Saturday, March 17, 2007

Sacrifices and cadavers

I feel like we had a little bit of a China Day today. We made it to Xi'an, but this hote, the Xi'an is not, as Ms Joe described it, at a great location. It's outside the walls and away from the bright lights and I've only had pot noodles and junk food for dinner...

This morning we checked out of our hotel in Beijing and caught a taxi to the Temple of Heaven. The temple is actually a complex of buildings located within a park. It was here that the Emporer and his retinue sacrificed animals to the gods in order to ensure a good harvest.

I wanted to sacrifice some of the singers making awful noise in the park, like shrieking birds. Chinese song cannot be defined as music. Or maybe it's just the effects of karaoke, the single worst invention in the history of mankind.

We were walking the wrong way through the complex, from north to south. So we hit the highlight first, the Hall for Prayer for Good Harvests. The empty space around this octagonal/circular building highlights its impressive architecture. It's colours are rich reds, blues, greens and gold and it sits on three levels of white marble.

The marble carvings come in three types - the dragon, the phoenix and clouds. I especially like the dragons poking horizontally outwards from the walls. One type in particular looks fat and silly rather than fearsome. He even has flat teeth.

From the park we walked around to the nearby Museum of Natural History. The animated dinosaurs and various animal skeletons are particularly interesting. Other exhibits would be more so if their English captions were better. The aquarium section smelled like a fish shop.

The most gruesome exhibits were not, as the Lonely Planet says, on the top floor, but in a separate white building near the exit gate. Here were human cadavers and organs, cut away to demonstrate different parts of the body. There was a tank containing just the male sexual and liquid waste disposal system, baby and children's faces half cut away to show the brain and teeth. I guess some would find this disgusting, but for me it was a fascinating anatomy lesson. Chinese parents seemed to have no problem with it either, as they showed their young kids around.

We walked back to our hotel, past recently demolished hutongs. Vendors were hawking hairdressing wares outside one, including bunches of human hair. We passed some local shops and bought some sweets, or so they claimed to be for we both found them awful.

After purchasing some souveniers of the Beijing 2008 Olympics from the shop beside Tiananmen Square and some more footslogging we finally reached the hotel. Our legs had given up.

Both of us slept a short while on the taxi ride to the airport, though I did catch a glimpse of the ancient observatory and crumbling remains of the city wall. I wonder if the driver pushed a button to speed up the meter, because the fare cost us more than RMB100 and seemed to tick over quickly near the end.

Beijing's airport is quite nice. There are actually decent food places after security, prior to security your best bet seems to be in the basement where a number of food vendors reside, including KFC. The pre-pay system dissuaded us from eating there, despite our hunger. Anyway, we were running out of time.

Our Hainan airlines flight morphed into a Chang'an Airlines Airbus 319, but I don't pretend to understand Chinese airline ownership. Clean aircraft, fairly comfortable and the announcements were in Chinese and sometimes unintelligible English. We even got a box of noodles or rice, a bun and pickles on the plane, though I found my inedible. I couldn't believe they continued to serve during turbulence, although considering the whole flight was rough I guess they had no choice. I couldn't wait to land.

At Xian we ignored the taxi touts and hoped on a minibus. The "conductor" did her best to explain in English that our stop was a distance away from our hotel. We passed motorways and parts of the city wall lit up like some futuristic world. Xian seems to be an interesting place and I am now regretting our short stay.

Once off the bus we made our first big taxi mistake, with a tout grabbing our bags and hustling on board, then refusing to use the meter. At the hotel RMB13 turned into RMB30 and he took our RMB20 note and drove off. Bastard, but our fault.

The hotel seems designed to absorb our money, though at least the internet access is free (I hope). The bellboy who brought our luggage (he wouldn't let us take it up ourselves) redeemed himself by being very friendly and helpful, assisting us in changing rooms when we were given a twin instead of a double (we did ask Ms Joe for doubles!).

It was late, we were away from any shops and only the western restaurant was open and changing high prices. We were "forced" to purchase pot noodles from the hotel shop. The hotel has no message to say that we are booked on tomorrow's tour of the terracotta warriors, despite us having paid for it. Finally, I can't find my ATM card - must have misplaced it.

I hope things are back to smooth tomorrow. I'm tired (too much late night blogging) and a little disappointed with the results of letting someone else book. I don't like this hotel's location and I don't like the one in Shanghai either. For both places I had better options I found myself. Already I'm wondering if we are pushing things too quickly now.

Time to relax for tomorrow's early start.