In June of 2010 I got the opportunity to speak at an internal developers conference for work in Shanghai. I also took three extra days of my own time to visit Beijing. It was a very interesting trip! Click any of the photos to see a bigger version.
China -- June 2010
Wow, how long have I been up? It's about 10:00pm in Shanghai on the 7th of June so I guess that means I've been up for about 26 hours. Not the longest I ever gone without sleeping, but certainly long enough. Just a few notes and the hopefully I'll be able to get a good sleep.
The flight was long. Holy crap was it long. 14 hours is just such an amazingly long time to be in a cramped economy class airline seat. Fortunately Air Canada had seat back entertainment units so I was able to watch 5 or 6 movies to pass the time. I also read a little and chatted with the couple next to me. It was kinda crazy actually, they were originally from London, Ontario, and the guy used to teach elementary school at Prince Andrew, which is the elementary school that both Kim and Matt went to. He had retired long before they got there, but it was still pretty freaky to be sitting beside people who actually knew where Ilderton is.
The flight itself was pretty smooth, and flew over the North Pole and then down across Russia to get to Shanghai. This meant there was absolutely nothing to see out the windows, so the flight attendants had everyone keep the blinds closed so that people could sleep. I chose to stay awake for the whole flight to try to force myself into the new timezone. I'll find out tonight if that worked.
There were about a dozen other employees on the same flight also coming to speak at the conference, and so the company arranged a shuttle to meet us at the airport and take us to our hotel. The drive into the city was amazing, we had to drive basically from one side to the other so we got a good overview of Shanghai. It's massive and has more tall buildings than I've ever seen before. Also, the traffic is insane. Cars, motorcycles, scooters, bikes and pedestrians everywhere with little to no regard for any particular rules. Really the only rule I could see being followed was that as a driver, the only thing you need to pay attention to is what's in front of you; everything else is someone else's problem.
The hotel we're staying at is amazing, it's in this super tall building (at least 60 floors) and the hotel itself doesn't even start until the 25th floor. My room is on the 30th, but lots of people are up on 42 and 49. The best part though was getting a nice hot shower.
Once everyone was settled, a few of us had a beer down in the hotel bar and then we all headed out to get some supper. There's a mall attached to the hotel and it's probably the biggest mall I've ever been in. It's 8 or 9 floors and each floor is much bigger and has more stores than a floor in the Eaton's centre. A lot of the stores are Western and have corresponding high Western prices. On one of the upper floors there are all kinds of restaurants and we ended up eating in one that said it was a "BBQ" restaurant (the English really ended there). Basically you pay a single price and they continually bring out BBQ'd meat on skewers and add the meat to your plate. The servers generally knew enough to say "beef" or "fish" but we could never find out more, like what part of the cow, or what type of fish. Of particular interest, one of the "fish" dishes was so rubbery and strange it had to be something like whale or dolphin or shark. It kinda freaked me out after the first bite so I didn't finish it. Everything else was good though and the whole meal with beers and food was much less than $10 each.
I haven't taken many photos yet as I didn't want to drag my camera around tonight. However here are a few.
This morning I had breakfast at the hotel and it was wonderful. I'm all up for trying new food and I'm super pumped to have a whole bunch of awesome authentic Chinese food, but for breakfast I'm pretty picky. I like my cereal, I like eggs, I like croissants. I must have orange juice. I don't want anything weird or surprising. Breakfast is sacred. The hotel's breakfast is extremely western (although there is Chinese breakfast if you want it) and it definitely hit the spot.
The actual conference does not start until tomorrow, so today I had the change to visit our Shanghai office and meet some of the people I work with who are based there. The office is beautiful and it was super nice to finally be able to faces to names. We had a lot of good meetings and at the end of the day a bunch of us went out to a really random Thai restaurant near the office.
While you eat, there is a group of musicians with instruments and dancers circling the restaurant and if they stop near your table the dancers come over and force you to get up and dance with them. They sing mostly Western songs and they sing the whole thing so you can be up dancing for five minutes. I ended up dancing with an incredibly short lady for a while the first time they came by, and the second time the singer stood right beside me while she sang all of Lady Gaga'a "Poker Face." It was pretty amusing. The food was excellent, all served up in communal dishes placed on a spinning tray in the middle of the table (like a giant "Lazy Susan"). There was also lots of Tsingtao, the popular Chinese beer.
We took the subway home from the restaurant and I was super impressed with how clean and shiny it was. I guess when my expectations are so low due to the Toronto subway it's easy to be impressed but it was really really nice. There is a subway stop right outside our hotel (connected to the mall) so it was really easy to get back. There are military personnel outside of every subway station, not really doing anything, just keeping an eye on stuff. Not sure what that's about.
I'm heading to bed early tonight as I have to do my presentation tomorrow morning. I was up almost every hour last night. My eyes would pop open and I would feel completely wide awake. Stupid jet lag. Hopefully tonight will be better.
After a satisfying hotel breakfast this morning I went downstairs to the first day of the conference (it's being held in the business centre of our hotel, super convenient). My presentation went well and all the other presentations I attended were great. I also had some good chances to meet and talk with colleagues and it was generally a fun and useful experience. I'm looking forward to the second set of talks tomorrow.
For supper a bunch of us went to a really nice "Hot Pot" style place near the hotel. Everyone gets a little burner and a pot full of broth (I had a spicy curry broth). Then you order raw meats and veggies and dip them in your broth to cook before you eat them. We ordered a truckload of beef, pork, seafood, tofu, noodles and veggies and it was all delicious. The meat is sliced really thin so that it cooks quickly in the broth. You really just dunk it for a few seconds then eat. Yum!
Another full day of talks at the conference today. It was a bit more relaxing though since my presentation was already done. I can't say enough what an amazing experience it was to be a part of this. It's also nice to know that I'm capable of giving a big presentation to a room full of strangers.
After the conference wrapped up today, a bunch of us went to the Yu Garden in the old city region of Shanghai to look around and get some dinner. In addition to gardens and streams there were lots of shops and cool food places. There were also lots of random people trying to sell us genuine "Rolex" watches. They had whole pockets full of them! Ha. Some also claimed to be selling iPhones and iPads, but I never saw either device.
One other interesting thing happened today. We had to take four taxis to get us all out to the Yu garden region, but unfortunately two of the four met with a serious delay. The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is in Shanghai today and tomorrow and his motorcade blocked the taxis. It was crazy!
Supper was at a pretty standard Chinese place and was pretty good. We had a bit of communication problems with the staff though and we weren't entirely sure what all the food was. I definitely ate a quail's egg though and the shrimp was totally not prepared the way it is in Canada. They just cook the whole shrimp without removing the head or the shell or anything and you're expected to eat it all in one bite. The restaurant had a fair number of smokers in it, and no distinction between smoking and non-smoking sections. A little annoying but not much we could do about it.
One of the cool things about this conference is that the World's Fair (also called the Expo) is happening in Shanghai at the same time. So today we all went to see it. Like everything else in China so far it was big!
The World's Fair is organized into pavilions, one for each participating country. Each country fills their pavilion with stuff representing the country and people can come and visit to learn more. I imagine this was more interesting back before the Internet, but it was still cool to see some of the more elaborate buildings.
Unfortunately, most of the more interesting pavilions had enormous lines. It is estimated that 450 000 people will attend the Expo each day of its six month long run. There certainly seemed to be at least that many people out today. It was basically just a gigantic mob. Lines lasted for hours, and the worst was Saudia Arabia, where the line was 8 hours long. Also, the lines were cramped. The Chinese don't seem to value personal space as much as westerners and so people push and squirm to get as physically close to the front as possible, resulting in extremely dense, hot lines. It was kinda ridiculous.
Fortunately, our pass let us skip most of the line for the China Pavilion so after looking around at the outside of a bunch of places we went there. Being the host country, the China pavilion was the largest and most impressive. It took over an hour to wander through plus a half hour to wait for the elevator to go up to the top. It was pretty neat, although by the time we had finished everyone had had enough of the oppressive heat and numbers of people so we decided to cut our visit short and go see something else in Shanghai instead.
One random thing that happened at the Expo is that most of us were approached at least once to pose for a picture with a random Chinese person. Apparently white people are still a little bit of a novelty for some.
For our next stop today, we went to a Jade and Pearl Market in another section of the city. This place was crazy and super amusing. They have a huge floor devoted to selling pearls and jade jewelery and prices ranged from cheap to super expensive. The market also sold lots of purses, watches and wallets (all of questionable origin). The fun part of the market was the bargaining. Most items can be had for less than half the vendor's original asking price if you try hard enough. First the vendor hands you a calculator with the price on it, then you can take it and enter a new price. This goes back and forth until you agree. If you try to walk away however, the vendor will chase you down and offer lower and lower prices until you agree or you manage to convince them you don't want the item in question (this is quite hard to do). I didn't purchase anything here, as I didn't want to end up paying too much for something fake (I wouldn't know fake pearls or jade from the real stuff). However I did watch a lot of other people buy stuff and it was quite amusing.
Just a note about "counterfeit" clothes and purses. It's true that there was a lot of crap for sale that was clearly fake, but some of the stuff was a lot nicer. I learned that in some factories they will work overtime or send a second shift and then keep the extra merchandise to sell themselves. So the same stuff is made in the same place by the same people from the same material and pattern. Is it really "fake" in that case? The only difference is that the designer doesn't get any money. Of course the ethics of buying such an item are questionable however it does suggest how startling the markup on some of those products are. Like how you can get a purse that sells for over $1500 here, for just $50 there.
Anyway, the market was great fun and afterwards we went back to the hotel. The only problem was that we didn't manage to get lunch and it was 4pm. A few of us were quite hungry at this point and not in the mood to try to figure out some random restaurant. So we headed into the mall attached to the hotel and went to...Pizza Hut! It was awesome after 4 days of Chinese food. Slightly ridiculous, but still awesome. The pizza crust and sauce tasted the same, although some of the toppings were a bit different (popcorn shrimp on a Pizza??).
After pizza I went back to my room and crashed (damn western food). However I was up again at 8:00 to go meet everyone for our real dinner for the evening. Since this was the last day that everyone would be in China we all went out for a special meal in an area of Shanghai called the Bund. The Bund is a section of the city on the river where many western countries built offices and consulates in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The buildings are really cool architecturally and there are all sorts of wonderful clubs and restaurants (mainly catering to the ex pat community). We ate at a really nice French restaurant with a rooftop patio that overlooks the river, the Bund and the financial district with all of its towers brightly lit up. It was quite possibly the nicest setting I've ever eaten in. And although it was more expensive than the Chinese restaurants, it was still pretty cheap. I've paid a lot more for worse dining experiences here in Canada.
The other nice thing about the restaurant was how relaxed it all was. The pace in Chinese restaurants here is frenetic. A single menu is brought for the entire table and one person is expected to immediately order all of the food for the whole table for the whole meal. Then they leave and bring you your food, you eat and then you're done. This restaurant tonight however was much more what I'm used to, everything was slow and relaxed and we were given as much time to chat and enjoy the view as we wanted. The juxtaposition made it feel extra wonderful.
I slept in a little this morning, and then met up with a couple people to go see the Jade Buddha Temple. It was a really cool temple with tons of neat buildings and Buddha statues, including the huge solid jade one for which the temple is named. Apparently the first and fifteenth of each lunar month is a prayer day and today was one of those two. So the temple was extremely busy with people praying and burning incense and paper flowers. Normally I'd be irritated at the crowds but it was actually kinda neat since they weren't really tourists this time. At the back of the temple there was a cool koi pond where you could feed the fish by hand. It was a little weird. Photos were not allowed inside the buildings so I don't have too many.
After exploring the temple we went to the gift shop, but were immediately shuttled upstairs to the "good" gift shop by a girl who spoke pretty good English. The stuff upstairs was much nicer and actually looked real so we were patient as she described various things and told us stories. Clearly she was just trying to get us to buy some of the more expensive items, but it was actually pretty interesting so we didn't mind. Also, a lot of the stuff up there was really nice. It wasn't all for sale either. They had a couple of really nice pieces that should have probably been in a museum, like a huge, 1000 year old intricate wooden carving made from a single tree root and a giant solid jade dragon statue. Eventually we all bought something, although it was all very nice stuff and because it was a temple the money goes to charity (apparently).
We took a cab back to the hotel and got to see a lot of nice little side streets as we drove. After dropping off our stuff we headed back out to the financial district by subway in order to look around and go to the top of the World Financial Centre (the tallest building in Shanghai at 492m). The financial district was really cool, with a lot of variation in the design and architecture of the buildings. The view from the top of the WFC was only mediocre though due to the thick blanket of smog. I was able to clean the smog up in some of my pictures but it was still a little depressing.
After we finished on the observation deck we went down a couple floors to enjoy a beer and a little food at a small bar they had. It was pretty cool to eat and drink at such a height with a view of the whole city. The food and drink prices were high, but still lower than average back home in Canada.
I'm just eating a quick dinner now at the hotel restaurant before I get check out and get a cab to the train station to catch my overnight train to Beijing. Should be fun!
The whole train experience last night was crazy and interesting, but it turned out OK. First of all, Shanghai train station was a friggin' zoo. It was huge, there were people everywhere and there was very little English. My taxi was swarmed as soon as I got out of it by people who had just arrived in Shanghai. Then there was a huge line to get into the station due to the need to pass through security checkpoints as you enter. I found out later that there is a separate "VIP" entrance for people with first class tickets. That would have been nice to know about, but I survived with the economy class people.
As an aside, train travel is ridiculously cheap in China; I had the best possible ticket for a train trip that lasts 10 hours, covering 1000km and it only cost about $100 Canadian. An economy class ticket on VIA from Toronto to Ottawa (less than half the distance) costs $130 regular price.
Anyway, because I went in the regular entrance I ended up in the regular waiting area. This place was hot, dirty, crowded, smelly and loud and I had an hour to wait for my train so I decided to leave and explore a bit. This is when I found out that first class people get special stuff and I found the first class waiting area. This area was still extremely crowded and loud, but at least it was clean and air conditioned (and therefore less smelly). I found a small open space of wall to lean against while I waited and read a book.
The other difficulty in the train station was the lack of English. My ticket had normal numbers on it, but absolutely no English words. Fortunately I had asked the concierge to tell me what seat and car I was assigned to. However in the train station I encountered the same problem with the departures board. I could see the row for my train number and I was pretty sure I could see what platform it was on, but the "Status" column was a complete mystery. Since I was early I was able to watch it for a while and I eventually figured out which characters meant "Wait," which characters meant "Boarding" and which characters meant "Delayed." So I was able to find my train at the correct time and get on it without issue.
My ticket was for what is called a "Soft Sleeper Cabin." This is a room with four bunks in it and a little table and storage space for your bags. The bunks were comfy and had nice clean linens on them, but otherwise it was nothing too special. My cabin was totally empty except for me when the train left Shanghai. However the train made one stop just outside of Shanghai and there my cabin filled up with three Chinese guys who clearly spoke no English. I waved to them, said hello, and then we ignored each other for the rest of the trip (most of which was spent sleeping anyway). One other thing about the train, the toilets were all squat toilets which flushed directly onto the tracks. Classy!
The train arrived in Beijing this morning within one minute of its scheduled arrival time at 7:25am. That seemed pretty awesome to me. Unfortunately the train did not go to the main train station in Beijing, instead it went to Beijing South train station. The station was nice but it was much farther from downtown which presented an interesting situation with the taxis.
It took me a long time to find what I thought was the official taxi stand (it's a bad idea to get cabs from anywhere else...you generally get ripped off). However, it turned out that I just found a spot where taxi drivers liked to hang out in a big group. I was pretty tired and confused still so I ended up talking to them (mistake!) and was able to determine that since we were not in the core of the city the official policy for taxis was that you have to negotiate the price with the driver and that the meter would not be used. This kinda sucked but I eventually agreed on a price with a guy who didn't look too shady and we started to go to his car. Unfortunately, his car wasn't even an official Beijing taxi. I stopped dead and pointed at a real taxi and tried to communicate that I wasn't getting in an unmarked car. A lot of the other drivers laughed and then my driver pointed me at a real taxi and helped me get my bags in. But then a different driver got in to drive me! This was all disconcerting so I got out my Beijing map and followed along closely to make sure he was going the right way and so that I knew where we were in case I had to take care of things myself. It all turned out OK though and he dropped me safe and sound at my hostel.
The hostel is beautiful! The common area is full of books, decorations, plants and paintings and also has two Internet computers for free use! They play relaxing music and even have a kitchen that you can order food from. Finally they take care of booking tours to the Great Wall, which was the first thing I had them do for me. Tomorrow I'll be doing a 10km hike from Jinshanling to Simatai which should be awesome and hopefully not overrun with tourists.
My room wasn't ready yet when I arrived at 8:30 so I hung out in the common area for a while and chatted with a professor from the US who visits China frequently and was studying Mandarin in the common area when I arrived. Once I had used the Internet and recovered a bit from the morning's excitement I headed out to check out the area around the hostel.
The hostel is right beside the Forbidden City so my walk eventually took me there. The front gate was a total mob of people. I intend to visit the City on Tuesday so I immediately walked away from the mob towards Tiananmen Square. Of course this was also completely mobbed, but it was cool to see. It's extremely large and the gate at the north end has a giant picture of Chairman Mao hanging from it. Kinda interesting. There were a ton of military and police people in the square watching everyone, but there were so many people I'm not sure what they could have done. I continued walking and eventually found a largish park that cost less than $0.50 Canadian to enter. I happily paid and was delighted to see that it was quiet, beautiful and almost deserted. I explored the park and the buildings for a good long time before returning to the hostel. One funny thing that happened in the park was that I was stopped by a Chinese couple and their young son (maybe 6 years old). The mother insisted that her son pose with me for a photo even though he was clearly scared of me and/or very shy. Eventually he did it though and then I started to continue on my way. But the mother stopped me and then made me stand with her for another photo. They didn't speak English at all so this was all communicated through gestures. I have no idea why they wanted a photo with me, but they were very excited and grateful for it so I guess that's nice.
Back at the hostel, I got a sandwich from the hostel kitchen and chatted more with the professor. After I finished eating he took me out to show me some good restaurants in the area for dinner and then I returned to the hostel and finally got to access my room. I have a private room here with a private bathroom and it is small but extremely nice. I had a shower and took a bit of a rest for a while.
For supper tonight I went to one of the Chinese restaurants the professor recommended and it was an interesting experience. No one spoke English and the menu only had small amounts of English. I ordered some rice, a meat dish and a veggie dish thinking this would make a good, balanced meal. Unfortunately it was enough food for about three people! Both dishes were good, but I couldn't eat it all. Also the meat dish (pork I think) was super spicy and I couldn't quite convince myself that the meat was cooked properly. However I ate as much as I could and then was pleasantly surprised to find that the bill for way too much food was still less than $10 Canadian.
After supper I picked up some groceries from a supermarket to have for my lunch tomorrow on the hike. I also checked out the street food in the Night Market. There is a special section with dozens of stalls and they all sell kebabs of meat freshly grilled in front of you. The interesting part is the types of meat. They have chicken, pork, lamb and beef, but they also have things like snake, centipede, silk worm, seahorse and scorpion. It was interesting to see, but I didn't get anything and it actually smelled pretty bad so I left after a little while.
I'm going to bed early tonight to be well-rested for the hike tomorrow. I don't think it will be too bad, but the hostel people seem to think it is a big deal. As I write this there is a huge thunderstorm going on outside, although that is not too surprising given the heat and humidity here today.
Today I was up at 6:30am to meet the bus that would take me to the Great Wall. After a brief delay at another hostel to pick up some more people, we were on our way. It was a three hour drive up into the mountains and it was interesting to see all the towns and countryside on the way. The other people in the group seemed nice, however they were all in their own little subgroups and didn't seem super interested in chatting, at least not that early in the morning.
When we arrived at the Wall we had the option of walking extra to get to the start or taking a gondola for extra money. Obviously I chose to walk to be sure to get as much wall walking in as possible. The total walk (including the approach) was about 10km, covering 30 towers and it was totally amazing. The wall goes up and down and winds around all through the mountains. It was extremely tiring though, given the 32C heat and the general poor condition of the wall. I didn't bring quite enough water but it worked out OK because some of the local people camp out in the towers and sell water, pop and beer to weary walkers. Of course the price is horribly inflated (capitalism strikes again), but horribly inflated prices were still less than $2 Canadian for a 500mL bottle of water (for comparison, the same bottle at my hostel costs about $0.38 Canadian).
I originally started out walking with the group from the bus, but they were extremely slow and annoying to walk with so I eventually pulled out ahead on my own. That's not to say I rushed through the walk, but I kept a good pace. I finished in about 3 hours, and then had to wait for almost an hour for everyone else to finish at the end. It was nice at the bottom though as there was shade and a river and a place to buy beer.
At the end of the walk, you have to hike down a 2km path to get to the parking area. As an alternative you can take a zipline over the water and then a boat takes you the rest of the way. I was tempted by the zipline, but it looked like it was in extremely rough shape and I chickened out. I'm happy to rock climb back in Canada, but in those cases it's with my own gear that I check regularly. Sketchy wires and harnesses at the top of a gorge in China do not inspire the same confidence in me.
On the way back to Beijing I had a nice chat with an American doctor who is here in Beijing to attend an international cardiology conference. The neat thing though was that she arrived from New Zealand where she's living with her family for 6 months on a sabbatical from her hospital in the US. She had lots of fun things to tell me about New Zealand and it was a nice chat to pass the long ride back.
After arriving back at the hostel I was starving and not in the mood to mess around trying to figure out something random to eat. Fortunately, the "best American restaurant in Beijing" was a block away from my hostel. It's called Grandma's Kitchen and it was a perfect spot for dinner after a long hot day in the sun. I had a gigantic hamburger, fries, and a side of steamed broccoli (for nutrients). I also had a 500mL bottle of Erdinger Dunkel which was amazing. The restaurant was super chill and relaxing and the food was excellent. In addition to burgers they had things like milkshakes, spaghetti and meatballs, all-day breakfast and cookies! I hadn't seen cookies in China at all until tonight. After dinner it was pretty late so I went back to the hostel and fell right to sleep.
Today I got up in good time after an excellent sleep and had eggs and fruit from my hostel kitchen for breakfast. Then I headed out quickly to get to the Forbidden City as it opened to hopefully avoid some of the crowds. Unfortunately the crowds had the same idea. Or there's just a lot of people in China, probably that's more true. Anyway, I picked up an audioguide and ventured inside.
The Forbidden City is huge! Just walking through all the sections takes a long time even if you don't stop to look around. There are many buildings and statues and things, but also gigantic open squares and gardens. It's about 180 acres in area and still has 980 surviving buildings. It was built in the early 1400s and was used for centuries as the home of the emperor and the political centre of China. It was really neat to walk around and see everything, but the heat, smog and crowds grew oppressive after a while and I eventually left through the north gate to check out Jingshan Park.
Beijing is a very flat city, except for Jingshan Park. When the Forbidden City was constructed, they took all of the dirt excavated from the moats around the Forbidden City and piled it on the north end to form some pretty big hills. Most palaces in other cities are constructed on the south end of a hill as that was seen as favourable, however with no hills in Beijing they had to make them. Jingshan Park encompasses these hills now and it was another great place to relax a bit after the craziness of the Forbidden City. Also, since Beijing is so flat, the top of the hill provides a really good view of everything.
By the time I got to the top, I was really hot and sweaty so I had a snack and a nice long rest to cool down. It was at this point that I realized I still had the Forbidden City audioguide and so they still had my 100RMB deposit! Also, the return point for the guide was at the exact opposite end of the Forbidden City so it was going to be a long walk. Once I was rested I set out, and an hour later I had returned the guide and gotten back to my hostel to have a most refreshing shower.
Given that the day was getting seriously hot at that point (34C I believe), I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in the common area of the hostel writing postcards to people. The hostel people sold me stamps and even took care of mailing the postcards for me when I finished. I have no idea if or when they will reach people but at least I tried.
For supper I got on the subway (which was just as clean and easy to use as in Shanghai) and headed to the "Ghost Street" which is apparently where local people go for good food. I found the street alright, but I quickly realized I was in over my head when no restaurants had any English anywhere, no one spoke English and there were no English menus. I even had the names of some places to try but I totally failed at finding them due to the complete lack of English. Being by myself, I eventually chickened out and continued walking to a nearby area where there was supposed to be a restaurant with the best Peking Duck in Beijing. I must have been in the wrong place though because I never found anything that looked like restaurant let along the specific one I was looking for. Frustrated and hungry I got back on the subway to return to the area near my hostel and just went to a local restaurant there. The food was good, but nothing super special.
After dinner I walked over to this crazy pedestrian shopping area that was mostly western stores but on a much larger scale than I've ever seen before. There were two gigantic malls across the street from each other, each with at least 8 massive floors. The prices were also quite Western though so I really just looked around for a while before heading back to the hostel. I got back just in time to avoid another huge thunderstorm which is going on right now.
I fly back to Toronto today at 6:00pm, so this morning after breakfast at the hostel I packed up, checked out and stored my luggage in the hostel luggage storage area. Then I caught the subway up to the Yonghe Temple, also known as the "Palace of Peace and Harmony Lama Temple," one of the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world. There were a fair number of tourists there, but it was so big that it didn't seem too crowded. It's also still an active temple so I was able to see monks moving around from time to time. Like in Shanghai, no photos were allowed inside the buildings.
The temple was beautiful with tons of shade and lots of neat buildings and Buddha sculptures. The most magnificent was a 50' tall Buddha sculpture carved from the trunk of a single Sandalwood tree. It was massive! Definitely bigger than every tree I've ever seen (not including the west coast of North America). There was tons of incense burning and praying like at the temple in Shanghai, but it seems a lot more calm and spiritual here. It was really nice to spend the morning wandering around and checking it out.
After a brief stop back at the hostel to pick up my stuff and get some lunch I got back on the subway with all my bags and then caught the airport express train. The train connects directly to the subway so it was super easy to get to the airport. It cost less than $5 Canadian total and it took less than an hour (despite the airport being extremely far from the city centre). Just another city with better airport transportation than Toronto.
I'm waiting for my flight now, and I must say the airport is awesome. I'm in the new Terminal 3 which was built for the Olympics and is the second largest airport terminal in the world (after Dubai). I had to take a special monorail train just to get from the check-in desk to my gate.
I got back home last night around 9pm after a long, but mostly uneventful flight. We had a bit of a delay in Beijing due to massive thunderstorms and there was moderate turbulence until we got out of them, but we were able to make up the lost time in the air. I watched a ton of movies, finished my book and even slept a little. It was nice to come back to Toronto and be able to understand what was going on again. And when I returned to my apartment I had the nice view of the G20 fences which had been erected while I was gone.