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Weekend travel

July 24, 2010 1 comment

I have much to tell you, dear readers, but I’ll break it up into multiple posts for coherence.

This past weekend me and 13 of my companions set off on a trip to Huhhot for Saturday night through Tuesday morning. Huhhot is the capital of Inner Mongolia, which is not a part of Mongolia but rather a province of China that borders Mongolia.  As we left Saturday evening we saw Anya, who was just returning from the hospital for the day.  She had been there getting some IVs and otherwise being looked after.   Due to her illness she was no longer going to go on the trip she had planned nearly single-handedly and she had told us before that while it was not finalized she was probably going home either Monday or Tuesday morning, which meant that we would not see her again as we arrived back in Beijing Tuesday morning.  We said our goodbyes and took some pictures and gave some hugs but had to head out to catch our train.

The train station was unreal.  I have never, ever, been in a place so crowded as that.  The best way to describe the people moving into the train station was “a crush.”  Seriously.  I took pictures and videos to prove it.

Beijing West's waiting room wasn't exactly what I pictured

We had soft sleeper tickets for our train voyage, which made the trip very pleasant.  (Dear future China Traveller: train tickets go on sale 10 days prior to the train’s departure, roughly.  Get there when they go on sale to be sure you get what you want.  On the way to Huhhot we were at the ticket counter (you can buy tickets on PKU’s campus) when the tickets went on sale and got 14 consecutive soft sleeper tickets. Since we were coming back 2 days after we left we had to go a second time to buy the return tickets. We got there about 30 minutes after these tickets went on sale and as a result got a slightly disjointed group of tickets: 2 full rooms of four, 1 room of 3, and I guess another room of 3…) Train tickets come in a variety of types. Depending on the train type there are Hard seats, soft seats, hard sleepers, soft sleepers, and deluxe soft sleepers.  Hard seats are like coach airplane seats, only the catch is that there aren’t as many seats as there are tickets, so it’s possible that you’ll be stuck standing for your train ride (as some of Andrew’s group was when they went to Mount Tai). I’m told that this is a horrific and traumatizing experience, and I believe it.  Soft seats are fairly nice seats I believe.  I don’t really know that much about them.  Hard sleepers are rooms with 6 cots in each, they are cushioned with a bamboo mat and there is no locking door on the room in which you’re sleeping.  Soft sleepers have 4 beds which are cushioned with a fair twin mattress, they are moderately air conditioned and have a locking door.  Deluxe soft sleepers are like a hotel room on a train I think.

The important thing is that we had soft sleepers, and it was a good time hanging out, talking, and playing games until we decided to get to sleep. Most people slept fairly well on the train but we suspect it really wasn’t the most restful of sleeps possibly due to the jostling of the train.

We arrived in Huhhot and were whisked conveniently to our hostel, the Anda guesthouse, by people from the guesthouse.  We settled in briefly and then set off on our “grassland tour.” This began with a harrowing 2 hour drive out to the grasslands.  Harrowing because the people of Huhhot laugh in the faces of both death and traffic police and all-together drive like every one of them had a backseat full of dying orphans who they needed desperately to get to a hospital.  The main thing that was distressing was passing.  My policy about passing other cars is to do so when you’re 100% confident that you will not be blindsided by a car coming around a corner or over a hill or anything like that. Inner Mongolian’s policy about passing is “go for it! We can totally fit three cars abreast on here!” and indeed they can. I even saw four cars abreast on the 2 lane road at times, because why else would there be shoulders than to allow incredibly reckless driving?  Our driver and others would consistently pass other vehicles on the two lane road as we went around hills on blind curves.  A few times cars would come whipping around head on toward us and only by both drivers cooperative effort, and the car being passed’s complacency, did we not crash.  Looking back I’m somewhat disappointed in myself for not firmly requesting the driver to acknowledge his mortality and try to not kill us all, but that wouldn’t have been nearly so interesting…

Drive safely

Apparently Inner Mongolia is aware of its wild and crazy drivers and installed this smashed up van as a deterrent. The sign reads something like "Don't drive like an idiot or your car will look like this."

So after our harrowing journey we arrived at this small outpost in the grasslands where there were a couple of yurts and a stone building that apparently had a kitchen in it.  We relaxed in the yurts and had a tasty lunch of lamb (when in a place near Mongolia…) and veggies and other good stuff.  After lunch we set off walking on the grasslands for a while. We went over to a nearby herd of cows and a dried up lake bed. It was nice to enjoy the fresh air and clear skies.  Following the stroll we went horseback riding which everyone enjoyed quite well, including those who were originally skeptical.  The primary complaints were sore butts from some and sore knees from those of us whose stirrups were far too short.  The horse were alright, but some didn’t seem to be the healthiest of beasts.

The lunch yurt

Relaxing in the lunch yurt

Riding horses on the (Inner) Mongolian grasslands

In the evening we had dinner at the hostel and explored the nearby streets.  There was a short mongolian singing and dancing put on randomly at the hostel which was sort of cool. We hung around the hostel and talked amongst ourselves as well as with some of the other guests about what to do the next day and all sorts of other things. We met an Irish couple and an English guy who had both been in Huhhot for a few days and had recommendations.  It was a fun night.

The following day we hit the city. We visited the 5 pagoda temple, which was a nice little place. We then walked up to the muslim part of the city in search of muslim-type souveniers and stuff but didn’t have great success.  After this we attempted to go to the Inner Mongolian museum which we heard rave reviews about and which was recently remodeled, but to our dismay it was closed (it’s closed every Monday, as of the time of this posting).  On the plus side it was very nice looking and was probably equally nice inside…  We split up after that because some… animosity and confusion was stewing throughout the day amongst our small group.  I headed back to the hostel and relaxed and played cards for a while.  Eventually, with directions from the hostel staff, Veronica, Tram (Veronica’s labmate who came on the trip with us), Chanan, and I went for a walk. We first visited a nearby park, which was pleasant and park-like. We then went to a market for some shopping, followed by dinner, followed by the train.

On our train ride back our tickets were more scattered and the first thing that happened when we got on was swapping.  Two guys traveling together were in different rooms and trying to get in the same room. One’s ticket was in the room with Veronica, Tram, and I, the other was in a room with Chanan, Lester, and a nice lady.  After much bustling and some wonderful translating from Ray it was determined that the nice lady would move to the room I was in, and the guy from our room would go to Chanan and Lester’s room.  Veronica, Tram, and I had a good time communicating with her, explaining why we were in China, that Veronica’s mom was Chinese but she lived in the US, that we’d never been to China before, and that we were 20/21 years old.  After that our vocabulary pretty much ran out and Ray came in and translated for/with us, and after a bit of that he just talked with her in Chinese while Veronica and I amused ourselves with drawing and talking and Tram retreated to her bed to read.

In the morning we learned that as we were arriving in Beijing Anya was boarding her flight to the states. Fortunately we had said our goodbyes before we had left.

Everyone dispersed either to shower at the hotel or straight to their labs and life returned to normal +1 interesting trip in our memories.

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A day (and four hours) of travelling

June 2, 2010 2 comments

I got on a bus in Ann Arbor at 8:38 am on Sunday May 30.  I got to my hotel in Beijing at 12:42 am on Monday May 31 after 28 hours and 4 minutes of traveling.  It was tiring.  I was awake for about 32 hours during the affair, though I did sleep a bit on the flights.  My lack of sleep was mainly by design. I figured that if I deprived myself of sleep on the flight I would be able to get to sleep when I arrived and sleep through the night.

Our flight took us to Minneapolis, Minnesota first.  That was fairly uneventful.  We were still fresh and had only endured one short flight at that point.

From Minneapolis we flew directly to Tokyo Narita Airport, Japan. This flight lasted about 12 hours and, as all flights that length do, felt like it lasted forever.  To pass the time I watched some movies that were shown, played some boggle, peered out the window on the emergency exit door at the back of the plane at some sweet Alaskan landscapes, chatted, and tried to read things (which inevitably led to just falling asleep briefly.) I estimate I slept a bit more than 30 minutes on this flight.

At 3 AM (EST) we arrived in Tokyo.  Tokyo felt like a caricature of Tokyo.  The shops in the airport were bristling with cute things, weird candies, and manga.  In addition to that, the toilet in the airport rest room had an option to heat or cool the seat as well as serve as a bidet.  Perhaps this was due to the airport stores selling touristy things and wasn’t really a representative sample of Japan as a whole.

At 6:34 am (EST) (6:34 pm China-time) we took off from Tokyo for Beijing.  On this flight we had personal screens that let us pick what movies to watch which was awesome.  I watched The Hurt Locker which I thought was a really really good movie.  After that we were in Beijing.

In Beijing we stumbled off the plane around 10:30 pm (China-Time)and got our luggage… almost.  One of Beatriz’s bags didn’t show up at first, but did after a bit. I never really heard that whole story.  Going through customs was no problem at all for two reasons: 1. We were like the only people in the baggage claim area since the rest of our flight moved on rapidly and apparently 10 pm is not high time to be flying in, and 2. The way customs works in China is that you either walk through an archway that says “nothing to declare” or go talk to someone if you have something to declare. I’m just somewhat confused about how this system is supposed to prevent anything like illegal drugs or other contraband items from coming in because obviously if you’re smuggling something you’ll go through the “nothing to declare” section and be home free.

We then got in a bus for what turned out to be about a 30 minute drive but which we thought would be far longer.  The first thing that struck me outside was how “foggy” it was.  I’m becoming increasingly sure that that “fog” is actually dense pollution combined with actual water vapor.  Visibility the past… 2 days has generally been several hundred meters, but it’s just like there’s constantly a light fog.  Many of us passed out on this bus ride to our hotel.  We are staying in 资源Hotel (Zi1 yuan2 [Update: bin guan]) I don’t remember the last two words. It means resource hotel.  It is located in the southwest corner of Peking university’s campus which is quite convenient.  I am rooming with Ruixiao (Ray) Zou who speaks fluent mandarin, which is also convenient. When we first went up to our room we noticed immediately that there were not 2 bedrooms, as we hoped there would be, and that the room reeked of smoke.  We have since moved to another room which is equivalent except that it does not smell like smoke.

I sent an email telling my family that all was well, took a shower, and flopped into bed.

So ended our “day” of travel and began our voyage in China.

P.S. I would like to note that we were fed a surprising amount of surprisingly good food on our flights.