Shaanxi and Henan Trip: Days 4 and 5

Luoyang is a city in the western Henan province of Central China. It borders the provincial capital of Zhengzhou to the east, Pingdingshan to the southeast, Nanyang to the south, Sanmenxia to the west, Jiyuan to the north, and Jiaozuo to the northeast.

Situated on the central plain of China, one of the cradles of the Chinese civilization, Luoyang was one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China.

That’s all well and good, Wikipedia, but what you fail to mention is that walking around outside in the city is like sucking on the end of a car’s tailpipe. Yes, the place served as the capitol for 13 ancient dynasties, but today its dusty streets, polluted air, and unending industrialization makes Luoyang a far-cry from the picturesque town that captured the fancy of the famous writer Bai Juyi during the Tang Period.

We got to the city by taking the High Speed Train from Xi’an. Getting the sword through security proved a bit easier since we had wrapped that baby up tightly. They still insisted that I not take it out and swing it around while on the train, though.

We took a bus to the youth hostel and got situated before heading out to the one redeeming quality the city has: Longman Grottoes.

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Now I’m sure I’m not giving the city it’s due credit, and since I was only there a day, I’m even willing to bet there’s more to the place than what I saw….but I just don’t care. Really, as I walked around outside in the heart of the city I could barely breathe. I got sick there after just eight hours. Anyway—the Grottoes.

There are as many as 100,000 statues within the 1,400 caves, ranging from an 1 inch to 57 feet in height. The area also contains over sixty Buddhist pagodas. Situated in what is probably the most scenic area in the whole darn city, the grottoes were carved from a stretch of cliff running along both banks of the river. 30% date from the Northern Wei Dynasty and 60% from the Tang, caves from other periods accounting for less than 10% of the total.Starting with the Northern Wei Dynasty in 493 AD, patrons and donors from the highest echelons of society endorsed artists to add to the site, even the first female emperor, Wu Zetian got involved.

This place basically became a spot of great spiritual significance, and a place to one-up who ever had carved or paid to have carved the previous grotto. All along the side of this mountain there are different size and styles of Buddha. There is no concept of planning things out or even the tried and true, “My side, your side.” The whole site seems like a bunch of very talented graffiti artists just decided to bum rush the mountain over a period of several hundred years.

The mastery is simply amazing, no doubt, but by about the halfway point you start to glaze over a lot of what you’re seeing. There are just SO MANY small caves with carvings. Too much detail all jammed together.

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Strike a pose, boys.
Strike a pose, boys.

But along with the artwork you can also see the glaring evidence that humans have always just liked breaking crap. Throughout the centuries the Grottoes have been ransacked, vandalized, and even forgotten. During different wars the Japanese defaced and stole many relics, western collectors and soldiers looted, and even the Chinese defaced the murals during the Cultural Revolution. It wasn’t until after 1949 and the establishment of the P.R. of China that the place even got officially “protected.”

While at the BIG Grottoes a group of foreigners—all with shaved heads—were attracting a lot of attention because of their shirts. They were a part of some Kung Fu school. They all looked athletic and like actual practitioners, but Xiao Ming said their shirts didn’t make a lot of sense since the designs were from two belief systems and the Chinese characters didn’t have significant meaning. I’d heard of schools that people could visit, even monasteries and temples that let people pay to stay and train at their facilities. I wondered if this group was like that…Either way, they were the stars of the stage. High schoolers and middle schoolers on fieldtrips flocked them and snapped pictures like manic little paparazzi.

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But when the baldies left, I was the only white face around. We tried to be discreet, but that just doesn’t work most of the time here. The focus of about fifty school-age teens turned to me, and I was coaxed into posing for a handful of pictures before we got away.

The whole site also includes the Xiangshan Temple, Bai Garden, and the tomb of the famous Chinese poet and writer, Bai Juyi. The writer lived in Luoyang during his later years.

We meandered around the whole place, taking in the sights, history, and enjoying the lack of floating dust particles the size of ping-pong balls. Afterward, as we were walking out, I tried to find some good postcards, but all of them looked like they were from the seventies, and the merchants wanted too much. I shrugged it off and decided to just find some at our next big destination when we got there: The Shaolin Temple.

This is a shot one of the kids took.....she held the camera like a gangsta getting ready to pop a cap...
This is a shot one of the kids took…..she held the camera like a gangsta getting ready to pop a cap…

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This is the Big Tang Stone...seriously, that's what it's called...was put here wayyy back in the day.
This is the Big Tang Stone…seriously, that’s what it’s called…was put here wayyy back in the day.

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"As wanderers, homeless and destitute, we have been brought together and though we have never before seen the other, the spirits of our lives are similar and allow us to know each other intimately." Kinda sorta a translation of a paraphrased summary by Xiao Ming
“As wanderers, homeless and destitute, we have been brought together and though we have never before seen the other, the spirits of our lives are similar and allow us to know each other intimately.” Kinda sorta a translation of a paraphrased summary by Xiao Ming
Bai Juyi's Tomb
Bai Juyi’s Tomb
Xiangshan Temple
Xiangshan Temple

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In the evening I wasn’t feeling well (told you I got sick), so I checked some things out online, chatted with a few other guests in Chinese, and then turned in early. We left after breakfast the next day and boarded another train to the city of Zhengzhou.

In retrospect, I have no idea why we didn’t just travel directly to Song Shan, the Sacred Mountain on which the famed Shaolin Temple is located. I think it was something about a museum or whatever, something we could do or see in the city for one day before heading over to the second sacred mountain of the trip. We were wrong. It was raining when we got there, but the place was a typical Chinese city: cramped, polluted, and full of scents you’re not entirely sure aren’t aromatic poisons.

The weather did nothing good for the cold that had begun to ravage my head, and having the hostel we booked before coming tell us—when we got there and were standing in the damn lobby—that they couldn’t accept foreigners didn’t help much. Yeah, we were tired, wet, and I was sick and the three girls behind the counter just looked at me like they’d never seen a white face. When they went about trying to explain how the city doesn’t allow most hostels or even smaller hotels to house foreigners I wanted to pull my hair out. They flitted and fluttered like crazy hens, moving and shifting papers, looking around with confused expressions. They reminded me of a female set of the three stooges. Seriously, I was waiting for one of them to slap the other or poke ‘em in the eyes.

Xiao Ming managed to track down a hostel and after a long conversation where she repeatedly made sure they could accept me, we made left. She told me that even the guy she spoke to on the phone sounded like an idiot. He mumbled, and spoke in fragments. This was the beginning of what we would come to later refer to as the “Zhengzhou Water” syndrome. Most idioms in Chinese are comprised of four characters and have a story or history to give them their meaning. We came up with our own idiom: He Zhengzhou Shui (drink zhengzhou water). We still use it to explain any stupid behavior. “Ta men he zhengzhou shui,”  they drink zhengzhou water, we say when something exceptionally stupid happens within sight.

Once we tracked down the “hostel” I groaned. The building was obviously not a hostel, and by the looks of it, not even a legal place for human habitation. The proprietor of the joint had acquired a beaten up apartment building and taken to calling it a hotel. Walking through the darkened halls with paint peeling from the walls and vague, muffled sounds coming from behind some of the doors we passed, it was hard not to think of every slasher movie ever. The room was cold and damp, but the sheets looked dry and clean.

Needless to say, not even getting to bed early helped my cold that night. I woke up the next day with a headache, sniffling, and probably running a fever, but I packed my bag up and we said so long to Slasher Inn. We kicked ourselves for even stepping foot in the city, but didn’t let the bad night keep us down long. We boarded a bus in the rain, and tried to relax as we headed to the last destination of the trip: Song Shan.

Chiang Mai, Thailand Part One

Sitting in the Kunming airport. This design makes me think of a giant's spaghetti....
Sitting in the Kunming airport. This design makes me think of a giant’s spaghetti….

This past December I got away from Dalian for a week and visited Northern Thailand. I’m not a big fan of heat, so I wasn’t too tempted to go south for the beaches this time around…plus, I’ve been living in NE China: I’m as white as they come. So I opted for Chiang Mai, the capital in the North and one of the nicest places to travel to in that area of Tai Guo (Thailand in Pin yin).

The vacation came about because my school was getting ready to close down and I still hadn’t taken my five vacation days. I timed it so I’d be gone between two weekends, so I had just a little more than a week for this trip. I wanted to go to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat and spend a bit of time in Thailand before jumping back over to Southern China for a day or two. Yeah, not gonna happen. I ended up pushing Cambodia from the to-see list (this time) and instead decided to spend a few days in Chiang Mai and then head over to Kunming, China for a four-day tour of the area south of Shangri La. I booked the tickets, all was good.

It was cheaper to do one-way flights, so my itinerary looked like: Dalian—Kunming, KM—Chiang Mai, CM—KM, KM—Dalian.

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On the descent to the CM International Airport I got chatting with a Chinese couple next to me. I had been switching back and forth from Mandarin to English talking to the flight attendants, so they weren’t sure how to speak to me. Finally we just talked in Chinese about our respective vacations. As I was disembarking a Chinese women a few year older than me struck up a conversation with me. She thought she heard me say I was living in Da Li, a city not too far from the Kunming area where we all boarded. I corrected her, saying it was Dalian, in the North East (Two days later she still insisted that I track her down when I got back to Da Li, so I either need to work on my pronunciation or she has serious selective hearing). We chatted a bit as we walked down the jetway, but then separated once she spotted a friend of hers.

After getting my luggage and lookin’ around for a place to exchange my Chinese RMB to the Thai Baht, the woman showed up again. I was asking the girl behind the counter what a taxi should cost from there to my hostel, but she wasn’t very helpful. Lisa, the Chinese woman I had been talking to, offered to let me share her cab, so we continued to talk as we waited. Her English was fantastic and my Chinese was apparently getting worse, so we mostly got along fine with English.

Once in the taxi—a sporty looking yellow jeep thing with a hatchback—the driver took most of our focus. His parents were from Kunming, so his Mandarin was great, but he also spoke English and Thai. He had a laugh like a hyena with emphysema, but his sense of humor and good attitude made you feel comfortable. Lisa’s hotel was before mine, so she hopped off first and then the driver took me about a mile or so away to my hostel—the Little Bird Hostel. It’s a mostly open-air backpacker hostel tucked deep in a neighborhood of twisting streets and closely packed buildings. A handful of travelers were lounging around in the “common area,” and as I walked in I nodded to a few without stopping.

I checked in with the short, long-haired owner and once he gave me my key I found my room and tossed my bag on the top bunk. I changed my shirt and took off, knowing I’d be back to chat with people once I got a lay of the land.

Come one...this is aweseome
Come one…this is awesome
A mote where the ancient wall used to be...
A mote where the ancient wall used to be…
These little altars are everywhere
These little altars are everywhere

It was a warm sunny day in Chiang Mai and as I walked along the cramped streets, weaving in and out of crowds, twisting around the vendors and merchants, I realized something: I wasn’t dressed right. For some reason I had been under the impression that it would be cooler up in the north. A few days before leaving Dalian I had bought a pair of hiking shoes and since I was spending more time in the cooler Kunming, I didn’t bring light clothing. Mistake, for several reasons.

As I was out scouring the streets for deals on sandals, shorts, and a hat, Lisa texted me and we decided to meet up for dinner. By the evening it was already evident that I also needed sunscreen. My face was getting that nice tomato-red tint to it that everyone just loves. Lisa turned out to be pretty cool, and she and I hung out those first two days while I was in Chiang Mai. We ate some Pad Thai (basically Thailand’s version of Fried Rice) and wondered around the old part of the city.

On my own I walked along what’s left of the old protective wall that used to border the city, and trekked down streets that were mostly empty. I enjoyed being away from the groups of tourists even though that’s exactly what I was. Eventually I bought some sandals and a pair of shorts.

On the third morning I got a call from my friend. Apparently the airlines cancelled my trip to Kunming. Why? No why. So they put me on a flight for the next day. No biggie, right? I still would have enough time to catch the tour in Kunming and all would be well.

I also finally hung out at the hostel and got to know the other travelers. As I talked and listened to them talk I thought about the trip I took to Beijing more than a year ago with Noelle. At the Red Lantern Hostel we met some cool folks traveling from Scotland, England, Spain, and even a married couple teaching in Dalian who, we found out, were practically our neighbors. Though I didn’t meet any people from NE China in that Hostel in Chiang Mai, I did get talking with a few English guys around my age. Two of them, Dean and Dave, were trekking around South East Asia, following their whims and hoping their money lasted. They planned to stay out for as long as they could, I think they said about 8 months. They’d been traveling for more than a month by the time I met them, and had already come up from southern Thailand.

Both of them were really cool and it was obvious they were just enjoying life and out to see as much as they could. The three of us hung out for a few hours, chatting with others from all over. One guy, a French man around 30 years old, seemed different than the rest of us staying there. He had a laid-back, almost sedate way about himself. I’d say it was the cliché surfer dude aura, but there was definitely some Zen thrown in there. He always laid in the same position on the common area platform—stretched out and ready to take a nap, it looked like. The only time he wasn’t nearly catatonic was when he was holding his large note pad a foot in front of his face. When I asked what he was working on the others around us perked up. They had gotten the answer to that very question the night before. He showed me the sketch book and at first I thought, “Oh, he’s making a comic,” but then I looked closer. There were bars representing data of some sort, odd markings reminiscent of cave drawings, and even stick figures doin’ all kinds of crazy things. I had no idea what I was looking at and I told him so.

Dean explained that it was some sort of graph that measures the moods and energy in a group of people over periods of time. The French Guy smiled and said, “Well, that’s what he understands of it,” but wouldn’t elaborate except to say how interesting it was watching everyone interact with one another. The graph or whatever it was seemed pretty amazing to me. It was clearly something he had thought a great deal about and each line and stroke of his pencil indicated a telling piece of info only he could decipher. He wouldn’t let me take a picture of it, though.

Later that same night Dean, David, Greg ( a young wiry English kid with a mop top), and I went out to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. Nik naks, trinkets, store-bought clothes, hand-made clothes, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, magnets, and a hundred different types of food lined the streets and were packed into a few buildings. We waded through it all for about an hour, each of us bargaining for different things we wanted. I bought a bag that I knew I’d never use beyond this vacation. It was a simple brown bag with one strap and a white threaded design on the side. It hung low on my hip once it was around my shoulder, and if I were in any other geographical location I would have felt immediately foolish. But I was proud because I had haggled the guy down quite a bit. Negotiating in China has apparently made me much better. Even the other guys said it was pretty impressive hearing me use different tactics to get the merchant down below half of what he originally said. Thank you, China.

During the next morning I was chilling at the hostel, reading a book on Psychopaths that I picked up on the shelf down the hall when two Chinese girls on a moped stop in front of the gate. They spoke in broken English with the owner, the long-haired dude, but it was obvious they were having troubles. As they walked away from the table I said hello in Chinese and they perked up. I figured out they were having problems and asked if I could possibly help. So they told me what they wanted (warm water for their room, a private shower, and a room for two). All of those requests are pretty typical of Chinese travelers, and I didn’t see why it was so hard for the Little Bird to provide them. I talked with the owner and he told me that they didn’t just want a private shower, they wanted one in their room. Ah, hah. That’s the problem.

I told the girls about how the bathrooms were indeed public, but that only one person was in there at a time, so it was basically private. They seemed a bit nervous about that, so I told them I’d heard good things about the place a block away. They were very happy and exchanged numbers with me, asking if we could meet later. I said sure. About an hour later, after they checked in, I met them and took them to this place I had found a day or two before. We ate and chatted in English and Chinese, but afterward I was itching to go wander around, so I pointed them in the direction of their hostel and took off.

A big attraction in the area of Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep temple. Later that day Dean and I grabbed a taxi and it took us to the launching-off point for the temple, a stretch of road with some kiosks and more parked taxis. Because it was just the two of us, no taxi wanted to take us without having us pay an exorbitant amount. At one point a driver calmly sat us down and drew a diagram in the dirt. He drew the bus, the mountain, and then showed us how each taxi takes a certain amount of people at a set price: 800 baht. Gas is expensive, he said. Dean and I told him what we were quoted—70 baht each—and the man laughed, shook his head, and wrote 800 in the dirt. At that point I erased one of the zeroes and said, “there, now it’s 80, let’s go.” He wasn’t amused. He tried to write it again, but we told him that it didn’t matter how many times he did it, we weren’t paying that much.

We ended up waiting about 45 minutes, and just as we were getting ready to forget the whole thing, a Finnish girl shows up wanting to get to the temple. She was a short, mousy girl with boyishly choppy hair. She was quiet, but nice. And just strange. She was followed quickly by another Chinese couple, so now we had five people. We were set. Dean and I got placed in charge of the negotiating because the Chinese couple didn’t have a lot of English and the Finnish girl just didn’t talk. Once a price was agreed upon we hopped in the taxi, a big red thing with a long back area for passengers. They’re called songthaews in Thai.

Along the way I got talking with the couple. Everything was in Chinese, so it made me feel pretty good. They were on holiday from Shanghai, but both had been to Dalian before. One was a teacher and the other an engineer. It felt good to speak in Chinese. In Thailand more people speak English than they do in China, but even with that barrier down I still felt like I couldn’t really talk with any local Thai people.

Once we got to the temple we all agreed on a time to return to the songthaew, and then went our own separate ways. Dean and I wandered around the large temple, looking at the carvings, metal sculptures, and even the view from the top of the mountain. We took our shoes off before going into the center of the temple, and then wandered around. The whole place sparkled as the sun set, the golden yellow surface of everything reflecting and throwing back the sun’s light.

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Notice the brown bag I mentioned...yeah. Needless to say, I gave that away as a gift once I got back to Dalian.
Notice the brown bag I mentioned…yeah. Needless to say, I gave that away as a gift once I got back to Dalian.

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On the ride back we all chatted about the place and our travel plans. That night Dean and I wanted to catch some Muay Thai fights going on. I snapped a picture of a flyer, and we used it to find the area, but once we got close enough the camera was pointless. A young Thai guy announcing the fights with Eye of the Tiger blaring from behind the walls was pulling people in from off the streets. It would have been impossible to miss.

Once inside we sat at a table about fifteen feet from the ring and ordered two Leo Beers, Thailand’s main beer. First up was a bout between two skinny guys, followed by one with two female fighters. They were awesome. We watched five fights, and that one with the girls was one of the best. They had a lot of energy and their kicks and punches were nothing but brutal. Then came the funniest thing I’d seen in a long time. A handful of guys climbed into the ring and each one of them were blindfolded. After the bell rang they all just started swinging. A few times the referee had to fight back as the boxers jabbed him. One fighter liked to jab to find his opponent and then let loose a huge shot that floored a few guys. I didn’t know they did that sort of thing, but it sure was funny as hell.

Then back at the hostel I get another call. My plane is cancelled again, and at this point I will miss the tour of Kunming and have to wander around myself for four days. I mulled it over a few minutes and decided to just stay in Thailand for the rest of the trip. I told the guys I’d been bummin’ around with and they invited me to join them as they went to Pai, a scenic mountain town a few hours away. I said sure, and we made plans to catch the bus at 8 the next morning. That night, however, everyone in the hostel, and a bunch from others, headed down the street where a bunch of bars were stationed. There we all all danced and talked, and hung out for a few hours. Before I knew it the night had burned into the morning and the sun had already risen.

No worries, I’d sleep on the three hour bus ride. By nine am I realized that would never happen. Anyone whose ever taken the bus ride from Chiang Mai to Pai knows what I’m talking about. There are 762 death defying curves on the route from Chiang Mai to Pai, about 50 miles north. Jostled left and right as the driver took each one of them a 60m/h, I had no hope of sleeping. Along the ride, however, Dean, Dave, and I met up once again with the Finnish girl, and even met another English guy named Brendan. Brendan would end up hanging with us for the next two days as we trekked around Pai, sped down the roads on mopeds, and wandered through the woods looking for waterfalls.

Next: Pai, Thailand Part Two

Beijing and The Great Wall pt. 1: Checking In

It’s even more amazing when you’re standing on it.

We made it to Beijing during the National Day holiday, and we even got to the Great Wall.

Noelle and I left the Dalian airport on the 5th for the capital of China. The flight  is only about an hour long, and less than that if you’ve got the wind on your side. We made it into Beijing International at around 4 pm. It was later than we had anticipated, but the plane showed up late to Dalian in the first place.

The Hostel one of our Chinese staff members helped us book told us we could get a ride to pick us up from the airport, but when I called them I realized that we must have missed the cut off time because the girl on the other end told me to just take a cab. Cabs are all well ‘n good if you can speak Chinese, even if you can just motion in the direction you want to go, but if you don’t know where you’re going, know Chinese, or even have the address of your destination written in Chinese characters you’re pretty much up that proverbial creek, my friend. UNLESS, you have a phone. We jumped in the cab and I got a hold of the girl from the hostel. She gave the cabbie her coordinates and we were off.

It wasn’t the first time we’d been in a cab here in China, but when you’re going more than a few blocks the experience is always an endurance test for your nerves. Technically, there are traffic laws. In practice, they’re more like suggestions. The white lines indicating the lanes are just nice road decorations and red lights are the equivalent of saying, “I double-dog dare ya,” to the driver. They never back down. We take turns at break-neck speeds and swerve in and out of the pedestrian hordes that constantly flock the streets of Beijing. On more than one occasion we were close enough to on-coming buses that I could, if I wanted to, flick the rusty metal shell of the public transportation vehicle.

BUT, we arrive at the hostel. The Red Lantern Hostel.

It’s tucked away down a side street of Beijing, away from the hype of the city.
The inside. I swear, I could have stayed here forever.

Since we arrived late in the day that first night we just wandered around. We walked a mile or so down and up some streets until we found a pond. The sun was setting so we just enjoyed walking around it for a while. In China, just about every public area you go to has the max capacity of human bodies. Eventually the pond/park place became a bit crowded. Noelle and I ditched it for some grub. We found a nice restaurant that served some Western style food. The Little Yard.

It was set up like no restaurant I’ve ever been to. We literally had the place to ourselves. So we found the stairs and went to the top. This is a shot looking down.

The food hit the spot, and for a moment, it felt like we were eating back home. We ate and then walked around for a bit longer, stopping at one of the hundreds of “convenience” stores they have littered around every block in China. After almost an hour of trying to find our hostel, two failed attempts by strangers to help us, and one confusing phone call with the receptionist we had to admit that we were lost. In the back streets of Beijing. Even finding one of the main roads was a chore. Once we did, we utilized the survival skill every 21st century person has developed for times just like these and called for help. As we did with the first cab ride, the girl at the hostel gave directions and we held on for dear life as the driver executed what I’m sure he felt was standard operating procedure for driving a fare to their destination. We didn’t recognize the street he dropped us off at. Our only source of comfort came in the form of the Dairy Queen on the corner. We stopped in, had a blizzard, and then began walking down the dark alley the cabbie had pointed down. Luckily, the girl at the front desk had rightly doubted our navigational skills and came sauntering out of the shadows of the alley at that exact moment. Apparently she’d been looking for us. She laughed at us until we made it to the front door of the hostel.

That evening, in the hostel, a handful of the travelers hung out around the few large tables in the center of the main room. We talked with people from Sweden, France, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and even an elderly couple from Akron, Ohio. I kid you not. As we were making plans for our Great Wall trip a man asks Noelle if her hoodie is a picture of Zippy (Akron’s mascot). It sure is, we said. They were from Akron, born and raised. It goes without saying, but, seriously, “What a small world.” Ok, maybe it needed said.

The coincidences didn’t stop there. The Canadian couple we talked to, Andrew and Kristin, they’re teachers right here in Kaifa Qu, too. Basically, we’re almost neighbors. The live  about a ten minute’s walk down the street and teach at another private school in the area.

The conversations that night were great. I can’t express how amazing it is to just meet so many new people and talk for hours about everything. For me, the two best parts of our trip were the people we met and standing on the Great Wall early enough in the day that I didn’t have to dodge toddlers and the gaggle of tourists that come everyday.

But morning came quickly at 6:00 am.

We got up, got dressed, got some grub and then got on the rickety VW van with two Irish guys named Olin and Liam, and Olin’s Chinese girlfriend, Sandy. We were heading for the Great Wall of China.