Pictures from China
China you say? Where did that come from? Before answering that question, a quick update on what we have been up to in June and July. Two days after returning to NY from Antigua, we hosted a house concert at my brother's house with Texas based singer/songwriter Kelly McGuire. We have known Kelly for years, and he was going to be doing some shows in the Northeast, so we booked him to introduce our family and some of their friends to the Trop Rock music that we love. We had about 30 people there for the concert and everybody had a great time. We were treated to John Hanney from NJ joining Kelly on the harmonica, and found that a good friend of my brother's already knew of Kelly and showed up wearing a Kelly hat and shirt. It was a fun evening.
Bright and early the next morning, we hopped in the car and drove to Put In Bay, Ohio, for a long weekend of Parrothead fun at the Phlocking of the Phaithful. We had never attended this event before, but since our other favorite Trop Rock band, Jerry Diaz and Hanna's Reef, was playing, we had to go. The drive was about seven hours to where we parked the car and hopped on a ferry to the island where Put In Bay is located. We had a fun three days of Trop Rock music and of course a bit of adult beverage consumption. On Sunday, we took the ferry back to the mainland, near Sandusky, OH, and drove about two hours to Barb's folks near Canton.
The rest of June and July was spent with Barb dealing with her parents increasing needs, and trying to figure out what is best for their future. After two week in Ohio, I went back to my brother's house in NY with the expectation of getting some work. The work plan got derailed by some issues between the client and the consulting company I contract to, so I only ended up getting two days work, although I stayed in NY for five weeks hoping that would change. I also stayed in NY, because on July 18th, I left for a week in China with my brother Bob, his wife Kitty, and their son-in-law Adam. This was a trip organized by the local Chamber of Commerce, and was priced such that it would be silly not to take advantage of the opportunity. The price of $2800 included the airfare, nice hotels, all meals and all transfers.
Wed July 18th
So, on to the trip to China. Our flight to China is out of JFK airport in New York City. The trip includes bus transportation from Newburgh, near my brother's. We boarded the bus in Newburgh about 10:00 AM Wednesday and headed for JFK. We were in the airport before noon, and met there by a representative of the tour company. She directed us to the appropriate check-in counters, as some people were flying China Air direct to Beijing, while some of us were flying China Eastern Airlines to Shanghai and making a connection back to Beijing. Our flight was supposed to depart JFK about 15:30, and there were sever thunderstorms forecast for late in the afternoon, so we were concerned. The first problem was that our plane was not at JFK yet. The plane arrived from Shanghai late, about 14:45. So, it was after 16:00 before we started boarding. Once boarded, we left the gate and were taxiing as the skies grew darker and darker. We were second or third from takeoff, when they closed the airport due to the severe thunderstorm passing over. They shut down the engines and we sat for almost an hour while it poured and thunder and lightening raged around us. It was quite a storm. Eventually, the pilot started the engines again and announced that we were going to go, but of course with the weather passing, now the winds had changed, so we had to taxi back to the other side of the airport since they changed the direction of takeoffs and landings. Finally we were in the air, more than two hours later than expected. We were all wondering about making our connection in Shanghai, since we will have to do Customs and Immigration between flights. The flight to Shanghai was about 14 1/2 hours. That's a long time to sit in coach, but we passed the time watching a couple movies on Adam's iPad, reading, and trying to sleep. Given the Great Circle route we took over the Arctic, it was sunny outside most of the flight. But, most people kept their window shades down so we were able to doze. Our flight from Shanghai to Beijing was scheduled to leave at 21:30. We were on target to land at 21:30, so obviously this isn't going to work unless they are holding the flight for us. There are 40 or more in our group making the connection, so maybe we'll get lucky. As we exited the jetway, there was a person separating people transferring to Beijing from the rest of the passengers. We were detoured to a shortcut to Immigration, then escorted through the terminal to a security checkpoint where we were cleared in to go to our next flight. It turned out that in addition to our group, there were probably 75 more people on the flight making the same connection, so it was in their best interest to hold the plane. Once aboard our flight to Beijing, we started to taxi to the runway. When we were next to takeoff, Adam, who was in the window seat, noticed the ailerons on the wing flap up and down several times. It's normal to see this once, but he said they went up and down several times, and didn't seem to go all the way down. We sat a minute at the end of the runway, then slowly started to roll away, not full-throttle rolling like we were taking off. Sure enough, we turned off the runway at the first opportunity and taxied to a place to stop out of the way while other flights took off. We sat for a good 15 minutes and worried that we were not going to be leaving tonight. But then we taxied back to the runway and took off. Obviously we made the trip ok, since I am writing this. As we deplaned in Beijing though, there were two guys dressed like mechanics with flashlights looking up at the offending aileron.
After claiming our bags, which all made it, we exited the secure area of the terminal, and were met by "Jason", our Beijing tour guide. Jason explained that "Jason" was his personally picked American sounding name, and that his real name was Wei. Jason had already checked us into the hotel, and passed out our room keys there at the airport. We then boarded a tour bus for the 45 minute ride to the hotel. It was about 3 AM when we hit the sack, with a 6:30 wake up call scheduled. We had left NY on Wednesday afternoon, and it was now Friday morning. Even though we had only been flying for a day, we had crossed the International Date Line, effectively "losing" a day. Not to worry, we'll get it back on the other end. But it certainly did confuse some of the folks. Personally, I wasn't confused because basically, I just gave up caring what day of the week it was for the entire trip. Kind of like sailing.
Fri July 20th
Our wake up calls came and we got up, showered and went to breakfast. The hotel we stayed at, the Pullman Beijing West, is a five-star hotel used to dealing with Westerners. Their breakfast buffet included typical American-style foods as well as Chinese breakfast foods. Breakfast was the one meal I wasn't adventurous with. I stuck with traditional eggs, bacon, potatoes, fruits and pastries for the whole trip. At 8:00 we were outside ready to board the bus. As we had arrived last night, we had noticed there was an open-air beer garden next to the hotel. As we stood on the sidewalk this morning waiting to board our bus, we noticed three guys who work at the beer garden, sleeping on benches behind the bar. Apparently this is their home too, and since the place doesn't seem to have a means to lock up, they are security too. Directly across the street from the hotel we saw some familiar brands. KFC, McDonalds, and IMAX were there to make us feel at home.
The first thing we all noticed when we got outside was the smog. A quick Google search of "Beijing smog" brings up a long list of stories about the problem and what they are trying to do about it. Unfortunately, it's like LA was in the 80's before it was cleaned up.
Our first stop of the day was a jade factory. China is known for it's jade. After sitting through a brief session explaining the various qualities of jade, and how to tell the real stuff from fake plastic stuff, we were turned loose to shop. There were many beautiful pieces to look at. Since we don't collect "stuff" living on the boat, I don't normally buy souvenirs. But, I figured on a trip like this, and since Barb's birthday is a few days after I get home, perhaps just one thing would be appropriate, and this would be the place to get it. So, I selected a piece that is a ball within a ball within a ball within a ball within a ball. The outermost ball has intricate carving on it, and the others can all be rotated independently inside one another. It was all carved from one solid piece of jade. This is called a "Happy Family" ball. If it sounds confusing, there is a picture of it in the photo gallery.
Back on the bus, we headed for our next stop, the Great Wall of China. There are many places that tourists go to see the Great Wall. Some of them are relatively flat, where you get on the wall and can walk along the top of it for miles. North of Beijing, where we went, the wall crosses the highway and goes steeply up the mountain on either side. We parked the bus, entered through a large archway, and ascended about thirty steps to the beginning of our hike. We were now technically on the wall. Our goal for today's hike though was to the uppermost visible watchtower on top of the mountain. There were many other busloads of tourists, from China and abroad, so there were lots of people also making this climb. Not all of our group chose to even try the climb, but I was amongst those who did. Adam and I took off together, probably at a faster pace than we should have. We were not the first of our group, as a 21 year old girl from our other bus RAN all the way to the top. She passed us, still running, on her way down when we were still about halfway up. At about the 3/4 mark, I decided I was not going to make the top. I sat down while Adam continued to the top. My brother also made the top, but he wisely took a slower pace from the beginning. I would really have liked to made it, but I wasn't sure my travel insurance would cover the helicopter needed to fetch me from the top had I continued. We had been advised to bring a second shirt with us today, as we would be soaked in sweat, and that was good advice. When we made it back to the bottom, we took a trip into what had to be the worst smelling bathroom I have ever been in. It was amazing that after all I sweat, I actually had anything in my bladder, but the trip had to be made. Once cooled down a bit, shirts were changed and we headed to lunch. This was our first Chinese meal. It was served in typical Chinese family style, where we sat at a table for eight or nine, and a large glass Lazy Susan was loaded with seven or eight entrees, rice, tea, and soup. The food was decidedly westernized as it was things we recognized for the most part. We saw tables of Chinese people getting totally different stuff.
Our next stop after lunch was LongQing Xia, a.k.a. Great Dragon Gorge. (If you follow that link, be sure to look at Part2 and Part 3 also.) We parked the bus, and took a tram to the village at the base of the dam that makes the lake in the gorge. This place is about 50 miles north of Beijing, and is very popular for day trips from the city because it is cooler. However, today at least, the smog is here too, obscuring a lot of what looks like beautiful scenery. We walked to the base of the dam, where you walk into the mouth of the dragon. The dragon encloses several escalators which take you to the top of the dam and the lake. Here we boarded a boat to take us on a ride up through the gorge. The high walls of the gorge were impressive, and in a couple of places we saw large red Chinese symbols on the rocks. It was not clear to us if they were advertising, of just plain old graffiti that we don't understand. After the boat ride, we walked down to the village area via a tunnel on the opposite side from where we came up the escalator. Our bus had been allowed to come up to where the tram had brought us, so we boarded for the return to Beijing. Fortunately, Jason did a headcount every time we got on the bus, because we were missing a person. One lady, who was not fond of heights, had declined to ever go up the escalator. She didn't realize we would be coming down via another path, so it took a bit for Jason to go find her.
Upon our return to the city, we were supposed to have an opportunity to stop at the 2008 Olympic venues known as the Birds Nest, and the Cube. Since we were running late, we didn't get to actually stop and get off the bus for pictures. We did get to stop at a red light on our way by and I was on the proper side of the bus to get a few shots. But again, the smog was so heavy that even though we were right next to it, the pictures are poor. Our dinner venue was just a couple blocks from the Olympic venues. Dinner was similar to lunch in the serving style. The food was good, but already some of the people in our group were making rumblings about "Chinese food again?" Really? We are visiting China you know.
After dinner, we returned to the hotel. As we pulled up to the hotel, we saw that the beer garden next door was open and fairly busy. We saw these huge beer dispensers sitting on some tables, and decided we had to check that out. Bob, Adam and I were joined by another member of our group for a visit. Our first challenge was ordering beer. Even right next door to the fancy hotel catering to Westerners, we had stepped out of the tour boundaries. None of the staff understood a word of English. We did ascertain that we had three choices of beer. Golden was one of them, so that's what we went with. Hand gestures made it clear we wanted one of the big (3 liter) dispensers that we saw on other tables. The next challenge was the cost. After a few misunderstandings, we found that the cost was $10 US for one of the 3-litre things. Cheap! We had two.
Sat July 21st
We actually had a good night's sleep last night. Our itinerary for today has been changed since it is forecast to rain all day. We were originally supposed to go to Tieneman Square and The Forbidden City today, but that is being moved to tomorrow when the weather is forecast to be nicer. So today started with a pearl factory. As with the jade place, the tour started with a little classroom talk. The young lady explained the difference between fresh water pearls and salt water pearls. She opened a fresh water oyster for us and showed us the pearls inside. She then took us out to the showroom, where she demonstrated how to tell real pearls from fake ones. Then she took four strands of pearls and put them on several of the ladies in our group to model. Nice marketing tool, as at least one sale was made that way. I was not tempted.
The next stop was the Summer Palace. The name is a little misleading, as there isn't much of a palace here. The point of this place was to be a huge park-like retreat for the emperor in the summer. The palace itself was not the centerpiece of the place. Unfortunately, the forecast was correct and the rain had started by the time we got here. So, visibility was very poor as well as we all had to dodge umbrellas of the large crowd there. I brought two pairs of footwear on the trip. A brand new pair of sneakers, and my old orange Crocs. I traveled in the Crocs, since they were easy to remove at airport security, but I wanted to wear the sneakers for all the walking we are doing. This morning, knowing it was supposed to rain, I was tempted to wear my Crocs, but walking in them when wet sucks. So I wore the sneakers. By the end of the Summer Palace tour, I was pleased that my feet were still pretty much dry.
Lunch was unique today. Instead of going to a restaurant, we went to somebody's home. We went to what was referred to as The Hutong District. I have since learned that any old part of the city with narrow alleys is called a hutong, so it's not really a proper name as I thought. Anyway, the bus dropped us off on as small a street as it could get to, and we were met there by a bunch of rickshaws. The rickshaws are big tricycles with a two-person cab on the back. It was raining quite hard by now, so as we went down the alley each two people just got in the next rickshaw. Once everybody was loaded up, we proceeded deeper into the neighborhood down these alleys that barely could have accommodated two rickshaws passing. There actually were a few cars parked here and there, but car travel in the hutong was not common. When we reached our destination, we were all hustled (as it was pouring) down the last sidewalk and into a room. The room was just large enough to accommodate three round tables with everybody sitting very close together on a rag-tag collection of chairs and stools. The point of this lunch is to introduce us to everyday life in Beijing. The family who's home we are in, have real jobs, he is an aircraft mechanic and she also works at the airport. Their adult son lives there also, and he spoke good English. Lunch was served, and was very good. I suspect that even though we were in a private home, they still westernized the food for us to some extent. The rain had abated while we were eating, but about the time we were ready to leave, it started to pour again. To kill a few minutes, the homeowner told us a little about the family, with his some repeating things in English for us. He made sure we knew that he taught his wife to cook. They do these lunches once or twice a week to make a little extra money and because they enjoy meeting the tourists and showing them their life. While most Americans would look at this home as a slum, it was allegedly middle class China. And the family seemed proud of what they had. Even after chatting a while, the rain was pouring down, and we had a schedule to keep. So into the rain we went. We ran to the rickshaws and got aboard. Even though the rickshaws are covered on the top and three sides, the driver then added a piece of plastic to cover our front side from halfway down to our feet. But, a block from the house, we turned into the pouring rain. I tried holding our umbrella across the opening, but we still were getting soaked. Since we were getting wet anyway, I tried to get some pictures. The water was running about four inches deep, as there are no storm drains as we know them in the States. Our driver pressed on, laughing all the way.
We got back on the bus and proceeded to our next stop, the Temple Of Heaven. From where we exited the bus, we walked quite a ways along a covered walkway to get to the actual temple. This walkway was filled with people playing cards, singing in semi-organized groups, playing Chinese Chess, playing checkers, kids drawing classes, and of course people selling crap to tourists. When we reached the actual temple, Jason gave us an explanation and then turned us lose to explore on our own. The rain continued as we took brief looks at the temple building and the adjacent museum.
On our way back to Beijing for dinner, we took an unplanned stop at the Beijing Tongrentang Dongbianmen Pharmacy. This is a traditional Chinese medicine place that caters to tourists. This stop came about because somebody on the bus asked about medical care in China. The group was first ushered in to a classroom where we heard a little lecture about Chinese medicine vs. Western medicine. The presenter was Chinese, but had also gone to medical school in the US. The gist of it was that both have their places, and are complimentary. Western medicine treats the symptoms, while Chinese medicine tries to treat the whole body in a preventative manner. After the short presentation, we were offered the opportunity to be "examined" by a real practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine. There was no cost for this, so what the heck. As explained in the presentation, the doctor made his evaluation by feeling your pulse. He placed three fingers on each wrist at the same time. I was very skeptical of all this until the doctor, through the assistant translator, started telling me what was wrong with me, some of which were things I had already been diagnosed with by my local doctor. I'm not talking about guessing that any fat American guy in his 50's has high blood pressure and cholesterol. I'm talking fairly obscure stuff. So, he got my attention. He recommended three different herbs to be taken over a course of six months. Contrary to my better judgment, I bought into it. I figured my western doctors haven't done much to make me feel better, so what the heck. Check back with me in six months to see whether I was just another sucker, or if there is something to it all. I only had to think about the Chinese people twenty years older than me who passed me on that hike up the Great Wall to think they might be on to something.
We have a special dinner tonight, because it includes Peking Duck. Recall that it has been raining all day? When we got to the restaurant for dinner, it was still raining fairly hard. We had to walk several hundred feet along a sidewalk from where the bus could park to the entrance to the restaurant. From the sidewalk to the entrance, took us about forty feet across a parking area that was lower than everything else. There was a precarious platform of some sort in the water that allowed the daring of us to cross without getting our feet wet. (Remember my footwear story? They were still pretty dry.) Our dinner tonight is special because it includes Peking Duck. Unfortunately, I have no idea what the name of the place we went was, so I don't know if it is one of the ones mentioned in the Wiki article. But, I do know the Peking Duck was good. Jason had explained to us before we got there, the relationship between the names Beijing and Peking. It isn't really a case of the city's name changing, but rather just a change in the westernization of the pronunciation. So, even though the city is now called Beijing, many other references, like Peking Duck, remain the same. Several of the folks in our group, who earlier whined about getting Chinese food for every meal, didn't care for the Peking Duck. I thought it was great, and happily consumed more than my share since they left it behind. When we were ready to leave, we descended from the third floor to the first only to find it raining harder than we had seen all day. This was truly a Texas sized gully washer, except it was not letting up after a few minutes. After waiting ten minutes or more, we decided to make a run for it. The parking area, which had maybe six inches of water before, now had over a foot. Remember the dry sneakers? No more. There was no choice but to wade through the deep water, unless you wanted to remove your shoes, and that didn't seem prudent at the time. Little did we know that the flooding at the restaurant was just a taste of things to come.
Once all aboard the bus, we headed for the hotel. What should have been a nice forty minute ride, turned into about three hours. While traveling down a six lane city street, we came to a stop. The rain was still pouring down outside. After a while, we realized that the next intersection was a couple of feet deep in water, and many cars that had tried to plow through we dead in the water. We saw several drivers who had been going in the opposite direction pushing their cars out of the high water and then bailing out the car once they were out of the flood. We were trapped in the traffic jam. After about 45 minutes, some drivers removed a section of the fence between the lanes a bit behind us, and started making u-turns. Jason and our driver got out in the rain to assess the options. The driver decided that even if he could back up, the gap in the fence wasn't wide enough for the bus. But, after another half hour, enough of the cars in front of us had backed up and gone out the gap in the divider, that we could snake our way forward and go through the high water. Once we escaped that intersection, our driver somehow made his way back to our hotel. We saw many other flooded intersections, and many places where the freeway underpasses were closed. We learned much later that the flooding was the worst in 60 years in Beijing. We eventually reached our hotel and crashed after a longer than expected day.
Sun July 22nd
We woke to a beautiful blue-sky day. Because of the storms yesterday, the air had been cleared. Jason's decision to move things around was spot on. Today we started at Tieneman Square. On the way to the square, somebody asked Jason about the protests of 1989. He told us he would tell us some history of that era that he could not actually tell us at the square. He proceeded to tell us a bit about the history of the student protests, and explained that today there were many, many plainclothes security people at the square in addition to plenty of uniformed ones. There are also hundreds of security cameras in use. This is all done in the name of keeping anything like 1989 from happening again, but Jason clearly would not have been comfortable explaining the real story of what happened while we were actually at the square. Speaking of Jason being comfortable, his shoes got soaked last night also, and he didn't have another pair with him. So, he spent the day leading us around wearing the little slippers that the hotel leaves by you bed. It was quite a sight. When we got a couple blocks from the square, we disembarked from the bus. We walked a couple of blocks and went down a staircase to an underground crosswalk. Integrated into the underground crosswalk was a security checkpoint. Interestingly, Chinese people were going through metal detectors and putting their bags through airport style x-ray machines, but we were able to just walk through. We spent about thirty minutes looking around the huge square, which was packed with people. It was here that we started to realize that American tourists are an attraction to the Chinese people. We noticed many people taking our pictures, and some would come right up to us want to pose with us for pictures.
From Tieneman Square, we went under the street again to the other side of a wide boulevard and entered The Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is about 2 1/2 miles long, starting at Tieneman Square, and ending with the Emperor's quarters atop a hill. In between are many large buildings and open areas. Only the Emperor's family and staff lived in the Forbidden City, but that could number thousands of people. Many of the buildings were restored prior to the 2008 Olympics, while some have not been touched in ages. In one building we saw the living quarters used by The Last Emperor. Parts of the movie were filmed in The Forbidden City, and it remains the only film ever shot there. It was quite a long walk through the length of the city. All through the city, there were large copper or iron pots which were filled with water for potential fire fighting. Today with modern fire departments, these are no longer kept full. In fact, we saw a man emptying one after yesterday's heavy rains. Jason said he would have been punished for wasting that water in olden times. As we were getting ready to leave the grounds of The Forbidden City, Jason warned us that the vendors just outside the gate might be very aggressive, and to watch our valuables. He was right, as there was a wall of men selling tours that we had to literally push through, and then a block or two of vendors along the sidewalk selling every kind of cheap souvenir there is. I actually bought a folding fan from one as I passed, but I knew the bottom line price already and just offered that ($2) from the start. Our bus met us at the other end of The Forbidden City and we were off to lunch, then the airport.
We are off to Xian (pronounced She-an) today. At the airport, we took our luggage in to the group check-in line for China Eastern Airlines, where we left it with an employee of the tour company. He would take care of checking it all and getting our boarding passes. We all gathered in an out of the way area to await our boarding passes. There were tons of people hanging around in the airport due to yesterday's rain screwing up the schedules. Hundreds of flights had been cancelled yesterday leaving lots of people trying to get to their destinations today. After about forty-five minutes, Jason came back to us and said that our flight was delayed. He still did not have our boarding passes. The original departure time was supposed to be 15:30, but there was no posted time now, although the flight had not been cancelled. Jason took us all upstairs to a restaurant that had quite a bit of seating. We at least could all sit down here, and we got something to drink. At our table, we used the Lazy Susan to invent a game that was a cross between Wheel of Fortune and Hangman. Surprisingly, this kept us entertained for several hours. By 18:00, with no departure in sight, Jason arranged for the restaurant to feed us. Since all our meals are included in the tour price, Jason took care of all that. The meal was not up to the standards of the restaurants we have been going to, but it was something. Finally, around 19:30, Jason produced boarding passes. He had been told our departure was at 20:45. He escorted us to the security checkpoint and said goodbye as we went through security. We all proceeded to gate 45, which was on our boarding passes, only to find no flight at gate 45. The flight was on the TV's, but with no gate number listed. There was a service desk near gate 45, so we inquired there. They said they couldn't tell us when the flight would leave, and we should go to a different service desk outside security and ask about hotels. While a couple of people tried to get answers, I worked at getting my phone to connect to the airport wi-fi. I finally got to the China Eastern website, and our flight number had a departure time of 21:35. We still had no gate number though. About 20:30, somebody in our group noticed that the TV now showed gate 27 by our flight. We asked at the service desk if that was correct, and they said yes. So, we rounded everybody up and headed to gate 27. As we got there, a plane pulled in and unloaded. We loaded up and were away from the gate about 21:45. It was about 00:30 when we disembarked at Xian. We got our luggage and met our new tour guide, Jenny. She led us outside where we gave our luggage to a guy with a van who would drive it to the hotel, and we walked quite a ways to our waiting bus. The ride from the airport to our hotel, The Golden Flower, took about an hour, and it was 02:30 when we finally got to our rooms. This hotel was fine, but a little long in the tooth.
Mon July 23rd
Our tour guide Jenny met us at 08:30 for our day of touring. We loaded up the bus and stopped first at the old city wall of Xian. Inside the wall was noticeably an older style of architecture, and even newer buildings were built to look like the older ones. On the other side of the moat/wall was more of a modern look to most buildings. At the gate we stopped at, you could climb up to the top of the wall and have a good view of the city. There were racks of bicycles which were free to take and ride along the wall and then leave at your destination. Atop the gatehouse there was an assortment of old apparatus used to guard the city, like canons and catapults. We spent about thirty minutes walking around the top of the gatehouse, then it was off to the next stop.
Our second stop today was the Banpo Museum. The Banpo Museum is an archeological dig of a 6000 year old village. They have built a large building over the dig to preserve it and make it accessible to the public. Something I found very interesting was the explanation of burial techniques. Most people were buried face up, with some valuable possessions with them. This was so their soul could rise to the heavens. Bad people were buried face down and with no possessions. This was so their bad souls could not escape. Really bad people were just thrown in the grave helter skelter as opposed to laid out flat. Children were buried in clay pots. Interestingly, right next to the museum property is a huge new construction project. I wonder how certain they were that nothing of archeological import was there?
Next we drove east of Xian to the site of the Terracotta Warriors. The Terracotta Warriors was the reason to come to Xian on this trip. There is a whole other city growing up near the Terracotta Museum. It looks like almost everything here has been built in the past few years, and there is lots still under construction. We stopped at a restaurant for lunch in this part of town. After lunch, we went first to the Terracotta Museum and Shop. Here we were shown how terracotta figures are made, and had the opportunity to buy some. They also had a large selection of lacquered furniture and hand woven rugs. Once we were done with the shopping part of the deal, we drove a couple miles out into the country to the actual site of the warriors and the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. When we got to the site we didn't park with all the other buses. We drove in a side gate and stopped as close to the main exhibit buildings as possible. We were told we got special access because we were VIPs, but I think it was because one of the ladies on our bus was having some pain walking too far and had requested a wheel chair. In either case, it saved us all a lot of walking. The short story of the Terracotta Warriors is that the emperor had them built and arranged to try and fool other armies into thinking they were real and protecting his tomb and all the treasure buried with him. Later when the other armies came, they were not fooled and destroyed most of the warriors. The site lay buried for roughly 2000 years, until a farmer digging a water well found some pieces of terracotta. Chinese archeologists got interested and started digging. What they found was pretty incredible. I encourage you to follow the link above, or just Google "Terracotta Warriors" and read more details. After a brief explanation about what was where, we were turned lose for a couple of hours. There are three pits being excavated which are covered by buildings. Pit 1 is the largest and covers about 3.5 acres. The buildings are like airplane hangars, with no internal supports, so it is pretty amazing. We walked around the entire perimeter of Pit 1, where you can see the site of the original well, and the front of the layout of the soldiers. Pretty much all the soldiers were broken up, either by the collapse of the trenches they were in, or by the bad guys who found them. The ones that are now standing intact have been reassembled from the pieces they found. There are several different ranks of soldiers, as well as horses. There is active work going on still identifying and reassembling. Pit 2 is not quite as large as Pit 1, but still huge. Pit 3 is the smallest, but it contained higher ranking soldiers, indicating it was supposed to be the command post. After touring all three pits, and breezing through the exhibition building, we regrouped at the tea house where we were given a tea ceremony, sampling several different teas and of course being offered the opportunity to buy tea or other souvenirs.
We boarded the bus again, at the same place we left it and head back to Xian. In Xian, we went to dinner at a huge restaurant. The dinner was a buffet and was ok. After dinner, we went next door to a theatre where we saw a Tang Style dance show. The show had very elaborate costumes and included singing and dancing. It was about an hour long, and after a long day, it was getting hard to keep the eyes open by the end.
Tues Jul 24th
We have two stops in Xian this morning. The first was the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. This is an active Buddhist temple. There are many buildings on the grounds besides the pagoda itself. We saw several monks doing various activities around the grounds. Besides the main temple building where there was a large golden Buddha, there were several other buildings with other large gold statues. The buildings themselves we very interesting. One was undergoing renovation, and you could see all the ornate wooden carvings in the eves of the building that are put together like a bid puzzle with no fasteners. We didn't go inside the pagoda itself, as that was an extra charge and we didn't have the time. I found an interesting contrast at the place. The stones steps leading up to the front of the main temple, had recessed LED lights in them. Modern meets ancient.
Our second stop was a lacquer furniture factory and store. As with all the other stops, there was a brief lecture about lacquer furniture and how it's made, then we were turned loose to browse and buy. Of course they will ship any purchases home for you. This was one stop that didn't tempt me at all, although if I was furnishing a house, a lot of the stuff was pretty cool.
Our last stop in Xian was for lunch on the way to the airport. Every meal, there are more and more comments, some joking and some serious, about "Chinese food again?". I just don't understand why some people ever leave home. We had a good lunch and then were on to the airport. Our bags to be checked had gone before us in a separate van and were already taken care of. We were all given boarding passes and bid Jenny goodbye as we went through Security. This time, the flight was right on time, and there were no hassles. Nice change of pace.
We arrived in Shanghai about 16:00. Once we claimed our bags, we met our next tour guide , Lee, just outside the baggage area. Lee was in is fifties, and had the hardest Chinglish to understand. We boarded our bus and headed into the city. As with the other cities, the airport is quite a ways out of town. Shanghai immediately appeared very different than Beijing or Xian. It is the second largest city in China, Beijing being third, and Guangzhou being the largest. To put it in perspective, New York City has about 8.25 million people. Shanghai has over 25 million. Everywhere you look, there are high-rise apartment buildings. It seemed like there were as many under construction as there were completed. There were cranes everywhere. Back in Beijing, Jason told us there were over 1500 cranes working in China today. We were pleasantly surprised though to see clear weather in Shanghai. A typhoon came ashore west of here this morning, and apparently has sucked all the bad air towards it.
We traveled from the airport to the waterfront area of town, also known as The Bund. The bus dropped us off and went to park somewhere while we took a stroll along the waterfront. There were lots of boats on the river, including tour boats, ferries, and self-propelled barges. The architecture of the buildings around here was definitely more western influenced. It seemed as if every architect was trying to outdo the last one. We spent about an hour strolling around the waterfront and then headed back to where the bus could pick us up. While waiting for the bus, we noticed a couple of interesting street names. There was Fuxing Rd. and Fuyou Rd. Both good for a chuckle.
We then went to dinner, and then to the hotel, The Renaissance Shanghai. This was the nicest hotel of the three we have been at. For the first time in the trip, we were at the hotel early enough to go to the lobby bar and relax for a bit before bedtime. The mixed drink service was similar to what I have encountered in Europe. If you ask for rum and coke, there will be two questions: single or double, and do you want ice? When it is served, the rum will be in the glass with the ice, and the coke will be in a separate glass so you mix it yourself. They had a limited selection of rums, as one might expect, but one of the choices was Havana Club from Cuba. I can get that in the Caribbean too, but not in the States, so that's what I went with.
Wed Jul 25th
We started today with a visit to a silk factory. I had no idea how silk was made, so it was interesting to see how the thread is unwound from the cocoon of the silk worm. Just like our other tour stops, we first got a short lecture about silk. Then we saw a demonstration of unwinding the silk threads from the cocoons, and a demonstration of hand stretching the cocoons to make bed comforters. Then we were turned loose to shop. The first room we were shopping in was comforters and covers for them. I had been tasked by my ex-wife Barb to get her a comforter. She had been to China a couple years ago and gotten one, and wanted another. Since they ship directly from China, all I had to do was place the order, give them her address, and pay for it. As soon as we were turned loose to shop, I went directly to the counter and told them what I wanted. Knowing that a man couldn't possibly know what he is doing shopping for bedding, they said "Where's your wife?". I said I didn't have a wife and repeated what size comforter I wanted. They kept looking around for a woman to join me, but finally gave up and gave me the shipping form to fill out. After the bedding room, we were shuffled into a room full of various silk clothing. I was tempted to by a nice silk shirt, but I already have way too many shirts, so I resisted. After the clothing room, we all went upstairs to see how silk rugs are woven by hand. We watched a lady working on a rug that will take her almost six months to complete. You have to wonder how she gets rewarded to be the one person who works in this "tour" factory, and how many others slave away somewhere else. Because the next room contained thousands of rugs for sale.
The silk factory took all morning, so from there we went to lunch. Yes, Chinese food again. ☺ After lunch, we went to Chinatown. Chinatown in China you ask? Well, if I caught the explanation right, since Shanghai is such a modern city, this area, also known as The Bazaar, is like an old traditional Chinatown in the middle of the big city. The area was quite crowded, with both tourists and guys trying to sell you anything or direct you to the best tea house for a tip. These guys were pretty insistent, and you had to just yell NO! at them to get rid of them. Our tour guide took us to a tea house and pearl store, where he obviously had connections. He told us this was the place to come to use a bathroom, sit, cool down, have tea, coffee, or a beer, all without any pressure to buy anything. This was also to be our meeting place in two hours. We headed back out onto the streets to see the sights. In the space of about half an hour, we had observed a cat sleeping up on a ledge above the fray, been approached by numerous guys hawking various things, and a couple of us took a side trip down an alley to view high-end counterfeit goods in a small room. After that little adventure, we were hot and tired already. We had a choice between iced coffee at one of two Starbucks in the area, Coldstone Creamery, or cheap cold beer back at the tea room. We opted for the beer. We found that just about every business sold bottled water, Coke, Sprite, and Tsingtao beer. Every shop, museum, corner stand, or restaurant had this pretty much as their total beverage selection. At the tea room, we had a choice of a 12oz can of Tsingtao, or a 22 oz bottle. We inquired about the price. $2 US for either one. Let us think about this for a moment and crunch the numbers. OK, we'll take the bottles. We spent the balance of our allotted time in Chinatown enjoying the air-conditioned comfort, several cold beers, and a fairly clean bathroom, while others of our group came and went from their exploring.
After the bazaar, we walked back to where the bus could pick us up and headed to dinner. After dinner there was a choice. Some of us were going to an optional show, while the rest were going back to the hotel. The bus dropped those of us going to the show first, then took the others to the hotel. The show was saw was ERA. It was a Cirque du Soleil type of show, with several incredible acrobatic acts. It culminated with an act that was motorcycles going round and round inside a steel ball. I have seen this type of act before, but this time there were eight motorcycles at the same time inside the ball. I've never seen that many. The show was definitely worth the extra money. After the show the bus was waiting for us and took us back to the hotel. It was not that late, and our last night in China, so we again spent a little time in the bar with several of the group.
Thur July 26th
We fly back to the States today. Our last site to see is on the way to the airport. It is the maglev train that runs between Shanghai and Pudong Airport. While it is advertised to go speeds in excess of 400 kph, our trip topped out at 300 kph, which is 186 mph. Still pretty cool considering it felt like you were sitting in your living room. The train does not have wheels, and rides on a cushion of air. Our luggage went via the bus, so once we got to the airport and walked from the train station to the terminal we were departing from, we still had to wait for the bus to get there with our bags.
Since this was an international flight, we had to check our bags and get our boarding passes ourselves. We did this and bid Lee goodbye as we headed to Security. Once inside, we still had almost an hour to kill before our boarding time. Adam and I were hoping to find a McDonalds in the terminal but didn't. We found a restaurant that had burgers on the menu, but after we were seated we found that they didn't cook burgers until noon. (It was about 10:00.) So, we had sandwiches instead. I had a club and Adam had chicken. Almost American food! We boarded our flight pretty much on-time, and began the long flight back to NYC. By chance Adam and I were seated in the exit row, so at least we had a few extra inches of knee room for the trip. We watched several movies on the iPad, I read quite a bit, and I tried to sleep some. I was not able to sleep as much as I had on the way over though. Going west, you get back the day you lost crossing the International Date Line. So, we left China Thursday morning, and fifteen hours later we arrived in New York Thursday mid-afternoon. The food on the return flight was exceptionally crappy. Yes, we were tired of Chinese food, but the food that we had on the way over was much better than what was on this flight. When we arrived, we cleared Immigration, got our bags, and cleared Customs, all with no problems. Our bus to Newburgh was waiting at the curb, and an hour and a half later we were in the car on the way home.
Overall, the trip was very interesting. I probably would not go out of my way to do it again, but not because I didn't enjoy it. My only complaint was that we packed too much into too short of a time. There was no room for any screw ups, like our late flights, and there was no down-time to just relax. Overall I was impressed by how much China has developed in the last twenty years. There's something to be said for not having the paralysis of bureaucracy that major projects in the States go through. China gets a lot of bad press in the States because of the current financial crisis and jobs going overseas. But, I think we need to find a way to work with them towards a solution that helps us all, rather than look at them as an enemy.