16 Oct

Dunhuang, China, 16/10/2011,




Unfortunately, due to a complete lack of time, and a lack of internet connection possibilities, I haven’t been able to keep this blog up to date… I will still attempt to do that later, but for now I already wish to apologize for that…


Best regards,


Joeri Vanvaerenbergh

This is it, September the 6th, departure to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea! :-)


As the traffic in Beijing is really a disaster in the morning rush hour (Complete gridlock, actually…), I went to the office of Koryo tours by subway… There would be a bus departing from the office at 8:45, so we had to be there at 8:30… I took subway lines 5, 1 and 10 to go there. The subway was a madhouse too at this time, certainly with my luggage, but at least things moved… :-)


At the office there were many more people than only the 24 people of the cycling tour, as there were apparently three tours leaving for the DPRK today, including a 16 day “mega-tour”… The people of the cycling tour had their own bus though, and we eventually left perfectly on time… :-)


Check-in at the airport went relatively smooth, but it was much more exciting as usual, as it’s not every day that you board a plane to Pyongyang! ;-) I asked a window seat and got it, number 11F. We filled in the departure cards from China, and went through the security checks, which were not more tight than what would normally be the case. It all went pretty quick too, as I arrived at the gate almost an hour before boarding would start. (Scheduled for 11:30) So I went to one of those machines where you can get a username and a password to use the wireless internet of the airport. In order to get one, you should put your passport in the machine. Your data is read then, and you get a ticket with the necessary info to log in. It all went good, but the signal was rather weak at gate 16, which was at one extremity of the airport. So I couldn’t do too much… Furthermore, our plane was not yet there, so was looking out for it all the time! :-) Air Koryo can’t buy planes from Boeing or Airbus, because of the trade boycott by the Western countries, so it has Russian planes. They have recently bought two new planes from Russia for the route to Beijing (Tupolev Tu-204), but sometimes they still use one of their older planes, type Ilyushin 62M, a plane from the sixties… :-)


Eventually, an Air Koryo plane showed up in the distance! :-) It was an older one, Ilyushin 62M number P-881!



A bit later, it came to our gate, so it would indeed be this plane… :-)


I missed a great photo opportunity by the way, when a plane of the South Korean Airlines passed by our North Korean plane… :-) (I just saw it when it was passing, too late to take my camera…) I wonder how often these planes come so close to each other… :-)


Then, it was time for boarding… I can’t say I felt at ease upon boarding this old aircraft, given the fact that it was so old, but on the other hand I could imagine that the people of the DPRK would see the safety of these planes that are used on international connections as a kind of national pride, and so would take good care of them… And indeed, when boarding, the plane looked well maintained… :-) The stewardesses greeted us upon entering, and were very friendly, although at the same time a bit stricter to the passengers than I was used to on other airlines… (“The iron hand in the silk glove”…) The plane had something very nostalgic about it, too, although the leg space was unfortunately very limited. I couldn’t put my backpack in the shelves above the seats as it was too big, so I placed it under the seat. But because of this I couldn’t move my legs at all…


Luckily, the flight would take less than two hours in total…


The stewardess asked me whether I would like a copy of the “Pyongyang Times” to read. I gladly accepted the offer, as it makes for a great souvenir of course, but we were told that the people in the DPRK would get very upset if we would fold the newspaper over a picture of the Dear Leader… We should always leave the picture on the cover straight… This made me a bit uncomfortable, as I didn’t want to keep it on my lap during the whole flight, but I eventually managed to fold it in three, and put it in the back of the seat in front of me… :-)



The engines were started then. They were louder than I was used to, and a bit higher pitched… A very special experience… :-) We moved to the runway, and after waiting for some domestic Chinese flights taking off, we were cleared to go! Flight JS222 from Beijing to Pyongyang departed! :-D


The plane took off swiftly, and flew rather stable! :-) It was hazy again on that day in Beijing, so soon after departing we couldn’t see the ground anymore… About 10 minutes later we left the haze though, and I could see the remarkable sight of the Beijing haze from the sky again… :-/ It always makes me sad, seeing this beige, grayish mist hanging above China’s capital… :-( You could see the grey mist, and above that the crisp, blue sky! :-0



About an hour later, we started our descend towards “FNJ”, or Pyongyang Sunan Airport… :-) I felt very excited about this, entering such a unique country! :-) The landscape looked very nice, and the weather was very clear, not a single cloud in sight! The plane flew lower and lower, but to my surprise there were no buildings around, only countryside and nature? :-0 We touched down on the runway, and the passengers spontaneously started to give an applause for the pilotes! :-)


The runway was indeed in the middle of the countryside! Except for the fences and the soldiers guarding them, nothing indicated that this was an important airport! The runway was very long, too, and it took quite some time to reach the actual airport…


And then we made another turn again, and I could finally see the airport building, with a portrait of a smiling Kim Il-Sung on top of it! :-)


Our stewardesses wished us a warm welcome in the DPRK! :-)


We exited the aircraft directly, and walked to the airport building ourselves. And gave is a feeling I will never forget! The light was so bright, the air so crisp, and everything so tidy and clean! :-0 All the Koreans were dressed so neat, and the soldiers were wearing their typical dark green uniform… :-) It looked like a movie set! :-0 Unbelievable! :-0 I regret not having taken a lot of pictures, but given the fact that there are a lot of restrictions on photography in the DPRK, and that airports are often considered as “sensitive” zones, I decided not to… Apparently, it wouldn’t have been a problem, but I didn’t know that at that time, and I was already busy enough looking around! :-0


We entered the new terminal (The old one, which has the portrait of Kim Il-Sung on top of it, was in renovation…), and immediately went through immigration. It all went pretty smooth, and shortly afterwards we could already pick up our luggage from the turntable… The terminal was just one rectangular hall, so those turntables were located immediately after the immigration desks. While waiting for my luggage, there was a power cut for a few minutes… I had read about those, but didn’t expect it to happen so soon already… :-0 (Eventually this would only happen twice during my ten days in the country though, now and on one other occasion, in our hotel in the mountains near Mt.Paekdu…) A few minutes later the electricity came back, and so we picked up our luggage… :-)


The next stop was customs… This would be a more complicated matter, as there are a lot of restrictions on what you can bring in the country… So I expected them to go through all our bags, and check everything that was in it. For me, this would be an ever bigger problem, as I had brought my Lowepro Vertex 200 AW backpack, full of camera’s and lenses, etc… I expected the customs officials to freak out upon seeing all that, and was already prepared to spend a long time there… But to my surprise he only looked at my two big camera’s (A Canon EOS 450D with battery grip and a Mamiya 645 AFD), smiled, and told me to continue… :-) And that was it, I was now fully approved to enter the DPRK!


I walked to the exit, where our guides were waiting for us… :-) I met Kang and Ju already, two young guys who looked very cheery and happy to meet us… :-) Normally, every tour group gets two guides, but we would get four, as we were the very first cycling tour ever, and they were planning to split the group up in two, a slower one and a faster one. Each group would then get a guide in front and in the back. But as we wouldn’t go cycling yet, only three guides appeared… Kim was the third one to arrive.


We boarded an ex-Japanese bus, and met our friendly driver! :-) This guy was really a very skilled driver, as we would later find out… :-) We set off to Pyongyang city, which would be a drive of a little more than half an hour… :-) And this drive also turned out to be almost magical! Koreans on their bicycles, dressed in suits… Some women wearing the traditional, colorful dresses, and everything spotlessly clean! Not a single paper on the ground, not a single splatter of graffiti, not even publicity signs! Only some mosaics with portraits of the Great Leader or the Dear Leader, or with Socialist propaganda praising the benefits of hard work or against US imperialism… :-) And almost no cars on the roads! In this fantastically clear light, it made me think about how ugly the “West” has become these days… Publicity, graffiti and rubbish everywhere, noise and pollution… :-/ In this way, I must say that the DPRK turned out to be a real delight! :-) It certainly looked like eye-candy! :-D Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures from the bus, otherwise I would have taken hundreds I think… :-)


Normally, we would have gone to the hotel directly, but we could attend a football match between the DPRK and Tajikistan, if we wanted… I normally don’t like football, but almost everyone else went, and it’s not every day that you can attend an international football match in the DPRK of course… :-) The atmosphere in the stadium was very special by the way, with the Koreans shouting loudly every time the Korean players had the ball… :-) Eventually the crowd went absolutely bananas when the Koreans made one goal against Tajikistan! :-D It stayed 1/0 by the way, and there were many breaks after players got kicked or hit by players from the opposite team, so I got a bit bored by the end, and this way I remembered again why I don’t like football… :-/ Then again, I don’t regret attending this game… :-) But only because it was in the DPRK… ;-)



After the match ended, our bus was apparently gone, and so eventually we walked all the way to the hotel (About 10 minutes…), something they don’t often let you do, actually… It was mostly nice to see the Koreans around us… :-) Certainly the kids were great, waiving to us and giggling… :-)


The hotel was the Yanggakdo hotel in Pyongyang. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yanggakdo_Hotel ) A big and relatively luxurious hotel that especially caters to the foreigner visitors. There were a lot of foreigners there by the way, certainly because of the Taekwondo competition! My room was on the 38th floor (There are 47 floors…), which I shared with a German guy from Frankfurt called Gil, as I hadn’t paid for a single room supplement (That was quite expensive, actually…), but I didn’t mind, as Gil turned out to be a nice guy, and sometimes very funny too… :-)


We had a kind of buffet dinner in the evening, which was good, but nothing special… Apparently, the Koreans alter their food for foreigners by making it milder, which is really a pity… Anyhow, I was very tired, so I decided to go to bed immediately after dinner, and I actually fell asleep immediately… :-)

Today there was only one thing on my agenda. At 14:00 I was expected at the pre-tour meeting at the office of Koryo Tours in Beijing, in preparation of the departure to the DPRK the next day… :-)


Those of you who would like to get a good idea about travel in the DPRK could read these pages:








We were told that there would exceptionally be two flights from Beijing to Pyongyang tomorrow, as there would be in international Taekwondo competition in Pyongyang, so many foreign teams would travel to Pyongyang on the same day, too… We would be on the first flight, which would leave at 12:00 instead of 13:00 from Terminal 2 of Beijing Capital Airport…


In the evening I have been rearranging my luggage. I have left some things behind in Beijing, such as my camcorder, microphone, video tripod, cables, etc… Apparently, taking a camcorder into the DPK is not really a problem anymore, but it’s still more sensitive than a normal camera, and I didn’t really see much use for it, so I decided to leave it in Beijing, also in order to save some weight…


One more night in China, and then the big day! :-)

  • Author: J-Vee
  • Category: China

Today I spent almost all day on the planning for my tour through China after September the 19th… The planning was still not 100% finished, and it would have became problematic if I would have waited any longer… Anyway, here it is:


19/09: Beijing -> Fulaerji
20/09: Fulaerji (Qiqihaer)
21/09: Fulaerji (Qiqihaer) -> Zhalainuer
22/09: Zhalainuer -> Manzhouli
23/09: Manzhouli -> Boketu
24/09: Boketu
25/09: Boketu
26/09: Boketu -> Jinzhou
27/09: Jinzhou -> Nanpiao
28/09: Nanpiao -> Jinzhou -> Chifeng
29/09: Chifeng
30/09: Chifeng
01/10: Jingpeng
02/10: Jingpeng
03/10: Jingpeng
04/10: Jingpeng -> Jining Nan
05/10: Jining Nan -> Hohhot
06/10: Hohhot -> Jiayuguan
07/10: Jiayuguan
08/10: Jiayuguan -> Kuerle
09/10: Kuerle
10/10: Kuerle -> Tulufan
11/10: Tulufan
12/10: Tulufan
13/10: Tulufan -> Liuyuan
14/10: Liuyuan -> Dunhuang
15/10: Dunhuang -> Lanzhou
16/10: Lanzhou -> Baiyin
17/10: Baiyin
18/10: Baiyin
19/10: Baiyin -> Lanzhou -> Guangzhou
20/10: (On the train)
21/10: Guangzhou -> Kowloon (HK)
22/10: Kowloon (HK)
23/10: Kowloon (HK) -> Beijing
24/10: Arrival Beijing


That’s it… :-)

  • Author: J-Vee
  • Category: China

Today there’s not so much to tell, I visited my friend Serena near Xizhimen. (That’s the area near Beijing North station…) We had some nice Xinjiang food together with another friend of her, and a long chat, as the last time we met was last year in September… :-)

  • Author: J-Vee
  • Category: China

Today we didn’t do too much. After all, it’s still a vacation… :-) Fan wanted to stay in the house too, to do some things on the computer. At noon we had home-made dumplings, which were very nice, but although it had already been such a nice day I didn’t really feel happy about staying inside all day long, certainly given the very nice, sunny weather outside… :-) Fan didn’t wanted to go though, and so eventually I decided to have a walk on my own in the city. I jumped on the first “Special 11” bus towards the city, and went to the area around “China Art Gallery” again… :-) I tried some shots with the Holga again, but I actually simply wanted to have a nice walk and observe life in the streets of Beijing… :-)


While watching three wheeled bicycles loaded with cardboard or coal briquettes being overtaken by the newest BMW or Mercedes cars (Not to mention the numerous Hummers now visible in the streets of Beijing!), I automatically started thinking about income inequality, and the influences it has on societies. According to the excellent book “The Spirit Level”, written by Wilkinson & Pickett, societies do better when income inequality is not too big. Countries with a large income inequality usually always see higher criminality rates, more murders, more overweight people, more teenage pregnancies, more mental illnesses, more drug abuses, less trust, etc… I must say I do believe this correlation, and I also believe in the causality of it, but I must admit that the theory doesn’t really seem to be applicable on the current situation in China…. (Income inequality is enormous in China, and yet criminality rates remain remarkably low…) Or is it?


Of course, the theory of Wilkinson & Pickett only applies on rich countries (They clearly state that in their book…), but that would be too easy as an explanation, of course… :-) If the effect is there, it should also be noticeable in communities such as Beijing, or in “modern China” in general… And in my opinion, the effects are visible everywhere you look! Chinese people do not seem to trust each other, and have – for example – a tendency to buy big SUV’s such as Hummers or Land Rovers (This is generally seen as a way to “arm” yourself in the “traffic battle” on the streets…), furthermore they obviously like darkened windows very much… “Gated communities” are now also fairly common in China, as are bars in front of the windows on the lower floors of buildings. The Chinese also seem to be obsessed with safety, as can be judged by the enormous amount of luggage scanners everywhere, from train stations to subways stations, museums and other important buildings… (A nightmare for people like me who still use film for photography… One scan is not harmful, but tests revealed that the effects of scanning on color slide film can already be seen after about 15 scans… Black & White negative film seems fine, usually no effects can be seen, not even after about one hundred scans…) Other signs include a quickly rising number of overweight people and a number of recent incidents where a man kills a large number of people around him before committing suicide… :-/ I don’t have any information on teenage pregnancies in China, but the use of drugs is apparently also on the rise… The only thing that seems to stay behind (For now?) is the usual criminality… Theft, robberies, rapes, etc… Will this also start rising, following the theory of Wilkinson & Pickett? I hope not, but I’m afraid that it will… As we can see in the USA, severe punishments will most likely not stop this from happening… What I hope is that the Chinese government strongly increases the fight against inequality in the country, by strongly raising minimum salaries, abolishing the exceptions for the so-called “Special Economic Zones” (Such as Shenzhen…), where not all social laws count, and by raising the bar for working conditions. This will be the only way to insure that the Chinese civilization won’t become one with high criminality rates and all the other problems related to income inequality… Company owners now make incredibly high profits by exploiting the poor migrant workers, mostly from the Western provinces. (Some time ago, it was discovered that a company owner from Sichuan used pure slavery in his company in Toksun, Xinjiang! The guy fled when this was discovered, and I actually don’t know whether he was actually caught and really sentenced for this…) This really can’t remain like this anymore, if China wants to become the harmonious civilization it intends to be…


Either way, China is still a very safe country today, compared to most western countries, and I really hope it can stay this was for a long time! But I guess the government will seriously need to deal with the fast growing income inequality, otherwise I guess criminality rates will skyrocket soon… :-/


After the walk (A very nice one, by the way…), I took bus “Special 11” home again, which took a lot longer than normal… it was a Friday, and then the traffic jams are apparently considerably longer than usual…

  • Author: J-Vee
  • Category: China

Blue sky day!

1 Sep

Finally, we could see a clear blue sky again above Beijing when we opened the curtains! :-D


Unfortunately, I still felt very sleepy when I got up in the morning, and the headache didn’t go away after the first half an hour, as would normally be the case for me… I’m generally not the type to jump out of bed with a smile on my face, I usually feel terrible after I wake up (Headache, painful eyes, and a “morning mood”…), and that feeling only goes away after half an hour or an hour… If I didn’t get enough sleep, that feeling can stay all day long though… Today, I slept more than enough, about nine hours, but the headache remained, so there must have been something else… I guessed that it would be the jetlag, as – strange enough – I usually feel very bad on the fourth day of a vacation in China… I have no idea why it’s exactly the fourth day, but it’s the way it is… You can compare the feeling a bit to getting the flu, but without the actual fever… So stiff, weak legs and a headache… Anyway, we decided to go out anyway, as I was almost sure that it was just the jetlag… :-)


The weather was indeed really nice, and when we exited the building the fresh wind and cooler temperatures were a very nice change to the grey, dull, hot and humid days we had before… It’s surprising how a city can suddenly become so fresh, bright and colorful! :-) On such days, it’s incredibly nice to walk through the streets of Beijing! It’s like a completely different city! :-D


By the way, the term “Blue sky day” refers to an official term here in China. The term is not always used properly in my opinion, but today was indeed a real “Blue sky day”! :-D


Our first stop was a shop called “Semir”, a few hundred meters away from where we stay. I was still searching for new trousers, and so I decided to try some. Most models looked (artificially) crappy and dirty, with a lot of holes and cuts… (I really don’t like that at all, to be honest…) But one model looked rather OK, so I decided to try it on… (The price was 139,- RMB, but Fan bargained them down to 125,- RMB, about 13,- Euro…) I chose a size 32 first. The trousers fitted perfectly around my waist, and the length was also fine, but it was way too narrow on my thighs.. I don’t know whether it’s because of the cycling (Mostly in the city, with short, intensive sprints from traffic light to traffic light…), and the long distance walks with a heavy backpack, but my thighs are rather strongly built. So when I pulled my leg up the trousers were about to tear apart! (Actually, after wearing Jeans a few years, it’s not unusual for them to start tearing apart there, when I have to climb up a ladder or something… Mostly I can discover this at home, before going out, but on one occasion I had to buy a new Jeans in Köln, after having torn my trousers apart while climbing on my locomotive after getting out to call the signalman at a signal telephone…) So I decided to try a 33, but that was a bit too loose on the waist… This could be OK, as I always wear a belt, but I wasn’t 100% sure yet, and so we told them we might always come back later… :-)


We quickly bought some drinks at the supermarket next door, and then intended to go to an electronics market, to search for a network cable (Ethernet), so that I could use the internet at the house on my laptop too… (That’s always more practical, as it has an azerty keyboard and all my files are in it…) The bus stop was just around the corner, in Nanding Lu, but we passed a brand new Mac Donalds on the corner, and suddenly we both decided to eat something there first… I normally never go to Mac Donalds, but in China I sometimes go there once or twice in a vacation. Firstly because it’s funny to observe the atmosphere here, and furthermore they have nicer stuff than in Europe, and not much with cheese! :-) For those who don’t know yet, I absolutely hate cheese! It’s really the only thing that I wouldn’t eat, not even for one million Euro! :-0 There are more things that I prefer not to eat, such as livers, brains, kidneys, etc, but if I really have to I would at least try to eat those… Even exotic things like fried insects don’t scare me, but cheese can frighten the hell out of me! :-D I just can’t stand it! Not the looks, not the smell, not the name, nothing! For me it’s just stinky, rotten milk… :-X But anyway, enough about that… ;-) This Mac Donalds was brand new, probably opened only days before, and we were almost the only costumers… :-) We had a sandwich (No hamburger!) with roasted chicken in pepper sauce, some fries, chicken dips, and a Coke… :-) For Chinese standards, these things are actually relatively expensive. A hamburger costs about 1,5 Euro here, almost the same as in Europe, but the staff is paid considerably less! Rumour goes that some of the staff get paid as little as 0,25 Euro per hour! I don’t know whether that’s true or not, because that would really be incredibly low, but unfortunately not entirely impossible… In Gansu province a factory worker once told me that they only get 600,- RMB per month… (About 65,- Euro only!) But then again, this is Beijing, where the living standard is much higher than in Gansu province, which is one of the poorest provinces in China, together with provinces like Guizhou and Ningxia… Anyhow, I don’t think the staff ears a lot more, and considering the fact that most of these fast food restaurants get a lot of costumers (Mostly the children of the new rich in China, who by the way also gain weight accordingly…), it’s not difficult to imagine that the owners of these restaurants should earn enormous amounts of money… These places are goldmines, without a shadow of doubt… It’s also interesting to notice that most Mac Donalds restaurants have a KFC nearby… Sometimes, the two are just opposite of each other, or even located next to each other! You might think that the competition between these two puts a downward pressure on the prices – After all, that’s what they always try to make us believe in Europe, and what they also spoon-feed to economy students, who usually don’t even dare to critically approach or question this dogma…), but that’s absolutely not the case… Another evidence for the fact that the so-called “invisible hand” of the free market mostly takes money out of our pockets to give it to the rich? ;-) Either way, from now on I’ll eat in Asian restaurants again… ;-)


We walked to the bus stop through Nanding Lu, which is always an attraction to me… :-) This is also “Old China”, and a hive of activity… :-) A lot of three-wheelers,  cyclists, cars and busses competing for space on the road, in a chaotic mixture… Crossing the street here is really madness, too… After all, I guess that the first rule that Chinese drivers learn is to “never ever use your brakes if you can still make the other driver use his brakes first!”… :-D Actually, not using your brakes at all is the best thing to do, and most cyclists seem to always honor this principle… (Actually, I saw a Chinese young guy on a “fixie” today, a road bicycle which is normally only used on a race-track, so without brakes… How typical… ;-) Haha…) So sometimes you see a crossing of some very busy roads, full of cars, but with one cyclist riding his bicycle diagonally through the traffic… :-0 Today another young guy did that at Qianmen, one of the busiest places in Beijing, just south of Tiananmen, and he wasn’t even paying attention but making a phone-call instead! :-0 Simply incredible, and a surprise that accidents don’t happen more often… :-0 (Although there are many traffic accidents in China nonetheless… The sources aren’t always reliable, but I’ve read numbers of 220.000 people getting killed every year on Chinese roads… Given the fact that China has such a huge population these numbers automatically seem very high of course, but related to the number of vehicles, the numbers are much more clear. Apparently, according to People’s Daily, there were 5,1 people killed per 10.000 vehicles in 2007, which is the highest in the world… :-/ The world average is 2 deaths per 10.000…


Anyway, we hopped on bus 71 and headed towards “Shazikou Wenhua Yongpin Shichang”, that electronics market I mentioned before… :-) The bus was very full, and we had to stand… Shortly after the bus left the stop, it was clear that a big discussion was going on in the back of the bus. A middle-aged woman was proclaiming that she had a very big and expensive house, that she made trips to Europe and that she was related to a member of parliament! Actually, after about a minute, she herself became that member of parliament! :-D It seemed the woman wasn’t very well furnished in the brain department anymore… ;-) But soon afterwards, a second woman talked to us! She pointed at our drinks in a plastic bag we carried, and told us that we weren’t allowed to bring them on a plane! :-D True of course, but anyway, let’s forget about it and hop off the bus, as we’re already there… ;-) (Fortunately!)


After walking around a bit, we found such Ethernet cables, and to my surprise a cable of 5 meters only costed 6,- RMB, a staggering 0,65 Euro! (Why the hell are those things so crazily expensive in Europe, then!?) I also bought an alarm clock, as I won’t be able to bring my mobile phone to North Korea, and so I won’t be able to use the alarm clock of my phone… :-) That costed 15,- RMB…



We then walked to an enormous shopping mall called “Bairong”. The place is truly gigantic, but had a very “second class feeling” to it… There was no airco, so the air inside felt hot and humid, which was not very pleasant… I comforted myself with the idea that things like that are actually indirectly paid by the costumers who spend money in those places, and that it might mean that the prices could be a little lower there, but unfortunately that didn’t seem to be the case… The first shops we entered even asked crazy prices! No doubt because many Chinese still see foreigners as “walking ATM’s”… Although recently this is changing, certainly in bigger cities, and some Chinese now seem to aim more at the extremely wealthy newly rich Chinese, who are not so picky and difficult to satisfy as those “irritating foreigners”, with all their crazy wishes… Indeed, if you think about it, it eventually had to happen… Most foreigners who visit China outside of the classical tourist sites are young backpackers. They don’t swim in money and are relatively conscious about what they spend, and furthermore foreigners usually value the real thing more than “Mickey mouse attractions”… On a lot of cultural or historic sites, the Chinese have unfortunately not been able to resist the temptation to tear down those authentic, historic structures, only to replace them by fake versions… :-/ Sometimes not even fake versions, but simply new buildings… Luxury hotels, etc… The historic city of Pingyao is a sad example of that, unfortunately… I visited it twice, in 2005 and 2008, and so I saw a lot of things that broke my heart… Entire blocks of buildings were being demolished, and replaced by fake things, really unbelievable… Actually Unesco has already threatened to scrap several historic sites within China of the list of world heritage historic sites, exactly because of things like this… But the only people who seem to whine about that seem to be those few foreigners, who don’t spend a lot of money anyway… (And of course some genuinely worried Chinese people, too, but their voices are not so often heard…) The rich Chinese, who seem to go to such places only to have their pictures taken there and to be able to tell everyone that they have been there, don’t seem to care less about those things, as long as they can have some fun… So they need luxurious places, no Spartan, old, boring historic buildings… And “whose bread is eaten, whose word is spoken”, as we say in a Dutch saying… Of course, I’m exaggerating a bit here, but for example in Reshui, in Inner Mongolia, you can see that very clearly! A lot of Chinese tourists drive to there in summer in their expensive SUV, but the only thing they seem to do there is hanging out in Karaoke bars, drinking alcohol and eating… I’ve never met one of them in the mountains (Fortunately, maybe…), where nature is still very beautiful… Of course there are many Chinese people who are genuinely interested in the history of their country, and who feel the same sadness as we do when looking at such evolutions, so I know that what I wrote is only partially true, but the phenomenon can’t be ignored, either… I guess it’s actually simply the price to pay for a generation that made it from peasants’ sons to extremely wealthy rich men… They became rich overnight, yes, but it’s impossible to get a deep, cultural and historic knowledge and sensitivity overnight… Maybe the next generation won’t make those mistakes anymore… To be honest I have good hope that that will be indeed not be the case anymore, but the question is how much of China will have already be ruined during this one generation… They are well under way of destroying most of their own country, even the remote corners don’t seem to be spared… :-/


Anyway, where were we? :-D Ah yes, walking ATM’s… ;-) I didn’t feel like bargaining anymore, and as a matter of fact I still felt rather weak because of the jetlag, so I decided to sit down for some time… In the mean time Fan went to search for some material to make jewelry… Recently she seems very much into making cheap plastic jewelry herself, which seems a nice and creative hobby to me… :-) When she came back, we went to search for the clothes department, as I still had to find a Jeans, and I also needed to buy a collared shirt and a tie for my visit to the DPRK. At the “Kumsusan Memorial Palace”, the mausoleum where Kim Il-Sung lies in state, visitors are required to wear those, as a sign of respect. The mausoleum is included in my tour, too, and so I have to bring it, of course… (Not doing so would be an insult to the North Koreans of course, and it’s very important to earn the trust of the guides to get the most out of our trip, so I think it’s quite essential… By accident, after walking around for five minutes, I suddenly found a blue collared shirt with short sleeves, for only 69,50 RMB. The normal price was 139,- RMB, but it was hanging in a row of clothes, discounted at 50%… :-) I actually liked it, and so I decided to buy it… :-) Also, I found a Jeans that was also discounted, and it fit me rather well! :-) I paid that one 80,- RMB… So finally, I could find an extra Jeans! :-)


After leaving the “Bairong” shopping mall we went to the photo shop near Meishuguan again, to pick up the films from the previous days… It turned out that the 200 ASA color slide film was still too dark, but that the 400 ASA black & white film was perfectly lit! :-) (Actually, I quite liked the result!) So it was obvious that on grey days a 400 ASA film is needed… On sunny days, a 100 or 200 ASA would be able to do the trick, but that still has to be tested… :-) Actually, I wonder whether slide film wouldn’t simply be way more difficult to light perfectly, whereas negative film is a bit more forgiving? That’s something they often say, but I’ve never really had that problem with color slides in the past… :-0


Fan also went to a bookstore nearby, to search for some books about her new hobby, while I bought two large maps of China there… :-) When I give presentations about China, people sometimes tell me that a map would be nice, so that they could follow my trip on it, and see where certain pictures were taken… :-) An A4 or A3 map would not be of any use in front of an audience, so I needed a larger map, about 1,5 meter wide or something… So now I finally have those… :-) (One geographical map, one with the provinces in different colors and the roads and railways indicated…)


Fan needed a lot of time in the shop, so I decided to wait outside and sit down… The weather was really glorious today, and I could actually sit there for many hours… :-) Foto at the bookshop:



After that it was off to home on the upper deck of “Special 11” again… ;-)



And after some nice home-made Chinese food once again, we had an early night… :-)

  • Author: J-Vee
  • Category: China

Temperature and humidity were rising even more, to almost unbearable levels (35°C with a humidity of around 90% today!), and so once again I woke up in sweat… :-/ We have air conditioning here, but we prefer not to use it while we sleep, as that’s not really healthy… So we cool the room down before going to sleep, resulting in nicer temperatures for going to bed, but that’s of course not the case anymore by the time we wake up…


The only thing on my schedule today was to meet a friend of mine, Weilan, in the city center. I know him since 2008 already, when I hired him as our guide for a tour with 7 friends from Belgium, and we’ve remained friends ever since. He’s a very interesting guy, who knows a lot about many different things… :-) I would meet him at the “Oriental Plaza”, the big shopping mall between Wangfujing and Dongdan, at noon… I took bus “Special 11” for that again, and departed around 11:00. (Fan stayed at home today, also because it was so hot outside…) Normally, this should have been enough, but the traffic in Beijing was not very smooth again, plus the driver was really driving the bus very slowly, even with free roads ahead… :-/ I was sitting on the upper deck of the bus, in front, so I could see everything very good… Around Dazhalan (Near Qianmen), we were even overtaken by the next bus of this line! And eventually, there was a serious traffic jam in Taijichang Street, just south of Wangfujing… Almost nothing was moving, and so we needed almost 20 minutes for a distance of about 750 meters! The worst part was the crossing of Chang’An, the biggest street through central Beijing, running from East to West. It crosses just south of the Forbidden City, at the southern entrance with the classical portrait of Mao, which is still in place (Whereas his portrait has been taken away almost everywhere else by now… Symbolic for the shift in ideology in China?), and just North of the Tiananmen square. (It’s also the place where all the military parades take place, for example at the celebration of 60 years “People’s Republic of China”, in October 2009…) Our bus needed to wait more than five minutes before it could cross, as the road was temporarily blocked by the traffic police, and it was only opened again after a string of black Audi’s with blinded windows had passed… (Almost all Chinese officials drive such cars, really remarkable…)


So I was a few minutes too late, but Weilan had come to the bus stop already (“Wangfujing Lukou Bei”), as the restaurant he had in mind was very near that bus stop… :-) We said hello, and we walked towards the famous “Wangfujing Bookstore”, and turned right from there. We followed the street (“Dongdan third Alley”) about 200 meters Eastwards, until we arrived at a sliding door in the wall, with a very discrete logo next to the door… :-) There were no windows, and if you don’t pay attention you will most likely miss it! We entered, and it turned out to be a very nice Japanese restaurant! Not just a sushi restaurant, but serving all kinds of Japanese food… :-) According to Weilan, the chef of this relatively small restaurant is a chef normally working in the five star hotel above the “Oriental Plaza”! He has his own restaurant here. The menu looked very promising, but as it was difficult to make a choice we had a set menu for two persons. It contained a nice salad, some skewers with beef and ox tongue, a set of sushi and sashimi (Also nigiri), and some other tasty little dishes. It only set us back 190,- RMB (21 Euro) for both of us (Excluding the drinks), which is actually a real bargain for such high quality food! :-0 So I’m sure I’ll be keeping this place in my mind as well… ;-)


Weilan had to go back to work afterwards, and so we went separate ways… :-)


I decided to start some experiments with my Holga camera’s again. So took bus 106 from Dongdan to Dongsi Bei Dajie again. The bus in Beijing costs only 0,4 RMB (Less than 0,05 Euro!), at least if you have a “Yikatong” card (Otherwise it’s 1,- RMB), a kind of chipcard in bankcard format, which you simply just need to hold near the machines in the bus. It gives a short beep then, and shows the value you still have left on your card… :-) I have mine about four years already, and have already used it quite a lot when I’m in Beijing… :-) In city busses you only need to use the card once (The standard fare of 0,4 RMB is then deducted…), but in long distance busses or “special” busses you also need to use the card when you exit the bus, thus automatically deducting the variable rate, depending on the distance… In the beginning you might not immediately know when exactly you need to use the card again when you exit, but it’s actually very easy… If the exit doors have a machine, you should use the card again, if they haven’t, you can just step out… :-)


I had a walk in some Hutong area’s again, and started taking pictures. But after a few pictures, I could feel a strange resistance in the camera while advancing the film!? It turned out that one of the pieces of foam inside the camera (They are used to push the film spools a little bit tight, thus holding the film firm where it is exposed…) came loose, and was moved around in the camera with the film!!! :-0 I didn’t expect that, but on very hot and humid days these “sponges” can apparently indeed come loose… :-) There’s a special Flickr group about this phenomenon, called “Holga Sponge Eaters”, showing pictures that were “ruined” this way… :-)


So I removed the film and the sponges in it, and tried without them… This actually worked rather well, and so I immediately brought them to the photo shop again. This time, a Kodak E200 colour slide film and a BW400CN black & white negative film was handed in… I also requested a contact print for the negative film… :-) As it was already around 15:30 at this time, the films would only be ready on the next day… I still had some free time, but decided to turn back already, as the heat was really unbearable due to the high humidity… :-/ Furthermore, the sky was now really very smoggy and grey, too… Not the nicest weather…


We had a calm evening, but just before we went to sleep we could hear some thunder in the distance… Would the weather finally start changing into something nicer? I hoped so, but in the mean time we needed to use the airco again to make the temperature more acceptable for sleeping…

  • Author: J-Vee
  • Category: China

I woke up in sweat, due to the rising temperatures and the high humidity, but that couldn’t spoil my good mood… :-) After a short breakfast (Actually only yoghurt today…), we immediately went out… As I was so busy before my departure that I couldn’t go to the hairdresser anymore, I wanted to get rid of my hair very soon, certainly considering the high temperatures… So this would be my first time to a Chinese hairdressers’! :-) Opposite of the place we stay is a hairdressers’ called “Yisi Fengshang”, on the first floor of a building, only reachable by a metal staircase on the outside of the building… Actually this made me think about the superb Tim Burton movie “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber on Elm Street”, with Johnny depp and Helena Bonham Carter! :-D It looked a bit as a modern version of Benjamin Barkers’ place! :-P We went in and got some odd looks… I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the first foreigner ever to set foot in this hairdressers’… ;-)


They actually started pretty fast, by washing my hair… Funny thing is that you really have to lie down while they wash your hair, which was a little unusual… After that, I was taken to the salon itself, where the girl who washed my hair actually started to massage my shoulders! :-0 (Actually, rumour says that in several Chinese hairdressers’ you could get much more than just a shoulder massage, but I can’t confirm that of course… ;-) Haha…) Then, a young guy came (Actually, all the staff was in their early twenties…), and after telling him that I wanted about half the size off, he started cutting… :-) He used his “tondeuse” (Automatic razor) for this most of the time, also for the parts which didn’t need to be too short, but he actually did a relatively good job… :-) Westerners’ hair is very different than Asian hair, so he obviously needed to concentrate all the time… In the end I got much more than I bargained for, actually, because instead of ½ I think about ¾ was off… :-D But I didn’t feel like complaining at all. Actually I quit liked it! ;-) (I’ve never been very fond of hair… It’s too warm, too irritating, too fussy…) And the price for all this? :-) 20,- RMB, which is around 2,- Euro! ;-)


Then we were off by double deck bus “Special 11” to a stop called “Meishuguan Bei”, just near China Art Gallery, in Dongcheng district (Downtown Beijing), from where we walked to Dongsi Bei Dajie, to have luch in one of my favorite restaurants in Beijing, the Korean Barbecue! :-P Ever since August 2004, when Fan brought me here for the first time, I’ve been addicted to this place… :-) Part of the food you order has to be barbequed by yourself on a grill above some glowing coal in a box, in the middle of the table (Normally a table for four…), and then dipped in a special sauce! We ordered soft beef with sesame seed and spicy lamb meet to put on the grill (Both served cold in thin slices, but already prepared with herbs…), and then also Octopus in Korean sweet & sour sauce, a corn salad, and some kind of sushi rice, but without the fish… (Just the rice in seaweed, and some pieces of vegetable inside…) This is really incredibly delicious stuff! I can’t wait to come back here! ;-)


After dinner, we walked back towards the area near China Art Gallery, but took a detour through a classical “Hutong” area… These are old fashioned local houses, only one level high, and sometimes even without any running water or sanitary! (There are communal toilets and bath-houses scattered around the area…) Actually these places are relatively poor, but it’s the beating heart of Beijing… Many of these neighbourhoods have already been torn down and replaced by some gleaming new high-rises, or sometimes they have been hidden from view by putting a large decorated wall in front of them! But most Westerners especially like exactly these areas, and I’m no exception… :-) Life really takes place in the street here… Old ladies cleaning the vegetables, children playing, someone getting a haircut while sitting in the middle of the street on a chair, everything seems possible here! :-) Sometimes, these places can be a little stinky (Mostly around those communal toilets…), but in general it’s very nice to walk around… Every corner or door seems to hold new surprises! :-)


So it was here that I decided to test my new “Holga” camera’s… :-) In each of them, I put a roll of Kodak E100VS in them (VS for “Vivid Saturation”) (Generally I like vivid saturation, but I don’t really like this film, the also vividly saturated Fuji Velvia is hundred times nicer!), and took some pictures. On 6 x 6 cm, you can only take 12 pictures on a roll of “120” film (16 on 4,5 x 6), so that didn’t take too long… :-) Immediately after taking the pictures, I could hand them over to the photoshop which I mentioned yesterday (“Photochance”, in Meishuguan Dong Lu, number 22), where they told me that they would already be ready at 17:00! (It was 14:00 at the moment!) That’s a nice surprise! :-D


Fan wanted to go to the “Cathay Bookstore” too, a place not far from that Photoshop where they have second hand books… She bought a book about “Empress Dowager Cixi”, but I was very amused to find a very old book in (old) Dutch about agriculture in the “Indische archipel” (Indonesia), I wonder who would buy such a book there… :-)


After that, we wanted to find some Jeans for me, and so we took bus 685 to the area near Beijing Zoo, where there is an enormous shopping mall for just clothes… :-) (“Dongwuyuan Fuzhuang Pifa Shichang”) It sounded promising, but the place was a madhouse! :-/ Very crowded, and there were maybe about 50 or more shops selling just Jeans… I was a bit flabbergasted by this enormous choice (Where to start!?), and furthermore it seemed impossible to try them on there… The shops were just stalls between three walls, actually… It was interesting to look around and watch the people there though… ;-) You could see the craziest fashion there! :-D Actually it occurred to me that the people in Beijing are starting to look much more colorful lately! :-D (Some of them even look like absolute scarecrows, to be honest! :-0 ) I will soon be able to tell you whether this is only the case in Beijing or whether it’s a national trend… ;-)


So we eventually just went out empty handed, and headed back to the Photoshop near China Art Gallery… We were there a bit too early, but the rolls were already ready! :-) As soon as we were in the open air, I looked at them, but was disappointed to see that both films were way too dark… :-( Holga advises 100 ASA film, which used, but the light was indeed very bad in Beijing today… the good news was that I didn’t seem to have any problems with light leaks, that the focus was all right, and that the typical Holga features were all there! :-) Sharp in the middle, softer to unsharp away from the center of the picture, vignetting, etc… :-) One picture was especially nice, but unfortunately way too dark… One time had apparently forgotten to wind up the film, and so two exposures were at the same place on the film, which made clear that I should indeed just double the exposure… As this is not possible with a Holga (It has just one setting (1/125), plus the “B-setting”), I would have to use more sensitive film… :-) I had several rolls of Kodak E200 with me (Colour slide film of 200 ASA), plus several rolls of BW400CN (Black & White negative film of 400 ASA), so I intended to do a new test, this time with those rolls… :-) But that’s for tomorrow… ;-)


After that, we went back by bus “Special 11”, or so we intended to do… :-/ When the bus appeared, it turned out that it was packed to the gills though, with people squeezed in like sardines… :-/ So we decided to take the next one… That one was as full as the first one, but was soon followed by a third one, with a lot of empty seats… :-) As usual, a nice Chinese dinner finished the day… :-)


By the way, don’t hesitate to tell me what you think of this blog! I myself have decided that I will include more pictures from now (The weather wasn’t very nice during the first days of my vacation, so I didn’t feel like taking a lot of pictures, but this blog seems to lack something without pictures…), but there might be more remarks? :-) (Positive or negative!)

  • Author: J-Vee
  • Category: China

Remember that I told you about the expired Kodak colour slide films which I took with me, in my first post? (The one from 27/08/2009, called “Departure day”) Well, the reason is that I found a very original way to avoid having to throw them in the dustbin… Five letters: Holga! Those are very cheap plastic camera’s designed in Hong Kong about 30 years ago… :-) They are very poorly built, with some light leaks , strong vignetting (Dark corners) and relatively soft focus, mostly around the edges… Not worth spending your money on, you would think? I would agree, but the Holga has also some advantages! First, it uses medium format film, and you can take square pictures with it! This way, the film is lit on a surface of no less than 6 by 6 centimeters! This is a huge surface, compared to the “regular” 35 mm film… For me personally this is also very practical, because the Holga uses the same film as my Mamiya 645, although the Mamiya takes pictures on a surface of 6 x 4,5 centimeters… (Hence the name…)  You can also take 6 x 4,5 pictures with the Holga, by swapping the film holder, but then you have to turn the camera sideways to take “landscape” pictures (In the Mamiya, the film moves vertically, whereas in the Holga the film moves horizontally…), but I prefer to take 6 x 6 pictures of course… :-) I can project them with the same projector by the way, as the mounts for 6 x 4,5 and 6 x 6 have the same external size, only the size of the “window” differs… Furthermore, the imperfections of the Holga can deliver very nice artistic results! Just do a simple Google search to find examples, the Flickr website has a lot of them, too… Anyway, a ideal camera to feed some of my expired films… ;-)


Unfortunately, I didn’t receive my Holga in time… :-( I ordered it from the UK the week before I left, but the postman only came by on Friday, and there was no one home to open the door for him… So after my last working day I only found a note in the letter box that I could claim my package from the UK on Monday the 29th of August, after 11:00… :-/ (After my departure…) But the idea of experimenting with such a Holga didn’t leave my mind, and so I decided to try finding one in China… :-) (That’s why I took those films with me anyway…) A quick Google search before I left revealed that they are relatively popular in China, and that Beijing has a vibrant “Holga scene”, and several sellers! :-) Furthermore, the camera’s are really dirt cheap here in Beijing! Only 128,- RMB for a basic black model! (Around 13,- Euro!)


Unfortunately most sellers were located in the North of the city, whereas we are located in the south, but there was a direct bus running to one of the best known sellers in Beijing. So off we were, by bus number 996… :-) As Beijing is a huge city, it took us almost two hours to reach the place! But on the way there was more than enough to see for me! :-) For example a guy carrying no less than 21 boxes of fake Italian shoes, from the brand “l’Alpina”, by himself on and off the bus… :-D


We arrived at a place called “Wuluqiao” in Haidian district, a bit North of the “Wukesong” subway station of subway line 1, crossed the pedestrian bridge over the busy ringroad, and entered “old China” once again… :-) A bunch of old style apartment blocks (Only a few stories high…) with a lot of trees between them, old men playing chess, or having a chat in the shade… :-) In one of those blocks the seller was located, and when we arrived there, a girl opened the door and brought us to a room full of Holga camera’s! By that time, the seller showed up, too, and I told him I was looking for a Holga 120 GN in silver/black colour, called “X-men”… (On his website, he showed this version in silver/black, and I kind of liked it!) but unfortunately, he didn’t have that… He had a 120 N though in silver/black… The difference between the “N” and “GN” versions is that the GN has a glass lens, the N has a plastic lens… As the N was so cheap I decided to buy it, but I also wanted a GN, as I actually trusted a glass lens more! Some Holga users prefer the plastic lens, as it delivers the “Holga feeling” with soft focus even better, but I first wanted to do some experimenting with it… :-) So for 276,- RMB I got myself a 120 N and a 120 GN! :-) (128,- RMB + 148,- RMB) Cool!



We walked back to the busstop, and took a bus to the subway station of Wukesong, where we hopped on a subway towards Wangfujing, in the center of the city. Fan likes it a lot to eat in a chain restaurant called “Xiabu Xiabu”, and I kind of like it a lot too… ;-) That restaurant serves hotpot (A pot of boiling water with herbs in which you cook your food yourself…), in a special way… :-) You sit at a long U-shaped “counter”, a bit like in a pub… The staff walk in the middle, and serve you from there… :-) Everyone has their own hotpot, unlike the situation in regular hotpot restaurants, where you sit around one hotpot with several people. I ordered a “curry” hotpot for a change (That was something new to me…), but Fan chose the spicy one. (Usually I also prefer that one…) We ordered some fish balls, crab sticks, rolls of lamb meat, rolls of beef, mushrooms, etc… :-) Very nice, we’ll surely come back here!


After that, we walked around in the “Oriental Plaza” (A shopping mall at Wangfujing) and entered a supermarket called “Olé”. There, they mostly sell imported things, even from Belgium! :-) Including chocolate brands from Belgium I’ve never heard of myself… ;-) But you can also find a relatively large selection of Belgian beers, including Duvel, Hoegaarden, etc… The prices are about double the ones in Belgium, though, so I didn’t buy any of that. Instead, I already bought the postcards for this China trip! :-) They will only be sent in the second half of September though, but now I already have them… :-)


Then we went to Xidan, to buy some new Jeans trousers, but to my frustration the shop where I usually buy my trousers was gone… :-/ We walked along the shopping street to find it but without any result. Eventually we decided to go to an Internet café, and try to find a shop where they sell the brand, but found out that it didn’t exist anymore! (Website taken offline, etc…) So we gave up, and went out again. We took a trolleybus to China Art Gallery, as I wanted to check out a photo shop that was recommended online where they can develop film without screwing up. (As the Holga camera’s are so basic, and cheaply built, I really want to test them out before taking any “important” pictures…) The shop is called “Photochance”, and is located just opposite of the street at China art gallery… :-) The shop was indeed still there (In Beijing you never know, things change way too quickly…), and they even had some English speaking staff, and the service looked professional! :-) I told them that I would come back with some film very soon! ;-)


Then we hopped on the “special 11” double deck bus, which brought us all the way from China Art Gallery (The busstop is called “Meishuguan Bei”) to where we stay, at “Caihongcheng Xiaoqu” (Rainbow city, little district), and where the day ended with some more, nice food… ;-)

  • Author: J-Vee
  • Category: China