Beijing haze

That last post means that I’ve covered all of our stop in the amazing province of Yunnan. After we left Zhongdian (another spectacular bus ride with amazing mountain views!), we returned for a short stay at Bruce’s in Shuhe.

Before we knew it, it was time to head to the airport and catch our next flight, north and east to China’s capital city. As our plane ascended, we were able to look west and see the Himalayan mountains, snow-capped and brilliant in the afternoon sun. SUCH an amazing sight. And a quite a contrast to the place we’d be landing in later that night.

I need to be fair here. I think the odds may have been stacked against Beijing making the best impression on me. I know people who think it’s pretty darn cool and according to what I’ve read about it, there should be loads of interesting stuff to see and do. But it ended up being my least favorite part of our time in China.

So, like I said, to be fair, we didn’t see it at its – or my – best. We were there during some of the worst fog/smog the city that year. The first few days, we could hardly see across the street it was so thick. Our apartment felt like it was floating in a silent, surreal cloud. The weather was cold too, and that chill felt like it seeped into everything, while the fog leached color out of the world. It created an eerie effect for me; the city at times seemed too quiet, too subdued.

Also, I was miserable and sick with a really bad cold for a lot of the time. Even if the sights outside the apartment would have been more enticing, I don’t know how much energy I would have had for exploration.

Not that I didn’t get out. We rented a studio apartment via Airb’n’b in the city’s art district, and it wasn’t long before we had our regular spots in the neighborhood for groceries, coffee (yay, Costa!) and some reliable restaurants. It was a nice change to just live like a normal person instead of a tourist for a few days, to absorb every day happenings around the neighborhood.

Sick or no, there is no way you can go to Beijing and NOT visit the Forbidden City, so that was the one major tourist sight that I visited (Roman went to more while me and my cold flopped in the apartment). Of course we also visited The Great Wall, but I’ll save that for another post.

The Forbidden City

It’s impossible not to be impressed by the Forbidden City. Built in the 1400s, the compound served as the imperial palace to 24 different emperors. It is the largest “ancient palatial structure” in the world, composed of hundreds of buildings and courtyards covering over 170 acres. All of it is surrounded by two security measures – a broad moat and a thick, high wall that is over seven meters high. Every detail, from the placement of the buildings to the color of the roof tiles, was carefully planned and executed with both symbolic and practical consideration. Nearly all the roofs are yellow, the color of the emperor. Massive copper and iron vats line courtyards and in ancient times were filled with water, providing both decoration and a means to put out fires. Lots more information on the symbolism of the architecture and design here if you are interested.

We spent half a day wandering around the complex, leaving as the sun began to set. If I’d been feeling better, I think we could have easily spent even longer – there was so much to see and take in! 🙂 Here are just some glimpses of the place.

Tourists checking out one of those big copper vats

The sun setting over the exterior moat (you may have to search the haze a bit to find it!)

Quick update

Internet in Beijing was not the consistent, fast thing I thought it would be! That plus being a bit under the weather has kept me off the blog and offline in general these past days.

It was great to have some down time in a proper apartment, something a bit more homey than another hotel room (thanks again Airbnb!) where I could make cup after cup of tea and watch the ridiculously thick smog envelop the view outside our window. 🙂

We left the capital city last night, overnight-training it to Pingyao (curious where that might be? Check out Roman’s impressive-looking map on Everlater). Unbelievably, it’s already our last week here in mainland China and there’s a ton we’re trying to fit into our time, but I’ll also try to sneak in some more posts now that we have reliable internet again. 🙂

Notes on Halong Bay

Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most iconic scenes. Before reading up on it, I was familiar with images of beautiful classic “junk” ships set against the dramatic waterscape, but I hadn’t realized this was Vietnam. The lovely Louise and Patrick highly recommended visiting – noting that even though you basically have no choice but to see it as part of a tourist-package, the gorgeous nature is well worth the risks associated with such tours.

(Risks like: Are you really going to get what they are selling you? Will the weather cooperate? Will the people you’ll be stuck on the boat with nice or nasty? We’d read plenty of horror stories about dingy, rat-infested boats, no refunds when the weather turns bad, etc. The bottom line is, yes, Halong Bay is definitely worth seeing, but make sure the person/business you’re buying the tickets from is trustworthy (we found some pretty dodgy websites and endorsements on-line!) and it is worth spending a bit more money to get on a decent boat – don’t go for something that is rock-bottom budget.)

We booked (through our hotel) an overnight trip with “A Class Cruise” and got reasonably good service/accommodations for a reasonable price. We had bad luck with the weather – it was cool and cloudy the first day and pouring cats and dogs the next – and good luck with the guests who were all friendly and good company. I’d rather have it that way than the other way around, so I was happy. 🙂

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View of our room from the door (small but fine)

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View of our room from the bed

We knew what we were getting into so we weren’t disappointed. The tour company picked us up in a mini-van; the drive to Halong Bay included a refreshment stop at a massive tourist store full of tacky sculpture and mass-produced paintings. Arriving at the Bay, we joined the hundreds of other tourists being herded like sheep to the slaughter by the tour group handlers. It honestly was exactly like queuing in line for a ride at Disneyland on a busy holiday.

The boat was perfectly nice; the food they served was decent and plentiful. The hours on the boat were sliced up into activities – make your own spring rolls, taste some (dull) Vietnamese wine, go visit a “floating village” (nothing compared to the amazing river-villages at Kampong Chhnang), now its time for swimming and/or relaxation before dinner is served, etc…

The nice thing was that even with this and the grey weather, Halong Bay still is very, very beautiful, and I’m glad we saw it. I wonder though if it was glad to see us – with so very many tour boats cruising through the bay with military efficiency (our boat picked up guests from the two-night tour on the way back and our room was ready to receive the next round of fresh meat before we even docked), one can’t help but wonder about (and feel a bit guilty about contributing to) the impact on the environment…

Panorama view of the bay as we (and all the other boats) dropped anchor for the night – click for a closer look

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We get taken for a boat ride around the karsts and village

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Floating snack shop rows from boat to boat selling over-priced beer, chips, etc. It must be a hard living – she was rowing around long after dark and I’m not sure how much she actually sold…

DSC 0432Beautiful scenery!

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One of the things I really loved was watching the eagles (or hawks? or other?) wheeling through the sky above the karsts. So gorgeous!

Photo impressions from the group trip: Part 4/5 (Mcleod Ganj continued)


Apparently there is an increasing effort to deal more responsibly with trash and the environment in the area.


Nevertheless, there is a lot of trash in the area. Opinions from travelers I have spoken with vary as to whether the amount of pollution has increased or decreased in recent years; it seems it depends on when they were last here.


People in the area seem to have taken precautions against potential laundry thieves. 🙂


Vendors in the morning


The valley below Mcleod Ganj


Thumbs Up Cola – tastes a bit like Moxie apparently. Taste the thunder!


This is Deepak number two. I’m pretty sure I was hustled by the guy.

He told me this story about how he repaired shoes and could sew clothes and that he really needed work but he didn’t want to be paid in money – he just needed food. HIs dad was a drunk and so was his boss and they would just take any money from him and he was the only one looking after his two little sisters and they and he were just hungry. I knew my friend had a hole in her skirt that needed mending so I I brought it to him to do, and even got someone else in the group to give him some work. I told him let’s go shopping, expecting to by a few hundred Rupees worth of food and to make his day.

He walked me straight to a local shop and without blinking an eye started pulling massive bags of rice and flour and containers of oil and ghee off the shelves, speaking to the shop owner in a local dialect the whole time. I started to get a funny feeling but felt too polite and unsure to say anything. Finally the shop keeper told me the total – nearly R4,000 – way more than I had spent on anything during the whole trip and this was for basic food staples, and a heck of a lot more than I had intended to spend on food to pay for a skirt being mended! At this point I was pretty sure I was being scammed but still, the instinctive need to be polite persisted – I told them I only had a certain amount on me – still way too much money to spend on a skirt but a good deal less than R4,000, and that was all I could pay for.

Deepak put one bag of rice back on the shelf and said the money would be enough to pay for the rest, but that it was too much to carry so he would come back for the food later on. Now I knew for sure this was a scam. But even then, part of me really wanted to believe Deepak, and that “be nice” instinct was still overpowering, so I paid the money and left to meet my friends at dinner, to digest what just happened and what my deal is that I would rather be polite than defend myself and say to someone, “Hey, are you taking the piss or what?”

Needless to say, the small incident created plenty of food for thought. I’m grateful that it was such a benign situation – I am sure people have been fooled out of bigger amounts of money in less pleasant ways while traveling. One friend’s way of dealing really appeals to me. If he gets a weird feeling about something like that, he’ll say “I’m outta here”, and just high tail it out of the situation. I love this idea, and am going to try to adopt it! I have enough presence of mind to know that something doesn’t feel right, but not enough to figure out how to extract myself while saving face for the people who are scamming me. I think and hope it’s enough awareness though to be able to override the polite-instinct by pushing the “I’m outta here” button and just leaving. A good lesson if I can learn it! 🙂

Incidentally, he did a crap job fixing my friend’s skirt. I ran into him now during my second visit to Mcleod Ganj. As grateful as I was for the opportunity for introspection, it did still feel a bit unresolved and I thought I might get some closure talking to him again. I told him how disappointed my friend was with the work he did, trying to get the message across that I didn’t believe he was really a tailor. He seemed to be listening to the constructive criticism; in the next breath he said with a big grin, “So if you have work, you give to me!” 🙂 Not quite the vindicated closure I’d had in mind – but it’ll do. 😉


Mcleod Ganj at night. This photo doesn’t do it justice though – many more stars in real life!


Eight-legged visitor perched conveniently above Heather’s open suit case! Blarg! It looks small in this picture but that is due to the flash distorting the perspective. Do not be fooled, this spider was seriously large and nothing to mess with! Cousin to the other big, eight-legged friend that visited Roman and me in Apex hotel during my second visit to Mcleod Ganj.