China - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 223 (33)

Datong

Sunday 17th October

With no pressing agenda for today, we slept in. In fact, we didn’t get out of bed until gone noon and so allowed our bodies to recuperate from the rigors of the past several weeks of travelling through the most difficult countries on our travel list. One of my primary objectives when I set out to plan our round-the-world itinerary was to construct a route that would follow the warm climates as far as possible. Ensuring that we stay in warm climates means that we don’t have to take cold weather clothing and this drastically reduces the amount of weight and bulk needed in our backpacks. It just so happens that the net result of this planning meant that India and China were the first major countries on the list that we would spend any appreciable time in. These are also likely to be the most difficult countries to travel through. This means that after China, our travelling experience should become a lot easier. I certainly hope so.

Even though this hotel has all the appearances of a very respectable establishment, there are several signs that it caters to, shall we say, a ‘wider’ section of the market? The hotel literature in our room mentions the convenience of renting the rooms by the hour, for example, and provides price lists for one, two, three and four-hourly rates. In addition to this, there are various things dotted around the room and bathroom that are for sale. Some of these are what you might typically expect to see in a hotel such as biscuits, drinks and so on. In the bathroom, however, there are also condoms and sanitary wipes for the ‘cleansing of the genitals after lovemaking’, apparently, as well as some sort of cream for the ‘stimulation of the genital area to help in lovemaking’. Last night, we checked out the sauna on the forth floor but ultimately decided against the idea because of all the spitting that was going on (yes, they even spit everywhere inside too). Peter, our Canadian friend that left with his wife early this morning, did try out the facilities, however, and told me that at the end of his session, the men folk disappeared and a woman came in and asked if he wanted a ‘massage’. When he queried this a little further, she pointed to his groin and repeated ‘massage’ using some very descriptive hand movements and gestures which left nothing to the imagination. I’m now no longer sure if I should be glad that I declined to use the facilities last night after all.

Due to the lateness of the day, we skipped breakfast and went straight for lunch. There is a KFC here in the city centre and it’s quite close to the couple of sites of interest that this town boasts so we decided to head off in that direction to check them out for ourselves. After chatting briefly with our trusty CITS officer over in his little office at the train station, we took a bus into town. All he told us was the bus number and that it would cost no more than a few Yuan. When our bus arrived, I observed the locals putting notes directly into a box next to the driver’s seat as they boarded. I figured that if I simply put a ¥5 note into the box that this would cover the two of us the for couple of Kilometres ride but the bus driver, a woman as it happens, made eye contact and started to make the now familiar randomly pitched vowel sounds in my direction, nothing of which made any sense so I just pulled my now familiar ‘I’m so very stupid’ look in the hope that inspiration might hit me. She kept showing me two fingers and I sensed that the idea was that I had to pay using exact change but the smallest denomination note that I had was a ¥5. I dropped the note into the box and sat down, thinking that it would be OK to overpay but not to underpay, but she still seemed to want to resolve the matter. When the next several locals got on, she took the money directly from them in turn, instead of allowing them to put the notes into the box, and three times in succession, she handed me back a ¥1 note. Obviously I needed to pay just two ¥1 fares and she wanted to make sure that I didn’t overpay, which was quite nice of her I thought.

The bus pulled away shortly after the payment situation was resolved and we inched into the centre of town. I tried my best to follow the map in the guidebook in the hope that I’d be able to determine the correct point at which to get out but a young girl had already started to ask Sandy if she needed any assistance and the two of them figured out where we needed to exit the bus, which we did just at the right moment.

We had planned on heading straight for the KFC but even though we got off at the right stop, we were still a little disoriented and walked off in the wrong direction to where we thought we were going. This is another example of just how quickly things can go pear shaped here. As luck would have it, we noticed this just about when we stumbled into the Nine Dragons Screen, one of the few sites of interest here in Datong. Entrance was just ¥5 with the student discounts. The screen, or wall, is about three meters in height and about thirty meters long. It stands in front of what used to be a palace that was destroyed by fire in the fifteenth century. Along the face of the wall, made from ceramic tiles, are nine dragons, from where the screen gets its name. Other than this one length of wall, there is literally nothing else to see so we moved on after wandering around a bit. One of the two souvenir shop owners seemed to get a bit of a thrill from the fact that I was still wearing my sandals with no socks in this chilly autumn weather. Indeed it is still getting colder here by the day and we are still looking forward to heading farther south.

As we walked along the main streets through the middle of town, we noticed that we were getting a lot more stares that usual. Clearly there are very many fewer westerners that parade through the streets of Datong that do in Beijing or other more travelled places. It can often be a pleasant experience to be the centre of attention but at other times, when people are staring without a smile on their faces, you can often feel quite uncomfortable.

We eventually found the KFC and went through our routine of ordering by means of hand gestures and body language. For all the proclaiming we did at the outset of our trip about not wanting to indulge in fast food outlets in foreign countries, it does have to be said that they are always there as a reliable failsafe when you want to escape the communications problems and simply get something predictable to eat fast. Not to mention the fact that the Chinese seem to have taken to the KFC chain in particular.

We knew approximately where the temple was that we were next looking for and wandered through some of the back streets in its general direction to find it. Along the way, we found a much more interesting side to Datong that few outsiders will probably have seen. The back streets and alleys are littered with cheap eateries where the poorest sections of the community choose to frequent. Roadside stalls down these alleyways are cheap and cheerful and will rustle up their equivalent of fast food right there on the spot, using nothing more than a makeshift container filled with glowing hot coals, for just a few Fen. We also saw rubbish collectors sifting through heaps of rubbish and the back ends to some of the restaurants on the main streets. I certainly hope that the horrendous mess here in these alleys is no reflection of the state of the restaurants in the respective kitchens.

Try as we might, we simply couldn’t make our way to anything like an entrance to the large temple that we could clearly see sticking out above the shorter buildings surrounding it. At one point, we stood still for a few seconds looking at the temple roof and wondering which direction to take next. A woman came out and, having figured out what we were trying to do, used hand gestures to give us instructions for which way to go. In a momentary lapse of concentration, I inadvertently put my hands together and bowed my head a little to say thanks, rather like I might do if I were in India. I guess I was just a bit confused at the time and this must have rubbed off on the helpful woman, as she tried to mimic me, in turn, by putting her hands together and bowing her head also. She had a bemused look on her face as if she was not used to this form of greeting but wanted to reciprocate by doing whatever it is that people from my culture do. I wonder what country she thought I was from.

Anyway, we followed her directions and did finally manage to find the temple. It’s a rather old Buddhist temple, judging by the state of decay in the roof woodwork, and really quite large inside with no less than five huge Buddhas arranged in a line across the one main hall. The temple came complete with cushions in front of the row of Buddhas for kneeling on whilst praying and the predictable array of tourist shops selling little replicas of the temple and incense sticks for people to buy and burn as offerings to the deities.

The temple was interesting enough but we probably enjoyed the humorous translations to the various signs that were posted around the grounds most of all, such as ‘No photograph, Disobey punish’. There is another similar temple half way across town but we decided to enjoy a slow stroll back through town towards our hotel instead. As we went, I tried to take some snaps of ordinary Chinese going about their ordinary lives and managed to get some quite nice, artistic shots. We also stepped into a couple of clothing shops as we walked but didn’t buy anything. I was half looking for a new jacket but since we will be moving into a warmer climate tomorrow, there really isn’t any pressing need for this and I’ll wait until a better opportunity comes along.

After about an hour and a half of slowly walking through the streets of industrial Datong, we made it back to our hotel but before going in, decided to find a supermarket or shop where we could procure some provisions for the train journeys tomorrow. There has been a decided lack of supermarkets here in China, although there have been some, unlike India which didn’t have any at all. We found one and collected a few things together but when it came time to adding it all together, I felt that the shop owner’s apparent insistence that there was no haggling possible might be an indication that we were perhaps being ripped off a bit. Much to Sandy’s annoyance, I decided that we’d look elsewhere instead. On the way over to the CITS office at the train station, our man came out to meet us on the street and we chatted with him for a bit on the merits of where best to buy and when to haggle. He definitely had our best interests at heart and was telling us how put out he was about another tourist just yesterday being charged ¥5 ($0,60) for a cake when it should only have cost ¥1 ($0,12). For us, this difference is negligible but for him this represented a 500% mark-up on something that might represent a meal. He and I share the same distain for this sort of thing, even if my own is based on principal more than anything else. He told us about a large supermarket just a couple of streets away where the prices are fixed and exactly what they should be.

We found the supermarket and shopped for a good half an hour or more, all the time trying to decipher what was in most of the packaged contents on the well-stocked shelves. It was what we would consider a very small supermarket but there were plenty of locals wandering up and down the narrow isles and we found a few snack items that we think will see us through the train journey to Beijing and onto Xi’an.

Almost daily, now, we run into things that I think would be worth a mention in my daily journals and one of us invariably asks the other to make a mental note of this or that and to remind the other of it later in the evening. The two of us have developed the annoying habit of completely forgetting all these little reminders come the end of the day so whilst at the supermarket, we both bought a small notepad and pen to jot down these little bits of information as we move around during the day. It only takes a couple of words jotted down to trigger the memory of an event or a particularly interesting sight so hopefully, we are now both better prepared to capture and record more interesting stuff. And, of course, that’s just what I need – more things to write about at the end of every day!

On the way back to the hotel, we passed what looked like several containers of live fish with a man squatting besides them. He saw me looking and motioned me over to take a closer look, which I did. I was intrigued by these strange looking fished and by motioning my hand to my mouth, asked if they were to eat. Alas, they were only pond fish but the man and several onlookers did seem to get quite a kick out of my curiosity and we all had a good laugh – one of the few, brief, chance encounters with the locals that we enjoy so much.

Even though we had a very late start to the day, we haven’t really done very much and have retired early to bed. We will be up shortly after seven o’clock tomorrow morning, as we have to be at the station quite early. Fortunately, it is just a few meters across the street but this is a double-edged sword. If we were late getting up and it was farther away, as was the case in Beijing, we’d have time to speed up to make up for lost time but since it’s right next-door, if we’re late, we’re late. I’m not too sure about that logic but since I’m tired, I’ll let that one go.

I’ve been going through our budget today and I’m generally quite pleased that we are either at or within the budget I set for us. On the other hand, I had hoped that we would come in more under budget than has been the case. I’ve been hoping that we would come in under budget here in China in particular as this is one of the cheaper countries to travel through and, more likely than in the more expensive countries, here more than anywhere else, there would be savings to be made. By all accounts, $80 a day is quite a substantial budget for China judging by the accounts of other budget travellers. We have, however, allowed ourselves the luxury of a bigger daily budget so that we can relax more and enjoy ourselves more without having to resort to the sort of endurance traveller’s lifestyle of always staying in the very cheapest places and always eating as cheaply as possible. I dare say that we could probably travel this way if push came to shove but with our aging bodies and finicky tastes, we probably wouldn’t last the nine or ten months that we have planned – nor, I suspect, would we enjoy ourselves as much. What worries me a little, however, is that we plan on being in Australia for a full eight weeks or more and have just $20 a day more daily allowance to spend in that country compared to here, and I’m worried that Australia is significantly more expensive country to travel through than is China. Still, we also plan on spending quite a bit of time with relatives while we are there so hopefully things should even out a bit. We still have plenty of money left in our ‘luxury’ budget but there is still plenty of the trip left ahead of us too. By the end of the trip, I’m confident that we will return to Europe with money to spare and if all else fails, I have a large family and can pull a pretty pathetic looking sympathetic face.

As I’ve sat here typing, both of us just noticed the entire building shake from side to side for a few seconds. Our beds moved and the mirror on the wall clearly moved back and forth a few times also. The only conclusion that we can draw is that we’ve just experienced a genuine earthquake. Not a very strong one, but an earthquake nevertheless. Being on the top floor of a nine-story hotel is probably not the best place to be when an earthquake hits so we’ll probably both sleep lightly tonight.

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