Xian Day 2

April 29th, 2009, 6:02 am PDT by Greg

Today, we started with the Shaanxi History Museum.

I’m sure the museum was just fine but we (and the rest of our group) have pretty much lost the thread, and were too tired to give it much thought. It was a traditional “here are a bunch of old things” museum, and was just organized chronologically. That wasn’t enough to really keep our attention.

Compare the Shanghai museum: that collection was organized by topic (coins/money, ethnic minorities in China, …) so you could digest one part of the story at a time.

Then to a government jade store. The most interesting thing there was a realization that we all knew was coming: the older lady in our group had bought a jade pendant that she was very pleased with at the hotel store in Shanghai. Today she learned that she overpayed (or possibly that it was fake/crappy: we haven’t heard). She was pissy for the ride back to the hotel.

We had the afternoon off, so Kat and I explored the city a little. That was nice, but we were both eventually debilitated by allergies (first time on the trip, at least) and slunk back to the hotel.

Today, we take the long journey home to Vancouver and real life. Bugger… I have to finish the prep for the workshop I’m giving on Friday.

Xian Day 1

April 28th, 2009, 9:03 am PDT by Greg

Today, we started late and went to the Terracotta Army site.

I don’t have too much to report from there. They claim that the site (presumably the whole first emperor’s tomb complex) is the “8th world wonder”. If the scope of the thing is as they say (1/10th currently excavated), I could totally buy that.

This evening, we went to the local opera. Not as good as the Shanghai Acrobats; better than the Peking Opera.

In exchange for a short post, I have posted a bunch more pictures.

Three Gorges Day 3

April 27th, 2009, 5:58 am PDT by Greg

On the 27th, we started with a side trip to see the Snow Jade Cave at Fengdu. Considering that pretty much every nightmare I have involves confined spaces, I enjoyed it. (I’m not actually claustrophobic, I just dream that I am.) The geology in the cave was really pretty cool: hopefully some of the pictures come out well.

In the afternoon, there was kite flying from the top deck of the boat. Watching 20 kites fly above a cruise ship is really quite pretty. Several kites were lost to overhead powerlines (by others) and one just got lost overboard (by Kat): I prefer to think of these as a free kite for some kids downstream somewhere.

On our last night on the boat, I slept badly, snored, and kept Kat up. Good times.

Today we disembarked, took a quick tour of Chongqing. Chongqing is the largest city in the world if you count like the Chinese government (or 5 million if you count the people that live in the “city” part of the city), and we had like two hours to look at it.

Then, to Xian where we are now. Tomorrow, we see the Terra Cotta Army.

Three Gorges Day 2

April 27th, 2009, 5:38 am PDT by Greg

We didn’t write anything while we were on the boat, because the Internet was rety much intolerable. Now that we’re back on dry land, it’s time for a quick rundown. Recall that we were on the cruise up the Three Gorges.

On the 24th, we really just got through the locks at the dam and cruised up the river. At the end of the day, there was a “crew cabaret”. I was expecting an ironically funny variety show, but it was actually pretty good: much more entertaining than the Peking Opera. After the show, they announced that the dance floor was open. As the cast went out to find people to get the dancing started, one of the girls grabbed me. Against my will, I was dragged up on stage, only to find that they had started playing the Macarena and that I was trapped. Do you have any idea how goddamned long the Macarena is? Then, they shouted “everybody stay in the circle” and played the Chicken Dance. Kat was properly amused.

On the 25th, we look an excursion to see the Lesser Three Gorges. Most notably, Kat was the first to spot monkeys that live wild along the gorges.

After lunch, the boat cruised through the Qutang Gorge, which is pictured on the 10 Yuan bill. That makes three of the currency images we have seen: the 1 yuan in Hangzhou, and the 100 yuan from Tiananmen square.

In the afternoon, we took an excursion to Baidi Cheng, the White Emperor City. It occurred without incident.

I spent much of the evening sitting in the top-floor lounge pretending to read while I watched a scene unfold around me. The only occupants were four guys playing Mahjong, the girl at the bar, and me. Then, we were joined by a group of Chinese guys who had been drinking in the dining room since dinner. They were very… boisterous.

As the evening went on, we were joined by another girl at the bar. Then, a guy in a security uniform. Then the hospitality manger, another security guy and the cruise guide. I didn’t get much reading done. Every little while, the bar girl would come over and apologize for the noise, but I was just waiting for the fight. Apparently the evening ended without incident at about 1:30. I was later told that this group (of maybe eight) had 7 bottles of wine in the restaurant before they came up and 48 bottles of beer after they came up (although they may not have drank all of them). Beer bottles here are probably 1.5 times ours.

Three Gorges Day 1

April 24th, 2009, 1:27 am PDT by Greg

We’re on the boat, heading up the Yangtze. If you’re reading this, then the boat’s GPRS-based Internet must have been enough to get the blog post up.

Yesterday, we started in Shanghai. We made quick stop at a government silk factory. We saw how they get threads out of silk worm/moth cocoons (boil, then grab the thread and pull: the whole thing is one thread) and how two-larvae cocoons can be stretched into silk comforters (wet, grab corners, and pull). It was actually kind of interesting in a the-more-you-know kind of way.

Then, the flight to Yichang, which is the site of the Three Gorges Dam project.

In Yichang, we were met by out guide Alan, who was our guide for about 4 hours. We went to an embroidery store (holy crap, embroidery is high-maintenance) and dinner. After dinner, and after our driver changed the flat tire on our van, we headed to the boat.

We’re on the Century Sky for four nights. It’s apparently the largest cruise ship on the Yangtze, and I think the concierge-guy said it was the largest riverboat in the world. So far, it seems like a damn nice way to travel. It’s about half full, and the staff apparently outnumber the guests (160-something:150-something).

Oddly, probably half of the people on the boat are French Canadian. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d be trying to recall my French at the same time I’m trying to pick up a word of Mandarin a day. There’s no way there’s room for three languages in my brain: I’m ignoring the French problem. 🙂

This morning, we took a side-trip to the dam itself. This morning was the second foggiest day in the history of the world, so it wasn’t as spectacular as it could have been. [KS: The last time I was here the weather was warm and clear on the river, but the haze up at the dam was just as thick as today’s fog. I’m pretty sure this is a clear as it gets up here.] Once it is totally completed, the dam will have 32 generators, the locks and a ship elevator. Construction on the ship elevator and the last 6 generators is currently underway. As I type this, we’re waiting to enter the first of the locks to head up into the reservoir and continue upstream from there.

I’m not going to bother posting pictures today: no point in taxing our feeble Internet connection. [edit: the connection is extremely slow: this may be our last update from the boat.]

Shanghai – Day 1

April 22nd, 2009, 9:02 am PDT by Kat

We started off the day with a visit to the Shanghai Museum. Here there were rooms full of Chinese coins, calligraphy, paintings, ceramics, seals and bronze sculptures. Everything was really beautiful and the displays were really well lit. [GB: Sadly, the “Ethnic minorities of China” exhibit was closed. I compensated by buying a book to read on the boat.]

We then headed to Old Town Shanghai where we walked through the bazaar (winding alleys of stall-stores where vendors try to sell random Chinese stuff to tourists (Chinese and foreign). We walked through the Yuyuan garden, a Ming dynasty-style garden, which had large dragon sculptures on top of the walls, huge rock formations and beautiful koi ponds throughout.

After a dim sum lunch, we had some free time in the bazaar, and I was able to buy some preserves for the family. I was sent here with a wrapper from a preserve that my aunt really likes, but can’t find in Vancouver (she was given a bag as a gift). So, here we are in China, flashing this little wrapper at tour guides and people in stores hoping that they have this exact brand of preserved plums. To make it worse, there are Chinese characters on the wrapper that say ‘United States”. I think this is because the plums used are California plums, but everyone who speaks English has said, “This says ‘US’ on it. Can’t you but this over there?” So yes, I feel like a moron! Anyways, I haven’t found the exact brand, but I bought some that are similar, so the quest continues…

Our next stop was the Temple of the Jade Buddha. This is a “working” Buddhist temple, so it was kind of weird walking around on a tour while people were praying and burning incense. Anyways, we say two jade buddhas (one large one, one small one). We also got to sample to “Buddha tea” in the temple’s tea room. Here a saleswoman asked me if I was Chinese. I said that I was Chinese-Filipino from Canada. Later our tour guide said that she overheard the woman tell another saleswoman my background and that she thought my Chinese half was either Fujian (from Fujian province in China, not Fuji!) or Cantonese based on my face. I tolk her that I am half Fujian, but I never knew that there was a “Fujian look”. Apparently there is, so that was interesting. For that interaction the saleswoman got a Canadian flag pin. 🙂

Speaking of pins, if you are going overseas and want to give random people you meet during your travels something from Canada, go to your MP/MLA’s office and pick up a handful of Canadian flag pins for free! We’ve been giving them to people (usually cute kids, friendly cab drivers, etc.) and they seem to love it – especially the cab driver in Hangzhou who got out of the cab and ran after us to ask if it was an earring! But, I digress…

After a brief rest at the hotel, Greg and I took a walk down Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s high-end shopping district. This was not as fun as the walk back to the hotel on a parallel but more Chinese street. Here we saw local shops, food on the street (mostly BBQ meat skewers) and convenience stores.

After dinner we took a cruise on the Huangpu River along the Bund to see Shanghai’s ultra-modern skyline. It has the world’s second highest building (soon to be 3rd as another is going up in Dubai), the Shanghai World Financial Center, along with a lot of other really cool skyscrapers (both in terms of architecture and lighting). We were lucky to also see an impromptu fireworks show from a passing barge. The lights on these buildings is comparable to Vegas, but on extremely tall office buildings, as well as on the lower office buildings and restaurants in front of them.

[GB: important note about the skyline on the east side of the river (which is what Kat describes above) is that it wasn’t there 15 years ago. Fifteen years ago, it was suburban at best. Everything in Shanghai is new.]

Tomorrow we head to Yichang to embark on the Yangtze River cruise. Not sure what the internet situation will be like, so we may not post for the next 4 days.

[GB: I have still been posting a few pictures each day, but haven’t been mentioning it. This is just the tip of the iceberg: quickly-chosen favourites. Hundreds more will appear after we’re home.]

Shanghai Day 0

April 21st, 2009, 8:18 am PDT by Greg

This morning was dominated by the flight from Beijing to Shanghai. [KS: In the airport I had TCBY for the first time. Funny how it’s in another “C”. :)]

After landing, we went out to Zhujiajiao, which is a little village with Venice-like canals. It was like the Hutongs from Beijing, but much less overrun with tourists. Nice. [KS: What was a little sad was that up until the 1990’s this little village was pretty much an unknown to tourists. During the APEC conference the mayor of the town invited the foreign dignitaries to visit his “real Chinese village”, and from then on it was a destination for tourists. Many of the homes were converted into tourist shops, tea houses, restaurants and food stalls. It would be interesting to see how the locals that are not directly associated with tourism feel about having many tourists come to their fishing village.]

Tonight, we saw the Shanghai Acrobats, which was very good. It was as good as Cirque de Soliel, without the higher-end production.

That’s it, I guess. The food here has been much more interesting than Beijing. The guide here [KS: Molly] seems nice too.

Tomorrow… well, I don’t know, really. I’m too tired to read the itinerary.

Beijing Day 3

April 21st, 2009, 1:43 am PDT by Greg

We won’t be posting this until later, but it’s about the 20th. Too cheap to pay for Internet.

Today was probably the day of the tour I was looking forward to the most: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

We walked north, starting in Tiananmen Square. The square itself is pretty much just a big open area, but it’s a big one. Apparently, Tiananmen is the largest city square in the world. It’s mostly just full of tourists (mostly Chinese, some foreign) walking around and taking pictures of each other. It was actually a really happy place, despite the obvious associations we have.

I missed my chance to haggle with a vendor over an English copy of the Quotations of Chairman Mao beneath his picture. The irony may have overwhelmed me if I’d actually tried, though.

Then, we walked under the street to the south gate of the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is huge. It’s like… well… it’s like the size of a city.

It was in the Forbidden City where I hit the wall for beautiful ancient architecture. Through the gate of yet another wall: “look, more stunning ancient architecture. It looks a lot like the last stunning ancient architecture.”

I understand the whole Chairman Mao worship thing more now. The Forbidden City represents 3000+ years of Emperors hanging around, being Emperors. Mao gets the credit for changing the government structure of China for the first time in three millennia. Okay, that probably should get you a big picture in the town square.

After lunch, we took a rickshaw tour of the Hutong (Hutong ≈ old Beijing slum) that has been preserved (preserved ≈ sanitized enough for tourists to go there, but not enough that they notice). The rickshaw took us to an old woman’s house (Mrs. Wong) where she showed us the place and talked about living in a Hutong while our guide translated.

Mrs. Wong had pictures of Henry Kissenger and two European leaders that I didn’t recognise at her place. She’s obviously the go-to authentic old Hutong woman. Still, it was nice to see one of these communities, much like it would have been.

We went to a couple of markets. Both seemed to be old outdoor markets that the government had decided were taking up too much room, and stacked into six story buildings. They were cool, if a little manic. Cheeky souvenirs for all! [KS: I think the old markets were deemed “too dirty looking” for the Olympics and were therefore moved into buildings. The new “Silk Market” is much cleaner than the outdoor one that I remember from 2001, but just as crazy.]

After dinner, Kat and I walked a few blocks around our hotel. Apparently, we’re in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant area. Then again, that might describe every other block in Beijing. [KS: Yeah, I think we saw the typical Beijing block. Lots of food stalls. Didn’t eat anything though! :)]

So all-in-all, a good day.

Tomorrow (probably “today” by the time we get Internet to post this), we’re off to Shanghai.

Beijing Day 2

April 19th, 2009, 5:09 am PDT by Greg

We got back to the hotel earlier today, so we still have some time on our 24 hours of Internet…

We started today with a tour of a government cloisonné factory. A summary of cloisonné: make copper pot; cover with thin copper ridges to make designs; fill the ridges with enamel to colour in the design and fire in a kiln; repeat the enamel steps 5 more times; polish. It’s a pretty high-maintenance medium to work with, and nothing caught our eye for the amount it costs, so nobody’s getting cloisonné.

We walked (part of) the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs. This was pretty uneventful, but kind of nice. It was a nice walk, neat statues, and there weren’t many people there.

After lunch, we went to the Great Wall. We went to the Great Wall on the foggiest day in the history of the world. As such, we didn’t really see a Great Wall, as much as small segments of a pretty good wall.

The wall was still cool, but it’s too bad we couldn’t see any of the great sweeping curves of it as it disappeared into the distance. It just disappeared into the fog 100 metres away. [KS: I saw it on my last trip, and it was magnificent. Maybe this means we will have to come back to see it together without the fog!]

[Edit GB: We also stopped quickly to see two of the 2008 Olympic venues: the Birdsnest and the Water Cube.]

The food was finally different: a Peking Duck dinner. Apparently, they don’t do the duck meat and water chestnut in lettuce leaves course that we get in Vancouver. Too bad; I love anything wrapped in a lettuce leaf. [KS: Instead, the first course is carved crispy duck skin with the meat attached, and you eat that with the “pancake”, hoisin sauce and scallions. Then the second course is a broth made from the duck bones.]

I’ll post some pictures in a few minutes…

Beijing Day 1

April 18th, 2009, 8:12 am PDT by Greg

No update yesterday, since we had problems with the Internet in the hotel. but, it wasn’t an eventful day anyway: a quick walk along the West Lake in Hangzhou, and then a flight to Beijing.

In Beijing, we met our tour group: another couple a little older than us, and a woman and her (88 year old) father. We’ll have more to say about them as time goes on, I’m sure.

Today the tour started. As such, I think our updates are going to be less interesting: we pretty much went to the tourist attractions the tour went to and saw them.

First was the giant pandas at the Beijing Zoo. [KS: We saw two eating and two sleeping. They were really cute.] Then the Summer Palace. [KS: This is where the emperor and empress spent their summers. Apparently the emperor of the time was a figurehead, and the empress dowager, aka Dragon Lady, was the real head of state.]

Lunch was at a government Pearl Store/tourist trap. The pearls were cheap at least, so we bought some. [KS: Not all of the pearls were cheap – only the ones that we bought. :)]

After lunch, we went to the Temple of Heaven. The neat thing there was that it’s kind of a combo UNESCO world heritage site/community centre. The place was lined with seniors playing cards, groups singing, old people playing hacky sack, etc. It was kind of nice: it’s not just some museum; the place is actually used for something.

After dinner, the Peking Opera. This was… interesting. As you read the following descriptions, keep in mind that each act was 20 minutes of high-pitched singing and flouncing around the stage.

The first act consisted of a pantomime fight that was supposed to be in the dark: 20 minutes of two guys hilariously not being able to find each other in the “dark” but coming really close. It turns out the one guy was a general or something, so the other guy didn’t really want to kill him anyway.

The second act: some princess went for a hike. She met some people, but the didn’t really talk. The end.

The third act: some woman had to go and get herbs to heal her sick husband. The emperor didn’t want to give them to her, so she “fought” his guards then grabbed the herbs and ran off.

So, other than the opera, it was a good day. The tour stuff has a distinct “this is a place for tourists to go” feeling. That could wear thin pretty fast.

It was pretty overcast in Beijing today (“overcast” == “smoggy”?), so the pictures aren’t great, but I posted a few.

Update: we may not post tomorrow. Internet is expensive in this hotel.

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