China 2015 – Week 2

December 6th, 2015

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2015-11-07

Saturday, November 7th, our shore excursion takes us to the Shibaozhai Pagoda. But to get to the pagoda, we must first cross the “Drunken Bridge”. This swing bridge gets its nickname from the fact that as you are walking across the bridge, the bridge moves causing the pedestrians to walk as if they are drunk. It was quite entertaining, however, it did make it difficult for those that are less mobile.<br /><br /> Built 600 years ago on the hillside, it would have been flooded when the dam was built. The Chinese built a wall around the pagoda to protect it from the rising waters. The pagoda has twelve floors and reaches 56 meters in height. To reach to top requires a climb of 99 steep steps of the Taoist temple. On different levels we would hear stories of the statues or artwork. One statue honored a lord of the land who traded his life for the lives of the villagers when an invading army was passing through. On another level emblems of good luck and longevity were carved into stone and we touched each of these so it would rub off onto us. I must admit that I was disappointed upon reaching the top and finding a vendor shop selling souvenirs. There was also a steep little bridge called the Bridge of Luck where crossing it you could be lucky in love. Vicky and I crossed this together, and I got a kiss at the top.<br /><br /> On the way back to the boat, I thought it would be fun to peruse some of the street vendors looking for some potential gifts and/or souvenirs. Much like the gift shop in Old Town Shanghai, as soon as you express the least amount of interest, the vendors latch on and try to sell their wares. The rallying cry amongst the vendors was, “Cheaper, Cheaper!” and “Lookey, Lookey!” And everything is negotiable. It was interesting to hear some of the stories back on the boat about how low they were able to drive the price.<br /><br /> Back on the boat for lunch, we were treated to a “traditional Chinese meal.” Up until now, most of the Chinese food was not that different than what we find in the States. Granted, the concept of the “Fortune Cookie” is unique to the western culture to help promote Chinese restaurants, but throughout our trip we will not see a fortune cookie. So some of the traditional foods being offered that we had not seen before include: chicken feet, pig ears, pig tails, jellyfish salad, and lotus root. I tried all of them and to be honest, they just didn’t do much for me. The chicken feet simply don’t have much meat on them. The pig ears were grisly. The pig tails ok, but again not much meat and mostly fatty skin. The consistency of the jellyfish salad was a bit like gelatin. The lotus root was probably my favorite of all the items and somewhat like a potato.<br /><br /> In the afternoon we were able to take a tour of the ship’s bridge. The captain was not on duty at the time. But we were able to see the crew in charge and view some of the bridge instrumentation. Several instruments used GPS location services and one even assigned the names to the oncoming boats on the river ahead of us.<br /><br /> After dinner it is time to pack up and put our bags out as we will be disembarking from the ship in the morning.<br /><br />

2015-11-08

Sunday, November 8th, we awake to find that the ship has already pulled into port in Chongqing. After breakfast we depart the ship to board the buses. On the way to the buses, we notice that the suitcases are being move from the ship to shore by porters with a bamboo pole across their shoulders. At each end of the pole is a rope which is then fastened to one or more suitcases. Once on shore, they would unload the suitcases and return to the ship carrying multiple cases of bottled water. This seems pretty tricky to us as the floating portions of the dock move a bit relative to each other as you walk across them. Again I am gratefully I am not in charge of our luggage.<br /><br /> After we get everybody on board the bus, our local guide takes us to visit the Chongqing Zoo. Here we see the National Treasure of China – The Giant Panda. The oldest panda mother was especially privileged as she was munching on the most tender sprouts of the bamboo which her caretakers had stripped for her. In addition to several giant panda’s there were some red pandas on display. Next we visited the large cats area. A couple of white tigers were being teased by a bird who seemed to be flopping about taking a little bath in the next cage. Every five minutes or so one of the white tigers would test to see if the fence was still electrified. “Yep. Check. Try again in five…”. We roamed about a little more hoping to see a red crested crane so we could compare them to the Sandhill cranes which we see in Florida, but we didn\'t find any. There were several people doing Tai Chi movements and families with small children excited to see the animals all happily enjoying the zoo.<br /><br /> After lunch the bus takes us to the airport where we catch a flight to Xi’an. We get another box lunch for the trip and again we browse the shops. This time we see several vendors selling live crabs and occasionally they come out to spray them with water. We settle on a pear flavored drink and a citrus drink to have with lunch.<br /><br /> Arriving in Xi\'an we get on a new bus with a new local guide to tell us about this the oldest of the capital cities in China. Soon we are traveling down a small street with shops opening to the street selling produce or medicinal herbs. The thing that strikes me is the web of electrical lines supported by the trees. I guess people just continued to cut into existing lines as demand grew. Soon we stop at a nice hotel where we have a Chinese dinner served on a lazy Susan, then back on the bus to go to hotel.<br /><br />

2015-11-09

Monday, November 9th, we awake early as we have a busy day ahead of us.<br /><br /> Vicky hits the shower first while I rest a bit more before getting up. Within a few seconds later I hear this ear-piercing squeal from the shower. I quickly sit up in bed looking through the open floor plan bathroom and through the glass door of the shower to see her wide eyed but apparently ok. Each hotel room has been super fancy and therefore has had a bit of figuring out to do. This one has two lever like knobs and a rectangular hand-held sprayer in the shower. Vicky had grabbed the sprayer and pointed it away, then tried the top knob, a separate overhead shower that was \"hidden\" in the ceiling of the shower unexpectedly spayed her with cold water. Well she is awake now!<br /><br /> OK, I suppose it is time to get up. Looking out the window of the hotel, I can see the sun trying to peek through the haze. Xi\'an is another large city, with population over 8 million, and many skyscrapers all around.<br /><br /> After I get my uneventful shower, we get ready and head out for breakfast downstairs. We meet several of our group members in the hallway by the elevator and Vicky opens the small talk with “I had some excitement in the shower this morning…” The expressions and comments I think embarrassed Vicky as she quickly tried to explain. After breakfast we board the buses with excitement as today we travel to see the Terracotta Army.<br /><br /> The Terracotta Army dates back to about the 3rd century B.C. and depicts the army of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. In 1974 local farmers were digging around looking for a water source when they dug up this terracotta head, thinking that was ill-luck they quickly replaced it and went on to another spot. Here they found another piece and decided that it could be something rather important so they reported the find. Today excavations are over three pits containing over 8000 soldiers and 130 chariots with horses, but several other pits are now known about. The pits contain everything to keep the emperor happy and well in his afterlife including life sized acrobatic troops, musicians, and governing officials. Qin Shi Huang was somewhat obsessed with the idea of immortality and took medicinal herbs to help with a long life. Unfortunately, the accumulation of these herbs in his body actually poisoned him to death. His mausoleum has not been excavated at this time, but an early writing describes it as having rare artifacts and a map of the land with flowing mercury representing the Yellow and the Yangtze rivers. It is said that the Peasant\'s Red Army which revolted against the dynastic rule set fire to the land and smashed what they could find of the army. Since the rediscovery archeologists have been painstakingly reassembling the pieces. Even today we see archeologists at work documenting and moving pieces for reassembly. Some of the pieces which had been painted in bright colors quickly faded and flaked away when exposed to the air, and so many of the burial sites remain buried until such time that technology may be able to better preserve the pieces.<br /><br /> On the bus ride back, I am amazed at the number of pomegranate stands along the road. It is literally one right after another. And from what I can see, that is all they sell. And yet, I don’t see that many buyers out there. When I asked Patrick about it, he stated that the pomegranate stands are very lucrative. But I just don’t understand how.<br /><br /> We have the rest of the afternoon to relax before we go to the Tang Dynasty Dinner Show, which is an optional excursion we have signed up for.<br /><br /> It is nightfall as we board the bus and go to the dinner show, but traffic is still heavy. Our route takes us through the gate of the ancient city wall which still stands and separates the inner and outer city. The gate tower is outlined in white lights as we pass and looks quite inviting, though in ancient times I suppose it was rather formidable. I attempt to take several pictures as I am not sure I will get a good one with the jostling of the bus. Arriving at the show, the bus driver pulls a U-turn and takes us near the entrance. We do have to cross a scooter lane, which is a little treacherous as they don\'t really stop for pedestrians, and there is a mob of us getting off the bus, but we all make it without injury.<br /><br /> We are greeted by elegant ladies in traditional silk garments and shown to a table very near the stage. A sophisticated playing of ancient Chinese instruments was in progress behind semi-sheer curtains. A strange stringed instrument looking something like a can with about a 2 foot staff mounted in it, then with strings held by the staff, was being played with a bow. There was also a small upright guitar type instrument, a flute type instrument in which the pipes extended up vertically and a large plucking instrument which lay arched horizontally; this one seems to sound like a harpsicord. Dinner included a mushroom broth soup, and dishes of vegetables with different meats such as shrimp, chicken, and beef, but the best thing was the warm sake. Unlike the Japanese sake we sometimes get at restaurants, this was a delightful sweetness, which I might have to be careful not to drink too much of.<br /><br /> The Tang Dynasty was a period of peace and prosperity and thus energy and emotions could be channeled into music and the arts. Xi\'an was the beginning of the famed Silk Road and thus a place visited by many foreign merchants bringing their own culture with them. This resulted in a vigorous growth and innovation in music and dance. One dance featured the long flowing silk sleeves of the ladies being twirled around them as they danced. These sleeves were probably 8 feet long and could be caught up in the hand and then thrown up in the air; it was quite mesmerizing.<br /><br /> China Survival Lesson #4<br /> <ul> <li>Bring your own paper. There are ample bathroom facilities at the tourist locations however there are some important differences. First most of these are not raised toilets with a little seat provided. The porcelain potty is placed in the ground. It is about 8 inches wide with ridged footpads for standing on as you squat over the potty. There usually is a little basket provided for the disposal of used paper, but many times there is no roll dispenser in the stall area. Sometimes a dispenser can be found as you enter the bathroom, but this is usually near the sinks and tourist confuse it with a strange paper towel dispenser so it is usually empty. Therefore, one must pack an adequate supply of tissues in the backpack before heading out for the day. Perhaps the potty business takes a bit of coordination, but I figure it is pretty sanitary as you aren\'t touching anything. There is even a foot pedal to make it flush.</li>

2015-11-10

Tuesday, November 10th, we have a leisurely morning before our buses take us to the airport for a flight to Beijing. Our bags need to be outside the room for pickup around 8:00 so it is an easy morning. It is so nice not having to deal with luggage and airport check-in. The flight was actually pretty much on schedule and we got to sit next to each other again.<br /><br /> After arriving in Beijing and spotting our luggage, we are taken to an area called a hutong. The hutongs were residential areas which evolved during the Yuan Dynasty period after the capital was moved from Xi\'an to Peking (now Beijing). The Yuan Dynasty was established by Kublai Khan and was a unification of the Mongol Empire and the Imperial Chinese Dynasty. The dynasty extended from Hainan Island in the South China Sea north into Mongolia and the Siberian Providence of Russia, and from South Korea and the Far Eastern Providence of Russia to the far reaches of Tibet on the Indian and Afghanistan borders. Beijing remained the capital city during both the Ming Dynasty which reinstated the ethnic Han people, and the Qing Dynasty also known as the Manchu Dynasty. The city was organized in concentric circles with the Forbidden City in the middle, then the inner city for people of higher social status such as government officials or merchants, and the outer city for those lower ranked merchants, commoners, and laborers.<br /><br /> Here, we meet up with our local guide who takes us to meet a Chinese hacky sack artist. The Chinese Hacky Sack is a flat weighted disk with brightly colored feathers attached and requires eye/foot coordination. Vicky gets invited to volley back and forth and she does manage to kick it back a few times before a wild kick sends it off.<br /><br /> We then meet up with a group of rickshaw drivers as we will travel through the hutong in a rickshaw as the streets are very narrow. However, before we even get started good, two of the other rickshaw drivers get into a row about something. I not sure if one cut the other one off, or if one bumped into the other, perhaps there was more to their history. But next thing we know the two drivers are throwing punches in an all-out fight. As the fight moves next to our Rickshaw, we quickly exit to the left and stay clear. After this incident of “Rickshaw Road Rage” (I am thinking about a new hit TV show here) we proceed with our tour of the hutong.<br /><br /> Hutongs are on the decline now as many have been replaced with newer, taller buildings. However, within the hutong, families would live in a traditional courtyard style residence. The gate to the courtyard would typically face south to allow for better lighting and would display a short carved door stone indicating the rank or occupation of the residence owner, a lion would indicate a military official. Around the courtyard would be the individual residences with the northern-most house being the most prestigious.<br /><br /> We did get to visit one residence which was extremely small by our standards, but consisted of an entryway, a main room, and a back bedroom area. This was one of few that the government had actually returned ownership back to the family. This residence was once owned by a skilled artisan who was employed by the palace and consisted of the traditional four residences surrounding a central courtyard. However, after the uprising of the Republic of China and overthrow of the Qing, these residences were broken apart to house several families and the central courtyard was also built upon to form more housing. The lady that lived there was an expert painter and has passed her skills on to her young niece. What made her paintings unique was the fact that they were on the inside of a bottle. While we were there the niece demonstrated how she did this. Formal training is kept within the families and is therefore a tradecraft that is slowly disappearing.<br /><br /> After this we visited a tea house where we learned a bit about the art of making Chinese tea. It is important that the water be of a certain temperature for the tea making and here they show a little chubby male figurine which has been soaking in cool water. When they take him out and pour the properly heated water over him he lets loose a stream which shoots a good foot forth to happily show the water is proper for the making of tea. They brew several types of tea including a flower tea and a stronger pu\'er tea which we get to try. I like the pu\'er tea and consider purchasing some, but it is a bit expensive and I am not sure about getting food like stuff back through customs.<br /><br />

2015-11-11

Wednesday, November 11th, brings us to one of the highlights of the trip – the Great Wall of China. The temperatures here are significantly cooler than they had been so we prepare ourselves by dressing in layers. Just a couple of days ago they had a few inches of snow here. While most of it has melted off, there are still patches on the ground and a light ice on the tree limbs in the mountainous areas.<br /><br /> We take a cable car from the parking area up to the peak where we can gain access to the wall. As we exit the cable car, we find that there are a tremendous number of tourists, both local and foreign that are also here to see and march along the Great Wall. While exciting, it was a bit disappointing in that there are so many people in addition to the pollution that hampers visibility. After some pictures and a walk around the loop, we find ourselves heading down some stairs and back towards the cable car.<br /><br /> We had just passed a metal platform that connects the Great Wall to our pathway back to the cable cars. I look back to see a guard removing the barrier to that platform thus opening up to another section of the wall. Vicky and I look and each other, agree to give it a try, then quickly reverse course to explore this section. Tentatively we climb the metal stairs and pass through the gate, the guard doesn\'t yell at us or anything, so cool, we are good to explore. As we are the first ones in the area, we were able to capture several pictures of just us along the wall. At one point the fog/smog lifted just enough that we could make out the wall progressing through the hillside.<br /><br /> Portions of the wall are extremely steep – to the point that they have installed handrails to assist. And while some of the steep sections had steps, others were just a slippery slope. If the rocks had been icy instead of just wet, the sections would have been impassable. Vicky decided that the best way to proceed down some of the steeper slopes was to walk backwards looking over her shoulder, I preferred to see where I was going.<br /><br /> We had a great time just walking along the wall pretty much to ourselves, climbing the strangely spaced and uneven heights of the stairs, and looking forward to the next peak or curve. We kept wanting to go farther and we did see more people in the distance that must have gained access from another entry area, but the question was, was that entry area the same one that we came from. However much we wished for more time, we did need to get back to the buses, and I didn’t want to be “that person” that everyone is waiting on. So we headed back on the route that we were certain would lead us back to the bus, and it is a good thing that we turned around when we did as there was a long line for the cable cars back down. But all-in-all, we get to the bus 5 minutes before our designated time and happy for our mountainous excursion.<br /><br /> Prior to lunch, we visit a jade museum where the pieces are fantastically intricate - and expensive. Paranoid that my backpack is going to knock a piece over, I am anxious to leave the museum and gift shop, and get to the restaurant.<br /><br /> As we make our way back to the hotel, our bus driver takes us by the 2008 Summer Olympics area. Here we see some of the five star residences and hotels built during that time. We also get to see some of the impressive stadiums, such as the National Stadium, or Bird\'s Nest, and the National Aquatics Center, or Water Cube. As the 2022 Winter Olympics have just been awarded back to Beijing, I am guessing that these stadiums will see new life hosting other events.<br /><br /> After a little rest and relaxation at the hotel, most of the group goes out for the second optional excursion – Peking Duck Dinner. According to a 2012 Huffington Post report, Peking Duck was the #1 dish on a list of “10 Foods to Try Around the World Before You Die.”<br /><br /> From the way the duck is raised, to how it is prepared in the kitchen, to how it is served at the table is an amazing process. The ducks are raised in a free range environment for the first 45 days of their lives, and force fed 4 times a day for the next 15–20 days. After the duck is prepared for the kitchen (slaughtered, plucked, cleaned, etc.), air is pumped under the skin to separate it from the fatty layer. The duck is then glazed and left to stand for 24 hours. This process leaves the characteristic thin crispy skin for which the duck is prized. The duck is then roasted in oven while hung from a hook. As we enter the restaurant we get to see a chef hooking a duck that has been roasting in the wood fired oven using a long pole. He hangs it on a metal rack in front of us before heading back to the oven to grab another one for our group. <br /><br /> Now that the duck has been cooked, it is carved tableside. The duck patrons place the duck on “Chinese Pancakes”, served with a variety of vegetable toppings such as green onions or cucumbers and a variety sauces. I must say that if you ever have the opportunity to experience Peking Duck, don’t pass up the chance.<br /><br />

2015-11-12

Thursday, November 12th, takes us to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square is the 6th largest city square in the world. The square contains the monuments to the heroes of the revolution, the great hall of people, the National Museum of China, and the Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall (with Mao\'s embalmed body). There are many vendors selling t-shirts, flags, the Red Star Chinese Army hats, and Mao memorabilia such as buttons and books. There are also many tourist and tour groups, some are obviously school groups with the matching uniforms. Our guide Patrick has warned us not to take pictures that include the guards close up, and if we see any demonstrations to look and head in the opposite direction. For most westerners, Tiananmen Square is probably most remembered as the site of the protests in 1989, and today it must still be a very sensitive area. We take heed and stay very close to Patrick, but soon relax a bit as it seems to be a normal, busy, but peaceful day on the square.<br /><br /> The square was first constructed during the Ming Dynasty probably as a place to do business with the palace, but it has been enlarged several times since then. Today it is still the site for important political announcements and events. We saw a poster of the latest event which was the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Japanese in World War II and end of the Sino-Japanese War which began in 1937. The Japanese and Chinese people have had a strained history primarily because of the repeated incursions into the Koreas and Chinese main lands by the Imperial Japanese Armies who wished to expand their country and their holdings of natural resources. Probably one of the most impressive things about this celebration was the blue skies. Industrial areas in the surrounding areas had been operating under restricted production and automotive operations had been greatly restricted over the previous month to achieve the uncharacteristic air quality. Xi Jinping, the current President, along with other high ranking leaders watched from the palace side of the street as soldiers and military vehicles paraded past.<br /><br /> At the end of the square, we took a passage under this very roadway, so we could pass through the Southern gate and into the Forbidden City. For hundreds of years the Forbidden City served as the Imperial palace, and before us are three bridges, the middle one being the Imperial Way which only the emperor could tread upon. We take the bridge to the right and enter through the gate into a large courtyard. All gates to the area have huge red doors with 81 golden nails placed 9 x 9. 9 represents the number of completion and was associated with the emperor and the Chinese Dragon. The Forbidden City was actually a little city with something like a thousand separate buildings and garden areas. Now it houses the Palace Museum with exhibitions of artworks and antiquities from the Dynastic periods. One of the largest buildings is the Hall of Supreme Harmony where the most important ceremonies took place. Others include the Hall of Central Harmony and the hall of Preserving Harmony where examinations were given to determine who would qualify for important positions in the palace. The examinations were centered on the knowledge of the teachings of Confucius. Another very important selection process was for the concubines of the emperor. Each young lady would be evaluated for her beauty and her beliefs as well as her family background. Once selected they could lead a very good life in the palace, but there was a lot of competition for the attentions of the emperor as there could be a hundred wives and concubines all hoping to conceive of a male heir. The Palace of Heavenly Purity, in the Northern section of the Forbidden City once served as the primary residence of the emperor. Outside of this palace there are huge brass cauldrons which were filled with water. These were to be used in the event of a fire and were heated in the winter to prevent ice from forming. The stone pavers in the courtyard are also several layers thick to prevent would be assassins from getting into the inner courts. Along the gables of the roof-line stand the maximum number of Imperial roof decorations that were permitted, a man riding a phoenix, nine beasts, and a dragon, well this is the palace. Only palaces, temples or important government buildings were allow to display these roof decorations. It is kind of ironic that viewing these we come back full circle to the beginning of our trip where we first spotted these at the Jing\'an Buddhist temple in Shanghai. Portions of the movie The Last Emperor were filmed on location here. I suppose I do need to go watch that movie again. After an hour or two walking through the area, we had only seen a very small percentage of the buildings.<br /><br /> Friday, November 13th, alas, like all previous vacations, this one most come to a close. A leisurely morning and a late check-out before we have to get on a 14 hour flight from Beijing to Detroit, sigh.<br /><br />


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