MMOTales Archive Retrospective + Thoughts on 2020

Hi fellow survivors of 2020,

As the end of the year is rapidly approaching, I hope everyone is safe, surrounded by loved ones, and riding out the global pandemic. With news of successful vaccination trials and the initial rollout ongoing, there’s probably good reason to believe that we might be headed for the new normal soon enough.

Anyway, this blog was just sort of a way for me to jot my thoughts down for 2020, and digging through the archive gave me a massive nostalgia trip and motivated me enough to write.

I’m fairly sure that I’m going to start the pandemic and end it exactly where I was, in my chair. It is probably my most used piece of furniture, and it shows. The amount of wear and tear it has withstood these past three or four years has been quite astounding, although I’m fairly sure it’s heading towards retirement. Unlucky. That’s not to say I haven’t been active, I was coerced into joining the gym last year by none other than Dest1, so there’s that I guess. But as with anything you’re coerced into doing, you just can’t put your heart into it, so I’ve just been going with him to humor the thought of staying healthy, despite being an intrinsically lazy person. I think my new years resolution is to eat 10% healthier, whatever that means (probably just means no more Twinkies at midnight). Gotta make realistic goals, am I right?

In case you were wondering about the context surrounding why Dest1 is the one whipping me into shape, it’s a fairly ordinary, nothing unusual, certainly not concerning series of decisions I’ve made in the past few years. Previously I was actually in Toronto, living at a friend’s house. I knew him since my time in Montreal, and his parents worked in China while he took care of their Canadian property, and it was a really fun lifestyle. There was Chinese food everywhere, I was pretty close with the people I was living with, and we all had shared interests. But as with all good things, they must come to an end. My parents gave me an ultimatum – that’s probably a strong word, more like a heavy suggestion to come to the United States to pursue better opportunities. Since they were on the path to becoming US Citizens, they wanted me to do that as well, and I wasn’t able to accomplish that staying in Canada unfortunately, due to residency requirements.

As such, I had a few options. I could move back in with my parents, and while that wasn’t the worst idea, I was vehemently against it since I have grown fond of my ability to operate independently, and they honestly supported that as well. I could move to North Carolina, to meet up with another friend there who was working at Verizon in Durham. Both of these were the sensible options, but since I’m a bona-fide idiot, I decided with the final approach, to consult the VuTales discord.

Now mind you, if you’re reading this and you aren’t aware of the VuTales discord, first of all, who are you and how did you get to this blog, second of all, pre-pandemic VuTales discord is completely different. I guess if anything good came out of the pandemic, it was all of y’all forced to come out of the woodwork. Anyway, pre-pandemic VuTales discord was legitimately just me, Ken (Dest1), and Kevin (FunnyFroggy), with the occasion rarepepe sighting of maybe a hamster, maybe Jon (Lithium), and if we were LUCKY, the owner of this website, Bryan (Vusys) would update us on the state of VuTales and VuTales Next (when the heck is this happening, by the way).

Frog’s pitch was simple – go to California. I hated that idea. I hate California. I hate the heat. I hate people (not you guys ofc), which California had a lot of. It was just straight up not a viable option. Ken proposed I move to Annandale, which is in Northern Virginia, near Washington D.C. which was where he lived with his family.

Now a lot of you are probably wondering, is this kid really going to upend his entire life to go live next to some other kid he met on the internet 14 years ago?

The answer is yeah. Like I said. bona. fide.

So I rented a car from Enterprise, packed my belongings, and crossed the border. Fast forward about two years later to 2020, I’m now a resident of Virginia! I won’t go over the details as this is a 2020 retrospective and not a three year one. Here are some highlights: met Ken irl, met Wayne irl, experienced one of them graduating (figure out which), got my car towed in the first week of moving here.

I’m not going to lie, seeing a lot of original members of MMOTales, and speaking with them has honestly been so freaking cool. It is wild to me that a bunch of teenagers that I met in middle school, I can still talk to 14 years later. I mean some of you are over thirty! And married! And work in the government! Okay that last one was a bit specific. But you get my point! Simply incredible. How many people do you know from middle school that you still talk to?

Maybe for some of you it’s actually not that incredible, but when you’re like me and you move to a brand new location every few years, those friendships are much harder to maintain. But not this. This has survived through a site shutdown, an entire communications platform transition from MSN to Skype and then to Discord, and it has lived on through the continued efforts of Kevin. It’s quite admirable, no one has tried as much as he did towards keeping the last legs of the spirit of MMOTales alive. Granted, it’s a low bar, seeing as no one else has tried literally anything, but I hope it can continue for as long as the internet exists, and as long as people have the time to pop back in once in a while.

Which brings me back to the archive. I totally forgot it existed – Bryan actually put a lot of effort into it, and it shows. Every author is categorized by name, it shows the amount of posts they have, and it somehow has all the comments intact, even the ones since 2006. Some photobucket links still work, which is mind boggling considering they’re well over a decade years old now. Those pictures can be legally married in some countries. I went through some posts, in particular mine from 2006 and they’re nothing to write home about, just another cringe inducing teenager with too much time on their hands. I guess some things never change.

So in the infographic above, I did promise a few more interesting stats. I made some pretty charts for you all.

Figure 1. Popular username starting characters
Figure 2. Least popular username stating characters

Needless to say, the most popular names started with ‘s’ and ‘d’, weeb culture was in full force (I mean it still hasn’t stopped right, VTubers and whatnot), with a lot of ‘Sakura’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Sasuke’, and the likes, while ‘d’ were primarily people such as ‘Dest1’, or ‘DarkWar4Ever.’ But who would ever call themselves darkwar4ever, that’s just weird. The top 7 letters have a 46.5% representation of almost two thousand users.

Understandably, the least popular ones were the also the least used in the alphabet, z, y, q, v, and u. Q actually had only 6 users. Quang, that makes you mighty special.

Figure 3. Top 5 Contributors to MMOTales

Here are the five most prolific contributors. As expected, they were mostly fanfic writers, and in the case of Ganzicus, a comic creator. I was never much into fanfic, even as a teen, but I knew some of you were regular subscribers to SilverFX and AznRiceFan’s series.

Here are the top twenty contributors (and Quang, since you were tied):

AznRiceFan177
Wolfguy184130
silverfx126
BlackNazgul124
ganzicus104
Fenrir78
Tninja76
Darkwar4ever72
MasterCheeze71
Waffle70
Grimno68
FireLeo8665
MeepsterXP60
evilstranger59
Shinoshi58
Roisin53
dee3269352
EonaGM52
vicelin51
Oblivion50
quang1350

Unfortunately, that’s about as much data as I could glean from just looking at the author pages. I don’t have access to any other metadata such as dates created so we can’t look at some fun stuff like who the oldest members are, or who had the most blog views. Those metrics would be interesting, but ultimately not necessary for such a cursory glance at the archives. We’re not data scientists after all.

I want to finish off this blog to encourage you all to write your 2020 thoughts! I think doing something like this once in a while is a really good way to reorganize your brain and to share your experiences in words. If anything, you have at least one fan of whatever you write, so long as it’s not fanfiction about LOL Dolls.

Have a nice 2020 everyone, enjoy the holidays, and I look forward to reading more blogs, should anyone else choose to do so. I also look forward to definitely not seeing everyone leave once the ‘demic is over.

Godspeed, 2020. May you gtfo ASAP.

Discovering China pt. 8, Shenzhen + Final Thoughts

The last destination on this 2 week long journey concluded in Shenzhen, a major city in the Guangdong province. As one of China’s first special economic zones, where more free-market oriented policies are instated, such as preferential tax rates and reduced regulation turned Shenzhen from a market town to a global economy practically overnight. It isn’t really a city you would visit for tourism, but what it lacks in tourist attractions it makes up in the amount of high tech companies headquartered here. Social media and investment holding giant, Tencent, the world’s largest insurance company, Ping An insurance, as well as telecom giants ZTE and Huawei all have headquarters in Shenzhen. These hi-tech companies congregate at the Science and Technology Park in the Nanshan district, which also contains Shekou, where my aunt and uncle lives.

Shekou actually has its own interesting backstory. Due to Shenzhen being an economic development zone and its proximity to Hong Kong (right across then Shenzhen bay, about 30 minutes by ferry), it actually was designated as a free trade zone, where customs duty is generally not applied. As such, in a similar vein to the rest of Shenzhen, the development in Shekou has accelerated tremendously as well over the past decades, with most of its development being land reclamation and redevelopment, effectively creating new land by filling in the bay.

It is also one of the largest homes to temporary migrant workers to the region, also known as expats. Due to its unique geographical location as well as historical circumstances involving oil exploration in the South China Sea in the 1980s that brought skilled foreign laborers to Shekou, it plays host to many international schools and it’s not uncommon to see foreigners exercising on the docks or riding the subway.

The most famous destination in Shekou would be the Minghua ship, which is completely landlocked and converted into a sort of western styled entertainment complex. The literal translation would be called “Sea World,” with various restaurants of varying styles of cuisine from all around the world. One can speculate that this conversion was done to capitalize on the unique background of the area.

The Minghua converted into a entertainment park

Although Shenzhen wouldn’t be what you call a tourist hotspot, it hasn’t really stopped the city from trying to be one. It has plenty of shopping complexes of its own, as well as two major theme parks, which can be translated to “Splendid China – Folk Culture Villages”, and the “Window of the World”. The concept is fairly simple, they used to be just scenic spots with 1:15 scaled down models of famous vistas in China and around the world, but now has been converted to theme parks with rides and kid-friendly playgrounds coupled with performances.

Miniature fortifications of Xi’an

Miniature stone forest

A fake flower that is able to bloom year round

Potala Palace in Tibet

A performer of various tribes

Japanese koi

Confucius Temple

After visiting both, it is debatable whether they are worth the visit on a regular day. There were major construction projects in both parks for events happening for Christmas during late December, so the best time to visit would probably be during those event periods, with younger children to get the most out of it.

For the last day, my uncle arranged a tour of Tencent. Unfortunately, because my two days in town were on the weekend, the office was closed and as such we were only limited to the second floor for viewing, which was a small area that showed the number of installs and people connected to the WeChat messaging service. I did manage to ask him a bit about the company but as he was in sales he couldn’t tell me much about the technical side of things, and of course due to the language barrier it was also difficult to for me to translate.

Tencent started off as a company backed by venture capitalists for their initial instant messaging app, QQ, which is still used today as a social media hub, with most of the IM functionality being moved to their other product WeChat. The unique advantage these particular apps have is that they have many subfunctions, individual apps that exist within the Tencent ecosystem such as ordering taxis, getting takeout, shopping, or even renting bicycles. Recently, Tencent has surpassed Alibaba as the largest tech company in Asia, and the largest social media company in the world, surpassing Facebook with a market capitalization of over $500 billion USD.

The initial revenue stream of the company came primarily from offering a premium version of the QQ platform, as well as embedded ads into the platform, similar to how Google generates revenue by displaying ads. Subsequent revenue streams are mostly from their investments into online gaming platforms, which still makes up the bulk of their revenue. After their successful investment into Riot Games, the maker of one of the most played online games in the world, the company then took that revenue and put it back into acquiring stakes into a variety of tech startups in different technologies, and re-branding it under the Tencent flag, namely . Most recently their mobile payment platform WeChat Pay, a payment system similar to AliPay has also been a big source of revenue.

It is important to note however that the first and largest customer of Tencent is still the Chinese government. In fact, as of October 2017, there are approximately 7,000 employees of about 40,000 directly work for the company and are part of the Chinese communist party. The reason for this is that Tencent is one of the largest data centers in China, as other companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter are all banned in China due to the necessity to develop home talent in the technology front as well as being able to access the data of its users.

This is part of the Communist Party’s philosophy of the Internet, where they believe that the internet within a country should be regulated by the governing entity. Since China isn’t exactly a democracy, the Communist Party regulates all internet apps to ensure that voices of dissent with the main party are suppressed, although such events are much less likely to occur in recent years due to the ability to bypass tracking using various tools to mask your location as well as using public services such as Internet Coffee Shops.

The most interesting project that we discussed concerned Tencent’s relationship with the government and how they’re one of the major participants in the social credit system which the party has stated they want to put in place by 2020 in China. By collecting vast amounts of user generated data tied to a phone number, Tencent can keep track of a users spending habits, as well as food and travel habits, where they shop, whom they message, and various other meta-data that essentially can establish a profile for any individual that uses the service. Other large companies such as Alibaba are also participants, and the social credit system may be one of the most ambitious government technical project to ever be undertaken in the history of the world.

In the west, these kinds of activities already take place. Facebook keeps track of the locations you visit, analyzes pictures you upload to see the shops you frequent and suggests ads accordingly. Google is the same, and it would be very remiss to not consider every single app to have some sort of meta data collection going on that can then be sold to 3rd party advertisers (seriously, just read the often 20-or so pages of privacy policy some of these apps have, it’s all in there). Although this data is private and not accessible by the government through regular means, most companies will offer them up willingly provided the situation is important enough. For example, if the government suspects that an individual is a terrorist and is active on social media, they could subsequently subpoena the company and acquire information on the subject. In China, this step is removed and it is much easier for the government to access that information, which allows for greater control of that data, and allows them to take on more ambitious projects such as the social credit system.

To elaborate, this system would be much like the credit score that you can find in the west. However, instead of just attached solely to your financials, this social score would essentially be a personal number that increases with the amount of what is deemed to be a positive activity by the government, and decreases with activities deemed to be negative. The backbone of the system is actually built on the Sesame Credit system from Alibaba, with other major social media companies such as Tencent providing much of the needed data to track their users activity. The idea is that the score would be a general indicator of a person, entity, or corporation’s level of trustworthiness. Because a lot of deals in China still fall through due to trust issues between different parties, the government was spurned into action to create a system that can catch up to the west and establish a baseline so that people could do business without too much insecurity.

The implications this carries however doesn’t extend to just giving people more security while performing transactions with other people though. The government also plans on bundling a reward system with the score, as well as punishments for bad behavior. Users that have higher trust scores can get larger loans, rent cars without putting down deposits, or even getting visa applications approved more quickly. A lower score however means slower internet speeds, restricted access to restaurants, and for serious offenders, a complete ban from travelling outside the country, or the inability to get a job. It allows the government to nudge people’s behaviors and habits, to make them more in line with the communist values that the party promotes.

Because there’s very little transparency involved with the algorithm that the government plans on using to rate its users, it’s difficult to tell which activities will be deemed trustworthy or not. Furthermore, there could be a variety of unintended consequences, such as whether people will be able to essentially purchase boosts to their score on the black market. Similarly, security issues would be called into question, with hackers introducing a whole new level of problems that the system could be vulnerable to.

It is very much a “Big data meets Big Brother” kinda of situation, an almost Orwellian view of the government powered by the amount of data their users are willing to provide free of charge for the level of convenience that these apps offer. As we approach the age of technology where essentially our online lives merge with our offline ones, systems such as these are really no surprise. It is a surprise that the timeline the government has set is so bold though, with local versions of the project already taking place at the local level (Shanghai has a version called Honest Shanghai).

In terms of other projects Tencent is working on, apart from gaming, a lot of it is focused on AI, with the company’s public stance that due to the lack of education infrastructure around the topic, the west is still ahead in terms of machine learning. Tencent isn’t slouching in this regard though, in recent years a majority of its new hires have been in the AI category, as well as tripling their investment into the AI space in the past year. Although it wasn’t revealed exactly what these projects would be, it could be safe to assume that they are variations of home improvement robots such as Google Home, Siri, and Alexa, of Google, Apple, and Amazon respectively. It’s also very likely for companies such as Tencent to have various forays into other smart cloud services such as cloud computing and smart cars that can essentially talk to each other to relay traffic patterns, which is a huge problem in China that could be solved with AI.

Being at one of the most valuable companies in the world does make you slightly nervous 🙂

Overall, this 2 week trip to China has been quite revealing. The breakneck speed that the country has been developing at is quite unfathomable in the west. The proof is in the pudding – driving to the Shenzhen airport from Shekou, it was possible to see dozens of skyscrapers lining up for completion.

One thing that I noticed though is that most of these major cities look practically identical. There might be different flavors of cuisine found in each city, but there’s very little in terms of different flavors in terms of city design. Walking around in Beijing feels similar to walking down another street in Xi’an, and the same was felt for Kunming and later Shenzhen. The subway system, although very elaborate and well serviced, are also the exact same. Although this level of conformity creates an atmosphere of reassurance for the regular traveler – learning how to use the system in one city guarantees you to know how to use it in another, it also strips away some of the personality a city could potentially have.

I do think that overall China is facing many of the issues the west is facing. Environmental pollution due to rapid human development, congested roads due to the overall increase in wealth of the country and thus the increase of luxury goods purchased by individuals, these are all issues that we need to consider. The Chinese government is doing well on this front, with increased investment into solar and wind power, with visible wind farms on the mountains in Xi’an and the plethora of solar panels found at the Shenzhen airport, but it remains to be seen whether these measures will be enough to stem the tide of human development that has already affected most of China.

However, because my visit was so short and the amount of destinations I could go to was limited, it only offered a small window into the country. A lot of time was also spent navigating and lesslittle time was dedicated to each location. For future trips, I believe that more time should be dedicated to each location, but with each day having specific itineraries to make each destination more meaningful. With the amount of data available now, it is possible to plan for schedules down to the last minute.

But alas, that’s another story for another time. That’s it for this entry, see you on the next trip.

Discovering China pt. 7 – Lijiang, yunNan

Stepping into Lijiang, you can definitely feel time winding down. The city’s heartbeat was much slower. Gone are the towering skyscrapers and neon lights, replaced by the Yulong mountain range that stretches almost entirely along the city. Although there is a metropolitan city center, it is much smaller in scope. There is no subway system, with limited bus support. Most of your travelling here will most likely be via taxi or a tour bus should you choose to do so.

Lijiang’s primary attractions are much more in tune with nature than the rest of the cities I have visited. As mentioned, it is host to – or rather, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (literal translation) plays  host to the city, where the Naxi people reside. The Naxi are an officially recognized ethnic group by the People’s Republic of China, and is one of 56. Apparently they were involved in the early days of the tea and silk trade, which is why a large number of shops here are dedicated to selling various fabrics and tea tasting stalls.

There is a huge number of destinations to truly dive into but with only a day and two nights here, the amount of destinations I could realistically explore was three, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the old town of Lijiang, and the ancient town of Shuhe. Once I arrived by airport, it was a reasonable bus ride to the city center and then I taxi’d to the hotel’s address, which the guy couldn’t actually find because his phone GPS signal was weak for some reason so I had to give him the instructions from my phone. I didn’t realize it at the time but the hotel I reserved was actually inside the ancient town of Shuhe. I was simply too concerned about burning too much daylight to be able to explore the old town properly which was the primary goal of that afternoon. Thankfully, the hotel wasn’t too difficult to find and the staff were friendly enough to provide guidance on how to approach touring the old town.

The Lijiang old town used to be the city center, but because it was well preserved and its architecture has remained largely intact over the years, they essentially converted most of it to a tourist attraction and built the rest of the city around it. During the day you can find various shops, eateries, tea tasting stalls, flower cake bakeries, fruit vendors, flower arrangements, drum sellers, weavers, craftsmen, inns, and even a wax museum (you get the idea). During nighttime, when most stores close, the bar street comes alive and becomes the center of the ancient city, a very weird clash between old and new. Fog machines spew mist into the streets whilst strobe lights wreak havoc on unsuspecting passerby trying to take pictures. I don’t think my generation knows how to dance though, as I passed by the noisy clubs the amount of dancing I saw amounted to 20 somethings jumping up and down to part rave part traditional Chinese music. It was interesting, if not slightly bizarre to watch. I have a clip of it but the Wifi is too slow for me to embed, so you’ll just have to use your imagination!

 

For most people exploration of the old town will begin at the Black Dragon Pool – it is the main source of water for the city and thus its importance cannot be understated. Water flows in small aqueducts towards every part of the old town, and so it’s role is comparable to the human heart. As such, to even enter the park that surrounds the pool requires a preservation fee of 80 CNY. It was probably the first time I saw clear water outside during my visit to China so it was definitely a very nice change of pace.

Black Dragon Pool

Some of the many types of flowers you’ll find here

Water from the pool flowing into the town

Ambling south towards the old town, you could definitely start to see more signs of tourism. Once you reach the giant waterwheel and the heritage wall you know that you’re in the old town. From there, you can take a myriad of different paths, each with its own twists and turns, so it’s really easy to get lost if you don’t follow the helpful signs, use a map, or have a keen sense of direction.

Entering the old town

Taking a picture of a guy taking a picture of a guy singing on an open terrace

As you can tell by the time I got through most of the town night was starting to fall. The summary of the whole experience is essentially that I ate too much, I drank a lot (of juice), and I bought some yak jerky.

The next day’s main destination was the mountain. For most people visiting the mountain, they stop at the 4680 meter mark, where it’s not too difficult to breathe. You can ascend higher provided you have the gear for it but as I am in no shape to go on a mountain climbing expedition I stuck to the basics for this one. It is worth noting that the mountain is under much stricter police supervision than any of the other places I’ve been to so far – the taxi I took would only go so far as the ticket booth, which was 10 km away from the base of the mountain. I had to take another taxi with another guy who was also travelling by himself driven by people of the Naxi tribe. As such, I would strongly recommend not to venture to the mountain via any means other than a guided tour to save the hassle (you could alternatively drive yourself but I believe there’s additional fees involved?). On the bright side it was cheaper than what the taxi would have been. According to the driver to and on the way back (managed to take a taxi that time) the amount of scrutiny is heavier earlier during the day and loosens up as the afternoon rolls out, but by that time you can’t really ascend the mountain anyways because the gates close at around 4 PM.

That aside, if you do find yourself in Lijiang for whatever reason, the mountain is definitely worth going to. It provides some amazing views of the valley, and after you ascend it, you can go back down to the valley and visit the man-made lakes below. Both are very beautiful in terms of scenery, something that you really wouldn’t expect to be left in China after visiting city after city of smog.

Cable car for going up to around 4506m elevation (dirty glass unfortunately)

The initial ascent to the 4608 mark from the 4506 mark

The 4608 meter mark, indicated by a flag, bristling in the heavy winds you’ll find up here

The clouds surround the higher peaks that you don’t have access to normally

Panorama at the top (as always, click to enlarge)

The ascent is definitely challenging for kids or the elderly; despite the only 300m vertical difference – the winds really pick up speed the higher you climb. You can purchase canisters of oxygen if you feel lightheaded or dizzy, which definitely helps. Fortunately, there are many resting areas along the way so you can sit down and catch your breath.

Afterwards you have a few choices, you can go towards the valley (what I did), go towards the meadow to see the roaming yaks or watch a performance put on by the Naxi. The performance is usually bundled with tours and needs to be reserved in advance, so I headed back down towards the valley (called Blue Moon valley) to see the lakes and waterfalls.

Initial view

There’s two ways to go about the valley – you can start from the bottom and work your way up, or start from the top and work your way down. There’s also two sides that you can view the scenery from, and for the truly lazy, a battery car service that picks you up at each vista, lets you take a few photos, and whisks you off to the next one. As the ticket price includes admission to this location, it is definitely worth going to after the mountain. Despite the lakes being man-made, it doesn’t detract from the lush valley providing a beautiful backdrop to all the selfies and wedding pictures that were being taken here. The walk was also a great break from the thin air on the mountain.

The water up close, as clear as it can get

A look at the mountains from the valley

Panorama of the valley (click to enlarge)

Waterfalls and mountain peaks

A live, domesticated yak

After that excursion, I took a quick trip back to the hotel, and started walking around the ancient town of Shuhe. In many ways,  it is an extension of the old town. The stores and stalls all sell similar things, but it is much closer to the forest, ponds, and hills. It also has a lot more horses, which you can ride (for a fee of course).

Guided horse rides

This part was definitely more peaceful than the main old town – both are definitely worth visiting in their own right, and if I had more time I would have most likely spent more time in Shuhe. There are bike excursions as well as a “treasure” hill that you can climb, but that will have to be in the future. I did manage to enjoy more of the local cuisine, in particular the rice thread dish at one of the places I tried, it was only 15 CNY but I felt like I died and went to food heaven.

Looks simple, but that broth is deceivingly good

Sadly I have to part ways with this lovely town, which has been quite possibly my favorite destination yet. Tomorrow I head back to another buzzing metropolis, Shenzhen. (Will be arriving late so no entry again.)

Discovering China pt 6 – Kunming, Yunnan

I’m writing from Kunming today. I actually arrived yesterday but it was late in the day and I only had enough time to visit one park before calling it quits and so I didn’t accumulate enough material for a blog. I also didn’t have enough time to go to the Stone Forest because it was way too far on the other side, and it was either between that or Dian lake, both are spectacular vistas but both command a serious amount of time. If I had one extra day it definitely would have been worth the visit but it’ll have to be for some other time.

I learned a really important lesson when it comes to building itineraries when travelling without a tour guide though – it’s extremely important to consider the logistics when it comes to travel time and the distance of every destination. You can find good and inexpensive hotels to stay at but you also have to consider the mode of transportation you’re using to get there – is the hotel close to the places you’re going to visit? How far is it from the airport or the train stations? Is it close to any other public transportation hubs? How are you going to mobilize from attraction to attraction using the least amount of time? A taxi isn’t always the answer, and in fact, Kunming had the worst traffic I’ve seen so far. After going to the first destination via taxi and being stuck in traffic for almost half an hour, the subway system was sort of a saving grace for me, as it was designed such that a station was pretty much right next to the two spots I was going to visit afterwards.

You also have to account for the amount of time you’re going to spend at each attraction to maximize the amount of coverage, and also for the amount of people you’re travelling with, as well as the amount of potential other tourists at each location. For example, many people would consider the Terra Cotta army a half-day affair, but if you can leave early in the day, are travelling with only a few people, and it was late November when there aren’t that many tourists? It could easily be done in two hours, which increases your efficiency. That said, this style of tourism won’t be as relaxing as what a vacation maybe ought to be, but when the limiting factor is time, it should definitely be a priority  to maximize the amount you have.

With that in mind, I also learned that it’s difficult to plan for travel time without using Chinese apps (in China, funny right), as the routes that Google Maps (what I usually rely on in North America) proposes are often incorrect due to outdated information. Baidu maps is a lot more accurate in this regard but it is extremely slow or even blocked in certain areas of the West. I’m unsure if there are any 3rd party apps that can accomplish the same thing with the same degree of accuracy, but for future plans it would definitely be a lot more efficient to plan out entire routes beforehand and then adjust accordingly, instead of only hitting a destination and if time allows, to hit another one. It doesn’t have to be an extremely tight fit either, just allow spaces of time for potential delays due to traffic, weather, fatigue, or other events that may happen. Worst case scenario you drop an attraction, but if I was a bit more efficient in Xi’an I definitely could have explored more, similarly with Kunming.

All that aside, Kunming is for all intents and purposes, the cultural and actual capital of the province of Yunnan, in the South West region of China. It sits on the same longitude line as Florida and Texas so as you can imagine, it gets pretty hot here. Thankfully, the weather in November was a pleasant 20 degrees Celsius, coupled with somewhat cloudy skies meant two beautiful days for sightseeing.

As the train from Xi’an to Kunming would take about 36 hours, the only option was to fly. The tickets are fairly cheap, approximately $50 USD. Unfortunately by the time I arrived at Kunming and checked in at the hotel, it was already late afternoon, so I took a taxi to the closest destination, Haigeng park, which borders the Dian Lake.

View of Western Hills from Haigeng park (click to enlarge)

Now if you can’t tell, Dian Lake simply wasn’t what it used to be. As with all human development, the environment around it suffers as a result, and even walking down the street it was clear that construction was happening everywhere. In fact, there’s construction right outside my hotel (thankfully they stop once night falls so there’s no disturbance). Waste was pumped into the lake untreated up until 1990 so you can imagine the damage it caused to the ecosystem.

Blue skies, but murky water.

There have been efforts to restore the lake but they have been largely unsuccessful, and today the water is undrinkable or even usable for agriculture. It is a veritable shame because on the surface it was a beautiful sight, coupled with the mountains and much bluer sky compared to the previous places I visited in China.

A receding sun

The park was free to enter and leave, it was mostly a place for people to take a stroll, but for some strange reason there were lots of people there fishing with some really thick rods right next to signs that said no fishing. With a lake that has an estimated 55% of its fishing population dead from the pollution, I wasn’t sure why they were there exactly – I didn’t even see any of them catch anything for the few hours I spent walking along the coast line. I wasn’t about to go up to them and confront them about the no fishing thing so I just went on my merry way.

Fishers

The rest of the people here were just enjoying the lake breeze, and there were vendors selling bread that you could feed to the local birds. There were also biking paths and flower gardens along the way.

Locals feeding birds

Some of the flowers that are said to bloom year round

The next day I headed for the Western Hills and more specifically, Dragon Gate. The entire place was huge and would probably take an entire day to explore it all. As mentioned previously, I took the subway and the station exit was right next to the ticket vendor. A 88 CNY ticket gave you access to the Dragon Gate and its surrounding scenic area, a shuttle bus to and back the entrance to said area, as well as a cable car ride up the mountain and a battery car ride back, should you choose to do so. Of course you could opt for just the entrance fee and hike the entire 15 kilometers or so, and if I had better shoes on I probably would have done so but I did chicken out a bit and took the easy way out and bused up the mountain.

Personally, I would highly recommend to not hike the whole way and skip the cable car, it was definitely the highlight of the day. At first glance it looks dangerous but you’re actually never realistically that far off the ground (don’t drop anything though you won’t be able to get it back most likely). However, if you turn around or look to the side, you’ll be greeted with quite the spectacular view of the city.

Cable car ride up the mountain

View from the battery car, black circle indicates Haigeng park from the previous day

After you get off the cable car, you have a few choices. You can go to the scenic area, take a few pictures, and then take the cable car back down if you don’t want to hike at all. Alternatively, you simply hike back down the mountain and visit the temples where you can make offerings and other various nooks and crannies along the way (what I did). Granted, if you hiked up the entire way (very commendable), you could definitely take the cable car back down if the fatigue got to you. If you had the stamina of superman, hiking the entire way back down would definitely demonstrate your physical ability.

View from up the mountain (click to enlarge)

One of the many temples you can pray at for good fortune

The Dragon Gate, as expected, was packed with tourists so I didn’t really have a good opportunity to take a nice looking photo. It isn’t really a vista in of itself, it’s just built on a side of a cliff that offers one of the widest viewing angles of the city, which was shown in the panorama above.

After you descend, there’s basically a marketplace where you can buy food, fruit, and locally produced statuettes and souvenirs. I just bought a classic bowl of noodles. I thought I had a picture of the rice thread (Mi Xian) dish that’s a specialty to this province I also got but it mysteriously got deleted, which is unfortunate. I’ll definitely get more opportunities in Lijiang, where I’m heading to tomorrow.

Classic bowl of beef noodles

The next destination of the day was Cuihu, or Green Lake. It was a park, also with free admission like the park yesterday. This one was way more packed with tourists, the locals, and these birds. Fun fact – this used to be part of Dian Lake but decreasing water levels eventually resulted in it becoming its own independent body of water. Another fun fact, when the birds here get full from all the people feeding them, they actually fly back to Dian Lake to relax.

Cuihu, or Green Lake Park, with its 1,000,001 seagulls (not a made up number, trust me)

The park was actually divided in 5 sections and if you really wanted to be thorough it would probably take you another whole day to navigate the entire place with the amount of people that were here. There were many people dancing and singing, some in traditional clothing while others were just grooving in their sportswear. It was equal parts relaxing as it was loud, depending on your proximity to the closest loudspeaker.

Dancing

The park was also host to many types of plants that it helps cultivate. There were many species of bamboo, as well as a bonsai garden.

Bamboo

Bonsai trees

Again the water seemed pretty polluted so there was likely no fish in the area anymore. I saw some workers cleaning up the lake but it would most likely be decades before the environmental damage could be reversed – if it was even possible.

Workers cleaning up the lake

Tomorrow I fly to Lijiang, but I most likely won’t be able to gather enough content for an entire blog so see you in 2 days!

Discovering China pt 5.

Preface: This blog will mostly be one giant writing piece on the Terra Cotta warriors – if you have visited them before or aren’t particularly interested in the 8th wonder of the world, feel free to skim or skip this entry! Just a warning that it’s very history heavy.

Approximately 2,200 years ago, a very young emperor by the name of Qin ascended the throne and 700,000 workers set to the task of building the greatest collection of terracotta the planet has ever seen. The term terracotta stems from its Latin root, ‘terra’, or ‘earth’, and ‘cocta’, which means ‘cooked’. As such, its present translation is essentially “baked earth.” In Chinese, a simpler term is used to describe the site, “兵馬俑” which translates to “Soldier and horse funerary statues.”

Built to protect the mausoleum of the emperor and his treasures even in the afterlife, the workers dug these gigantic pits and created life-sized replicas of these statues, including soldiers, horses, and even the chariots that were characteristic of the army formation the Qin dynasty was famous for. According to the ancient historian Sima Qian, the project eventually consumed the lives of every single craftsmen that worked on it, either due to mercury poisoning because they poured it in the pits to simulate rivers, or they were ordered to be entombed with the emperor when he died because nobody that knew about the secrets of the tomb could be allowed to live and potentially divulge its secrets. It is a brutal account of what is now considered an 8th wonder of the world (an unofficial title given to projects of comparable stature to the original seven wonders), but as with all legends, there is some truth, and the discovery of substantial traces of mercury today seems to corroborate Sima’s story.

Statue of Qin Shi Huang at the entrance

Today, the site is one of the major tourist hot spots in Xi’an, and rightfully so. The three pits full of excavated soldiers, weapons, and other treasures as well as the tomb of the emperor are a true sight to behold. Luckily, because I was travelling by myself I was able to slip inbetween groups of tourists who were with their tour guides, and because I could understand both languages it was easy to glean random tidbits of information here and there about the site. None of it was too shocking though, although I did learn about a pretty tragic story where one of the tourist’s grandparent suffered from a skiing accident and became paralyzed, and that’s why he started touring the world because he realized that life is short and you should experience as much of it as you can, while you still can. It’s a good lesson to takeaway that I wasn’t expecting, certainly not from a bunch of clay statues.

Entrance to the park

Walkway leading to the pits

Plenty of visitors even at this time of year

The Terracotta army is quite astounding when you enter the first pit. This one is dedicated to depicting the standard Qin army formation. Essentially, you have a rectangle formation, with archers stationed at the front, followed by lines of infantry, and then chariots manned by officers and generals sprinkled about. The amount of soldiers excavated total about 6,000 spanning an area of around 14,000 square meters, which translates to, as one tour guide said, the width of 1 and a half football fields. Now I’m not sure if she was referring to American football or European football but based on what I could glean from their accents it seemed that they were from the States. In any case, the area was quite large, and although the front appeared well maintained, the back of the pit was reserved for repairs and refurbishment of the soldiers that were broken during the excavation.

Panorama of the first pit

As it turns out, paint and clay don’t preserve that well after twenty-two centuries – the paint is said to flake and disintegrate only a few seconds after being exposed to air, which is why all the soldiers have that distinct color of bronze. Despite that, you’d be hard pressed to find two similar faces on these soldiers, save for the fact that the heads have fallen off of some them. The craftsmen at the time were extremely careful in their attention to detail to make the statues more impressive to demonstrate the power of the Qin army.

Interestingly enough, the entire site started at this pit, where some farmers were digging a well. When they stumbled upon some weird colored soil, they reported it to local authorities, which apparently drew journalists to the area, which then drew attention from the government who eventually setup an entire excavation team that developed the site into what is now recognized worldwide. Today, excavation work still isn’t even close to being complete – only 1,000 soldiers of the said 6,000 are said to have been unearthed, but it’s unclear whether the rest will ever see the light of day because the technology we have right now isn’t enough to excavate them without causing major damage to these artifacts.

Thankfully, the site is setup so that as you exit a pit you’re right next to the entrance of the next one. The second and third pits are smaller in scope, with the third one boasting a whopping 68 soldiers, 4 horses, and a grand total of one chariot. The soldiers found in this one were however facing each other, which suggested that it was most likely where soldiers congregated to make plans or to converse, all speculation of course.

Third pit front view (no joke it was about this big)

Vastness of the 2nd pit

The second pit contained the most comprehensive and complete collection of the units that would have existed in the actual army, with numerous horses, chariots, and archers. Individual soldiers that were kept in better condition were in their own display cases for closer inspection. You could also find different types of each unit, archers that either stood up or knelt, as well as the generals who were behemoths compared to the already larger than life sized soldiers (the shortest one found was 1.78m, with an average height of 1.9m).

A middle-ranking officer

Believe it or not, this was originally in pieces, it took 8 years to put it back together.

After the visit to the pits you have a choice of visiting Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum, or Lishan Garden. Again however due to technological concerns about damage with the excavation, the tomb itself has not been opened yet, but several smaller pits were excavated with civilian statues depicting acrobatics and the like, but it was nowhere near as impressive as the previous pits, and also a lot of places forbade photos. If visiting Xi’an and you are strapped for time, I would probably just skip this until they actually do excavate it or somehow we’re able to see it without disturbing the mound above. That will be truly be a sight to behold as sonar readings indicate it is almost 10 times as deep as the pits, and covers a much wider area as well with many of the emperor’s best treasures laying in wait.

View of Mount Li as you leave the site

I took a taxi to the museum which cost 90 CNY, and took a bus back which was only 9 CNY. I would argue that the taxi is well worth it if you’re pressed for time because it was significantly faster than the bus. Now that the brief history lesson is over, by the time I got back there wasn’t a significant amount of time to do anything that I haven’t done already, so I spent some time exploring the surrounding area of the hotel I was staying at. This turned out to be a gigantic shopping complex. Instead of the traditional shopping mall you would find in North America where at most you would see a few floors, this was more like a maze of interconnected giant mall plazas that just never ended both horizontally and vertically. In fact, some floors were so high up that I eventually ended up getting vertigo.

I entered the mall on one side and walked around in a seemingly endless amount of twists and turns and by the time I got hungry and wanted to go back I somehow ended up at an exit a kilometer away. I’m not sure if this design is intentional or it just became like this but you could probably spend a week and still not be able to visit every shop in this complex – mind you, I’m fairly positive that this isn’t even one of the largest malls in this district, let alone the city. Each floor was dedicated to a certain category it seemed – jewelry, apparel, there was even a floor dedicated entirely to kids and another floor that was just one endless food court. It was ridiculous.

Mall promotional statue

Ninja turtle

A kid collecting his spoils at a mall arcade

Finally exited the complex (it was night by then)

A small booth where you can sing karaoke

For my last dinner of this session in Xi’an, I was goaded into going to a Pizza Hut (they said it was an experience unlike any other). Strangely enough, rather than a takeout pizza parlor it actually turned out to be a sit down restaurant that served really weird flavors of pizza (durian anyone?) as well as upscale Italian dishes such as risotto. It was certainly a bizarre experience, sort of like stepping into an alternate reality where Gordon Ramsay’s Pub and Grill was somehow just a Burger King  (if you’re not sure where I’m going with this analogy, it’s not a great analogy, don’t worry about it).

A fruit tea with pieces of edible fruit inside (very delicious)

A pizza with very strange toppings (kudos if you can guess it correctly)

Either way, you’ll have to excuse me for now because I need to hit the gym to work off this pizza I just had.

P.S. Tomorrow is another province entirely!

Discovering China pt 4.

If I could pin a motto on Xi’an, it would be that bigger is better. As the most populated city in Northwestern China, the city alone boasts an insane population of almost 9 million people, and it shows. Stepping into Xi’an felt like you’ve stepped into one of the most important cities in the world. The buildings were tall, the roads wide, billboards stretching across the sides of buildings like you wouldn’t believe. As one of the oldest cities in China, it boasts numerous tourism attractions, including the Terra Cotta army, the fortifications of Xi’an, Mt. Hua, as well as many local cuisine styles that attract visitors around the world.

Construction sites were a regular sight

That level of growth and population doesn’t come without any consequences however. Despite the huge roads and lanes dedicated for bicycles and smaller motorized vehicles, there are over 2 million registered vehicles in the city as of 2014, which meant a growing problem including traffic jams and air pollution. Both are also very apparent issues – taking a taxi anywhere for even a 2 kilometer trip would take upwards of 15 minutes, and there is a smog that envelops the city during the morning hours. There are efforts to reduce congestion that I have witnessed as well however – the introduction of roundabouts is a good start for major intersections but there were only a few that I saw. As for air pollution, it’s hard to tell as there were no visible efforts being done. From my point of view, it seemed to be the worst out of all the places I’ve been to so far. A quick online query confirms my suspicion as it shares the same pollution level as Beijing, and is one of the worst offenders in China.

Clear skies – but buildings faraway are fuzzy due to smog

As a tourist, getting around the city is as easy as it was in Beijing – you have all the options available to you, subway, taxi, bus, or bicycle sharing services for navigation inside the city, as well as high-speed rail and air to leave. Xi’an is a city that can be explored both in the morning and at night, much like Beijing, with many events happening late at night that involve lights, such as the musical fountain show at the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, which has surprisingly survived many earthquakes despite being a 1,300-year old building.

Pagoda at night

The quite frankly ridiculous name comes from a legend involving Buddhist monks – apparently one day, they couldn’t find any meat to eat, and one of them said “Today we could not find any meat, I hope to the merciful Bodhisattva will give us some.” And at that moment, a flock of geese flew over them, and the largest one that was leading the pack had its wings mysteriously broken and fell to the ground in front of them. As this would have startled anyone, the monks were truly terrified and saw this as a sign from the Bodhisattva to change their ways and never touch meat again.

Today, it is quite a tourist hot spot, with many restaurants, parks, and public spaces where people were dancing, exercising, or just having fun. As previously mentioned, it also boasts the largest musical water fountain performance in Asia, although it’s unclear whether that’s saying much because how many musical water fountain performances are there really?..

Water fountain performance (accompanied by music)

The main destination of the day was the Fortifications of Xi’an, also known as the Xi’an City Wall. Built originally as a military defense system, it now surrounds the inner sanctum of Xi’an, and spans in a giant rectangle that’s approximately 14km (that’s 9 miles for you imperial folks). In the past, it was built under the orders of the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, and was maintained and refurbished during subsequent dynasties that also used the wall for its ability to be… a wall. Now that I think about it, I’m surprised Donald Trump didn’t visit this wall as well as the Great Wall, both have withstood the tests of time, and honestly this one seemed to have come out better in terms of wear and tear. It appeared very well maintained, and apparently areas that have crumbled in the past were replaced with newer gates or were expanded into a moat that hosts tours, should you choose to do so.

Outskirts of the wall

The entrance into the wall was actually kind of confusing, as it turned out, you had to go into the subway station that connected to it underground, and it took me a few minutes for me to figure that out. Also, the best gate to enter is apparently the southern one, as it is the most decorated one, and also because from there you could rent bicycles or take these carriages that dragged you from one section of the wall to another.

The first sight you’re greeted with from the South Entrance

As I didn’t have enough cash on me, I couldn’t pay the deposit to use a bicycle. Not to be deterred however, I decided to walk, taking in the sights along the way and stopping at the various museum and shops scattered about the area. You really get a feel for how wide the wall is once you’re at the top – now imagine there were archers stationed everywhere, you would never try to invade the place!

(hover or press images to see the caption)

Although the walk wasn’t too bad, it was clear that doing an entire lap around the wall would take too long on foot. As such, I decided to stop my journey at the North entrance and proceed to my next destination, the Muslim quarter and the Bell Tower inside the city wall.

Unfortunately, at this point I would have used the bicycle sharing service as the pathways for bicycles were way larger here than they were in Beijing, but you needed a citizen number to even be able to rent them so proceeding on foot was the only option I had. Thankfully, it wasn’t too far, only another kilometer away from the North Gate (had to backtrack though as the Bell Tower is in the city center and I went from the South Gate to the North one). The closer I got, the more people there were, until eventually I turned around the corner and was greeted with a pretty hectic sight.

A veritable sea of people

For most people, the only point of visiting here is for the food. A distinct dish can be translated to crumbled unleavened bread in Mutton Stew (Yangrou Paomo) can be found in practically every small restaurant tucked away in the street, along with vendors offering pomegranate juice, fried persimmon deserts, stuffed buns and the standard lamb/beef/variety of seafood kebabs. Various tourist traps were also present, selling overpriced trinkets and the like that I didn’t really bother spending too much time on. The smells however were truly intoxicating – you wanted to try basically everything you saw, but it was simply way too much food. I would definitely like to come back at some point in the future to try the stuff I couldn’t today, the myriad of distinct flavors with all of them being tasty was just way too good. Thankfully, the more I progressed into the neighborhood the less crowded it became, and I was able to sample the items I wanted.

Walking back to the hotel exhausted but satisfied, I’m preparing for a good night’s rest for tomorrow’s visit to the Terra Cotta museum. Hopefully it will be as fulfilling as the destinations today. As for the mountain, it would most likely have to be on another trip as I only have 1 more day and it requires a high speed train ride to be efficient if you wanted to visit the whole thing. If I wasn’t as tired from walking the Wall and to the Muslim quarter I probably would have done the Terra Cotta soldiers as well today and then arranged the mountain trip tomorrow. If I could have done today differently I probably would have arranged for Terra Cotta early in the morning after breakfast, and then the Muslim quarter after you get hungry, then the Fortifications where the bike ride will help you digest and relax if you take it slow, probably somewhere around in the late afternoon around 6:00 PM which gives you 2 hours to circle around the city wall before having to return the bikes. That then gives you enough time to go to the Pagoda Tower to watch the fountain show at 8:30 PM and see all the lights as well, although just reading that schedule does make me feel a bit tired.

Look forward to another update tomorrow.

Discovering China pt 3

The past few days have been dedicated visiting family, particularly my grandparents on my mother’s side, as well as my father’s side and my uncles, aunt, and cousins. With the advent of high speed rail in China, it became extremely easy getting from one part of the country to the next. In fact, I’m writing this on the high speed rail after departing Xiaogan, which is close to the residence of my father’s family. It is difficult to convey the speed of the train through words, you have to be at the station in person, watching the trains pass and experiencing the sonic booms it generates to truly get a feel of its power. The convenience it brings cannot be understated –  a trip that would have taken an ordinary train upwards of half a day can now be accomplished in an hour or two. Furthermore, I’ve yet to experience a delay either, perhaps because of the impeccable weather or whether the lack of travelers is allowing the trains to stay on schedule, the whole experience has been very pleasant. A transportation system such as this would likely never succeed in North America, where population centers are sparse and spread out, and would unlikely be able to pull enough people from their vehicles to ride it for it to be viable. And even then, the amount of investment towards infrastructure required would most likely never be bankrolled by the government.

After Beijing my first destination was Anyang, in Henan province. As one of the places where traces of early human writing was first discovered and excavated, as well as one of the first stable capitals of China (the Yin dynasty) it has definitely grown and changed in recent years. Taking the high-speed rail from Beijing was a bit over an hour, with the scope of the station was truly a sight to behold. It was a huge transfer point, with tons of platforms, trains, and people alike. If you had agoraphobia it would probably be a place you would want to avoid (but to be honest China as a whole would probably best be avoided, there is no shortage of people here).

Arriving at Anyang, I had to take a taxi to my grandparents’ house. With assistance from my aunt (who was also visiting) to use the Chinese version of Uber, I was able to get there in short order. Along the way, the sight wasn’t that different of that of the areas I walked around in Beijing – with one notable exception, the sheer amount of street vendors and alleyways dedicated to vendors. Furthermore, there were many people on electronic or motorized three-wheeled bikes, none of which I assumed had a license for. It felt a lot like for all the resources dedicated to keeping the law in Beijing, there was an equivalent lack of resources dedicated to places like Anyang. You can make the buildings taller, the roads wider, and increase the material comforts that a home could provide, but to change a way of life – that takes much longer. For most of the people native here, this is what they’re used to – riding their bikes, buying their groceries on a daily basis from these street vendors, this aspect has not changed.

Various street meats

A road dedicated to vendors

Street butcher shop

Example of motorized vehicles

The only large tourism spot at Anyang was the museum dedicated to the Yin dynasty.

Walking towards the museum

Despite that, the staff vastly outnumbered the amount of people visiting at the time, but it was a really relaxing and enjoyable experience as I strolled around the grounds and visited the exhibits.

Very quiet at this time of year

The main attraction of the museum are what can only be translated to as ‘oracle bones’. Essentially, the earliest Chinese characters were grafted onto bones of cows or various other livestock. Designated village oracles used these to predict whether the next harvest would be a good one or not.

Oracle bone inscriptions

Some of the remains that were excavated were on display, and the pits themselves were equal parts spooky and awesome. (According to my aunt my cousin visited multiple times just to see the skeletons.)

May s/he rest forever in peace

There were also displays of ancient weapons, spears, knives, and arrowheads that were used in battles that happened during the Qin dynasty. It’s some pretty cool stuff, but some was definitely difficult for me to understand. However, there were very excellent English translation plaques that helped bridge the gaps.

As the schedule was fairly tight, I only had one day in Anyang. The rest of the day was spent with my grandmother, preparing stuff to bring to my other grandparents in Xiaogan. Although in Anyang we lived next to a school, the family on my father’s side were farmers, and lived in the countryside, where life was slightly simpler.

Speaking of tight schedules, if Anyang was tight, Xiaogan was even more so. Thankfully the trip from Anyang to Xiaogan was just as relaxed as the one from Beijing. The trip was only 2 hours, and I arrived at 1 in the afternoon, with my 3rd uncle picking me up. Along the way I met my aunt and my cousins at their high school. Although I could communicate using standard mandarin, they often spoke in a dialect that was a bit too foreign for me at times and it became difficult to follow their conversations. I tried to answer their questions to the best of my ability.

The car ride was fairly short – the country side was only about 30 minutes away. According to my uncle, a new expressway was also being built with estuary like roads into each village to allow ease of commute. The farther we got from the train station, the sparser the population became, and after arriving at the village, I discovered that it was now mostly empty – many had left towards city centers in search of work or a different way of life, but my grandparents stayed because again, it was what they were used to. The changes to the countryside were definitely visible though, there was running electricity, hot water, and rooms also had heaters and air conditioners installed. These definitely did not exist before. However, because the cost of running electricity into the village is still high, it was important to conserve energy. Thankfully, the weather wasn’t cold at all while the sun was out, but at night it definitely became chilly. Thankfully my grandparents were in good health so they didn’t seem too affected by it, they lived there their whole lives after all.

There were a few familiar sights from when I visited a few years ago though. The chickens were still roaming around, pecking at the ground, with various wild animals milling about the village. The vacation spot for tourism was still there, as well as the various ponds and tea/peanut farms. Many of the plots are now however unkempt, and have been taken over by weeds due to the exodus of farmers I mentioned previously.

You cannot understate the importance of family when it comes to the countryside, everyone gets together and eats at the common table and have overlapping conversations, the kids darting in and out to grab food while all the adults crowd around the small but full table of various dishes. Because it was difficult for me to follow most of the conversations I could only sit back and answer any questions they had for me.

Grandmother (奶奶)

Cousins + (niece? – back’s turned)

Photo credit to my cousin

But alas, my time there was very short, as I had only allotted one night in the schedule to visit. Next time my visit will definitely be longer!

And so here we are, at the end of another blog entry, and it’s about time for me to get off the train, so see you next time, where I’ll be in Xi’an!

Discovering China pt 2

Today was a day for meandering, and a beautiful day for meandering it was. The sun was shining, the air glistening with smoke, either from the shops or the various people smoking cigarettes. Walking around Beijing for 12 hours really gives you a sense of the scope of the city and it really requires you to be actually on the ground to truly experience just how dense everything is. When you’re in a vehicle, everything is just a blur but when it’s that “boots on the ground” type of exploration it gives you that extra moment you wouldn’t have had otherwise to appreciate and really take in the sights and smells, whether good or bad (try to avoid the public toilets if you can, I did.)

In retrospect, I definitely would have invested in riding one of those bicycles, my feet would’ve probably thanked me. You can find them practically anywhere on any street:

Rent-a-bicycle

You can really see the many potential markets that have sprung up in the wake of the QR code boom in China, with this being one of them. What used to be a cash transaction between those who managed the bicycles is now just a quick scan of the code on the bike and the automated lock pops out. You then just pick your approximate destination on the map and away you go! If I wasn’t travelling solo and was more familiar with the traffic patterns here I probably would have taken advantage of it but I couldn’t justify the risk. That and the fact that I haven’t ridden a bicycle in years compounded my reluctance, and so I stuck to the sidewalk and performed the role of a pedestrian. Even  then – being a pedestrian is scary! A good term to describe the drivers and bikers (both electronic and regular ones alike) would be ‘ruthless efficiency’. Everyone drives as if they’re racing for a million dollars, and I pretty much never crossed the street unless I could blend with a crowd that’s also crossing. I’ve seen cars basically almost run over people that tried to cross by themselves – it’s amazing I’ve yet to see anyone get hit so far.

The morning was standard affair, grabbing a fast breakfast at the hotel before departing for the Olympic Stadium. I was afraid of a repeat of yesterday, with crowds everywhere so I wanted to leave as soon as possible.

Simple breakfast

Departing from the hotel I took the familiar alleyway, and was greeted by dogs. It’s difficult to tell if they belong to a family but they were roaming around the Hutong, either playing or scavenging. I’ve noticed a lot of dogs just running around without leashes, another strange sight that is rather uncommon in Toronto (most pets are leashed).

Speaking of animals, the major goal of the day was the Bird’s Nest, or the Beijing Olympic Stadium. Originally built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it stands as one of the most expensive stadiums ever built, costing approximately $2.4 billion CNY, or around $400 million USD. As with the Forbidden City, it was roughly the same distance from the hotel, this time going North instead. Time to go back to the subway.

Subway entrance

With another day of riding the subway it became truly clear how elaborate and sophisticated the system was here. The Beijing subway had approximately 15 lines:

Beijing subway map and ticket

Tickets were also all digitized, the cards had most likely a NFC chip so all you had to do was scan and the tiller would open and you could go. Each subway station was sort of its own ecosystem – the smaller ones were very compact but the transfer and specialty stations were huge, with their own sets of restaurants, shops, and other paraphernalia.

A subway station – believe it or not

Another subway station – with much less fanfare

Now maybe it was because it was a Monday, or maybe it’s just been like that now that the Olympics was over, but the place was actually deserted, at least by Beijing standards. The air was blanketed by this strange grey haze that surrounded everything – the stadium, the national aquatics center, the security guards who have nothing to do:

A lonely guard (ignore the finger in the corner)

Getting the sense that there really wasn’t much to see here, it became apparent that the Olympic park was built with very little foresight on usage of the grounds after the event was over. It’s pretty clear that all the space was definitely necessary for all the people that would have visited in 2008, but the usage of the grounds past that event wasn’t kept in mind. In fact, there were many people here telling you there was nothing to see here, but they of course had an ulterior motive, which was to whisk you away to the Great Wall and charge you what I assume would be an exorbitant amount of money. There wasn’t any activity anywhere really, a smattering of tourists here and there, some athletes training on roller blades for what I perceived as speed ice skating (Beijing is hosting the 2022 winter games). With the option between spending more time looking at empty space or moving on towards my next destination I decided to just walk across the whole park and moved on.

The next destination was 798 Art Zone in Beijing. 798 used to be the zone that played host to various major manufacturing plants that were eventually decommissioned. Ever since, galleries, cafes, and hip/trendy restaurants popped up, supporting local and foreign artists by hosting their various works. This is also where many art festivals occur. Unfortunately, my timing was again a bit off. Because the Forbidden City was closed for touring on Mondays, I had to go on Sunday, but as it turns out, many of the art galleries were also closed on Mondays, which severely limited the amount of places I could visit, so I just toured the entire zone. The place was primarily dominated by college students eating lunch or grabbing coffee, as well as various other tourist groups, but nothing of the same caliber as the crowds of yesterday. After speaking with some of them it became clear that it was just not the right time to visit that particular area – a few months earlier would’ve been best. I still enjoyed it though, there were certainly things you wouldn’t see on a day to day basis.

The last goal of the day was to try the famous Peking Duck, or Beijing Roast Duck. Essentially you take slices of duck and wrap them in either cornmeal or wheat pitas along with scallions, cucumbers, and various other side dishes and top it off with a secret sauce local to Beijing. Unfortunately, this goal was the least fulfilled of the day as the restaurants I went to were either sold out of duck or just closed. The ones that were apparently still open were all the way on the other side of the city and after walking the whole day I was way too tired to make that journey. I guess that will just have to be something I do next time!

As I was walking back, I saw a few familiar logos. The common western fast food chains, Pizza Hut, Burger King, as well as Starbucks have apparently all penetrated the Asian market. As we live in an ever “smaller” world, with ease of communication bridging the distance gaps between people and continents alike, it’s interesting to discover that a restaurant chain that’s almost dying in the West can easily make a resurgence if it can capture the Asian market instead, which is much bigger. Of course, they have to make adjustments based on local taste – you would never find the various food items they offer here in the west, and vice versa, but that flexibility is also a crucial part of what makes or breaks a company’s success in today’s global economy.

Various logos
But alas, my time in Beijing on this trip has come to an end. Tomorrow I head to Anyang to visit my grandparents. See you there.

 

[Note: This blog was delayed by a day as the internet was spotty.]

Oh and lastly here’s a time lapse of 12 hours of the same building I took:

Hard to believe it’s the same building, eh?

Discovering (some) of China solo pt 1

Well, I did it! I crossed the great wall of China! Well – the great FIREwall of China.

I guess when you put it that way it makes it a lot less impressive…

I’m currently on leg 1, day 2 of my two weeks in China, visiting a few major tourist cities and family along the way, in particular hitting Beijing, Anyang, Xiaogan, Xi’an, Kunming, Lijiang, and Shenzhen – in that order. Now if you go, “Geez, that seems like a lot of places for 2 weeks.” – it definitely is if your party consists of multiple people, but since I was travelling alone it seemed like a good goal to push towards, seeing as travelling solo allows you to have very little delay between each location and action.

And so since it’s the end of the day, I’m once again at the hotel. I returned at around 8 PM – since China shares one time zone by the time it hits 4 PM it’s already quite dark outside in Beijing this time of year. Exploring the neighborhood around the hotel does have its advantages at night though. A million colors of LED and neon lights hit you at every angle, the bustling shops, some packed to the brim while others look empty and desolate, it is truly a sight to behold.

Beijing after dark

If you ever do on coming to Beijing or any city in China for that matter, make sure you obtain a new SIM on an unlocked phone as soon as possible – or buy a phone, both are fine. Mobile data here isn’t so much as a luxury as a necessity, and that is mostly due to two factors – the prevalence of vendors accepting (and in some cases, requiring) payment via mobile QR code, as well as the ability to navigate the city without getting lost and ordering taxis, renting bicycles, all apps that require 2-factor authentication using a cellphone number.

To elaborate on the payment point, basically China has sort of bypassed the whole ATM/PoS/Credit/Debit Card system that the West has developed in the 80s and 90s and embraced the smartphone boom in the 2000s. Essentially every store, restaurant, and random street cart has their QR code that you can scan using the WeChat app or AliPay app (imagine Paypal on steroids and the rough equivalent of Apple/Android pay) and either send money to the vendor for the amount requested, or they scan your wallet QR code and charge it automatically. It is impossible to ignore the sheer convenience of this payment method, but this is not to say that cash is obsolete (at least not yet). It is however slightly slower than the instant tap feature of certain debit cards, but that feature is definitely still limited in scope even in Toronto and restricted to larger merchants, whereas this is almost ubiquitous in Beijing as far as I can tell due to everyone being able to generate their own QR code.

Because of the simplicity for both the consumer and the merchant, it is a huge incentive for both parties to use the app. The government of China also has an incentive to promote this – because all this data is agglomerated by two companies, it becomes easier to track. All things considered, China remains a police state, where a show of force is ultimately what the party wants to display to the rest of the world, as well as keeping the population in line. Because of the sheer amount of people that reside here, it definitely feels necessary, and it shows. Around every corner is a police station, with patrols on practically ever street. Subways have baggage checks, as well as tourist attractions. It gives off an air of perceived safety, but also an air of “Don’t try any funny business.”

But I digress. Let’s talk about what I did on day 2! Reason I don’t really mention day 1 was because I arrived at Beijing at around 5 PM, took the subway and found the hotel (got sort of lost because it was actually in an alleyway and I didn’t have data yet – more on this later) and at that point it was already pretty dark. Since I didn’t want to get lost again I just went to sleep.

Day 2 was a fairly early morning. I wanted to obtain a cell phone plan and a secondary mobile device as a backup. It wasn’t too difficult, there’s many telecom stores around, a brisk walk and you’re pretty much there. The one real destination I had in mind for the day was the Forbidden City. Navigating the city is surprisingly easy, even if you don’t really speak Chinese. As long as you can get past the firewall and use a navigation app that you are familiar with, Google maps and such, taking the subway, bus, or other modes of public transportation is very straightforward. Just be ready for the sea of people that will be in between you and your destination.

Speaking of people, I’m sure you’ve heard that China is one of the most populated countries in the world.

It’s no joke.

Arriving at Tiananmen I was greeted with a huge line of people wanting to get into the square and subsequently the forbidden city. If you were a Chinese national, they wanted to see your citizen ID, and if you were a foreigner, some proof. As such, it’s necessary to bring your passport with you.

Entrance to Tiananmen / Forbidden City and a picture of Chairman Mao Zedong

After getting past immigration – er, I mean the baggage check, it was time to enter the forbidden city!… or so I thought. Immediately after entering the square I was greeted with, yes, you guessed it, another giant line. This time it was to pick up the tickets to visit the museum, and although they say only 80,000 people are allowed to visit a day it didn’t seem like that was a hard limit because when I ordered it was already at 75,000+

Getting into the Forbidden city after two hours of intense waiting in line…

The ticket price was fairly inexpensive, a total of 60 CNY, which translates to about $10 USD. You get the ability to see almost all of the palace, but a lot of it is sealed off unfortunately to preserve the integrity of the furnishings. The first impression I got after entering was sort of surreal. I wasn’t sure if it was because of the dichotomy between the blue backdrop and the red/gold architecture but there was definitely something awe inspiring in recognizing that these buildings have been around over 600 years. The only real issue was that because the palace was so big it definitely felt difficult to visit the whole thing. In a whole group this problem would definitely be compounded by visits to the washroom and sore feet – definitely bring comfortable shoes!

People. People everywhere!

A much more peaceful section of the city

I also took the time to visit the gallery of clocks and treasures, but I definitely feel like they reserved the best pieces for special occasions. The displays were interesting but didn’t carry the same aura as that feeling you get when first entering the palace. Take a look for yourself at some of the displays.

There’s more pictures but unfortunately the internet here isn’t that great for uploading but you get the gist of it. Besides, less spoilers for when you visit! The funniest part was probably this gem right here:

If you couldn’t read the text, I’ll summarize. Basically, in 1900, the empress and emperor was escaping the palace, and one of the empress’ last action was to throw one of the emperor’s concubines into a well. The reason wasn’t explicitly given but you can imagine. Now the funny part is that the well is depicted in the picture above. It’s hard to believe that a person would fit in there, but I suppose stranger things have happened. There’s no banana for scale, but I can tell you that the hole is no bigger than your head.

Once you finish the east and west sides of the palace you move North to exit, and you’re greeted with another pretty spectacular scene.

After exiting the palace

I was already a bit tired after this point after 2 hours of waiting in line and another 3 hours in the city, so I decided not to hike up there. Definitely might be worth a visit if you had more time though. After that I wanted to withdraw some currency to use quickly in case they didn’t accept mobile payments, so I decided to walk to the nearest location of the bank, which was about 2 kilometers away. It gave me the ability to see some more of the city, as well as stopping by any food places for a quick lunch.

Northern sea

Food court at a supermarket in Beijing

3CNY Street Food (eat with caution!)

I found a place that sold noodles and some skewers, which I wanted to try to see if it was any different from Toronto – and I have to say, it’s actually not that different! Perhaps it has to do with the sheer amount of Chinese people in Scarborough that influences the cuisine but the taste was fairly similar.

Seasoning

Pulled noodles

Lamb skewers

Afterwards, it was time for more alleyway exploring. Oh, and this is the part where I elaborate on that. Essentially, a lot of this side of Beijing is composed of Hutongs, which are these narrow alleyways full of shops, restaurants, and in fact the hotel I’m staying at is smack dab in the middle of one. The residential ones are slightly quieter, such as this one:

A quiet hutong

while others, such as the one I showed you at the beginning is much busier and livelier. I will most likely take more pictures tomorrow as I forgot to bring the cable to my phone for the battery pack (I know right, rookie mistake).

After finishing lunch and exploring more and more alleyways, my battery was draining way too fast for my liking and I needed to return to the hotel for a quick pit stop. Luckily, I was already next to the bus station of the bus that stopped directly right outside the hutong I was living at – pretty lucky!

Grabbing my cord and battery pack I set out again, but at this point it was already dark and taking pictures just ended up being a blurry mess without using the flash, which I didn’t really want to do as there were usually people around and I did not want to draw too much attention. I walked in a huge circle around the neighbourhood, taking in the sights and smells. Two major gripes I had while exploring was the sheer amount of people on motorized bicycles and vehicles basically driving next to pedestrians as well as the amount of people smoking in the street. Smoking and drinking still seemed very prevalent in China, and most of the restaurants actually allow smoking, something that you would almost never see in Toronto. Also, honking your horn basically seemed like the norm while driving, not so much as to tell the other guy to move, but to actually announce that you’re there, as there are so many corners a moving vehicle can pop out of. It definitely gave off a sense that an accident is bound to happen at any minute.

Whew! That first day turned out to be quite the essay didn’t it? If you read this far I congratulate you and thanks for sticking all the way through. If you just skimmed the pictures I apologize for their quality but I didn’t bring a camera with me because I wasn’t too sure of what the sitrep of the city was and bringing too much equipment solo seemed like a risky proposition. Next time I’ll have vlogs – for sure.

Until tomorrow. Adios.