Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Life Down Under!!

Hello everyone! I am finally awake from my slumbering. Its nearly a year since I last written on this blog. well, as I promised, I should tell you a little about life in Australia since my last expedition around the world. Its going to be a bid difficult since I waited so long to report on how life has been. I have been on a few trips around Victoria (the state in which I live) as well as visits to South Australia and Alice Springs and have take many photos which I would love to share with you. I need to get all these photos in order and on the blog before next Tuesday, as I will be heading off to Alice Springs again and to Darwin for the next couple of weeks and this means more photos and more to write.

I will be flying to Alice Springs for a week to attend a library conference (ALIA) representing my university, then I will be taking the Ghan (overnight/day train) from Alice Springs to Darwin. There will be a District Convention in Darwin during the time I will be there and I plan to attend all three days. I am looking forward to this trip and hoping to meet many new friends and perhaps a new place to relocate!! So stay in tune!

Ok, here are some places I visited around Australia since my intrepid journey around the world:
[I promised not to procrastinate any longer, but its getting a bit late for posting these photos, so I will do this tomorrow]

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Final Stop - Beijing!

Beijing - November 23 - 26


I arrived in Beijing around 8:15pm and cleared custom and immigration by 9:00pm. Getting to the Drum Tower Youth Hostel was more difficult than I thought, mainly due of language barrier. Eventually I managed to locate the shuttle bus station outside the airport terminal building where the buses depart for the city. With much difficulty, I purchased a bus ticket to the closest stop to my destination. It took about 45 minutes to travel from the airport to the city. I sat beside a young Chinese man who spoke English well. I inquired of him how to get to the Drum Tower Hostel from my scheduled stop in the city. He suggested that it would be easier if I got off at the first stop and get a taxi from there to The Drum Tower Hostel instead of going all the way to my scheduled stop (the last stop). So, at the first stop we got off the bus (he intended to help me getting a taxi), but the driver refused to let me take my luggage out because I didn't reach the destination indicated on my ticket, so I had to get back on the bus until my scheduled stop. When I reached my final stop, I had to haggle with a taxi operator to get what I thought was a reasonable price to take me the Drum tower Hostel. I realized later that even after all that haggling, the price I paid was too much. The young staff at the Drum Tower Hostel Service Desk were very kind and courteous but the condition of the room well below expectation and certainly did not match the description given in the online promotion. Upon arriving at the Hostel, I decided not to waste a moment in Beijing due to my short stay. It was about 11:00pm when I decided it was too early to sleep, so I decided to explore the streets of Beijing. I came across a McDonald Restaurant within walking distance from where I was staying. This was one of the rear time when I felt happy at seeing a McDonald Restaurant. I went in a had something to eat. The people on the streets seemed curious about my presence in the area, nearly everyone would turn around and stare at me as I passed by. I was eager and anxious to see what the next day would brings!


I got up early in the morning and was ready to continue my discovery of Beijing. I stopped at the courtesy desk int he hostel and spoke with George (his English name). He had a great command of English (learned English in Chinese Language school). He was very kind, helpful and seemed quite genuine. George gave me some invaluable insights regarding what to see in the local area and also provided some helpful directions on how to use the buses and trains to get to some of the famous sights in and around Beijing. He suggested that my first challenge, if I am brave enough could be a venture into the Hutongs (A hutong is an ancient city alley or lane typical in Beijing) across the street, in order to discover how the local people live. I would then try to work my way through these maze of alleys to a famous tourist attraction located nearby, the Drum Tower. If I was successful, I would then continue to walk for the next 45 minutes towards Tienanmen Square and other places of interest. I was ready for the challenge. These are some photos of the hostel, a restaurant across the road from the hostel and the Hutongs in the local area where I ventured alone:

After successfully navigating my way through the maze of Hutong alleys, I finally found my way to the famous Drum Tower. I didn't stop to view the drum tower, because I was mainly interested in getting to Tienanmen square and the forbidden city. I walked for about 30 minutes and kept asking people as I went if I was on the right way to Tienanmen square, many people didn't understand English and looked at me in a curious way. While on my way I stumbled upon Jingshan Park, one of Beijing famous parks. I payed the entry fee and did a quick self guided tour. There is a hill in the park that gives a scenic view of the city of Beijing, but when I visited, there was very poor visibility. In fact for most of the time I was there, the city was engulfed with a smog:

I spent about 40 minutes touring Jingshan Park then afterward I continued my journey to Tienanmen Square. While on my journey, I came across some interesting sights:

Approaching Tienanmen square:

Tienanmen Square engulfed in smog:

Shortly after arriving at Tienanmen I was approached by 3 Chinese girls eager to talk with me in English claiming they were English Language students wanting to practice their speaking skills. They wanted to show me around and encouraged me to try a variety of Chinese teas as a nearby Chinese tea house, I was tempted, mainly to help them out with their English, but I was a little dubious about their intentions, so I kindly refused and they quickly moved on. About 10 minutes later another 3 youngsters approached a girl and 2 boys, they too said they were students at a university in Beijing studying English and one of their assignments was to approach English speakers and practice conversing with them in English. They seemed quite innocent and friendly so, I agreed to talk with them. They offered to take some picture with me and offered to take me to some chinese art display put on by the university students in a building around the vicinity of Tienanmen Square. I went along and was impressed by the art display. The exhibits were mainly Chinese Calligraphy(couldn't take photos of the exhibits):

After the visit to the exhibition one of the boys left as he didn't know much English. The other two (Michelle and Paul their English names) said they would be willing to come along with me as I visited other sights. They recommended that I visited some Hutongs nearby. I was eager to find out more about the Hutongs and especially since some local guides were with me. I noticed that there were many public toilets situated along the Hutongs, and Michelle (the ringleader) explained that the homes along the Hutongs don't have bathrooms or toilets and so everyone has to use the public toilets, hence the reason for so many along the Hutongs. Mainly poor peoples live in these Hutongs:

After touring the Hutongs, we visited a busy shopping area where a traditional Chinese tea house was located. Michelle (the ringleader) recommended that I should at least try some Chinese tea, so I thought having some hot tea wouldn't be a bad idea after all since is was a bit cold:

While tea tasting, I talke about my plans to visit the great wall the following day. Immediately Paul said his brother works for a tour company and can arrange transportation and a guide for me to the great wall at a very reasonable cost. I agreed and he called on his mobile immediately and arranged for me to be picked up early in the morning. After tasting a couple of small cups of tea, and purchasing small can of tea (about 300ml) I was then presented with an exorbitant bill. I inquire if it was a mistake, the tea server (scamster) insisted it was correct, I reluctantly paid. I later discovered that the whole thing was a scam and that my innocent looking guides were not students wanting to practice their English after all, but were actually participants in one of the many well known scams operating in Beijing and other parts of China working in collusion with teahouse crooks and other places to fleece unsuspecting travelers. What a bummer! I thought I was a well seasoned traveler and smart enough to avoid scams like these. Well, I guess after being among such loving, trusting and genuine friends on all my previous stops it is understandable why I would have my guard down in Beijing and become so trusting.

I was up early in anticipation of my trip to the great wall. I went to the lobby of the Hostel and some one was waiting to take me to the great wall. A mini van with a driver and a tour guide were there to pick me up for the great wall. I was surprise that no other tourist was there, I was the only passenger. My guide Allen(English name) spoke English well and was quite knowledgeable on Chinese history. We stopped at some interesting sights on the way to the great wall. After talking with Allen for a while, I discovered that he was a history teacher before he became a guide:
The cost of the trip was only ($200 RMB chinese dollars) about $40.00 Australian and this included lunch. I couldn't understand how $40.00 could cover all the expenses involved in providing a driver, a guide, lunch and several guided tours and entry fees into the great wall. Allen later revealed in honesty that the actual amount I paid could not cover all the expenses and the fees and that he and the driver would be paid by commission from the business places prearranged for me to visit after my trip to the great wall. Places like a gem and silk factory, traditional Chinese medicine and teahouse etc. At these places you are given a guided tour and then pressured to buy something. I assured him that I won't be buying anything regardless of the pressure, but I will go along just so that he and the driver could get their commission since they appear to be so honest. Now that I had a clear idea of the scheme that was planned, I was now relaxed and ready to continue my journey to the great wall. Climbing to the top of the section of the Great Wall where I visited took much determination, effort and perseverance. I can imagine how much effort and how many lives it took to have this great feat accomplished:

After the great wall, we toured a gade factory and had a very nice lunch in a restaurant at the jade factory. The next stop was at a Chinese Cloisonne factory. Chinese Cloisonne is a kind of artwork made of red copper roughcast and decorated in colourful glaze:

Also there was an artist demonstrating the art of calligrapy and some finished work on display and up for sale:

Next visited Chinese Herbal Medicine place. On our way to this Chinese Herbal Medicine placec, we passed the 2008 Beijing Olympics village, the main stadium (the bird nest) and other buildings where various olympic events will be held. Many of these buildings are still under construction:

The Chinese Herbal Medicine place offered a free foot massage and consultation. I had my suspicion that there was much more to this visit than just a free foot massage. My suspicions proved ture later when the Chinese herbal doctor (?) and his assistant/translator, were relentless in their effort in trying to pursuade me to purchase a herbal prodct that he prescribed:

My final stop was to a silk factory, where I was shown the complete process of making silk products starting from the silk worms stage:

Despite my interest in the unique process of manufacturing silk products, I was not convinced to purchased anything.

I checked out of my room around 11:00am but left my luggage in a locker in the lobby area of the Hostel. Because my departure time was not until 10:00pm, I decided to spend the rest of the day exploring downtown Beijing:

Since I had much time to spare before my departure for the airport, I thought it would be a good idea to plot out my way from the train station to the shuttle bus station in the city where I would be leaving for the ariport. Better yet, I decided to do a "dry run". What a challenge it was locating where the ariport bus station was! Well, later in the evening, it was much easier getting to the AIRPORT bus station, but what a stuggle it was to get onto the corwded bus! It was not until about 15 minutes on the journey to the airport that I realized that this was the local bus the the local people use to get to home (not the airport shuttle). The final stop for this bus was close to the airport thankfully. This meant I had to get a local shuttle to the airport terminal. Fortunately I decided to leave the city about 5 hours before my flight departed, otherwise I would have missed my flight. What an adventure I had in Beijing!

Well, this is the end of a very exciting and adventerous journey, but the memories will linger for a lifetime!

To all my my freinds and family, and particularly to all my generous hosts, MANY, MANY THANKS! Please accept my most sincere gratitude and appreciation for your wonderful hospitality and kindness. Without you this trip would not have been possible. For many of you, I am looking forward to your visit to Melbourne Australia in the near future! Please keep in touch.

I will still use this blog to keep you informed about life in Australia for those who are interested!