Thursday, May 29, 2014

Words to the new grads..

'Tis the season for graduation speeches, and Williston Northampton School up the road always seems to have really great ones.  This year was no exception.  Local artist, author, and former Williston teacher, Barry Moser took the podium last weekend.   Awesome speech and important message.  Well worth sharing..



Just as I was careful not to compare my speech to Alan Alda's when I wrote it a few years ago, I would never even consider trying to compete with Barry's.  Having said that, I though I'd repost a link to my attempt at a graduation speech.   It's a little dated, but I like to share it with my new grad scoopers most years, so here it is.  If you haven't already seen it, you're welcome to give it a read...

http://icecreamdiaries.blogspot.com/2011/06/my-graduation-speech.html

Happy almost Summer to you!

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

How I got into ice cream, unabridged version.

 


I'm often asked, 'how did you get into ice cream?'

The most accurate answer is 'because a manager I hardly knew didn't consider me for a promotion'.

But that's never the answer I've given.   Until now. 

At first glance, my foray into ice cream might seem like a no-brainer. My Dad worked his whole career in the dairy field. He and my Mom built and operated a couple of successful ice cream shops back when I was in my twenties and thirties. In business school, I even wrote a business plan about a small ice cream shop. But I was an engineer. I had an undergraduate degree in engineering, along with a similar engineering master's degree and an MBA. I'd been working at the prestigious Bell Laboratories for over a decade. Heck, I'd just gotten my third week of vacation and had a nice 401K and pension. The work was fairly interesting and the company had treated me well. But I felt stuck. There had to be more to (work) life. I wasn't unhappy. I just wasn't excited about the work and the predictable life I'd built around it. Unfortunately, I wasn't unhappy enough to do anything about it.



That all changed one otherwise unremarkable Tuesday in April.  I had heard through the grapevine that I wasn't a candidate for a promotion that I felt extremely qualified.   The hiring manager, at the advice of her boss, wasn't even considering me for the job.  The truth was this blackballing boss barely knew me.  I'd become a victim of office politics.  That was it for me.  The next day, I uploaded my resume to monster.com.  Within a week, I got a call from a promising tech startup.  Within another few weeks, I would leave that big, safe company life for a risky new start-up, full of scary smart people with what seemed like a really good idea.
 
I think you can probably guess how the start-up experience went. It was really fun and exciting at first, full of promise and big paychecks. The ride was fast and stressful and was over in a little more than a year. I'd given up security and comfort for risk and excitement, and it landed me on the unemployment line. I learned a lot at that start-up and enjoyed the experience, but the day I remember most is the last one.

This is how it replays in my mind..

It was more than a decade ago when I found myself walking on a beach in southern New Hampshire in the middle of the day on a Friday. I skipped stones on the water and contemplated the events that had unfolded so unexpectedly an hour before. What had started as an innocent meeting after lunch with my boss saying, ‘follow me’, had become a moment that would completely change the direction of my life. As soon as I walked into that conference room and saw my human resource director sitting on the other side of the big oak table, I knew what was about to happen. I remember that feeling of shock and utter helplessness as he explained the terms of our breakup. As I walked on that beach that day, filled with rejection and anger at not having seen it coming, I made a vow to myself.

I will someday look back at this day and be able to say was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Sitting here now, in the middle of my little ice cream venture in the coolest little town on the planet, I can wholeheartedly say it truly was the best thing that ever happened to me. And by 'it', I mean not getting that promotion.

 

'It' made room for nearly two years of amazing travel, the conception and birth of the business I always wanted, and a new way of life, free of the creative confines of a factory floor and a claustrophobic cubicle.

The first part of my ‘life after layoff’ involved driving cross-country in my little Acura Integra. I bought an oversized road atlas at WalMart. (think: pre-GPS, pre-Iphone days). I excitedly highlighted a route from Boston to California and back. Into my trunk went a tent, a sleeping bag, a handful of t-shirts and shorts, some camping gear, a laptop, a camera, and my trusty journal.

It was a morning in May that I pointed my car in the direction of the left coast and began what would become a nearly three thousand mile adventure, taking me to thirty-eight states including Alaska, fifteen national parks, countless friends’ couches, seedy campgrounds, and Motel 6’s. It was a summer of the road, just my thoughts and me. I had no timetable.  I had a rough idea of where I wanted to go, who I wanted to visit, and what I wanted to see, but after working ‘for the man’ for fifteen years, I was determined to let this summer be about just ‘going with the flow’.



What followed was an amazing, spiritual, eye-opening, cleansing journey that took me to the best places our country has to offer, from the Badlands to Grand Canyon to Telluride to Mitchell’s Corn Palace. I met many interesting people and reconnected with distant friends and family. I took thousands of pictures. I ate incredible amounts of bad food. I survived a dust storm in Utah that made driving through a New England blizzard feel like a walk on a tropical beach. I mountain biked with bald eagles in the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska and drank 25 cent cups of coffee at the infamously tacky Wall Drug tourist respite. Cathartic is the best word I can think of to describe it.

And it was where ‘Hand-me-downs’ was born.
 

If you haven’t leafed through the ice cream-tattered copy on the counter of my ice cream shop, 'Hand-me-downs: Some little used tips on life for my little brother', is a coffee table book I created right around the time I opened the shop. I was inspired to write it by my little brother. Not one of my own little brothers, although neither is little anymore, but my ‘little’ from the Big Brother program. His name is Ted, and we have been buddies since we were introduced through the program when he was eight. His parents were heroin addicts, and he, along with his four brothers and two sisters, were raised by his saint-like grandparents. Despite all the adolescent challenges that go along with growing up in such a high risk situation, he turned out to be an amazing person. My role in that was simply to spend some time with him every week and try to be a good role model for him.


 
I can say without hesitation being a Big Brother for Ted and my association with that program has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. I’ve gotten as much, if not more, out of that experience than my buddy Ted. In the spirit of that feeling, I wanted to create something that might serve to continue that role after our lives began to head off in other directions. Hand-me-downs began during those long rides across Kansas and Nebraska. I asked myself, ‘if I was sitting with Ted on the night before he graduated high school and about to start his life in ‘the real world’, what kind of advice would I give him?’ What are the lessons I’ve learned along my journey that might be helpful to him. What observations could I ‘hand down’ to him that might help him direct his life and his decisions in the future?

With that thought in mind, I began to write down one-liners into a notebook. ‘Be aggressive.’ ‘There are plenty of unhappy people in big houses.’ ‘See the world.’ At first, the pen couldn’t capture my thoughts fast enough. I went inward to retrieve all the life lessons buried inside. I read inspiring books and articles on-line to lubricate the process. I looked for signs along my cross-country journey. I took pictures that would eventually become part of the presentation of my ideas. That process continued for the four months I spent living out of my gold semi-sports car.

When I finally got weary of the road and traded in my tent for the comfort of my own bed, I opened up that notebook full of thoughts, affirmations, and inspirations and began to fill in the details. I recalled and wrote about moments in my life that taught or reinforced these beliefs I wanted to share with my little brother. It was a long, slow process, but one I recall as fondly as my cross-country adventure and the Australia/New Zealand backpacking trip I took shortly after my return from my trek across America. The process of capturing ‘the world according to me’ was not only satisfying for its original purpose but helped me visualize the kind of life I wanted going forward. I knew my life would never read as perfectly as my thirty-eight little lessons with accompanying photographs, but each were and still remain helpful reminders when my life gets bogged down in the mundanes of daily life.

It was nearly ten years ago when I gave the one hardcover copy of Hand-me-downs to high school graduate little brother Ted. I look back on that day with pride and satisfaction. I felt like I had offered Ted and the world something of value. A tiny voice born out of the experiences and observations of my life. I don’t know if Ted has picked up that book since that day. I hope he has, but that’s out of my control now. It was the process that brought me joy - the struggles of channeling my thoughts into a form that could be used again by someone else. By me. It was immensely satisfying, and I still get a charge out of seeing a customer leafing through the tattered copy while they eat a cone of cookie dough. I smile every time someone buys one for themselves or for a graduation gift. I guess it’s a validation that my words mean something and that my images bring them pleasure. I don’t make any money when I sell one, but that doesn’t matter. It’s never been about the money. Aside from having enough to pay the bills and feed your family, I've always believed it should never be about the money anyway.

It occurs to me that the life I had leading up to that day I shared the book with Ted barely resembles the life that followed. I completely reinvented my life to the point of being unrecognizable from the one I enjoyed all those years before it. I left the confines and comfort of corporate life for the challenges and insecurity of small business ownership. It’s been a wild ride of learning, trying things, and constantly adjusting the sail. Starting something new puts you out of your comfort zone. It’s scary and uncertain, the prospect of success or failure hinging on the decisions you make and the way you direct your efforts. It’s also immensely satisfying and rewarding. Creating something from nothing. My baby.

During my annual winter break this year, I took a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Located five hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador, this ring of tiny islands is both breathtakingly beautiful and fascinating. Teeming with wildlife that harbor little fear of humans, these underdeveloped volcanic islands provide a rare opportunity to see and interact with marine life. Sea lions lounge on park benches. Marine iguanas scurry about on the beach. Playful baby sea lions swim along with the adventurous snorkeler in a lagoon. Giant hundred year old tortoises lumber along the side of a dirt road. It’s a natural habitat unblemished by the progress of human civilization.
 

It’s also the birthplace of evolutionary theory. Charles Darwin visited Galapagos in 1835. It was here he noticed the subtle variations in similar species from island to island, particularly the beaks of finches. Darwin collected massive amounts of samples and data. This data would eventually become the basis for his landmark thesis, ‘The Origin of Species’. He observed that in just a few short generations, the beaks of finches had changed to be better suited to the unique environments of their island home.

They evolved.

That’s where it hit me. Isn’t that what life is all about? Evolving. Darwin called it natural selection. Whether it be on a soccer field or the thoughts in your mind or in a bird's beak. We are constantly evolving. I’m not the same person I was ten years ago, and neither are you. My basic philosophies may be similar, but life has molded me into something different. Our cells are constantly dying and being replaced by new ones. Life’s experiences teach us lessons, point us in new directions, and show us what works and what doesn’t. A decade ago, I steered my life onto a new path, and that’s brought me new lessons and experiences. New teachers have come into my life. I’ve made some of the same mistakes but I've tried to learn from them. In a word, I've evolved.

The day I decided to leave the big company job was the beginning of my evolution.

Forcing myself out of my comfort zone was the game-changer for me. It changed everything. I may or may not know you. You may or may not be itching to shake up your life right now. If you are, I hope my story might in some small way convince you consider the possibility.   You can do this.   Time goes by fast, best get to it.  I find it hard to believe it's been ten years since I peeked at my future through the window of 34 Cottage Street.   It's been a great ride so far.  I thank you for listening and for allowing me to continue to do what I do.  The pleasure and honor is mine.    Truly.
 
Stayed tuned for the long-promised follow-up to 'Hand-me-downs - Some Slightly Used Tips on Life', 'Ice Cream Parlor Wisdom', due to be completed sometime during the summer of 2014.  
 
 
 
Hopefully. :)
 
And I hope you can stop by on Saturday (May 10th) to help us celebrate as my baby turns 10.
 
 
 
 
Jim 

 









Friday, May 02, 2014

Life advice from an ice cream god.

Have I told you about the time Ben Cohen was in my shop?

Yes, the Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s Ben Cohen.   So what was he like?  Was he cool and funny and did he tell funny ice cream war stories?   Well, the truth is I never actually met him, but I am still 99% sure it was him.     He stopped into the shop one day last summer, wrote the note you see above, sealed it in an envelope addressed to ‘the proprietor’, and dropped it into the suggestion jar.    Also included in the envelope were five crisp twenty dollar bills.   Yup, a hundred bucks in cash and wise advice from an ice cream god.  Coolest suggestion ever, by far.
 
As you could guess, Ben Cohen wasn’t the first name that popped into my head when I opened the envelope.   There were a few clues that led me to the godfather of super premium ice cream.

1. The words ‘chocolate matrix’ and ‘inclusions’.   The only people I know who describe the ‘stuff’ in your scoop of ice cream as inclusions are ice cream makers.   Just like I wouldn’t expect you to describe that chocolate swirl in your fudge brownie cone as variegate.   
 
2. A hundred bucks is a lot of money to just drop into the suggestion jar at your local ice cream shop.   That certainly got my attention.   It took me a long time to actually take the twenties out of the envelope and even consider spending them.   



3. A friend had recently gone to a fundraising event where Ben made an appearance.   This friend, a small business owner on Cottage Street who sells records (Platterpus), chatted with him about, among other things, local ice cream shops, and mentioned my shop to Ben.


4. I’ve heard stories from other small ice cream shop owners having a similar experience.

This seemed like more than enough evidence to convince me I’d been visited by the one and only Ben Cohen.   I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d actually bought a cone.   And did he like it?   When you’re in the food biz, you’re constantly being evaluated and critiqued, if not on yelp or someone’s Facebook page, certainly in the minds of your customers.   All opinions matter, and if they didn’t, what would be the point, but the opinion of Ben Cohen would, well, do I even need to say?

Since he signed it ‘an admirer’, I’ll just wallow in the fact that he liked something I did here.  Even just for the fact that he knows how much hard work and commitment goes into what we do.

So the question you probably have in your head now is did I spend the money on developing a chocolate matrix and not-hard mint inclusions or wine, women, and song?

I did what I thought Ben would want me to do of course.
 
I spent the first bit on his ice cream idea, and the rest on his other fine suggestions.

A most unexpected work-life balance lesson from Ben Cohen.   

The hundred bucks is long gone, but his words continue to remind me of the important things in life.    Work hard, always try to do better, but don’t forget to have fun along the way.



Thursday, March 14, 2013

Ni Hao China - It's a Wrap.



Well, I hope by now I've given you a pretty good feel for what it was like to be lost in translation in the People's Republic of China.   I may need a thesaurus to come up with new adjectives to describe it if I go on much longer.   I've tried hard to explain, and show, what it feels like to be dropped in a country so far away and different.   China's history is measured in thousands of years where ours is in hundreds.  From our view seven thousand miles away, it's hard to know exactly what 'communist country' means, especially when you read about how fast their economy is growing.   They are definitely spending a considerable chunk of their surplus on infrastructure.   Construction is everywhere.   Most may not earn much from their government job, but all that are able are working.



The more obvious reminders of communism could be found in their one newspaper, The China Daily.   You won't find any stories of protests or alternative political viewpoints.   Try to access Facebook or Blogger or YouTube, and you will be greeted with an error screen.   My brother is only able to post his blog through a VPN in San Francisco somewhere, and even that's been difficult lately, as the government has been trying to crack down on that method of access to the outside world.

I never felt unwelcome by strangers.  It just seemed like more of an apathy.   Most were just going about their daily routines and didn't seem to care much about the guy packed in the subway car next to them who had facial hair and an American passport.    They couldn't speak English, and I could communicate only as fast as I could type into Google Translate on my phone.

I wasn't a big fan of the loud throat-clearing and spitting.   I understand it's seen as a method of cleansing, and as you or I wouldn't give someone blowing their nose a second look, the Chinese seem to have made peace with their phlegm.

My last day in Beijing was filled with pagodas and markets and harmony temples, made much more interesting by the company of Tea, (pronounced Te-uh), a burly woman from Croatia.   She was a foreign diplomat and had a deep, gravelly laugh.   She taught me important worldly lessons like never give a Russian person the 'thumbs up' and made me laugh when she said, 'I hope this meal does not have consequences', in her thick, raspy Slavic accent, after our tour lunch at a place that definitely made both of us gastronomically anxious.   She spoke about a dozen languages, and I recently found her on the Croatian conciliate website, so I know she was the real deal.


I was even more grateful for her company when I met a guy from Minnesota who was sitting next to us during lunch at the dark and dirty Chinese restaurant.   He was eating silently with his local tour guide.   I said hello, and we all chatted for a little while.   He was ecstatic to be able to speak English to someone, since his was a tour of one.   He too was visiting his brother, who is working in Beijing for Caterpillar.   He was a farmer and only had one arm, which fascinated me, and made me wonder two things.   What piece of farming equipment took his arm, and two, how hard must it be to be a farmer with only one arm.    Ah, the characters you meet when you travel outside your comfort zone.

Here are a more few images from day two of my Beijing tour..


Some of the Guard leaving the Forbidden City..


One of the hundreds of ornate giant vessels found all around the Forbidden City.   In pre-plumbing days, these were filled with water, ancient fire hydrants if you will..


Friends who have been to the Forbidden City, when they see this photo, are amazed how empty it was on this day.   I guess traveling to China in January wasn't such a bad idea after all.


This was during my brother's visit in September...




Old lore has it that there are 9999.5 rooms in the City, just less than the 10K rooms in heaven's version, but truth be told there are actually only 8707.


Another stop on our tour was to a pearl market.   Who knew cultured pearls could number in the 40's for a single oyster.   Even the oysters are crowded in this country!  It's no wonder natural pearls are so much more valuable.


Next stop on our cultural/shopping tour, a silk market.   Here a woman explains the life cycle of the silkworm.   Made me miss the giant mulberry tree that fell on my garage last October during the Halloween blizzard.


Pulling the silk into a swanky new blanket..


It was a fascinating, and often challenging three week adventure, and as I mentioned earlier, was an experience that has settled into my memory quite nicely.   I admire my brother and his wife for accepting the challenge of living there.   Their children will soon be fluent in Chinese which shouldn't be a bad thing to have when they hit the working world.   The smog situation is actually worse than you might imagine, and I fear for their little lungs though.   I really do hope the government uses some of that extra cash to solve that growing problem.

This was shot on the fast train somewhere between Beijing and Shanghai.   And it was much worse in the city.   Like a fog that never lifted.   And had a subtle odor of the downwind side of a campfire.



Thanks for indulging me while I relived and recorded my observations.   Like most of the rantings in my trusty Ice Cream Diaries, I hope to someday thumb through them again like an old, tattered journal with yellowed pages stumbled upon while cleaning out a long forgotten box in the attic.

I leave you with a large Chinese cabbage made out of jade.     Why, you ask?

The Chinese people consider cabbage, a staple of their diet, to be a symbol of prosperity.



And there's something else I didn't know before I got on that long flight to Shanghai.



May your 2013 be bursting with cabbage.


I'm not sure what next January has in store, but I look forward to it already..

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Ni Hao China - part 5 Beijing.


I think when I left you, I was walking nervously towards the giant new train station in Xi’an. My brother and his family were off to the airport to fly back to their home city away from home of Shanghai, back to work and school and their regular ex-pat lives. And I was off to Beijing on a really fast train. Thanks to this sweet ride, I would be walking through the Beijing train station in four and a half short hours.  No hard car overnight sleeper for me.


I looked forward to walking on the Great Wall and seeing the Forbidden City and all the other touristy sites Beijing had in store for me, but it was hard to not be anxious about all the challenges that it would take to get there. First off, finding my train and getting on it successfully within the ten minute window I would have from boarding call to push off from the gate. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I at least knew how to read my ticket.



My brother had instructed me to simply find the big board in the station and watch for my train to arrive and be called. Of course, it turned out there was no such board in this brand new station, but I was still able to find the gate with my train number on it. Phew. The train eventually arrived, my ticket worked in the turnstile, and I was able to find my car and seat without incident. Small victories.  I was on my way.



The Beijing station was a whole different scene. Dark and cold and chaotic, this place was the stuff of murder mysteries. I stayed focused, however, and made my way through the smoke from the smokers on the platform, through the station, dodging all the questionable Chinese men offering rides in their taxis, and into the half mile long legit taxi stand. Luckily, there were hundreds of China-issue taxis, so I was able to get in my own with only about a twenty minute wait. I handed the driver a copy of my hotel reservation, he mumbled something back in Chinese, and off we went.

Fifteen minutes of death defying driving chaos later, I was all checked-in and gleefully standing in my own little Crown Plaza Beijing nest.   It was good to see the minibar well stocked with all the important things.



Having used up all my adventurousness getting there, I decided the 7-11 next door would be as far as I would venture that night. A movie in the room and convenience store snacks worked just fine. I had two big days ahead and wanted to be well-rested.


The pastry looking thing to the immediate left of my tall can of Budweiser, (how do you say 'redneck' in Mandarin?) turned out to be, instead of a cheese danish, a hot dog with mayonnaise.   Not exactly what I had in mind for breakfast the next morning.   The item to the right, a stack of dust masks.   I must confess I actually didn't wear one outside the confines of my hotel room.   I just figured of all the things that might kill me, it probably wouldn't be two days of Beijing smog, as bad as it was.



I had booked a two day tour when I was back in Shanghai, so all I had to do was meet the driver in the lobby the next morning. Tours are usually for twenty to thirty people, which means you may spend the first hour or more of your day just picking everyone up from all the different hotels. As luck and winter would have it, tours on both days had only one other tourist besides me, so not only did we save a bunch of time in pickups, no clunky white van for us. We got our own car. Two tourists, a driver and an English-speaking guide, great for us the customers but much less profitable for the guides (seemed to be one of the few time tips were actually expected), I’m sure a lot less stressful for them to keep tabs on two as opposed to thirty.  It did seem hard for them to turn it off though.  I felt like a foreign spy on surveillance at times, but then again I felt like that in most places I visited in China.



My travel buddy for day one was gentleman from the Kingdom of Tonga, a tiny country consisting of 176 islands, only 50 of which are inhabited, about an hour and a half flight from Fiji in the South Pacific. He was on his way to Geneva, Switzerland to conduct a bible study with the World Council of Churches. Good guy, and nice to have an English-speaking travel buddy for the day.  Conversations on the way to the Great Wall ranged from his thoughts about who's actually to blame for Adam and Eve getting kicked out the Garden of Eden (he thinks Eve gets too much of the blame) to Michelangelo's risque use of nudity in his paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.   This is one of the things I really love about travel.   You just don't meet interesting characters like that at the local pub.   Sure, they may be colorful, but chances are they didn't grow up on a tiny island in the South Pacific and have a wife they met at a bible summit in India.


Our first stop, The Great Wall, Badaling or ‘North Pass’. It took about an hour to drive there, and since we didn’t have to pick up twenty-two other tourists, we got there nice and early. The smog had cleared, and although it was brisk, we couldn’t have asked for a better January day to walk on the Wall. I’ll let my photos do the talking here.. Suffice to say, walking on the Wall was bordering on spiritual - peaceful and awesome and humbling. The trail to get on it was steep and the stairs on the wall even steeper. It was hard not to think of all the slave labor it took to construct this nearly 4000 mile man-made wonder.



Walk with me for a little while..



As you can see, it was more like the Great Stairway of China..


It's said that over a million men worked on the many different portions of the Great Wall, with the most famous portions built around 200 BC by our friend from the Terracotta Soldiers, Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of China.  The wall was built in separate portions over many dynasties and were ultimately connected to form a continuous barrier from the nomads of the north.   Builders were peasants, criminals, and scholars with opinions that didn't quite match up with the regimes.   The work was brutal and hazardous.  Nearly one in three men worked on it, and if you were 'invited' to partake in the backbreaking work, you had only a three in ten chance of returning alive.  I tried not to think about the many bodies entombed in the wall underneath my feet.

And no, the Wall is not visible from the Moon.   I'm sure it shows up on Google Earth now, but then again so does the barbecue in my backyard.

The rest of the tour almost seems insignificant compared to that walk on the Wall, but here are a few shots to round out the day.

Next stop, a Jade Market.   Turns out Jade is a pretty big deal here.


I tried not to become prey to the many 'purchase optional' stops on our tours, but I just couldn't resist picking a souvenir 'Happiness Ball'.   It's crafted out of a single piece of jade and has two carved balls that move independently inside a fancy outer shell.  It's meant to represent happiness throughout the generations of a family.



We also stopped at the Ming Tombs.   Interesting, but as you might guess, I was starting to get a little pagoda fatigue at this point..


Tea tasting at a real Chinese tea room (exit through the gift shop of course)..



Since we were still running ahead of schedule, we got to end our first day tour at a Chinese alternative medicine hospital.   A local doctor explained a number of alternative methods such as acupuncture and healing herbs.   To prove these methods work, we were treated to free foot massages (the only other time I heard the word 'tip' used in China). 

Most of the rest of the day was spent exploring the local markets near my hotel and scaring up something tasty on a stick for dinner.


But you already know about the dinner part.

That was a pretty great day.



Well, it seems I won't be able to get my entire Beijing visit into one blog post.  Thanks for staying with me this far.     One more entry should do it.  Stay tuned.   

I'm hoping to include a little wrap-up along with my collection of China trivia I gathered like sea glass along this journey..

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ni Hao China - Part 4 - Terracotta Soldiers

"All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience."   - Mao Tse Tung


After spending a week in Shanghai, it was time to hit the road.   Or the air, to be more exact.   A quick train ride to the airport, and by quick I mean 250 miles per hour on a magnetic levitation train, very cool.   My brother and his family had never been to Xi'an, so they decided to come along for the second leg of my three city tour.   In the interest of travel time, we opted for China Airways.   I'd heard some horror stories about domestic air travel, but it's come a long way in the past few years.   Aside from traveling with all Asian fliers, it felt pretty much the same as a normal flight from Hartford to Orlando to visit the folks.   The only real difference I noticed was they don't seem to buy into the concept of lining up and boarding by row.   People crowd the front of the gate at least a half hour ahead of time, and when boarding is announced, it's every person for themselves.   Come to think of it, that was the general feeling I got throughout my travels in China.   A friend had recently described the Chinese as 'rude', but I just felt like people were just doing what they had to do to get from point A to point B.   Let's face it, a billion is a lot of people to crowd into one country.



Thanks to my brother's frequent traveler status, we got to enjoy celebrity check-in from the cushy chairs in the executive lounge.  Free Tsing Taos and fancy snacks.   Xi'an, so far so good.

                                         

In case your China geography is rusty, Xi'an is north and slightly west of Shanghai, and as you can see from this map, almost on the way to Beijing, my next destination..


Aside from the big wall around the perimeter of the downtown, Xi'an looked like a typical chaotic, bustling and overpopulated Chinese city.   Its population is around four million, about half the size of New York City.  Shanghai is China's largest, at 15 million, and Beijing sits around 11 million.   Here's a view from our fancy Sofitel Hotel..

                                    

Tourists mostly come to Xi'an to see the famous Terracotta Warriors, and we were no exception.   A long day of planes, trains, and taxi's didn't stop us from wandering over to the Muslim Quarter to grab a bite and take in some of the local culture first though.   We passed the Drum Tower and Great Mosque, but unfortunately both were covered in scaffolding and closed to the public.    The Quarter was still well worth the twenty minute walk and death-defying street crossing to get there.

                              

This photo doesn't really capture its energy.   This walking street was buzzing with activity.   Street food vendors were everywhere (I already talked about the food here in the last installment).   Trinket shops and markets lined the streets.   This is where I learned you never pay full price for anything in the streets and markets of China.  In fact, it became a bit of a competition among family members to see who could get the best deal on souvenir mini Terracotta Soldiers.


Which brings me to the main reason we traveled to Xi'an, to see the Terracotta Army.

Discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging a well, the Terracotta Soldiers have become a major tourist attraction in China.   And for good reason, they are impressive.   Built in 200 BC for China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, the Terracotta Army is a collection of 8,000 life sized soldiers and hundreds of chariots and horses.   Emperor Huang thought that by building this faux-army and assembling it near his tomb, he would be able to bring them all along to his afterlife and be able to kick butt there too.    Ok, so he may not have said 'kicked butt'.  The hollow statues were made by government laborers and craftsmen.   Faces resemble actual warriors.   I'd seen pictures, but I was excited to see them in real life, in the actual place they were first assembled, now one of the world's most well-known archaeological digs.

My brother had worked out a little arrangement with a Chinese colleague who provided a driver and an English-speaking guide to take us to a few of the local sites and to the Warriors.   He called it 'Guanxi', which basically means my brother owes him a big favor.

First stops on the way.   The Ban Po Museum, an ancient settlement, and by far the coldest museum I've ever experienced.



Next, it was off to the Huaqing Hot Springs, beautiful..

                         


And a good place to warm up our hands..


On a side note, the Chinese locals loved to get their picture taken with my nephews and niece.   Especially my niece.   Strangers would constantly ask, some more aggressively than others, to pose with her.   She was always a good sport about it.   Here she is, summoning her inner rock star...


Now without further delay, we get to the site of the Terracotta Warriors..


Understated but definitely built to support large crowds, the grounds did little to give away any hints as to what lay in the pits we were about to see.


There are three pits, and although pits two and three were interesting in their own ways, pit one was what we'd come to see.


A small museum gave us a close look at some of the figures, through glass...




We entered the giant airplane hanger from the back.    Here's the staging area where soldiers are painstakingly brought back to their original form.   The paint is gone, but all the other detail remains.



No small feat when you consider the condition many of these figures were in when they were first unearthed.    There was a revolt just be the emperor died.   His mausoleum was ransacked and burnt.  Guess the working folk were just tired of being forced to make all those soldiers for their death-fearing dictator.


Here we all are.   As I've said, long johns and a ski hat were my devoted travel companions for most of the trip.


And here it is...


Side View..


Not sure if this giant army made out of terracotta actually helped China's first chairman in his afterlife, but a pretty impressive display nonetheless.


The weekend in Xi'an ended with my brother and his family waving goodbye to me as I anxiously walked toward a crowded train station and an awaiting bullet train to take me to Beijing, the grand finale of my tour...