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Monthly Archives: October 2008

Christian & Julia Engagement

Christian & Julia Engagement – See the dragon ring?

14/10/08: Highest Point of our Relationship Day

The idea was to make it up to the five peaks of Mount Huashan today. Easier said than done in China. First, we had to face the following obstacles:

– Find out when and where to catch the bus to Mount Huashan
– Find out where exactly this bus would bring us, as there are different points to start the climb from
– Get to the cable car at Mount Huashan’s North Peak
– Find out how to come back to X’ian, where and when the bus leaves
– Plan our timing right to climb all five peaks in time to catch the bus back to X’ian

The alarm clock woke us at 6am and I just couldn’t get up. I had a very bad stomach the night before and it was still dark outside. However, the sky was clear, I could see some stars. About 40 min later we finally managed to get our tired bodies moving and made it indeed out of bed.

We got ready, Christian got breakfast, but not for me as I couldn’t trust my stomach. We packed water, apples and biscuits, not knowing yet that this would be all food we’d get for the day.

Christian had to draw money, but we decided to first find the bus that would take us to Mount Huashan.

Again we managed to go astray around Xian Railway Station, got directed to the wrong bus, tried to find the right bus station, got wrong directions again, tried to ask other people there.

Then, all of a sudden and out of nowhere our saviour appeared: A Chinese guy who actively involved himself in our conversation and spoke fantastic English. Furthermore, he knew where to find the Huashan bus and gave us the correct and exact directions.

Indeed we found it, just further East from Xian Railway Station. When we wanted to buy tickets however, the bus conductor simply said: “Full”.

My heart sank. This couldn’t be. We were so close and yet not on the bus.

I got onto the bus anyway and saw that there were a couple of seats empty. But it soon was apparent that those seats had either been reserved for others or were meant for the few passengers who were still outside the bus, smoking or chatting.

I remained on the bus however. It seemed too early to give up. I was thinking desperately what we could do, when the bus conductor came on. In front there were two free seats, which clearly had been reserved, but had they? And for whom? I pointed at them and asked if they were still available and the bus conductor nodded.

Confused and not believing this could be true, I sat down and urged Christian to sit next to me. Maybe we could get away with it, I was hoping. Waiting what would happen, the bus started and drove off. We were stunned: Did we indeed make it? Was this it?

It was 10 min past 7am and we were sitting on the bus to Mount Huashan.

We discussed how lucky we were, getting the right directions just in time to make it to the bus, which was obviously meant to leave at 7am. Boldly claiming those seats, which clearly had been reserved for, as I guess, the bus conductor himself, we even had prime seats. The poor bus conductor now had to settle on a makeshift seat by the bus entrance. I don’t think he was happy about that.

After a while the conductor came around and we paid our tickets: 22 Yuan each.

The journey was quick, all on the express way, so we made it to Huashan about 1 ½ hours later. Nothing near to the 3 hours I had read on the internet.

Still, we didn’t know where we’d get from here. I had read there are different entries to Mount Huashan and two cable cars up. We were also counting our money, since we hadn’t had the time to withdraw any cash, would we have enough for the day?

We were dropped at the ticket office of Mount Huashan. No ATM around, we just had to make do with the money we had on us.

Entry to Mount Huashan was 100 Yuan each.

There was a bus to the cable car, which was 20 Yuan each return. I was hesitant, but in the end glad we bought tickets for this shuttle bus, as it was about 7km. Since our bus back to Xian was to leave at 5pm we had to hurry to make all five peaks of Mount Huashan.

It turned out we got to the cable car, which goes up to the North Peak. I was glad. That was the one I wanted.

The cable car was 110 Yuan each return. Having paid that, we had about 48 Yuan left. Considering the bus back to Xian would be 44 Yuan for the two of us, we had no money left for food. This made us look closer at the few things we had packed for the day. Suddenly that apple and those biscuits became precious. I rationed everything out in my head, so we’d make it through the day.

We had packed all clothes we could wear, thinking at 2000 metres high it could be cold. But again we were extremely lucky: The sky was clear and warm sunshine awaited us when we made it to the top.

We got out of the cable car at about 10am, which meant we had about six hours to get to see Mount Huashan. So off we sprinted, soon taking off all our clothes, as it was steep steps and hot sunshine, we were sweating.

We skipped the North Peak, as it was too busy with tourists and we knew we’d come back there. So we headed straight for the big climb: Steep steps chiselled into the ridge of the mountain rocks. After the Heavenly Stairs, which are nothing close to heavenly, but seem to bring you close to heaven, as the steps are so incredibly steep, the Black Dragon Ridge has to be climbed, where the steps are even worse. Like seriously steep, so that when you turned around you’d look down on the top of the head of the person behind you. Ambition drove us, keeping in mind we had about one hour per peak, so we just shot up, past the struggling crowd of Chinese.

That brought us to the Golden Lock Pass where we could decide which way to go first, as the West, South, East and Central peaks awaited us. Naturally the Chinese followed suit to wherever the one in front was going.

I however found a different way up, which I hoped would lead to the top of the mountain. And indeed: When we took the path up, a rock awaited us, all peaceful and quiet. No tourists.

It was possible to climb the rock, as narrow steps had been chiselled into it. Too small to step on them properly, so an iron chain was accompanying these makeshift stairs. Not what I would call safe, but getting up always seems easy enough. Going back down is the difficult task, but we could worry about that later. So all in all not an easy climb, which again meant, no-one would come up. The Chinese just don’t do things out of the norm, they rather stick to what everybody else does.

So all of the sudden we found ourselves having left behind the masses of tourists and enjoying the spot on top of the mountain all alone. Such a breathtaking view, we had to take it in for a while to comprehend. What had just happened? Had we entered a different dimension that had zoomed us out from the hustle and bustle of the crowds of Chinese groaning and grunting to a peaceful place on top of the world where all you could hear was the sweet song of the birds?

I was so happy that we had made it, that everything had worked out! Even the weather did us a favour with clear skies and a view up to the very last mountain range in the very far distance, which formed a nice transition from the dark mountain rock to the fair skies with its grey silhouette. I was speechless and turned to Christian, when I saw he had pulled out a gift box out of his rucksack.

He started: “Julia…” while opening the box, but then just blurted out: “Will you marry me?” I said “Ja” and he put the ring on my finger.

Only then did we truly realise what was happening, as both of us had been lost for words.

Christian explained to me that he had the ring specially made for me: It is a dragon that curls around the middle finger. My Chinese zodiac is dragon. The eyes are sapphires and on its tail it has a ruby.

Christian had approached a silver smith in Taiwan with this idea, but he had found it too difficult to make and asked his Sifu to create it. Together they had worked out the design until Christian was happy with it. The jewellery maker suggested the ruby, as this is meant to channel my energy and have a calming effect, which Christian agreed was a good idea.

Christian had made sure this ring is going to be unique by keeping the mould for it.

As we had talked a bit and relaxed, I said I still wanted a speech and now Christian could say what he had actually prepared to say. This was very emotional and we both sat with tears welling up in our eyes on top of Mount Huashan.

Very happy we decided to take a picture of this moment and balanced the camera on the rock while we ourselves balanced near the cliff. It was quite crazy being so high up on the mountain and so near the abyss without any barrier or safety net whatsoever.

Climbing down turned out to be quite tricky, as these steps were just so small and slippery and it went down at almost 90 degrees.

Back on track, I was so happy, I had all the strengths in the world and we made it quickly to the West peak. Seeing so many tourists going up there however, we decided to climb up the South peak first. This turned out as a bit of a bad decision, as it was possible to go to the East peak directly from the South peak, but we had to go back to the West peak as otherwise we’d miss it.

Those two peaks were easy to climb, if you consider kilometres of steep stairs easy. Near the top were Buddhist temples, which then lead to the actual peak. These peaks did have barriers around them, metal poles with metal chains and lots and lots of locks chained to them. We asked what the locks were about and were told it gives good luck to link your name, which was inscribed on the lock, to the mountain. Most of the locks were decorated with red ribbons, so that the peak was framed by red fluttering ribbons and gold shining locks. In contrast to the stark clear blue sky this looked like a colour explosion of vibrancy.

From the West peak we took a different route down to make it to the other side of the mountain.

We reached the Central peak first, which was nothing compared to the other peaks, as it was lower than the surrounding mountain range. What gave you a real impression of height was that Mount Huashan is surrounded by other mountains. As their peaks are all a bit lower than Mount Huashan you really feel like on top of the world. Central peak however gave a different view from where you could see how high up the other peaks actually were.

We hurried on to the East peak, as it had reached 2 o’clock by now and we didn’t know how long it would take to climb up East. Indeed we got a surprise, as the only way to get up was a 90 degrees rock face. You could choose between steps chiselled into the mountain rock with supporting metal chains or a steep metal staircase, which was more like a metal ladder. Of course we chose the more difficult route, the more authentic mountain grooves. This turned out to be really difficult half way up, when the rock bulged out over 90 degrees and I still don’t know how I actually made it. It was scary! I clung to those metal chains with my dear life and just focused on getting up and out of there.

Having made it though gave a rush to reach the peak, which again turned out super difficult, as you had to walk along the cliff, which to the one side went straight down some hundred metres and on the other side was slippery rock. There was a metal chain again, to which we held on with an anxious grip. Slowly we made our way round, just to look back get to see where we had come from. Only then did we realise how high up the cliff actually was and how deep down we could fall. Crazy if you think how easy it could be to slip and topple over.

Having mastered the East peak, we could go round back to the 90 degree crazy climb, where this time we chose the metal staircase, which wasn’t much easier to climb.

Relieved we had done all the peaks it was now time to head back to the North peak.

This meant all the way back to where we had come from. All those steps all over again, but now downhill. I must say, I find it easier to go up than down. Those extremely steep and narrow steps, it is so easy to slip. Also the strain on your muscles is quite something, as you constantly bend your legs, trying to keep the impact of stepping down as low as possible. The knock on your joints is quite tough, more like falling onto your feet with these steep steps. Not good for my knee. But hey, we only live once.

By the time we got back to the ridge to get up to the North peak I wasn’t sure if my legs would hold up: They were shaking! But a quick break and I was all ready again.

The North peak was comparatively boring, as the view wasn’t as great. There was a little house and bushes, so it was rather obscured. However, there were some rocks with Chinese inscriptions on it and Christian climbed up even on these for some cool photo opportunity. I only managed to climb the small one, which brought me to realise these rocks were not actually real. They were hollow and only covered with sand and small stones. Typical ‘Made in China’.

But Christian had started a trend with all the other tourists now climbing onto those rocks to have their picture taken. This was a nice end to the whole experience, so we happily walked back down to the cable car.

Going down made us realise how steep the cable car actually went. At first it felt like we were falling down when we got out of the cable car station. A few minutes later we were already 1500 meters lower.

Back down we got onto the bus and I just thought what a luck we got a return ticket, as I couldn’t have walked one more peep.

By 4.30pm we got to the bus that would bring us back to Xian and Christian bought a bottle of water with the remaining Yuan he had. We still had some biscuits left and ate them then.

The bus journey was swift and we were glad to go straight to the nearest restaurant to finally have our well deserved proper meal. Well, in Chinese terms: Rice, beef balls, peanut salad, tofu, steamed cabbage, bean sprouts and some chicken. The only alcohol you can drink in China is beer, so surprise surprise, it was beer again. Not really what you’d expect to celebrate your engagement, but for us anything tasted like heaven that evening!

In the end we had not needed any more food, as it’s not nice to climb on a full stomach anyway. So it all turned out to be just perfect: Spot on timing, the exact right amount of money, fantastic weather, the most beautiful scenery, the right season and the perfect partner.

Check out the photos: http://www.zorpia.com/TrulyJuly/album/1204525

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02/10/08: Long Distance Walking Day 

Temple of Heaven – a great photo opportunity!

Temple of Heaven – a great photo opportunity!

Our first day in Beijing! We arrived early morning at Beijing Railway Station. As we didn’t have a clue where to go or where to stay we though of sticking to our good concept from Hangzhou where we first went to a big Western hotel to get help and find our bearings. We landed up at the Marriot where they had a special Golden Week rate, which was cheaper than usual. Not that you could stay in a Marriot for prices like that anywhere in Europe anyway. So we thought of staying one night and make use of the day to find a better deal. But of course, we did plenty of things today, however, looking for another hotel we couldn’t be bothered about.

We had asked the concierge for a map of Beijing and it all looked very easy and clear to find our way around. I had a list of sightseeings we wanted to go to and she pointed them all out to us on that map. As the Temple of Heaven was the closest, we decided to simply walk over there.

Easier said than done, as one block on that map was equal to like one kilometre and it took us ages just to get to the Temple of Heaven!

First, we went wrong, as the scale of the city is sheer enormous, but on the map it all looked in close distance. So when we thought we went left, it wasn’t left enough and we ended up walking along the Ancient City Wall, Chongwen Gate.

At least this was a nice spot to see as they had created a lovely park along the Ming City Wall ruins.

From there it was ‘only’ two blocks down to the Temple of Heaven, but that took us about half an hour or so. The roads just wouldn’t end…

That’s why, when we got to the Temple of Heaven, we first looked for a quiet spot and had a bit of a picnic in order to recharge.

Even though it was Golden Week and half of China was on holidays travelling all the big sightseeing spots, it’s very easy to escape the masses, as the Chinese tend to only go where everybody else goes. Just a side path can lead you to a peaceful place where there’s no-one to be seen. That’s where we went and found that the Temple of Heaven is surrounded by a lovely park, which is kept nicely in order with lush green grass and orderly planted trees. There were speakers along the path which were hidden in the lamps that adjoined the walkway. They played some soothing Chinese tunes which was indeed relaxing. Unfortunately this got sometimes interrupted by some Chinese announcements, which were repeated over and over. But when the Chinese songs were back on, it was really calming. It made you feel as if you were in one of those Chinese Kung Fu movies.

As we walked on, we saw a few local people, doing their martial arts exercise, tuning an instrument or sleeping in the sun. The Chinese seem to always be doing things. Even if they’re actually doing nothing, they always look very busy.

Unfortunately seeing the temples meant leaving this tranquil area and join the hustle and bustle of the tourists. Shockingly enough, even the temples were not spared huge advertising flat screens. It seems the Chinese don’t mind the constant stream of noise and imagery around them. To us this was definitely crossing a border.

But the Chinese don’t have many borders in general it seems, as we should find out when we went to the first temple. The Chinese seem to have no understanding of personal space. If there is something to see, everybody simply goes for it. If someone is in their way, they get pushed aside. Or not, if you happen to be a Westerner who is quite taller than them. Then you can decide if you want to join the scuffle to get prime sightseeing position. Unfortunately, there is no alternative: If you don’t box your way through, you won’t get to see whatever it is worth fighting for.

This one was the ‘Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest’ that I’d thrown myself into the tumult for. It was nothing that special, but a pity we weren’t allowed to see it close up. A barrier hindered tourists from stepping inside and there was a guard right behind it, watching that you didn’t spend too much time taking in the sight. So in the end all you could do was take a quick picture and see the details of the hall by looking at the photo you’d taken.

From there we walked the 360 meters of the Red Stairway Bridge around the Echo Wall towards the Circular Mound Altar. There we could marvel at the Heavenly Centre Stone, or rather we couldn’t, as it was encircled by Chinese. Luckily a guard was there, so they all queued up orderly to kneel down to pray and worship on the Centre Stone. There was no chance to simply take a picture of the stone itself, as the next Chinese was already waiting behind the Chinese currently busy praying. Luckily there was a bit of a shuffle, as one Chinese tried to jump the queue. In vain though, nothing escaped the guard’s eyes. So in that split second that the guard had to sort who was allowed next, I could get a glimpse of the stone. And a picture.

After all that ruffle and shuffle we needed another break and sat down in the green grass to have the remaining sandwiches and gather some strength.

The map had shown us that there was a Hall Of Abstinence, but when we got there, it had an extra ticket office and even though we had a ‘through’ ticket, it didn’t entitle us to go through here.

We felt we had seen enough and as we knew how far it was to go back, we thought we’d better get started.

We walked out at the West Gate, which meant we could walk straight up North to get to Tian’anmen Square.

We walked the usual marathon blocks that we got used to until we came to a street that to us looked like a ghost town. It was really creepy walking down that street. It all looked new and sleek, but none of the shops were occupied. Those shops didn’t give the impression to be filled any time soon, they rather looked abandoned. Gates were concealed with canvas covers with high quality prints of what it should look like. However, beyond there were fences and constructions. The buildings were all made out of the same bleak grey stone, all in the same shape and look. The austere paving didn’t help take any of the heavy, stark feel about it away. Everything was spotless, the entire place looked constructed and reminded us of communism. As all the Chinese tourists didn’t seem to be bothered, we just continued walking down the street in puzzlement.

It was Qianmen shopping street that we had walked down and the reason why it looked so deserted was because it had undergone a total refurbishment for the Olympic Games that clearly did not turn out as intended, as hardly any of the shops that had made this street one of the busiest of Beijing had returned.

In comparison to that poignant experience, Tian’anmen Square was not as overwhelming as we had pictured it. Somehow we had the vision in our mind of standing in the middle of an empty square that makes you have an agoraphobia attack. Obviously during Golden Week there were hardly any empty places, but Tian’anmen Square was filled with buildings and displays, too.

There were water fountains with flower beds and a landscape design depicting the Olympic mascots, reducing the feel of the grandness of that square.

Slowly we manoeuvred through the masses to the other end of Tian’nmen which sits opposite the Forbidden City. Just when we thought it’s time to leave, we realise that where we wanted to go to, a lot of Chinese were queuing to get to where we were. There must have been a reason for that and we went to enquire.

Apparently all those Chinese tourists flocked to the see the lowering of the National flag at 6pm. As this was only a couple of minutes away, we decided to wait and witness this spectacle. However, nothing happened besides the flag being lowered. No national anthem or bullets being fired, leaving us in wonderment why so many Chinese wanted to see this.

Aching from walking so much, we faced the last long walk back to the hotel, which was only a couple of blocks away, meaning 2 km. On the way we took pictures of Beijing at night, as the haze of pollution gives the street lights a mystic glare.

Back at the hotel we couldn’t move one bit and were happy to dig into our pot noodles we had brought with us. They were absolutely delicious, so much better than the bland and stale pot noodles you get in Europe. We had a relatively early night, as for the next day we planned to see the Forbidden City.

In retrospective it was good that we first went to see the Temple of Heaven. It has fewer temples than the Forbidden City and thus is a nice introduction to what is to come. A through ticket including all sights is 35 Yuan. If you just want to go for a stroll in the beautiful Tiantan Park and see the temples from afar, look for one of the side-entrances. All the locals entered the park through these and it doesn’t cost a penny.

Check out the photos: http://www.zorpia.com/TrulyJuly/album/1155199

01/10/08: High in the Sky Day 

Oktoberfest in Shanghai

Oktoberfest in Shanghai

After a strenuous and late day yesterday, we were glad to be back at Simone’s where we could feel at home and take it easy.

As we had received the incredible and very good news that Tom, Simone’s husband, had managed to get overnight train tickets for Beijing, we started packing, sorting through our things to really only take with the necessary items.

As it was our last day with Tom, because upon our return he’d be going to Beijing himself, we decided to go to Shanghai’s city centre together. We took the taxi to the east side of the river where the financial district is with all those incredible skyscrapers.

We would have loved a stroll by the river, but unfortunately the promenade was built too low and it was all flooded. Interesting indeed, as the walk way went a couple of steps down. They could have just left it at an even level and it would have been fine.

A police person was watching that no-one was fooling around in the water. So people just hung around, some walked through the adjacent flower beds to get to the other side.

We just walked back to where we’d come from, there was no point in getting wet.

We went to the near by Paulaner’s where they had recreated a typical German Biergarten with German beer and German dishes. They had the typical benches and sun umbrellas, special Paulaner glasses, even the waitresses were wearing dirndl dresses. Just that they were Chinese.

In Shanghai however, you pay for such a European experience… The prices were surprisingly high, more expensive than London! But Shanghai is one of the most expensive cities and it starts with the subway fare and continues with coffee & cake at Paulaner’s.

Afterwards we walked to the financial district, actually passing those buildings that make the Shanghai skyline. On the one hand it’s impressive to see these skyscrapers up close, they are truly overwhelming. But on the other hand you realise what a concrete jungle Shanghai is. With big highways and junctions, but no adequate crossings for pedestrians. With shopping malls and glass and steel office blocks, but no space to socialise. With vehicles having first right, but individuals being forgotten.

How relaxing though to see this all from high up in the sky: As we walked by the Jin Mao Tower, Tom and Simone suggested getting up there. Not to the touristy observation deck where you pay 70 Yuan however. There is a luxurious 5-star Grand Hyatt which you can access. Especially if you’re a Westerner. So up we went to the 54th floor, the hotel’s restaurant and bar area. There you have a panoramic view and can walk almost in a complete circle along the top to bottom windows, enjoying a fantastic sight. The best however was when we took another elevator that would bring us up to the 87th floor. From there you can look down to the club bar. 25 floors down! It looks like the matrix, the scene of all the capsules where they store the humans. Here you can really test yourself if you have acrophobia. Especially as the balustrade doesn’t seem to be very high. Easy to lean over a bit too far… loose the balance… topple over… it could happen so quickly… couldn’t it?

Back save on the ground we took a taxi back to Simone’s and Tom’s place. It was time to get ready for our overnight train journey to Beijing, where the real adventure would begin.

Check out the photos: http://www.zorpia.com/TrulyJuly/album/1154393

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