Nanjing

This portion of my trip was the first of a few very difficult ones to write about. I anguished over how to provide adequate words for why I was there and where I visited. To assist me I recorded snips to remind me of the immediate impact of the heartwrenching Museum of the Nanjing Massacre. Despite having a very firm grasp of the history of that era, particularly the horrid attacks by the Japanese on Nanjing, Shanghai and the surrounding areas, I was not prepared. Which brought me up short when I finally sat down to write.

I finally decided to keep my visit to Nanjing in chronological order, it made no sense to jump back and forth even though the museum is what stood out. My whole visit to Nanjing in one ugly lump. As with my visit to Suzhou, it was one of the reasons I decided to return to Nanjing. However, I shall begin with my departure from Suzhou and my arrival in Nanjing – another early morning and a hunt for my hostel. I was beginning to think this would plague me with each new city in China and Vietnam.

Despite all the problems with not knowing if I was legally staying at a now un-named Hostel in Suzhou I actually slept and was up by 5:30. Unfortunately, due to the nature of backpacking and the lack of hot water I did not have a shower. Coupled with wearing the same outerwear as the previous day I felt yucky from the start of my day. Bleh. Then as if that were not enough, for good measure, I bashed my head with my coffee press that I had finally managed to pack in its usual top pocket of my bag. So, there was no knowing if my feelings of further bleh were a result of the head bash, no shower, or carrying everything about to taxi, station and train, or all of the above. Wheels were beginning to look like an excellent alternative to a backpack by the time I was on the train.

My first stop once I arrived at the train station – as usual far too early – was to head for whichever fast food place I could find. This time it was KFC, where I ordered a large coffee and watched the day unfold below me. Like watching Geand Central Station in fast motion. (I have only seen this on film) Then it was my turn to join the madness, coffee unfinished. I never like this part of travelling by train in China. A mad dash for the gates, stuff your ticket in, yet another mad dash up, down, over (depending on which train) and find the right car. I still have not figured out how to tell where I am supposed to go despite the colour coding on the platform – the board inside is, of course, in Chinese so I never know the colour I should head for.  Once in my seat I relax. Until my arrival.

Another short train trip, another early morning, another bad taxi driver, and I was very hungry. (One day I need to tell the tale of the driver from hell in Shanghai.) It was easy to get a taxi, not so easy showing him the address – written in Chinese – with the phone number and GPS. When I discovered later that the area is a major spot for tourists all I could do was wonder why some people choose to be taxi drivers. Once he had figured out where I was going he kept muttering to himself – this seems to be something drivers must learn at taxi school – and asking me where the place was, or possibly he meant did I, the foreign visitor, recognize it or see it – this is another common query from drivers. Once we did arrive I was nearly thrown out the door after paying the 22.00CNY in exact change; a demand for extra money was made with all sorts of gestures as to why, along with the driver insisting I hurry up. The result was I dropped my money, which slowed down the process even more, all the while he was yelling st me. I hoped I had not lost 100CNY! If he had not been in such an angry rush our transaction would have gone more smoothly as well as much faster. It was not until the following day that I found out there is a 2.00CNY surcharge.

the hostel kitty – he did not seem too pleased to share his space with a dog and a rabbit.

I was so happy my hostel was just across the street from where I was dropped off – until I was informed there was no power, which also meant no internet, for the whole block. It was not expected to be on until mid afternoon. By this time I was more than a little shaky, and in dire need of food. Although I had not intended to break into my emergency granola bars I was happy I had taken the foresight to buy them before leaving Canada for moments like these. Fortunately my bags could be left in a secured room on the main floor. I was not favouring the idea of climbing to the 4th floor with them! I headed out in search of food and happily discovered a restaurant two doors down that serves food already prepared – breakfast often being a rushed meal – prior to the power being cut. I made my selections, grabbed a set of chopsticks, and headed back to the hostel where I could make coffee – thermoses of hot water are still a major item found in hotels and restaurants in China – to add to my picnic on the large deck. Coffee, breakfast and a book – I was happily unplugged for several hours.

Naturally, after I did finally have a bunk to call my own, I was also ready to explore. My first stop was to the Fuzimiao (Confucian Temple) down the street. I rather liked the apples and ribbons hung on trees by couples – either for good luck or progeny, probably the latter considering the importance of family according to Confucius. No clear explanation as to how Confucius (b. 551 BCE) would be where many Chinese choose to show their devotion. However, his philosophy on moral standards and filial piety were, and remain, the base of Chinese culture. I have always wondered why temples were built to venerate Confucius – temples were generally erected for religious reasons. Confucius never considered himself a god, not even a messenger of God. I spent some time making friends with the few Temple cats sunning themselves. I also had to don my sunglasses to hide my tears for Mozzy. (This would happen pretty well every time I visited a place that also had cats in residence)

I could not resist this very cranky looking kitty with his brush and stand – not that I was going to try to pet him!

After the truncated visit to the temple I visited Nanjing’s very busy, pedestrians only, Fuzimiao (Confucian Temple) Street and surrounding area where the hostel is handily located. In addition to the Confucian Temple and the Imperial Examination Hall there is a lot to see. I did not make it to the latter – too worn out. In hindsight I wondered just how much I missed of the Confucian Temple though, the time I was there, and what I saw, certainly did not cover what I have since read about it. (The Temple and site were undergoing extensive renovations which did explain why some areas were not accessible) Next time I visit a place I will have to be better prepared! I The various wares and food did not draw my attention nearly as much as what I consider a new trend – mainly with young men – tattoos. A cross on the throat of one young man, others with various neck tattoos. Young women seem to keep their inkings to shoulder blades or arms – perhaps easier to cover up or be discreet. I blame my lack of enthusiasm for trying out the many delectable selections to the morning head bash, no electricity and a cranky driver. My mantra at the end of each day was rapidly becoming – I was worn out! I was in my bunk by 8:00pm.

This funny fellow seemed to belong to a wax museum.

My plan for the following day was to visit the Museum to the Massacre of Nanjing. Even two months on I remain unable to adequately put into words what I felt and saw. This became palpable throughout my trip each time I visited a recent (20th Century) historic site of conflict.

I did not take any photos from inside. However, the monuments and statues outside tell the story far better than I can.

What I first saw once inside, formally called The Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invader, was a mass grave, with many of the skeletons laid out relatively straight. It was an eerie sight; who took the time? It is important to know that the anthropologists, the forensic scientists, anyone involved with the discovery of this mass grave, pulled no punches when describing the atrocities against these victims – they were all brutally murdered. I wish I had known the importance of the flags the majority of the visitors were carrying, and just how much the tragedy of the massacres (as with earlier and, sadly, later mass ‘war losses’, worldwide, I doubt there is no knowing how many more mass graves remain undiscovered) to this day has an affect on the citizens of Nanjing as well as the whole country. As we solemnly passed by, and around the grave site, then – in mute harmony – matched numbers to photographs, visitors left a flag next to a name, a picture, a story, a memory.

A question came to mind while a few visitors were taking photos of the bared bones. (As visitors came closer to the exit they appeared to lose the shroud of quiet respect with a need for the air of modernity – death, particularly of such magnitude – is easier to leave behind from behind a lens). I should remark here that 10,000 bodies are not under scrutiny at the memorial, I did not make a note of how many – one being too many when considering why they are there – skeletons are displayed at the memorial, although I think fewer than 150 based on the numbers laid beside each remains. The question was were we, who are visiting, collectively guilty of ghoulishness, or was it an attempt to keep the memory, or a reminder to never let it happen again? Not that it has not happened since.

Q

It seems nearly an insult to write of the more pleasant visit I made to the city wall of Nanjing. Similar to the Great Wall outside of Beijing, and across the country, the ancient cities of China had fortifications built to keep enemies out. Nanjing, as well as Xi’an, had built a wall to surround the city. For a fee, senior discount for me, it is possible to climb the stairs to the top of the wall and go for a very pleasant walk. The sections that are open to the public stretch to six kilometres – I walked only 3. It is also much easier than the often arduous climbing of the sections of the Great Wall. I spent a couple of hours walking, taking in the view of the city on one side and a park on the other. Birds chirping, a slight breeze, and trees shimmering below were a balm after the museum. As this was a Sunday there were people cycling, walking, classical singing, tai chi, playing instruments were only some of what I heard and saw A photo shoot was happening on the wall – how the woman managed to climb the stairs in the long, flowing gown, was beyond me. I have noticed that women often carry, or have them carried, a pair of heels when heading to have photos done. Once again I was not sure if this was an wedding party or a fashion shoot. This time the dress was red – making it even more difficult to figure out. Unfortunately, by the time the Japanese attacked Nanjing on Dec. 13, 1937, the wall was useless against the bombings. It made me wonder if the Japanese were laughing at the ancient fortifications once considered strong enough to push back any invading army.

the inscriptions in the bricks are many, many centuries old, with some dating back to when the wall was first built. Although some histories say it was the builders who wrote them that seems unlikely as they were labourers and unlikely to have had any formal education.

After walking down from the wall I walked about 100metres before encountering the strangest sight – people had crossed over the low fence across from the lake and were kicking the trees before stooping down to gather up whatever had fallen to the ground. There were gingko trees and some trees I did not recognize which seemed to indicate this was a rather nifty, relieve your stress at the same time, way to harvest the fruit that would otherwise just fall and rot. It was quite funny to first hear the whack, whack of foot against trunk and more so when I saw it! Life carries on.

This lovely tearoom was built within the Nanjing Wall during extensive renovations during which time some internal modifications were necessary in order to keep the exterior as close to its original look as possible. I chose a less expensive repast.

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Vietnam: Photos I Wanted to Include (the first 14 days)

One of the challenges with keeping a blog that include pictures is deciding which ones to use. Which ones will appeal, which ones appeal to me, and of course can I recall why I took a specific photo in the first place. Another challenge for me is trying to keep them straight! Using my iPhone was challenging enough, adding my Canon PowerShot SX120 nearly did me in on the technical end of things. Perhaps it will be noted how old the camera is; too bad I have not mastered how to use it. There was a manual, and instructions could be found online – my problem is that, like my sandals that were stolen, the camera came into my hands via my mother. She read the manual, she also looked everything up before and after making the purchase. I did not. I am still attempting to either delete the dates completely or change to match the here and now – unsuccessfully. Which means my nifty little gadget for downloading photos from the card to my iPad has been doing so based on incorrect dates. The result is a mess. Therefore, before I delete anything (to make room, get rid of duplicates and start over) I thought I would share some favourites in a few loose themes over the days, plus captions when I can recall where I was. Some of these will be repeats. (I believe I already explained trying to keep track became nearly impossible for me) I am shuddering at picking up my last two weeks – four days were another bike trip!

Capturing the Scene (or trying to)

It is worth mentioning again that the scene behind me, garbage piled up, rat scurrying, seedy area, made this one more stunning.

Still laughing, this fellow continued to help.
After washing away the unwanted bits and pieces of fish. The day begins early.

Truly capturing the shades of green in a photo evaded me every time.
The hovel with the shrine.

The People 

Toan, slickers, sandals and dragon fruit. I coveted his blade. Two varieties of this delectable fruit – white or red, both delicious.
This was a typical sight at the market. The strangest item on a bike was a full size sofa!

I declined the invitation to join these guys, far too much swilling of beer.
This group of picnickers was not any less sedate. On my return two of the women were drunkenly serenading each other. The BBQ is a favourite in some parts of Vietnam – most westerners would be horrified by it.
The harvest. Some sort of shellfish.

I believe this was raising the gate at the railway tracks to let everyone through.
Making noodles – not fully automated means there is work.
Dalat train – solely a tourist attraction now. Train enthusiasts will appreciate the design of the tracks as well as the history.

Trains booked!

Travelling in China is a challenge even if you are from there – unless you have a private driver or someone to do all the legwork for you. Factor in a major holiday when millions (that is plural) will be trying to get to, or away from cities at the same time and it is amazing the train, bus, and airline systems do not crash.

Booking trains is a test of patience, tickets are generally only available 30 days before your proposed departure date. Even if you manage to find tickets they are often not what you want. For instance, an overnight sleeper is so much more comfortable than a hard sleeper. If however, you end up having to book a hard sleeper because you were asleep in your comfy bed in your home country when everyone in China was madly booking the soft sleepers, do try to snag a lower berth. Keep in mind though that you might be fending off what may seem like rude strangers trying to take over your space if you are not actually occupying the bed. It is not uncommon for people in the middle or top berth to hang out on the bottom berth. So make friends, have a picnic, laugh with newfound friends. (If on a strictly overnight train then everyone will most likely go straight to sleep)

Back to booking when Chinese citizens have the advantage of a time zone ahead of yours. I know there are intrepid souls who want to go it alone – “he who thinks himself…is a great fool” – so I give this warning, be prepared to be infinitely patient when attempting to book in the month before a holiday! With that in mind, and having a fairly good understanding of how the rails system works, I chose to once more book through an agency. Let them deal with finding the seats and sleepers for my dates, or come up with alternatives for me to choose from. All I had to do was send my itinerary along with the type of train, and seats, I wanted. They sent back a quote, including their fees, payment options and extra information – I only had to send the money! I used China Highlights because I already knew they come through. Heck, they even pick up errors in dates – mine. 

As for the third leg of my trip, Hanoi to Nanning; Nanning to Sanjiang, and beyond…..I am hoping with the holiday over I will not be “a great fool” by doing my own bookings. Besides, I have been down that track before.

The Final Countdown

I have noticed I often take snippets of song titles or snippets from lyrics when I am working on a Blog title. They just seem to pop into my mind with the result of having a catchy start and an ear bug for much of the day. I think this is one reason I do not listen to music when I travel. Also the fact I have no idea how to download music and my earbuds (which I hate using) and earphones plug do not seem to fit into my iPhone. I guess that is what one should expect when trying to save money by purchasing a ‘slightly’ used product. Which is why I am at a countdown of sorts.

My previous Blog discussed packing; I have not yet attempted to make everything fit although I remain confident it will. I am counting down the days – fewer than 30. I am counting on Mozzy – my cat – to be well. I am counting on not going crazy when my youngest daughter arrives from Honduras – recently a hurricane went by there and she is much like that force. To my knowledge she is still planning to join me on my Vietnam leg which will certainly help cut costs other than the actual motorcycle tour – we will have our own guides and probably not share rooms until we reach Hoi An. 

Family here are planning a celebration for my birthday – I am not looking forward to counting candles! Last time we had a cake with many, many candles (50, for my sister) the smoke alarm went off. Perhaps I will request six sparklers. There is not really anything I want – or rather, what I want will not happen. I do not need anything – besides money or free accommodation of course. I am also counting virtual money –  CNY, USD & VND – to work out the various exchange rates into CAD that go along with accommodation and transportation I know I will be using. (My whole budget is based on CAD – readers can now feel sorry for me)

Despite promising myself I would try to not rush about from place to place I have so far booked thirteen hostels and hotels, and that does not include the nine I will stay at during my Vietnam tour! I also have to figure out where I will go for the last six day of my trip. I will also take 8 – 10 trains, one motorcycle, a few subways, some short distance buses and who knows what else. However, even after factoring in three transit days and adding in Hoi An and Hanoi (I love saying those together) plus the six days I need to figure out, I believe my final countdown will still remain at 100CAD (80USD for anyone who does not think in Canadian dollars) per day. I could make it less if I were not springing for three nights close to two sections of the Great Wall at a boutique hotel. My birthday present to myself – they even offered to bake a cake.

Pushing My Buttons: or why my BP goes up

First, I should make it clear that I do not think my blood pressure did go up. Of course I chose to not check it. As I grow older I am also far more mellow than when I was younger, raising children and juggling all the unnecessary stuff that made up my life. Slough off much of that and everything seems just that much easier. It might not be, but it feels like it. Then every once in a while I hit a roadblock. Or, in this case a derailment.

Not to worry, it was a figurative one. After spending far too much time working on an itinerary that will give me time to actually enjoy each place I visit, I booked my train passage for the first leg of my trip. I had every intention of booking this time with travelchinaguide.com a dollar (USD) cheaper than chinahighlights.com and far more information to glean ideas from. However, I found some challenges with their payment request. Little did I know that their competitor also requires a copy of the ‘payer’s passport’. In other words, although it is me paying, me going, but not my PayPal account I would have to ask the person whose account I am using to send along a photo of their passport. 

National Day crowds I am hoping to avoid – one of Shanghai’s three train stations

I realize someone is under the impression this is for security measures. I just do not see it. Therefore, after checking out chinahighlights.com -I used them last year – and finding nothing to suggest any difficulties, I booked and paid through them. Except the app used seemed to only Book one trip at a time. Which then seemed to be booked – but not yet paid – and an email was sent with a booking number along with a request for money. I sent a message to cancel it. 
Back on track using the website, four trains booked, paid for through PayPal using my debit/visa, no need for anyone to do it on my behalf. Except this time all I received was a PayPal receipt. No booking number, no confirmation, nothing. I started to panic. I thought my money was lost in the ether. Finally, about three hours later, I received a message (I had sent an email) that the money was received and my tickets would be ordered. Except….did I really want to leave Shanghai on May 20th? Oh my goodness! Am I glad some bright individual caught that.
Not my ticket, but look at all that information!

So, happy with the agency I used, still unsure if they need a photo of my passport for proof of purchase – the cancelled app order asked for it , but the main order there was no mention. So long as I have four train tickets to pick up in Sep no problem.
Shanghai to Suzhou; Suzhou to Nanjing; Nanjing to Huangshan (this was a test – I told my daughter Hangzhou); Huangshan to Shanghai. All for 165.67 CAD