Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Start-up Trip Report – March 20, 2010

Flight path from Newark to Beijing
Ni hao (hello in Chinese),

Hope you are all doing well and are ready to join us on another travel adventure. This time, we are heading to China for about a month, leaving Sunday March 28 and returning the end of April. We were tempted to do this trip as a guided tour, but after lots of research, we decided we want to try it on our own.

We have been been studying and working on our Mandarin language skills in preparation for this trip; unfortunately, the language is very complicated; but at least we know how to use a few basic phrases (we think)!

Here is our itinerary:

Beijing (8 nights) - includes a trip to The Great Wall

Pingyao (3 nights) - an ancient walled city (UNESCO site) for a chance to experience a small town

Xi'an (3 nights) - home of the Terracotta Warriors

Yangshuo (4 nights)- laidback scenery with beautiful landscapes along the Li River

Guilin (2 nights) - includes trip to the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces

Hangzhou (3 nights)- famous lake town

Shanghai (4 nights)- includes trip to Suzhou (garden city)

Internet cafes are disappearing so we are doing something new. We are taking our netbook (small laptop) on this trip. Most of our hotels have WI-FI connections, so hopefully we will have no trouble sending you our trip reports. We may also try to upload some pics as we go.

One side issue: we've never stayed for any length of time in communist country, and this will be a first. We're not sure how tightly their government controls outgoing info. Their censorship rules may affect sending our usual trip reports(?). We just don't know if they block outgoing info, and can't seem to find out from anyone. Hopefully it will not be a problem, as we've been sending email to various hotels and tourism sites/agencies over there for the past few months, and receiving good info back form them. If it is a problem, bear with us; we'll be in there trying, at least. If anyone has any info on this "potential problem", we would be glad to hear from them!!

We are so happy to have you all "stowed away" in our suitcases and travelling right along with us! As always, if anyone objects to receiving our trip reports over the next month or so, please let us know, and we'll drop your name from our list; we do not want to make our reports a nuisance to anyone.

See you on the road!!

Frank and Anne

Trip Report #1 – Beijing (March 31, 2010)

Ni hao everyone,

Double Happiness Hotel
Greetings from Beijing! We had a pleasant 14-hour direct flight over here. That is, if you don’t count the NINE hour delay leaving Newark. This is by far the longest delay we have ever had. Apparently, our plane had some real servicing issues and Continental had to fly a new plane over from Belgium. But at least Continental did give us food vouchers and 10% off our next flight (guess that just means we will have to fly again soon…) Anyway, we found a way to entertain ourselves by wine tasting at Vino Volo, the air traveler’s solution for a long delay, which just happened to be located near our gate.

We are staying at the Double Happiness Hotel in an authentic hutong which is a narrow lane lined with 200-year old houses built around courtyards. Our room looks like something on a Chinese movie set with loads of red silk and carved wood. Our bed is in an elevated wooden alcove, and of course, the inside is lined with red silk. The bed is a bit hard, but the experience is hard to beat.

Every morning, we start the day with a breakfast buffet of about 50 items, most of which are unknown to us bur resemble foods in a Chinese restaurant in the U.S. Whatever it is, it’s good.

On our first day, we made the pilgrimage to infamous Forbidden City in spite of a day -long rain. A young 24-year old Chinese university student who called himself “Leo” approached us and offered to be our guide through the site. We weren’t really interested in a guide, but we agreed mainly because we both liked him immediately. He turned out to be a great guide and a pleasant young man who spoke reasonably good English.

The Forbidden City was quite impressive even in the rain, and Leo gave us all the facts and figures. Like the fact that 10,000 people once lived here and 3,000 of them were the Emperor’s concubines. Frank was thinking Emperor sounded like an okay position! One thing that was weird is how Chinese people would come up close to us and just stare. At first, we were very uncomfortable, but Leo explained that many people coming from the provinces into Beijing for the first time have never seen a white person before. In fact, Leo is the first person in his family to come to Beijing. We can highly recommend Leo -- if you ever come here, we will give you his contact info.

Next stop: Tian’anmen Square right across the road from the Forbidden City. It is a huge square but very cold compared with the colorful palaces we just saw. Frank paid his respects to Chairman Mao Tse Tung by buying a watch from a huckster. The watch has a picture of Mao pounding out the seconds with his fist. Priceless (especially for $7).

We wanted to have tea at the famous tea house called Lao Shee. It may be famous in the U.S., but no one knows where it is here. We searched for almost an hour getting conflicting info from everyone we asked. -- we even had a picture and the name printed in Chinese, but nothing helped! It was like a Keystone Cops routine -- one would direct us down the street, then someone else would tell us to go back UP. Remember all of this is taking place in the rain. Finally, a friendly Chinese man who spoke minimal English took on our cause. Even he had to ask about 4 people for directions, but eventually he delivered us right to the door. He never asked for a thing from us, and he wouldn’t even join us for tea. Just a friendly, helpful guy.

The teahouse was fun with elaborate teas -- Anne’s tea looked like a flower unfolding in her glass. And had a band playing live music on unusual old instruments. The bandleader immediately launched into an odd-sounding version of “The Star Spangled Banner” when we arrived. (I wonder how he knew?) We joined another couple, a German man with his Mongolian wife -- first time we ever met a Mongolian. She told us that winter temps in Mongolia are typically minus 40 degrees!

One thing we noticed is that security is everywhere, on the streets, in the subways, in museums, and in important buildings. A uniformed guard is on virtually every corner. This is a real military state that means business when it comes to keeping people in line. For the most part, people dress like any westerners, but we have seen several older men with uniform-like clothing mimicking the “Mao look.”

Today, we visited the Capital Museum for a better understanding of the history of Beijing. Frank especially liked this museum because it was free. Very impressive, but we did notice a lot of Communist propaganda in the exhibits here. Later, we attended a Tao religious ceremony at the White Cloud Temple. Clouds of incense, strange wind instruments, priests in brightly colored silk robes and lots of mysterious rituals. We also got to throw coins at a gong for good luck. The gong had a bell in the center, and a direct hit would bring good luck. Dead-eye Frank made sure we rang the bell and came home with plenty of good fortune.

We are enjoying the food here, but restaurants can be a real challenge since no one speaks much English. However, everyone is more than happy to help us out, and seem to really appreciate our minimal Mandarin language skills. The girls at the hotel desk have taught Frank his numbers in Mandarin and are now going to teach him the days of the week.

Tomorrow, we walk The Great Wall, so we need to call it an early night. Hope all is well back in the states. More to come…

Anne and Frank

Trip Report #2 – Beijing (April 4, 2010)

Hiking to the Wild Wall
Ni hao everybody,

Hope you are all enjoying a beautiful Easter weekend! (It is already Easter Sunday here since we are 12 hours ahead.)

For our next adventure, Anne had booked a driver she found on Trip Advisor for our trip to the Great Wall. John was a great choice, a funny guy who kept us laughing all the way to and from the wall. John collects American slang so we taught him some new phrases. His favorite was “go for it.” Every time John would start to pass another vehicle (which happened a lot), Frank and John would start shouting together, “Go for it Johnny!!” The one time he held back was when we had a police car in front of us. Johnny said that it was not a smart idea to pass “Big Brother.”

John talked about his life and cultural differences. He lives with his wife and daughter and also his parents who he supports in the traditional Chinese way. He originally wanted to marry a professional (a nurse or a teacher), but his parents introduced him to a traditional, uneducated girl. He married her and now he says his parents were right. John’s marriage was not arranged, but you get the feeling that parents want to find the right girl, not just for the son, but also a girl who will take good care of them in their old age!

We asked how the Chinese people feel about all the recent changes, and John said they love it. “All Chinese people love the current government because it takes good care of them.” Another interesting subject was gun control. The government outlawed all guns in 1978. Johnny said.

“So if you knew your neighbor had a gun, you would report it to the local police station.” Sounds like the old Communist “rat out your neighbor” tradition is still alive and well. We do have to say that the Chinese people are very polite (even when cramming on to the busy jam-packed subway), no arguing, (that we see anyway) and everything is clean and orderly.

We chose to visit The Great Wall at Mutianyu, a less visited section than the more famous Badaling. We walked the gauntlet of souvenir sellers, bought our tickets at 40 yuan/person, and took a 9-minute cable car ride up to the Wall (no waiting!). Amazingly, we practically had the wall to ourselves even on a bright sunny (but cold and windy) day. We saw maybe a dozen people during our first hours on the wall.

The Great Wall is simply awesome -- one of those unbelievable engineering feats. The wall itself is impressive enough, but to build it in this unforgiving terrain is insane. We were thinking these forbidding mountains should have been enough of a barrier to deter invaders even without a wall.

Hiking the wall was a very demanding feat. The wall undulates sometimes very steeply, up and down, and the peds and legs need to be strong for this kind of serious hiking. (Anne used her “soft knees” that she learned from tai chi and that really helped when climbing all those steps.) We did about 3 miles of hiking the wall in 2 different directions, and we were totally beat!!

We first hiked to the left where the wall snaked up into a mountain top. The 12-foot wide wall has crenellated sides like the edges of a huge castle; it was 20 to 30 feet high, varying often in height depending on the terrain. With watchtowers spaced along the route and well-positioned drainage ruts at strategic places, this is one clever design. In spite of the sunshine, it was cold up there with a howling wind. All we kept thinking is that you sure wouldn’t want to pull wintertime duty on The Wall back in the days when the wall was patrolled by the Emperor’s soldiers.

We also walked in the other direction along the wall down to the next entrance point where we had a choice for our descent: open ski lift, toboggan, or walking trail. We elected to hike down, and it was a surprisingly difficult, but serene walk; our legs were very “wobbly“ from the steep incline of the trail. We bought the obligatory “I Walked The Great Wall” t-shirts after some major haggling with a couple of persistent hucksters, and then “go for it” Johnny drove us back into town.

We consider ourselves real Beijingers now, and on Friday we tested our subway skills with a convoluted trip out to the Summer Palace. The subway is very modern and easy to use with lots of English signage and announcements. Speaking of English signage some of the translations are hysterical. We had a good laugh when we read the rules for riding the cable car at The Great Wall; one rule had an admonition that stated “not to bring any exploding, erooing, or stinking materials on to the cable car“. Here in China, I guess they don’t want no stinking stuff on their cable cars! And don’t even think about that “erooing” stuff!

The Summer Palace is a gorgeous spot outside the city where the royals would come to escape the summer heat in The Forbidden City. A totally different atmosphere: The Forbidden City is all about power and impressing visitors while this place is a pure pleasure palace. The Summer Palace is huge including the very steep Longevity Hill and the sparkling Kunming Lake. We hiked up and over the hill (quite a climb) and down to the lake on the other side. The hill is covered with colorful pavilions and the most beautiful pagodas. Down at the lake, we marveled at the Marble Boat (more like a marble pier shaped like a boat) that the crazy Empress Cixi built using funds that were supposed to be used to modernize the Navy.

We are constantly amazed that we are such an oddity here. When we see little school children, they jump up and down and yell, “Hallo! Hallo!” A couple asked to have our picture taken with them -- one pic with us and the husband and one with us and the wife. We start to feel like an attraction ourselves (Frank is thinking we need to start charging!!)

One brazen Chinese man walked up to us (no more than 2-feet away), pulled out his camera, and started taking pictures of us. Not a word from him was spoken; so, we just hammed it up, waving and saying “Ni hao.” He cracked up and kept snapping away.

After all that exercise, we needed a good meal so we returned to a restaurant recommended by our hotel. No one speaks English, but the menu had English descriptions and great color photos of all the items. We had Tsingtao beer, a plate of cold, spicy funghi (I know most of you will find this hard to believe, but mushroom-hating Frank loves the Chinese variety of black mushies), excellent fried rice, spicy noodles, and veal chops. What a feast!

Frank continues to learn Mandarin from the little Chinese girls at the front desk. He loves to learn the language, and they love to teach him a few new words each day.

Yesterday we took a tour with the China Culture Center, an organization for expats that also welcomes tourists. We returned to the wall, but this time we visited the Wild Wall (which is what they call the unrestored sections) at Zhuangdaokou. Our sweet Chinese guide, Sunny, gave us a great day visiting a rural Chinese village, climbing the Wild Wall, and wolfing down a Chinese food feast at the end.

The village was built within what was once a military garrison for soldiers manning the Great Wall. The visit to the Chinese home felt uncomfortable as we all traipsed thru Mr. and Mrs. Gao’s modest home, but of course, they are being paid to let us in. The Gaos are retired (seems like the government confiscated their farmland), and they live on a government stipend of 200 yuan a month (less than $30 for a month!). The most unusual sight was their bed which was a hard brick and cement box that is heated from within (like an oven). With only a bamboo mat to lie on, this gives a whole new meaning to firm!

Our walk on the Wild Wall was spectacular, as well as demanding. The climb was steep and the steps were broad. We loved the isolation here with nothing but the old wall surrounded by forest and chestnut tree groves. This area is known for having the best chestnuts in China; however, Uncle Li (a local guide who joined Sunny for this hike) told us that last year’s harvest was poor because of the ongoing drought.

Beijing is a cultural anomaly, a thriving international city of multiple people-types in the middle of a developing country . This day trip into rural China gave us a look at the real people of China. Our Lonely Planet guidebook tells us that the Chinese government issued a statement  “it is good to be rich and it is okay if some become rich before others.” Quite a radical statement from the home of the People’s Revolution! It is hard to see how the peasants won’t be left behind as China continues her warp-speed development into a modern and much more capitalistic society. Maybe the real question is, “What will happen when some people never get rich?” The dichotomy of the haves and have nots has to become an issue soon.

Enough for now -- it is always good to share our thoughts with you.

Zai jian (goodbye in Mandarin),

Frank and Anne

Trip Report #3 – Beijing and Pingyao (April 8, 2010)

Outside our Room at the Yide Guesthouse
Ni Hao to all our family and friends -

We spent last Sunday morning at the Panjiayuan Market also known as the “Dirt Market“, one of the largest markets here in Beijing. The place had row after row of vendors selling all kinds of Chinese trinkets. Thehaggling was intense, but Frank is very good at it, and we had a great time shopping and dickering. (Note to our kids: We guess you know what this means -- get ready for a “Chinese Christmas this year!” LOL) Next, we visited the Lama Temple, the most significant Buddhist temple outside of Tibet with an impressive 18-meter Buddha carved from a single piece of wood (supposedly).

On Monday, we toured the Temple of Heaven which was one of our favorite sights. The huge park is filled with fabulous pagodas and people playing games, picnicking, and just having a good time. The Round Altar was especially cool -- a huge 3-tiered marble extravaganza used by the emperor to worship the heavens.

That afternoon we hired a moto-cab and driver to show us thru the “hutongs” of Beijing. The word “hutong” (pronounced - “hoo-tong”) means “the lanes” in Chinese, and the hutongs here are comprised of the old family blue-collar neighborhoods, many of which are being torn down to generate a new and modern Beijing. Beijing was probably all hutongs at one time, but little by little these old places are being replaced bymodern housing and commercial buildings.

Actually, our hotel is located in the Dongsitao Hutong, so we are veryfamiliar with the street life there. The hutongs can appear to be a bit rough around the edges; some of the homes, businesses, and alleyways are quite trashy, while others are old but well kept. It is an experience to walk into the hutongs, because they are almost too narrow for vehicular traffic (which does not stop traffic from trying to get thru). Lots of pedestrians, rickshaws, and moto-bikes fight for alley space all day long. The pedestrian, from what we’ve seen, better watch out for traffic; the cars and other vehicles do not give the pedestrians any courtesies. You’ll be run down if you’re not careful, and these vehicles can sneak up on you before you know it. Just crossing a main street in Beijing is an art; you need to be quick and lucky, otherwise you‘re gonna be roadkill.

Speaking of traffic, Beijing drivers seem to have a set of driving rules that rival few we’ve seen. The drivers we’ve ridden with, cut other drivers off routinely, muscle their way into impossibly tight traffic jam situations (if it seems too tight, they just reach out and fold their side mirrors in against the vehicle), make crazy impulsive left-hand turns right in front of oncoming vehicles, tailgate at just inches from the vehicle ahead of them, make continuous right turns on red lights (no stops), make turns and just skim past startled pedestrians; traffic signals and road signage in general seem to be optionally obeyed. One of our drivers, when faced with a potentially lengthy traffic jam, just calmly went to the right, up the curb onto the sidewalk amidst many surprised pedestrians, passed the traffic obstruction, then re-entered the road and went on his merry way. Having lived all our lives under American driving standards, it’s a bit of a chore just riding in the back of these vehicles, watching the chaos. We haven’t seen any accidents yet, nor are there many dings or dents in the cars on the roads, but it would be illogical to conclude that accidents don’t happen - often!!

We ate dinner at a Hot Pot restaurant where the restaurant allows you to cook up your own pot of meat and mystery vegetables. No one spoke any English so we just pointed at the pictures, and they brought us plates of goodies to drop into the pot of boiling broth. We had no idea what we were doing but the food was great, and the staff were really nice as they tried to help us - despite the language deficiencies. Our favorite hotel desk girl, Angela, had written a note for us saying that we wanted half spicy and half mild. This note got us a clever metal pot with a curved divider in the center that worked perfectly for us with red spicy broth on one side for dipping, and clear mild broth on the other.

On Tuesday, we said goodbye to our wonderful Double Happiness hotel and hopped a train out of town. Anne, aka “Metro Girl,” loved the way the trains operate here. At the station, each train has its own waiting room prior to boarding. You show your ticket before entering the room (so you can be assured that you are in the right place). A big board in the waiting room instructs you to wait and later tells you which platform your train has arrived on. The waiting room doors open up to a main corridor that leads you to your platform and your train. When you think about it, it is perfectly organized with no crazed running around like we sometimes have to do in Europe. The train was very modern and our 1st class seats were quite comfortable with roomy luggage space overhead. In less than 4 hours, we arrived at Taiyuan where a van driver met us to take us to our next destination, Pingyao.

Pingyao is possibly the best preserved ancient walled city in all of China with authentic homes from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Our hotel, the Yide Guesthouse is a good example set in incredible stone courtyards with gorgeous stone and wood carvings and lots of red lanterns hanging at each portal. Our room is authentic too with a “kang” for a bed. If you remember, we saw one of these box-of-bricks beds at Mr. and Mrs. Gao’s home outside of Beijing. These beds are heated thru a network of labyrinths internal to the block that make up the bed. Well, now we get to try it out ourselves.

The room is tiny with the giant stone block kang bed taking up most of the space. The bathroom is an all-in-one style with no separate shower area just a shower head sticking out of the wall. But Anne loves the ancient stone floor, the wooden double entrance door, and the red lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Actually, the bed is not bad – the 2-inch thick mattress makes it more comfortable than we expected. As Frank likes to say, “When you are this tired, even a bed of nails can feel good!”

A quick word about our netbook. This little computer has earned a permanent spot on our travels. Small, light and yet a real workhorse. So far both hotels and even our train had internet hook-ups so we can stay connected with everyone, write our trip reports, and work on the photos whenever we like. Regarding access to information, we have used Google here with no problems. However, Facebook is blocked and Anne was unable to access the Philadelphia Inquirer website, so most newspaper sites are probably inaccessible too.

The main streets of Pingyao reminded us of the boardwalk in Ocean City, N.J. -- tons of shops and restaurants with a fun atmosphere like at a carnival. The vendors were out in force, and Frank got to use his “mad” negotiating skills. One haggling session between Frank and a vendor was so intense, it drew a crowd of several Chinese onlookers. It was all good-natured fun with lots of laughter, lots of “Noooooooo” and plenty of oohs and aahs from the crowd as each “combatent” entered his next price offer on a calculator that they kept passing back and forth. I think the seller appreciated Frank as a worthy opponent -- the vendor really seemed to be enjoying himself, and so did Frank. They finally agreed on a price for the item. Both parties were satisfied and shook hands to seal the deal. By the way, no English was spoken during the whole haggling session; just lots of finger pointing, use of a calculator, and our limited Mandarin skills.

We decided to give our hardworking peds a break and get some foot massages. The massage started with a foot soak. The masseuse brought out wooden tubs lined with yellow plastic trash bags. They must have been filled with various herbs, but at first glance it looked like trash with maybe a worm or leech thrown in. Nothing appeared to be moving in there, so we cast fate to the wind and plunged our feet in.

What followed was a serious toe-by-toe workout. Anne’s male masseuse was particularly enthusiastic (or maybe sadistic). At times it hurt like hell, and she was gnawing on her fingernails. The masseuses just laughed at her and gestured that she should relax. But in the end, even Anne had to admit our feet felt totally refreshed. And, at about 1 yuan per minute (that’s about 14 cents per minute), an hour long massage only weighed in at a whopping $8.40. It was well worth it!!

We bought a Pingyao city ticket that allows us to visit all the sights including a walk on the city walls where we got a behind-the-scenes look into private courtyards from above Another highlight was the Rishengchang Financial Museum, home of the first draft bank in China. Anne, the former banker, loved seeing an old-time teller line – which looked a lot like the current ones except for the scales to weigh silver ingots and the abacuses to do the accounting. Best of all, were the special features of this bank like a kitchen and lodging for bank employees. We figured this is where the time-honored tradition of working bank employees 24/7 must have started! Right here in good ol’ China! The bank also had luxurious overnight accommodations for exclusive big money customers, offering extras like mahjong games, cigarettes, and even an opium pipe! These Chinese really know how to seal a deal.

We hired a moto-cab for a jaunt outside the walls of Pingyao to the Shuanglin Temple to see the renowned painted Buddha sculptures. Our favorite was the 26-armed Guanyin, the goddess of mercy. The ride in an open vehicle was uncomfortable because of the dust -- China is having the worst drought in 50 years, and dust storms can crop up at any time; and we happened to encounter one on the way to the temple.

We ended our day with a full body massage at our hotel. Our two masseuses were very professional and showed up wearing white lab coats looking like little doctors. An in a sense they were medical professionals because they sure fixed our aches and pains. And best of all, the price was just $15 each for one hour of bone-cracking bliss.

Tomorrow we leave Pingyao and fly to Xi’an to check out the Terracotta Warriors. This will be our first experience on a domestic Chinese Airline. Stay tuned for the trials and tribulations of flying Chinese aircraft.

Happy Spring! Hope all is well back in the states.

Zai Jian,

Frank and Anne

Trip Report #4 – Xi'an (April 12, 2010)

Ni hao everybody,

It turns out our concerns for flying our first Chinese domestic airline were unfounded. China Southern was no problem at all. Frank was concerned that this would be a puddle-jumper outfit, and that they may put us on some old turbo prop klunker; turns out China Southern flies some of the same stuff we fly back here in the USA - ie., Boeing 737s and MD90s. Our flight to Xian took about 55 minutes, and hot dogs and bottled water were served. We were the only esterners in the airport and on the plane; some people stared as if we were the most exotic animals in the zoo. But as we exited the plane at Xi’an, one young Chinese man came up to us and welcomed us to his home town.

Xi’an will never make our list of favorite cities. It has some of the worst air pollution in China -- every day looks cloudy, but it is really a thick blanket of smog hanging over the city. We stayed at the Ibis within the old walled city of Xi’an. Good accommodations at a very cheap price ($25 US/night). The only drawback is that many Chinese stay here and they smoke like fiends. Unfortunately, we have pollution inside and out with all the cigarette smoke and smog from the streets.

We thought it would be a good idea to book a bus tour with our hotel to see the Terracotta Warriors. Unfortunately, the tour included many other “side-stops” before ever getting to see the warriors. For example, our van of about 15 multinational English speaking people visited overpriced shops, selling such things as jade, furniture, jewelry, rugs, and others; even a globe shop. Of course, every vendor wanted you to buy, buy, buy their stuff, as they each whispered in your ear “I can get you good discount”. I guess you have to take the good with the bad when you do mass excursions like this. But, we also got to visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Banpo Neolithic Archeological digs as part of the excursion. Plus Anne was happy to try her hand at calligraphy in an art shop.

While on the bus tour, we got to talk with many interesting people; a Colombian couple sat near us, and really encouraged us to visit their country. They gave us confidence that Colombia is not the outlaw drug center of the world, and that coming to Colombia would be an interesting addition to our unusual world repertoire of countries visited.

Finally, after lunch, we all got to see the famous “Terracotta Warriors.” It was one of the most awesome highlights we’ve experienced so far in all of China - maybe even ever. But first, a little background: in about 200 BC, Emperor Qin Shi Huang began preparing for his afterlife. He had his minions prepare thousands of warlike, life-sized soldiers with weapons in hand, in full battle armor, in military formation, so that he could take this army with him when he died. Over 6000 soldiers, chariots, weapons, etc., etc. You see, this funeral system was common in other cultures in times gone by - even the pharaohs of ancient Egypt and the Norse Kings did similar things for their afterlife. It was an imitation of life after death. The emperor wanted to have a continuation of the same sweet life as commander-in-chief after death that he had during life.

The Terracotta Warriors are housed in 3 separate buildings (Pits #1, # 2, and #3). Each pit is an unfinished archeological work in progress, with many of the soldiers and other artifacts in varying degrees of being unearthed. Pit #1 is a favorite, for sure. It is by far the largest and provides the best display of these soldiers. And, as you may have guessed, it is also the most crowded room. Obviously, you cannot touch these soldiers, but you can walk around the periphery of the large room and see the details of each soldier in formation and photograph them as much as you want. One interesting thing is that there are no two soldiers the same - different faces, different heights and statures, different hair styles, some with mustaches, others with helmets, etc., etc. All of their weapons have been either removed or rotted away over the years. The heads of these soldiers are all separately molded pieces from their bodies, and fit together with the body like inserting a peg in a hole; the idea was that the soldiers could turn their heads while in battle. Anne was thrilled when we got one last glimpse of Pit #1 right before closing time when the crowds had subsided. What a memory to have! That last almost solitary look.

Yesterday, we hired a driver for more touring and were pleasantly surprised when the travel agent offered us an English-speaking guide for free. Kitty was a college student tour-guide-in training. She was a total joy and took excellent care of us. She said Anne was “so gentle and friendly” and giggled constantly at Frank’s antics saying to him “You are so cool!” She thought he was even cooler when he started referring to her as his “Chinese girlfriend!” Our day with Kitty was a highlight of the trip. We started with a visit to the Little Goose Pagoda where women were practicing Tai Chi in the beautiful gardens there. Anne was fascinated to see them using both swords and fans. And Kitty even arranged for Anne to have her picture taken with the “Tai Chi fan ladies.”

Our primary destination was the Hanyangling Museum, a largely (and unjustly) ignored site. This tomb of Emperor Jingdi is the domestic equivalent of the Terracotta Warriors. Jingdi was buried in an underground world of 50,000 miniature people-like figurines -- not to mention wagons, farm animals, pottery and everything else he might need in the next life. We donned plastic booties to cover our shoes and descended into the museum where we walked on glass floors overlooking the archeological pits. It was amazing to see all the artifacts literally at our feet.

The people-like figurines are about 18 inches high -- they were once clothed in robes befitting their occupation: farmer, cook etc. They had moveable arms which were made of wood and have, of course disintegrated, so what you see are thousands of armless “dolls.” BTW, these figurines are anatomically correct allowing researchers to identify men, women, and even eunuchs (the only men permitted to watch over the concubines). One of the most interesting sections held a world of domestic animals: rows and rows of pigs, piglets, cows, dogs, goats etc. All meticulously replicated. Frank asked why everything was made in miniature. Kitty told us that Jingdi lived during a time of peace and didn’t believe he needed full-sized soldiers to defend him in the afterlife.

We topped off our tour with a dumpling feast at the famous Da Fa Chang restaurant. We invited Kitty to join us to thank her for being out guide, and she was thrilled. Our meal consisted of five trays of assorted dumplings -- thin dough wrapped around all kinds of fillings including pork, chicken, ham, vegetables, fish and even walnuts. Everyone needs try this local specialty in Xi’an.

Last night we attended the Tang Dynasty performance, an extravaganza of Chinese music and dance. We were blown away by the elaborate, colorful stage sets and costumes. The music was a fascinating mix of unusual Chinese instruments including a dulcimer. The dancing was very graceful with women waving their long sleeves like ribbons in the wind, making shapes like figure eights, loops, and circles.

Before we go, lets talk about things that gross us out in China (if you have a weak stomach, you may want to skip over this paragraph). Our number one complaint is the spitting --this is by far the most revolting habit we have ever encountered. Men, but also women, spit constantly on the pavement and in the streets. And these are not gentle little spits -- they really hock it back making all kinds of disgusting guttural grunts and horrific noises. Then, they launch a major missile. In Paris, we watch for dog merde on the sidewalk. In China, we have to look out for lugies!! The second issue involves our fellow tourists. When we are with a tour group on one of our day trips, the restaurants serve family-style with dishes placed on a big lazy susan in the middle of the table. The problem is that they seldom provide serving spoons (although we always ask for them). In any case, we at least try to carefully place some food from each common dish from the lazy susan onto our plates while our dining companions inevitably eat directly out of the common bowl, sticking their chopsticks into everything as they eat mouthf ul by mouthful licking their chopsticks with each bite. Did you ever see the Seinfeld episode with George Constanza double-dipping his potato chip into the dip? Well, this situation makes George’s faux pas that look tame -- yccch!

Also, for you wine lovers. We have tried various wines here in China and have found none that can compare with the rest of the world. The first one we tried, called The Great Wall wine, was pure rot-gut. We also tried a few types of Yi Yuan Grace Vineyard which was better, but no great shakes. However, we are enjoying the Tsingtao beer!

Today, we are headed to the south to Guilin along Li River on another domestic airline. We are looking forward to some clean country air! Hope you are all doing well.

Your friends,

Anne and Frank

Trip Report #5 – Yangshuo (April 15, 2010)

Ni hao, family and friends,

Happy tax day! Hope you all have finished filing your taxes!

Well, we survived our second Chinese domestic flight experience, this time on Hainan Air; we flew a very modern A319 Airbus (equivalent to our own Boeing 737). It was on time and very comfortable. Nothing but good things to report about it. Again, we were the only westerners on the flight.

While at the airport, we had an incident which we now regard as almost commonplace. As we sat waiting for our plane’s departure, 4 Chinese men and a child (about 4 years old) walked up to us and stood less than 3 feet away from us, and just stared. And they stared, and continued to stare. Did we mention that they stared??

It was quite blatant, not to mention uncomfortable for us, as we sat there with our heads bowed down trying not to look up and make eye contact. They stood there staring, no speaking, no smiling for several minutes (seemed longer with all the tension they were creating). Finally, in our minds, the situation had gone on long enough, so Anne raised her head to the child and uttered our now familiar and trite phrase “Ni hao” to the child. Of course the child shyly backed away and disappeared behind his father’s legs, just peeking in horror and surprise at us white faces from between his father‘s legs; all of the adults just laughed.

Frank then got down on the floor and used his camera to take a picture of the child, and showed the child the digital picture on the display on the back of the camera. The child responded by slowly coming forward and curiously looking at the picture. When he finally recognized himself in the picture, he beamed with a smile at these crazy westerners. Everyone laughed again, and the tension further subsided. A few smiles later, and the 4 curious gents and the child walked away.

Never a word was spoken in English, just a few well-placed Mandarin words, and probably poorly spoken by us, I‘m sure. So, now we know – as long as there’s a child and we’ve got a digital camera, we can diffuse these frequently occurring staring situations!! Oftentimes, a pre-emptive move on our part - like a few simple words in Mandarin tend to take the staring individual by surprise and quell the discomfort of the situation immediately.

We are staying in the remote village called Aishanmen, just about 6 km outside of the bigger town of Yangshuo at an old former farmhouse called “The Giggling Tree.” With Dutch owners, this place has a European flair. In fact, the picturesque courtyard could be in Tuscany. Services are a bit basic with lukewarm showers and little heat in the room, but the staff are extremely friendly and all the guests are too, making this an enjoyable stay in the countryside.

If there’s a drought in China, it is not apparent here in the Li River Valley right now. It has rained every day since we arrived. Sometimes quite hard, and constantly. But, we just don our raingear and carry on with any plans we’ve had in mind. The roads are dirt roads, full of ruts and puddles and mud; whenever we take a shuttle into town, it’s a very rough ride with us being hurtled back and forth in the backseat for the first few kilometers till we hit the smoother roads. Welcome to rural China!!

On Tuesday, we took a rafting trip on a portion of the beautiful Li River. Of course, it was raining, but onward and forward we went. A taxi driver took us about 80 km upstream to the village of Yangdi, where we boarded a strange motorized pontoon-like boat, which was devised from 11 lengths of what appeared to be 4 inch diameter PVC pipe, capped at each of the ends for buoyancy of course, and lashed together like logs on a raft. With this construction, we could see that this boat, fully loaded, only sat about 2 inches deep into the water; the primitive, but sleek design could easily traverse any shallow conditions presented by the Li. And, it was rugged too. We imagined that in days of yore, the “PVC logs” that made up the flotation part of this vessel were formerly big tubes of bamboo; now, the modern , lighter-weight, more standard sized PVC material has replaced the old.

Strapped to the deck of the boat were a couple of passenger seats, a seat for the boatman, a canopy to repel rain and sun, and a low horsepower motor with a long tail and prop that is steered by hand from the back of the boat. It was a kluge for sure, but it was an efficient kluge - and a simple design. We will put pictures on our website when we can, so anyone who wants to see more detail will be able to see this clever contraption soon.

Even tho it was raining, the river was still shallow from the drought; from time to time, we skimmed over stone bars that were easily visible just inches beneath the water‘s surface. We prayed that the old man driving this boat would not break a prop or something worse. Often times we could hear the disturbing sounds of the prop crunching loose stones as we scooted over the shallow parts.

The day was cold and damp - and raining hard at times. Not the best day for sightseeing in an open air boat. But, we were very secure under the canopy of the boat, and under our own full-length ponchos. A little cold perhaps, but essentially dry. The mountain formations along the Li offer some of the greatest scenery we’ve seen in China thus far.

Dramatically shear limestone mountains with smooth rounded tops and covered with dense vegetation undulate in various shapes at the river’s edge; eerie mist swirls about the peaks and valleys and make for some unique ghostly, but artistic formations. Giant ferns line the banks of the Li, and the unique vegetation everywhere makes the Li valley look like a primordial jungle where Jurassic Park could have easily been filmed. Water buffalo graze on the banks while dainty swallows skim the surface of the water collecting insects as they fly. This idyllic setting is often reflected in the flowery artwork that you see in lots of Chinese paintings. In fact, the back of the Chinese 20 yuan bill has a picture of these Li River mountain formations.

On Wednesday, we decided it was time to learn a little about Chinese cooking. It was raining again all day, so what better place to spend our time than indoors learning about Chinese food. Our young 25-ish English-speaking Chinese instructor “Tessa” first took us to the local market to introduce us to some of the foods of the region, and also to buy a few goodies for today’s class. Wow, the market in Yangshuo was an unforgettable sight. Lots of unknown critters hanging from meat hooks in the market, even skinned dogs and cats. Yes, they eat dogs and cats here. And donkey, eel, frogs, snakes, rabbits, scorpions, and almost every other animal that has enough flesh on it to make a meal. The unique smells of the market are some that you will never forget as you peruse their booths and their wares. Live geese, chickens, rabbits, and others are penned in stacks in small cages, waiting to be purchased “on the hoof “by hungry patrons, then slaughtered. You can’t get much fresher meats than that. It is not uncommon to see a shopper carrying a slain chicken or rabbit bound by a rope and tied to the legs of the animal, dangling upside down at the shopper‘s side.

But, back to cooking school. After showing us around the market, Tessa took us over to the Yangshuo Cooking School, which has a patio and kitchen right on the banks of the Li River. Of course, she taught us the techniques and benefits of using the wok, as well as other tricky shortcuts and techniques, and many secrets of using Chinese ingredients. The Chinese, as we learned, use minimal amounts of meat in their dishes, and many veggies and black mushrooms. Also, fresh garlic and ginger is a frequent (and delightful!) combo. We even learned that one of a Chinese cook’s favorite tool is a meat cleaver, for both meats and veggies. One dish that we prepared was a Yangshuo specialty called “beer fish.” This is actually catfish caught right here in the Li River, then seasoned with many Chinese spices and veggies, and sizzled in beer for that extra bang of flavor. Yummy!

Wednesday evening, we headed to the “Light Show” here in Yangshuo – a performance by a cast of 600 Chinese singers and dancers done via spectacular lighting, costuming, and singing at the edge of the Li River with a backdrop of lighted mountain peaks. The show was designed by the same director who did the famous opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics and this one was performed in front of an audience of about 3000. It rained throughout the performance, and we had to sit out in open seating in the rain. With ponchos worn by nearly everybody, we stayed quite dry underneath, and there were no complaints about the weather; we all enjoyed a great performance despite the unfavorable elements.

This morning, Anne had a Tai Chi class with a Chinese Tai Chi master who goes by the name Jason. The class was one-on-one with a heavy emphasis on breathing and feeling your “chi.” It was amazing to practice Tai Chi in front of a window looking out at water buffalo, rice paddies, and dramatic mountains.

The rain finally subsided so we set out to hike the area surrounding our hotel. What an adventure! We hiked over to the Yulong River where local people kept coming up to us and saying “Bamboo.” We eventually realized that they wanted to take us across the river on one of their flimsy bamboo rafts. Why not? At least the water was shallow and views were magnificent.

Once we were safely across the river, we hiked through orange groves and rice paddies, and occasionally, we spotted small family gravesites. Decorated with red banners and spent incense sticks. This was our best day here since we got to wander through this gorgeous lush landscape without the hassle of taxis or crowds. No one out here but us and the water buffalo. At one point, an old farmer appeared in front of us on the narrow path driving his three water buffalo toward us -- we gladly jumped to the side. Those water buffalo are too big to mess with!

We crossed back over the river and hiked through some poor, ramshackle villages. We met three children who ran out to greet us, yelling “Hello!” Their English was pretty good so we chatted with them for a while, and they even showed us their English school book. Frank pulled out his harmonica and led the group in a spirited version of “London Bridge is Falling Down.” The children sang along with us and even knew all the words. It was so much fun to interact with these enthusiastic local children.

Tomorrow we leave here for the bigger city of Guilin - we will miss our country retreat, and all the new friends we made here.

One final note: a few of you have asked us about the earthquake that recently hit China. As we understand it, the quake hit near Tibet many hundreds of miles west from where we are. But then, with American news coverage, you probably know more about the details than we do. There is no TV where we are staying now. But, we are nowhere near the vicinity of the quake, and are quite safe where we are. Thanks for your concerns.

Take care for now.

Zai jian,
Frank and Anne

Trip Report #6 – Guilin and Hangzhou (April 20, 2010)

Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces
Ni hao, all -

Well, we are now in Guilin, a large city about an hour’s ride from Yangshou where we just spent 4 glorious and educational days in the countryside.

Guilin is a town whose name means “Osmanthus Tree Forest“, and, as you may have guessed, has a plethora of osmanthus groves. Never heard of that tree? Well, the berries of the osmanthus tree are used for making a unique great-tasting tea. Speaking of tea, we never realized that how important tea is here in China. You are always given tea in every restaurant, and it would make you “peculiar” here if you didn’t have some at every meal. It certainly lends credence to that old adage “I wouldn’t trade all the tea in China for ..……”

We’re always talking about the wild drivers here, and finally saw our first traffic accident in this country of crazy, less than good drivers. Outside our hotel was a van in the middle of the intersection with a motorcycle crunched under its hind wheels. We think that everyone was ok, as there were no bodies laying around in the streets, and two Chinese gents appeared to be in discussion and exchanging paperwork.

On Saturday, we employed a driver and tour guide to take us out to see the famous Dragon‘s Backbone Rice Terraces (in Mandarin it is called “Long Ji“ which literally means Dragon‘s Backbone).  Our 25-year old Chinese tour guide “Sara” who took us there was one of those delightfully pleasant Chinese girls with whom you can easily bond and have a great time no matter what the activity. She spoke English quite well, and was our teacher, mentor, and translator for the day, as well as tour guide to the famous rice paddy in the mountains northwest of Guilin. Frank loved her because she taught him some cool Mandarin slang that you will never find in the standard mandarin phrase books, and which he got to use thru out the day as we ran the gauntlet of nuisance peddlers that we encountered everywhere.

It was a full 2-hour car ride to the Dragon’s backbone, so we had a lot of time to get to know Sara and listen to her facts and figures about China. Sara belongs to the Dong tribe, one of 55 minority groups in China. These minority groups are indigenous people with their own dialect who still follow many of their old traditions. Sara said the Dong Tribe were easily identifiable by their long slim “horse faces.” We tried not to laugh, but she was so honest and sincere in her analysis. She was so pretty, and definitely did not look like a horse! And we told her so.

While we were on the topic, Frank asked Sara why Chinese people stare at us so much. She told us that city people aren’t too interested in us, other than as a passing curiosity; to them, we are just “lao wey“ (foreigners). But, to the people in the country who have rarely seen a white man before, we are called “Chang Bi Za” (the long noses). Funny. We thought our unslanted eyes and skin/hair/eye color was what gave us away!

Before climbing up to the rice terraces, we watched a pretty schlocky mock-wedding performance by the Yao women, another minority group who Sara said had “pumpkin-faces.” These women revere long hair believing that long hair means long life. They cut their hair only once in their lives at the age of 18, and even then they save the cut hair to use in their elaborate hairdos. We watched as they unraveled and combed their lengthy locks. These are short people so their hair can grow longer than they are -- some of the women had to stand on a staircase in order to completely let down their Rapunzel-like hair!

The constant rain and thick fog (we were lucky if we could see 100 feet in front of us) were very discouraging and we wondered if we would get even a glimpse of the beautiful Dragon’s Backbone rice paddies. We almost called off the hike, but perky little Sara beckoned us to go up with her. So, with ponchos donned, we made the steep 1000 foot ascent (about a 1.5 mile hike) to the top of the mountain.

When we reached the top, the fog parted like a modern-day Moses Red Sea trick, and low and behold, there were the famed rice paddies!! We were dumbfounded, and even Sara was awestruck. Sara had told us that the rain would actually drive out the fog -- and she was right!. The scene before us was like a Chinese painting. The emerald green rice paddies swirled and undulated following the contours of the mountainside looking like it’s namesake: the backbone of a Dragon. Beyond the rice paddies, the mountains were covered with white mist, and we could see mountain peaks poking thru the mist like islands in a sea of clouds. What a rare natural beauty!!

Now we are in the city of Hangzhou. We arrived on Sunday on Shandong Airlines, our third domestic flight here in China, and it was another on-time, uneventful flight despite the extreme fog and rain at takeoff.

Upon arrival in Hangzhou, we had a bizarre experience with the airport bus which was supposed to drop us off at a stop near our hotel. Somehow we got on the wrong bus, and when we arrived at God-knows-where at the end of the bus line, the bus men hustled us onto another bus. We couldn’t understand a word they were saying and felt so lost and frustrated, but these bus officials seemed to know what the problem was. One of them pulled our bags away from us, threw them into the belly of another bus parked nearby us, and then like a miracle, 10 minutes later, this new bus pulled up right in front of our hotel! We are still mystified, but grateful to the two Chinese men who took a few minutes of their own time to help a couple of very befuddled westerners in a big confusing city of about 7 million people.

On Monday, we traipsed out into the rain and hiked down to West Lake, a beautiful focal point and park for this city, for hikers, bikers, strollers, and boaters. We took a fancy pleasure boat out to an island with lots of inlets and all flowering plants like rhododendrons and azaleas. The air actually smelled sweet. Later, we took a ride around the island on an electric “buggy.” We had a great time gawking at the graceful willow trees, the lovely lake views, and the hordes of Chinese tourists. We seemed to be the only white faces on the lake! We finished our day on Qinghefang Lu known as the fun street with its many cafes, shops, and street vendors.

Today, Tuesday, we went to see one of the popular nearby water towns called Wuzhen. The simplest and least expensive route to Wuzhen seemed to be booking a bus tour thru our hotel. Only one problem: no English tours, only tours in Mandarin. It was not a pretty option, but what the heck. We threw fate to the wind and went for the unknown.

Wuzhen is unfortunately a tourist haven with an attractive Venice look - lots of canals and steep-arched stone bridges that span the many waterways -- and tons of tour groups. Everybody loves the beauty of Wuzhen, the droopy willow trees that line the canal, the old wooden temple-like housing, canal boats with their single oar propulsion (like a gondolier in Venice), shops of unique artisans that line the narrow street, and the cheap prices of all the goods!!

Because everything about the day’s events were in Chinese, we didn’t understand that the bus was also going to makes a few side stops to the shopping malls along the way - hoping to part some bucks from the tourists in the leather shops, clothing outlets, and even a silk factory.

Unfortunately, it was a bit of a disappointing day for both of us. Maybe it was the several stops of forced shopping, maybe it was the rainy day, maybe the zoo-like atmosphere of Wuzhen itself; or, maybe all of the above. The whole experience was a tourist trap for sure – the kind of thing we usually try to avoid. On the other hand, it was all part of the learning experience. After all, we got to meet and bond with many new Chinese folks on the bus; even tho the language was unfathomable to us, we found lots of common ground, and met lots of new friends in a foreign place.

Frank does not eat breakfast so Anne has been having some real breakfast adventures. In Guilin, she ended up slurping noodle soup with the locals -- since chopsticks are the only utensils available, EVERYBODY slurps the broth and uses the chopsticks to shovel in the noodles! At just 50 cents a bowl, the noodles were great and it was the cheapest breakfast she has ever eaten. This morning, she checked out the hotel’s breakfast buffet and met a professor from Iraq. When he first introduced himself, she was a bit leery of getting into a political discussion, but he has a son in Virginia, and besides, what he really wanted to talk about was China. He had been here 15 years ago and is astounded by their progress. He kept saying, “It is a puzzle to me how they have changed so fast.” Anne said that it hardly feels like a Communist country, and he responded, “These people have left communism behind!!”

Tomorrow, our adventures takes us by train to Shanghai, where we‘ll spend the final days of our stay here in China. Seems like the trip just began, and now it’s almost over.

Zai Jian, all,

Frank and Anne