Everything is okay. Welcome to China.

Trip Start May 28, 2008
Trip End Aug 26, 2008

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Saturday, July 5, 2008

"Everything is okay, welcome to China."

Crossing the border into China by railway is really a unique experience. By unique, I mean that people who fly into someplace like Beijing by an international flight apparently have not experienced this. We have crossed several borders by now, it is not always the most fun experiences but all in all, it has been okay. That was until crossing into China. Now I won't say it was a bad experience, just quite eye opening. With the Olympics just around the corner and what has been happening in Tibet as of late, China immigration/customs are like a bunch of long tailed cats in a room full of rocking chairs.

1. Immigration checks our passports/visas and have us fill out entrance and exit forms. Nothing new there, done this several times.

2. Immigration/security showed up next and searched Demian's bag. There was a younger officer asking Demian to remove everything and open it while getting confirmation and/or directions from his superior officer standing behind him. This seemed like the younger officer was still in-training. That's cool, you gotta learn some how! This was different, but China is on heightened alert because of the Olympics.

3. Custom officials now come into our train compartment, there were 4 of them. The one in front spoke very good English. They demanded to see all of our reading materials, travel papers, guide books and any maps that we currently had in our possession. Alrighty then! Out comes our travel itineraries, China rail map, xeroxed copies of Thai vegetarian recipes, my nursing books. No guide books, we didn't have one. The China rail map was discussed at length, but apparently the borders were drawn correctly because that was given back to us. Everything else checked out fine.

4. Immigration officer returns our passports, "Everything is okay, welcome to China."

Our English neighbor in the compartment next to us did not get through the experience unscathed though. His guidebook was confiscated and his laptop was looked through (they didn't ask for ours) . They were in his compartment for about 45 minutes. Apparently all guidebooks are being confiscated at the border, but they were available for sale at our hostel. I leave it at that.

We spent the 4th of July on The Great Wall of China, how cool is that! Demian arranged for us through our hostel to take 'the secret wall tour'. There are several places that you can walk/climb the wall, most are over touristed and you can count on being chased by the hawkers. To take the 'secret wall' tour you have to be in good physical health because it is a good hour and a half long hike, mostly uphill in a shrub dry brush landscape. The only people we saw were the rest of the tour group (about twenty others). Our guide was a little lady about 70, spoke no English, and apparently does this climb just about every day. She was amazing! Honestly, that was no easy climb, it was a hot day. I have to admit when I saw her, I started going over in my head, the signs and symptoms of heart attack, and reviewing the proper way to administer CPR. The wall itself is a marvel itself, mostly crumbling, it was not meticulously maintained like the parts of the wall where everybody tends to go. A great way to see the wall, I HIGHLY recommend this tour!

We spent about two hours up on the wall going from turret to turret, talking to other travelers, soaking up the scenery. There was a little concession stand at the top, the vendor there had water, juice, soda, t-shirts, etc. We were told by somebody who speaks Chinese that the man comes here every day with ice, and he makes more here than he would ever make down in his village. Good for him, anyone who does that hike, lugging ice every day, deserves to over charge a bit for his OJ.

The hike down took about 45 minutes and we had a wonderful Vegetarian lunch waiting for us at the little village

Good times, good food, what a great wall!


The government has planted new green zones with trees all over Beijing, and is cutting factory and construction days ahead of the Olympics to ensure improved air quality. The will also be restricting automobile use to alternating days when we are closer to the games. It is clear that they are making huge improvements, but also easy to understand why athletes from parts of the globe with cleaner air have raised objections about competing in Beijing. I'm betting on China - I think they will deliver a great Olympic games for the athletes. I'm hoping visitors have the same experience, but there will undoubtedly be hiccups.

Here were my four examples of hiccups for visitors upon arrival:

1) Could not find an ATM in the train station. After performing a pantomime withdrawal for staff members, it was explained to us that the ATMs were located in the Ticket Office. This meant leaving the arrival floors, exiting the building, crossing the small plaza, and standing in the huge lines to clear security as all our bags were X-rayed to clear the checkpoint as we reentered the same building on a different floor. Let the record show that the Beijing West Station has a huge ticket office with over 20 staffed service windows and many ATMs, but separate security and no access to or from departure or arrival areas - just two outdoor entry points and many other doors locked with chains (let's hope there is never a fire).

2) The well staffed information desk did not have a map. I failed to find an English language map at the first three shops I tried, so I resorted to taking some digital pictures of the excellent Chinese/English area map in the train station. This
got me in trouble with security. I didn't know this would cause a stir, but I was promptly escorted to a shop and made to wait while the shopkeeper ran out to procure me the official Beijing 2008 tourist map - without a doubt the worst map I have
ever purchased (speaking as an experienced traveler and navigator). Many prominent streets and place names are simply omitted (by design or by accident?), and this is the map being sold all over Beijing for the upcoming Olympic games.

3) When we naively approached the curbside counter nicely marked "TAXI", we were directed down exit ramps into the underground parking garage to hunt around for the actual taxi queue.

4) Thousands of passengers exiting the train platforms were funneled into 4 small security queues before being allowed to exit. As we waited like sardines in a long tunnel, we couldn't figure out what was happening. After 15 minutes we reached the front, where all other passengers showed papers that we didn't have to exit. The attendant yelled at us, but we had nothing like the other people. We correctly guessed that they were some type of ticket, so after producing the old paper tickets we used to board the train in Vietnam we were permitted to exit.

None of these were very horrible experiences for experienced travelers, and we did just fine although we arrived at our destination about an hour late. There are, however, many travelers with short tempers and I can't help but wonder that the experience will be like when masses of foreigners descend on Beijing for the Olympics. Perhaps most will arrive by plane and find a different reception.

We missed the cutoff time for entry into the Forbidden City on day one, so this would have to wait until after our return from Xi'an. Our world trip is scheduled around a visit to the National Nadaam (festival) in Mongolia and a trans-Siberian railway crossing through Russia, so we aren't able to stay for the Beijing Olympic Games. Our plans are to take in the 2012 Summer Games in London and the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. Still, we did take some time out to see the Olympic park area and get a peek at two of the best-known new venues - the main stadium (tons of steel built into a cool 'bird's nest') and the swimming venue (a huge cube built with bubble walls). The area was under high security ahead of the games, but it looks great.

Keep an eye on China's Olympic Badminton team. I am a badminton player and fan, and have say I was really impressed by the performance of both of China's top women's doubles teams at the Swiss Open, which I had the pleasure of watching while staying in Cambodia. I've seen some of China's top players in person at the World Championships, and they are great to watch. Badminton is a top sport throughout Asia, and although I have a soft spot for some other badminton nations I must say that China is bringing a truly extraordinary team to the Beijing games.
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