Beijing Capital Museum is hosted in an impressive construction. I take my time going from room to room. I find that museums are an easy and engaging way of learning a country’s history. I will need to study to be able to remember the different Chinese dynasties, for sure. But, I am getting an intuitive understanding of the various historical periods and becoming familiarized with names and locations. And most importantly, paintings, sculptures and rest of artistic artefacts are worth admiring.

After taking my time to go around, I have more time left than I expected. The extra time allows me to visit the last place. I choose the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution. The only reason for this is that the museum is in my path to the Beijing West Railway station.

All museums represent some level of national identity view, a military museum will not be different. One section shows the mighty of the Chinese army, another, in the lower level, celebrates Chinese history, highlighting battles thru the ages. For the weapon exhibitions, I had a hard time reading any political message. Allied and enemy weapons are classified by characteristics without much context. Having seen most of the museum, I leave for the railway station.

I walk the short distance to the Beijing West Railway station. As easy is to find the station as difficult to find the actual entrance. Once inside, the station is like any other station, which makes it easy to find my way around. In no time I am in my way to Zhengzhou.

Trip to China 2019-2020. Beijing. December 20th.

Today, I visit the Temple of Heaven. The temple is a big park with many historical buildings. I get a ticket that allows entrance to a few buildings. I discover that there is a second ticket, in a different colour, that gives access to another set of buildings. And, there is yet a third kind of pass that just requires to present a Chinese card id, in my case, the passport.

The temples are small buildings in the middle of big elaborated spaces. I read the signboards around the park to understand the buildings function and place in history. In museums, I like to enjoy the craftsmanship of the past artist. In historical locations, I try to feel the past and imagine how people lived in the place. The Temple of Heaven makes the task easy.

Most visitor, thou, seem to just want to enjoy themselves in each others company. Many citizens enjoy the park by walking around, practising sport or playing cards.

I’m not sure about where to go from here. I saw a big temple area on the map, the Yonghegong Lama Temple. I decide to go for it.

The Lamastery is a lively place where tourists and worshipper mix. The architecture is similar to what you may find in other historical sites. But, the statues have a clear Tibetan style. The smell of burnt incense impregnates the air. The prayer drums that I learn need to be turned clockwise are all around the place. Some people will confidently turn the drums around and pray. Meanwhile, tourists like me will turn them tentatively to learn how they work.

Next, I enter the Temple of Confucius. It could not be more different from the Lamastery. The place is silent and seems to not be in use anymore for religious purposes. Some of the buildings hold exhibitions about Confucianism or directly about Confucius life. In many temples, it is forbidden to take photographs to not disturb the parishioners or disrespect relics. I take the opportunity to make some extra pictures.

I am tired of walking all day. So, I decided to go back to the hotel.
Getting out of the subway station the
I am tired. So, I go back to the hotel.

Getting out of the subway station, to my surprise, I discover that the National Art Museum of China is open. I misread the closing dates, and I had already abandoned the idea of visiting it. I hurry inside without a second though.

I thoroughly enjoy the exhibits. Most of the paintings and statues are interesting enough and to my liking. The art mixes a realistic style with symbolic and aspirational themes, abstract art is in the minority. Workers, Chinese UN troops, families, and many similar themes are showcased in big and small canvas. The rooms are crowded, but there is enough space left to enjoy the paintings.

After this last experience, I am done for the day.

Trip to China 2019-2020. Beijing. The Great Wall. December 19th.

In each trip, there is a list of must-see locations. The Great Wall is top of the list when visiting China. And there is no more accessible place to see it than when in Beijing. Today is the day that I will visit one of the most iconic landmarks in the world.

Yesterday, before going to bed, I planned my trip to the Badaling section of the Great Wall.

I like to travel by train, and the subway is easy to navigate. Buses, thou, are unpredictable. So, I wake up early enough to try to get into the first bus to Badaling. I take the subway to the bus stop. And, as I get out of the station, I follow the signposts to the 877 bus stop. I walk for a while, following sign after sign. Until I stumble upon the last 877 signboard, and there are no more directions. I walk around the place for a couple of minutes. I do not know where to go from here, the site does not look like a bus stop. Luckily, I have an Internet SIMM, and Baidu Translate installed on the phone. After a couple of clicks, I translate the signboard I have been circling around: “the bus station is at the other side of the road”. The 877 bus stop is in a poorly illuminated area on the other side of a four lanes road. I cross to find a few buses scattered around and no other sign to indicate a bus stop. Luckily, five minutes of waiting later, the 877 arrives close by, and I jump in.

The 877 advances slowly in the fluid morning traffic. At 1.57€, the bus is a cheap although slow way to get to the Great Wall. Other, more expensive, faster tourist busses pass us in our approach to Badaling. But, the important part is that I am in my way to the wall.

One interesting fact about the Great Wall is that it is not actually one wall. But, there are many segments here and there, and not all are interconnected. So, I am not surprised when I see the wall and the bus just passes by without stopping. I just saw “a wall”, but not the Badaling segment of the wall that is one of the best-preserved. I still find reassuring to check the phone as the GPS shows how I advance in the planned route to get to my destination.

I get down the vehicle and feel an eight-degrees-below-zero freezing gust in my face. I get the ticket that I purchased weeks ago on-line and go thru the site entrance.

As in the Forbidden City, the views trigger memories of movies, comics and the many visual representations I have seen thru the years.

The entrance leads to a point in the middle of the restored wall. I need to decide, left or right. I see groups of people going in either direction. I go to the left. Walking on the wall proves challenging. There are many step slopes. When I arrive at the first tower, I see its name is the ‘First Tower of the South Side’. I push forward from tower to tower. The ‘Seventh Tower of the South Side’ is the last one on this side of the restored wall. There I stop for a moment and look at the guard that is waiting in the freezing weather. I intentionally do a loud hands-clapping to keep the blood flowing while smiling at the guard. He moves his feet and smiles back. The non-verbal communication is the equivalent of ‘It is freezing today’, ‘Yeah, it is damn cold’. Some gestures are understood across cultures and, I am quite sure, across time.

I go back to the starting point. I need to decide what to do next. There is not much more to see. The wall just extends in the North direction. But, I choose to continue walking even that I am slightly tired. I cross many people on my path. A group is taking a group picture and ask me to join, my western status and my beard have gained me a temporary celebrity status. I ask for a photo back.

When I get to the ‘Twelfth Tower of the North Side’ I continue walking, I will try to get all-around to the starting point by a different path. I could have easily taken the descending cable cars or the long but already known way back, but I am fully engaged in walking the Great Wall. What started as a visit to a historical monument and an icon of Chinese culture has become a physical challenge.

At moments I doubt the sanity of my decision, it is not just a walk, the wall has such steep slopes that some times I use the handrails as a rope while descending walking backwards. Very few people take this part of the path, I pass many of them sitting down to gain energy back. I do not stop. Finally, I get to the exit where street food-booths are waiting. I could have continued a few more hundred meters to the end of this side of the wall. The challenge is there. But, I am physically exhausted. It will not be wise to risk injuring myself when there is so much travel still left. I will come back someday to follow that path to the end.

I take the bus 877 back to Beijing. It leaves at 11:00. I am exhausted, but the hour-long trip back to the city helps me to recover some energy. I take the subway again, and I go to visit the National Museum. It is just noon, the day is not over.

In the museum, I see A group of children from the same school visiting the exhibits. Or, at least, they all wear the same uniform. The teacher stops in different artefacts and gives the lesson talking to a microphone. All children have a headphone that receives the signal. Like is commonly done for groups of tourists. Most of the children watch the item during the lesson. A few of them go around filling some assignment in their notebooks. I have seen in China the most modern and more outdated social trends. The class seems cool enough.

The exhibits are as interesting as they get. So, I spend the rest of the day here walking thru Chinese history.

I exit the National Museum by the Tienanmen Square and walk to the hotel from there. It is just a half an hour walk.

Trip to China 2019-2020. Beijing. Forbidden City. December 18th.

I start the day early in the morning. As, I have already the tickets and I am early in the station I have time to go for breakfast. I eat what it seems a very popular dish. I like it.

The patterns from the previous train trip are repeating. There are many small towns and many new neighbourhoods under development. There are buildings, all copies of the same design, hosting big shops. And then the last one or a couple of them seem to have been empty for a long time. But, not far away, a set of newer buildings are opening new shops. The more modern buildings, half-empty, are waiting for more shops to come.

The train arrives to Beijing South station close to noon. I have an afternoon ticket for the Forbidden City, so the timing is good.

I enter the Forbidden City. There is not much to say about it. It is as magnificent as I expected. As I cross thru pavilions and big squares, there is one detail here that reminds me of ‘Kung Fu Panda’ another one there that looks like a scene from ‘Mulan’. The Imperial Palace has inspired the arts and media for centuries. I am grateful to be able to see the original materials in all its historical glory.

I stay until we are told that its time to close. Slowly and orderly a mass of visitors goes out thru the big gates. I failed to visit a couple of exhibits. For these occasions, my thinking is that it is not wrong to leave a few things unseen for the next time that I come to the city. Outside a new surprise awaits me.

When I leave the Palace, a Chinese woman starts to talk with me in English. Her husband and daughter also add some comments to the conversation. They have a heavy accent, but their English is relatively fluent.

I wonder what is what they want. The talk is just polite chitchat. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Is your first visit to China?’ Used to Sweden respectful distance, I wonder what is what they want, but I continue talking with them.
Then, out of the blue, ask me to go for tea so they can practice more English.

Aha! So, everything was about that. Suddenly this puts into context a conversation I had last year in Shanghai. It followed the same pattern of polite questions without any concrete goal. Not being an English native, I have an accent of my own. But, I guess it is not enough to discourage people from looking to learn more. Or, maybe, it is just not noticeable to someone that is not so used to standard English.

After extending the talk for another ten minutes, I decline the invitation. Tomorrow I need to weak up early. I will be stopped twice more times walking to the hotel. For this trip, my goal is to learn the ins and outs of moving around China. But, next time, practising English seems a fantastic way of meeting people and learning more about Chinese culture.

Trip to China 2019-2020. Xuzhou. December 17th.

Early in the morning, I get to Hongqiao Railway Station. I get a printed copy of all the tickets for the rest of the trip. After waiting more than half an hour at Suzhou station to buy a ticket, it seems sensible to avoid queues in other stations. There are specialized windows to sell tickets, to exchange on-line purchases, and to present reclamations. The exchange window has a shorter line and moves faster, so, I am done in a couple of minutes.

The high-speed train passes by many towns that lay along the rails. These cities have similar buildings and layouts and look old. Even in factories and warehouses, the older structures are not well maintained. Meanwhile, complete new neighbourhoods are under construction. It seems like people does not care too much about their current building as there are already newer better ones being built. Probably it’s not true, but it is a fun thought. China takes care of its ancient historical sites and makes new incredible places. The country has not yet figured out what to do with the in-betweens. For now, what is not classical or modern decays and is replaced. It will not work like that forever.

I will stay just one day in Xuzhou, so, I do not waste my time. After leaving the backpack at the hotel, I take the Metro Line 1 to the Western Han Dynasty Terracotta Warriors. The original location of the emperor’s tomb hosts the museum.

When I arrive at the museum, I find the ticket office closed. As I do not know what else to do, I enter the site anyway as there isn’t ticket validation. People are enjoying the park in different activities.

It is not until I try to enter the first building that a guard tells me, mostly by gestures, that I need to purchase a ticket. I go in the general direction that the guard pointed towards and find an open ticket office. It a sensible decision to let citizens enjoy the park and that the ticket is only needed to see the exhibits.

The tomb is simple but impressive in size. It is nice to see historical artefacts, but it is even more inspiring to see them in their original locations. It feels more real and provides context.

At the excavation site, there are hundreds of terracotta figures. One of the pits has not been opened, yet. I marvel at the thought that there are even more discoveries below the earth waiting for future generations with better technics to unearth them.

The terracotta horses are in an even more impressive location. The exhibit is inside two buildings in the middle of the lake. I go below the water level to see them.

I have finished seeing the main exhibits, but I have time left to continue exploring the park. I take a look at the map and decide to reach the top of a close-by hill. It is part of the park, but the path to get there is not very clear. I cross thru a temple and walk up several stair sections. I get to the top to find myself at the feet of a big pagoda. It is the same pagoda that dominates the view of the park.

While going back down, I find two guys walking up the hill. They ask me a question in Chinese. I do not know the words, but I understand thy mean. ‘Is this the way to see anything interesting at the top?’ I take my phone and show them the selfie I made with the pagoda. They smile and give me a thumbs up. Reassured that the path is worth it, they continue ascending.

I go back to the subway. My next stop is a twenty-minute walk from my destination.

I enter what it seems a tiny town. There are tens of buildings. All of them share the same architectonic style. The place is cosy but labyrinthic. It reminds me of the cities in games designed to waste your time wandering around. I guess that the original inhabitants know it like the palm of their hand. I use the ubiquous signs to know where to go. Traditional decorations fill the rooms. The place is quiet, and there are just a few other visitors. I feel myself going back in time.

It’s four o’clock, and I have one hour left before sunset. I visit the Xuzhou museum in a rush. The exhibits have some beautifully painted terracotta warriors and gorgeous horses. The artefacts are better than in the original site. I guess that it is a matter of access. This museum is inside the city, but you need to travel to the town outskirts to get to the original tomb location. I pass by all the exhibitions in half an hour. If I have had more time, I will have to spend twice that time.

As the sun sets, I get to the big lake that has some of the best views in the city. It is possible to walk all around the lake, but that path would have to wait for another visit. For now, I look at the lake and snap a couple of fast pictures. It is now dark, and I want to get back to the hotel to rest.

I stopped in Xuzhou just to split in half my train journey to Beijing. It has been a worthy experience.

In Xuzhou, I have booked a hotel at less than 10 minutes from the station. I quickly recognize the building from pictures on the reservation. The entrance looks just like any other entrance to an office building, not so much like a hotel. I am the only person there. I take the elevator to the 15th floor. It feels like the lift has not passed any inspection, probably, since it was built. Once on the hotel floor, I quickly check-in in what looks like an office more than a hotel reception. I get surprised by a modern and comfortable room. The overall feeling of the place had lowered my expectations. Still, there is a problem with the Internet connection. It requires a phone number to identify yourself, but my Swedish phone seems not to work. I guess that not many foreigners stay in this place. The price for one night of sleep was excellent, thou.