Archive for the ‘China’ Category

Immersing In The Greatness Of The Great Mosque

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

After our visit to the Small Wild Goose Pagoda we returned to Xi’an’s city centre and made our way to the Great Mosque.

The Great Mosque is one of the oldest, largest and best-preserved Islamic mosques in China and its location is northwest of the Drum Tower (Gu Lou) on Huajue Lane – an easy place to find on the local tourist map.

The Great Mosque is definitely worth visiting if you are going to spend anytime in Xi’an.  The centuries-old mosque (circa 724AD) has some wonderful history and the unique mix of architecture (traditional Muslim and Chinese styles in the buildings) is stunning.

We were fortunate enough to arrive at the mosque just as prayer time was commencing.  The presence of dedicated worshippers and the sound of beautiful chanting made the whole mosque area come alive.

History suggests that Islam was introduced into Northwest China by Arab merchants and travelers from Persia and Afghanistan during the mid-7th century. Some of the travelers settled down in China and married women of Han nationality.  Descendants of these marriages became the Muslims of today.

Mosques throughout China were built to honor the role Muslims played in the unification of China during the Yuan and Ming Dynasties and the Great Mosque is obviously one of the most special of these houses of worship.

The Princess and I soaked up the calmness that was very much present inside the mosque walls and we enjoyed the freedom to take photos and video as we walked around the complex. Tourists and locals alike honoured the significance of this ancient place of worship and noise levels were kept low.

The Great Mosque is a must see for anyone visiting Xi’an.  Take a couple of hours to immerse yourself in the beauty and history of this ancient complex and, if you can arrange it, make sure you visit coincides with prayer time.

Footnote:  After you leave the mosque, turn left and walk about 5 metres.  On the right you will find Jessica’s coffee shop.  Jessica, the owner, speaks excellent English and she is the perfect host.  Jessica was very generous with her time and gave us some wonderful tips on what to see and where to eat in Xi’an.  Oh, her coffee and walnut biscuits are excellent too!

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Bare Bumed Babies

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

One of the many things that attracted our attention in Xian was the proliferation of babies and toddlers baring their bottoms.

We thought, at first, that the “holey” pants were due to wear and tear and that given many people in China are not particularly wealthy they simply could not afford to purchase new pants for the growing toddlers.  How wrong we were – oh so naive.

In fact, it wasn’t until we read an article in a local expatriate magazine (Xianease) that we realised why babies and toddlers were baring their cute little buttocks for all to see.

The Xianease article (titled “Fresh Breeze”) pointed us in the right direction – the split pants are designed “to allow the wearer to lighten themselves wherever and whenever they please.”  And, as it turned out, we witnessed just that – toddlers happily and unashamedly relieving themselves as required.

Whilst hundreds of bare bottomed youngsters running around the streets of Xian might seem strange to us Westerners (we didn’t actually see too many to be honest) the reality is that it is very much the norm in China.  Another reason for this continued display of flesh is that many Chinese families simply cannot afford expensive diapers (nappies to us Australians) – cloth and an “as is, where is” acceptance is cheap and convenient.

So, if you haven’t been to China before and you are planning a visit don’t be too concerned about the sight of cute little derrieres hanging out of pants that look like they have had to “bum ripped out of them”.  It is all a part of the scenery in China.

A final point to note:  It has to be good for the environment so thumbs up (or is that “bottoms out”) to the people of China.

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Safest Place To Walk? – On The Road

Friday, May 11th, 2012

Xi’an city is quite well laid out and there are no lack of footpaths for one to walk on.  However, it seems that the locals are more comfortable walking on the road.  This could be due to the fact that some drivers seem to prefer to drive on the footpaths!

The proliferation of cars, bikes, buses and trucks mean that the roads in China are becoming increasingly busy.  However, the average pedestrian has no qualms about sharing the roads with the traffic.  Indeed, we were privy to people wheeling elderly parents in their wheelchairs against the stream of oncoming traffic.

Old men and women pushing cardboard laden pushcarts, bikes stacked with gas bottles and water, wheelchairs with elderly passengers aboard and young and old foot traffic are all commonplace on the streets of Xi’an.  And what’s more – the drivers of the fast moving (and not so orderly procession) of vehicles take this all in their stride.  The incessant beeping of horns reminds the foot traffic that they may become a hood ornament if they are not too careful and, for the most part, they seem to obey.

The streets are not a place for the fainthearted and visitors to Xi’an (and other Chinese cities) should opt for the footpaths (if they are not taken up with cars and bikes) rather than walking on the roads.  The locals seem to be rather accustomed to the practice but tourists probably don’t have the street smarts to compete with the traffic.  Besides, the “gawking” that tourists tend to do leads to even less awareness.

Travel tip – keep your ears open because the friendly reminder from an approaching car may be the only thing that keeps you alive in these parts!

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Freely Frolicking On A Formidable Former Foe

Friday, April 13th, 2012

Some years ago a Chinese company located in Shenzhen purchased  the former USSR aircraft carrier “Minsk”.  The company set up a theme park with the Minsk as a central attraction.

The “Minsk” was decommissioned from the Russian Navy in 1993 after it suffered some major damage in a dockyard accident.  It was subsequently sold to a Korean businessman (I guess the Russians were a little cash strapped in those days) and he on sold the ship to a Chinese company here in southern China.

Today, we decided to pay a visit to the Minsk – now a part of “Minsk World” and check out this former formidable ship.  Of course being an ex-military man and an aviator, I was keen to get up close and personal with some of the hardware on display.

After researching transport options we decided to take a taxi to Yantian – the area where the Minsk is moored.  The hotel staff were very helpful in arranging a taxi and it wasn’t long before we were sliding around the backseat (sans seat belts) of the “standard” Shenzhen taxi on our way to Yantian.

One of the things we both commented on during the trip to Yantian was how well laid out the road system is in Shenzhen.  The taxi driver drove to Yantian via the Eastern Coast Expressway and he enjoyed being able to drive fast!  We never felt unsafe but it would have been nice to have had a seat belt (or two).

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After leaving the expressway we descended down into Yantian via some spectacular winding roads.  Looking back up to the expressway provided us with an impressive sight.  They certainly know how to build roads here in China.

The trip from Lo Wu to Yantian was quite quick (around 15 minutes) and surprisingly cheap (about 40RMB with tips).  Our driver delivered us to the shorefront where the Minsk is located so we didn’t have to walk too far to the entrance of Minsk World.

Despite signs of a lack of repair, the Minsk still look imposing sitting alongside the wharf.  The sheer size of the vessel and the array of weapons systems and radar heads gives the immediate impression of a ship that needed to be shown respect – at least in its day.

We paid for our tickets (130RMB) and crossed the gangway onto the ship.  I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t piped onboard however I did take time to “throw a goffa” (salute) in the direction of the quarterdeck.  Ah….. my 15 years in the navy taught me a few things.

Despite the theme park style entrance (located inside the below deck hangar space) we were glad to be aboard and keen to take a long look around the ship.

Vistors are able to access a lot of the ship’s spaces (below and above deck) and the walkways and displays are designed to allow you to learn more about different parts of the ship and its weapons systems.  We enjoyed reading the “Chinglish” descriptions – a great chuckle indeed.  

After some time below decks we made our way onto the flight deck and got up close and personal with some of the aircraft that were on display.  Unfortunately the ship and the display aircraft haven’t been given a lot of attention in the past few years so they look a little “worse for wear”.  In fact I would not be surprised if they haven’t been touched since they were decommissioned by the Russians back in the mid-1990′s.  They are certainly authentic.

After rubbing the rusting metal and tired paintwork of the jets and helicopters we made our way to the fo’c's’le (there’s the navy in me again) area – the location of some of the ship’s weapons systems – surface to air and surface to surface missiles.  Many of the missiles (inert we assume) are still located in the magazines or on the rails of their launchers.  They are certainly not going anywhere fast but they still look very imposing.  The Minsk was designed to be a self protected vessel and, despite having a support fleet supporting her (in her operational days) she would have been able to launch a sizeable attack on anything that came close (including ships, aircraft and submarines).  Impressive indeed.

From the flight deck we made our way topside for a look around the bridge and the aviation control room.  The now archaic navigation, communication and control systems look like something from the 50′s and in their day they would have required a lot of manpower to operate them effectively.  Indeed, up to 1600 crew were embarked on the ship when it was fully operational.  Not as many of the huge US carriers but still a lot of people.

We took quite a few photographs from the higher vantage points before descending below decks into the op’s room and onto the hangar deck – both of which were “disappointing”.  The displays on the hangar deck were geared to theme style tourists and most of them were not operational. Indeed, whilst the concept of a “theme park” probably sounded good, the operator has not really supported the whole business and the whole operation is look a little sad and sorry.  An unfortunate end for this old lady of the sea.

We “stepped ashore” after about two hours (still not piped ashore) and viewed some of the aircraft located on waterfront area before setting off on a walk along the nicely designed waterfront and back into Yantian town centre.

Our walk took us along clean and tidy pathways and past some of the newer apartment developments that are sprouting up in the area.  We were very impressed by the cleanliness of Yantian.  We were also impressed by how quite the area was.

One of the things we liked was the proliferation of bike stations located around the city.  We gathered that the city is modeling the bike hire system on some of the European cities.  What a forward thinking way of designing your city.  We only wish that Hong Kong could do the same!  People complain about the pollution from China but we saw some great examples (bikes, solar heating and recycling systems) of how Shenzhen is doing what it can to reduce the pollution output.  Well done!

We made our way into the small city centre and looked around for a place to have a coffee.  Whilst there were no Starbucks (yet) in Yantian we did find a place called Montreal Coffee.  This lovely quiet restaurant was located off the main street area and we enjoyed sitting in the swing seats and drinking a very nice coffee.  I was expecting some average tasting beverage but I was eating my words after sipping on the wonderful Viennese coffee that was placed before me.  A great way to finish off our time in Yantian.

We asked (in our best Chinese) the waitress for a taxi back to Lo Wu and she kindly walked us out onto the street and flagged down a taxi for us.  The friendly driver took us back along a slightly different route to Lo Wu but it took us the same time and cost the same amount as the trip down.

We would certainly recommend a tour of the Minsk and some time in and around Yantian.  Despite the “dog eared” state of the Minsk and the average state of the displays, the ship, its weapons systems and aircraft are still an impressive reminder of the halcyon days of the Russian navy.

After visiting the ship make sure you spend some time in and around Yantian.  Take a walk around the streets and have a coffee at Montreal Coffee – you won’t be disappointed!

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Soaking Up Some Culture

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

We crossed the boarder into the bustling city of Shenzhen yesterday afternoon.  We came up here for a two day break and we specifically aimed to take in some of the sights and sounds of this relatively new city.  Shenzhen is located on the northern boarder of Hong Kong’s New Territories – a short 45 minute taxi from where we live on Lantau Island.

Today we decided to visit the China Folk Cultural Village.  This huge theme type village is located in the western part of Shenzhen city and it took us 30 minutes to get there on the Metro from Lo Wu.  We had not travelled on the Metro during our previous visits to Shenzhen and we were glad we made the effort this time.  We were very impressed by the cleanliness of the trains and the courtesy of the locals.  Unfortunately the ticketing system is not as efficient as Hong Kong’s Octopus system however the automated ticketing machines allowed us to “interface” in English and we worked it out rather quickly.  Hot tip – make sure you have 5RMB notes or some coin as some machines don’t take bills greater that 5RMB.

The “green line” of the Metro runs from Lo Wu to Shenzhen’s airport and the Cultural Village is located en route.  We were able to get a seat for the short trip to the Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) station – our destination for today’s adventure.  The Cultural Village is a 5 minute walk from the exit at OCT so it wasn’t long before we  were passing through the village’s main gates.  Entry into the village was 130RMB each – a reasonable price to pay for the extensive displays and shows.

Neither of us had any idea of what to expect during our visit to the village but we were both quite taken back by the expansive layout of the place.  Our first impressions (and they lasted throughout the day) were that it is clean, terrifically signposted and has something for people of all ages.  In fact, if you were an invalid or just wanting to rest your legs, you can drive yourself around in small electric carts – free of charge!

The village’s main purpose is to present the various cultures that are represented in the Chinese population.  Each of the culture’s unique way of living, their religious beliefs and their ceremonies and costumes are represented throughout the village’s huge expanse.  Temples, bridges, rivers, lakes  and lantern lined pathways provide photographers with some wonderful photo opportunities and we never tired of taking in the sights and sounds on offer.

Today is a week day and a school day here in China and from the moment we arrived in the village it was obvious that many of the local schools were taking their students on study visits to the village.  Both of us enjoyed the continuous interactions with the school children – all of whom were polite and friendly. Many of them greeted us with “Welcome to China” and they were obviously very proud to be able to “show off” this city attraction.  Indeed, we felt like celebraties at different times during the day as we were “mobbed” by excited children wanting to try out their english language skills on us.  None of them were pushy and they were all happy to listen and learn.  Patient teachers and aides ensured that “when the time was right” the children were moved onto their next venue – but not before polite thank you’s and goodbyes were said.

It became apparent to us that perhaps we should have arrived at the Cultural Village earlier than we did because the sheer size of the place was almost worthy of a two day visit.  We did manage to see the majority it however this took the best part of 7 hours and we didn’t attend some of the shows that were on offer.  However, there is always next time!

After leaving the village (around 1800) we walked across the road to commercial area of OCT.  The map that we had showed that there was a Walmart in the area and we thought it would be interesting to check out a Chinese Walmart store.  On the way to the area where Walmart was located we found a Starbucks!  It felt like we were in downtown USA.  Our bodies were a little devoid of coffee after the 7 hours in the Cultural Village so it was nice to sit down and sip on a hot beverage.

Walmart was across the street from Starbucks (not that it was very well signposted) so after downing our lattes we ventured off in search of some more of what the USA exports around the world.

Walmart are aiming to roll out over 1000 stores across China in the next decade and there are already 20 of them in Shenzhen.  The one we visited was quite new.  If you imagine a Walmart in suburban USA and fill it full of Chinese signage and Chinese style foods and goods then you will get the picture of what we experienced here in Shenzhen.  The store was very well laid out, clean and orderly and with enough people in it to make us realise that consumerism is well and truly alive here in China.  With over a billion people in this country I don’t think Walmart will have any problems filling 1000 stores!

The nearest Metro entrance to Walmart was a short walk from the store and without any crowds to contend with we were able to purchase our return ticket to Lo Wu without waiting.  The train arrived after a few minutes and despite not being able to get a seat, the 30 minute return trip to Lo Wu was very comfortable.

The hotel we are staying at (Best Western Felicity) is located nearby the Metro station in Lo Wu so after working out which exit we needed to take we made our way across to the hotel and back to our very comfortable room on the 24th floor.

In summary – we had a wonderful day of taking in the sights, sounds and tastes of China and we would highly recommend a visit to the China Folk Cultural Village if you are planning a visit to Shenzhen.  Give yourself plenty of time to see the expansive layout and to take in some of the shows that are on offer at the village.  Oh, and be adventurous with your travel too – take the efficient and clean Metro and mix it up with the friendly locals.  You won’t be disappointed.

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