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...

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ni Hao China Part 3 - The Food Episode

I think I left you looking at a display of bugs on sticks in a street vendor’s booth. There was one small detail you couldn’t tell from the picture, if you look closely...

Needless to say, I passed on that one. I was much more partial to dumplings, noodles, and ‘normal’ meats on sticks.

I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘foodie’, except perhaps in matters of desserts frozen of course, but I do believe food should definitely be a big part of any travel experience. I think you would agree. Luckily, I spent the first week in China with my brother and his family, so I had help with immersing myself in China's culinary culture. They’ve been there for almost a year now and although I wouldn’t call them fluent yet, they can speak enough Mandarin to navigate a menu and answer a taxi driver’s basic questions. No small feat in either case, as I discovered.

Our first adventure to downtown Shanghai took us to the top of the Oriental Pearl tower.

The highlight of that was the floor with the glass floor. The kids were fearless, but we adults took a little longer to feel comfortable walking on glass a few thousand feet in the air.

Next was a walk down East Nanjing Road, a popular pedestrian street somewhat larger a version of Boston’s downtown crossing but with thousands of Asian people scurrying about. I’d been warned to not be swayed by locals peddling ‘massages’, however you imagine that experience, but we didn’t encounter any of that.

Of course, when I went back there a few days later by myself, it was a whole different story. It seems a foreigner male walking alone may as well have a big X on his back. “Dvd's, watches, massage?’ These guys (the ladies who would perform such services were kept safe in whatever room they would bring you too, should you be foolish enough to accept their offer). After being followed and re-accosted five or six times in a four block stretch, I figured it was time to retreat to the safety of my brother's ex-pat bubble.

But I digress. We were talking about food. This was another top five meal in China..

I must confess, although I rarely do fast food here at home, a couple times while on my own I just wanted simple and easy. Most of the servers at Mickey D's and the even more common KFC still didn’t speak English, but at least they had a laminated placemat with pictures of all the meal options.

Another helpful visual aid for food ordering was the ‘exhibit A’ approach. At this local fast-food place, you just point to the dishes you want as the server writes them down. After you take that list to the cashier to pay, your food is cooked and brought to your table.

This was another one of my favorites, the anatomically-correct squirrel fish.

As I mentioned, many Chinese have no kitchens, which would explain the nearly two block stretch of street food vendors I came across in Beijing. So many choices. I usually kept it pretty simple with dumplings and what I’d hoped was either chicken or beef on sticks.

Here’s a shot of my brother ordering a bunch of stuff on sticks for us.

The server took our order outside where this guy cooked it up for us on his grill.

The last night in Shanghai, my brother and I went to his favorite local Chinese restaurant. It was a Tuesday night and the place was jammed. I knew we were in for a treat when we walked by a room full of aquariums, fostering at least one of our entrees.

It was certainly odd to see people smoking at their tables. Made me appreciate the smoke-free lifestyle we enjoy in our country. Large groups of what seemed like Asian businessmen sat around tables overflowing with dishes of food and Tsing Tao beers. My brother told me about the business dinners he attends nearly weekly where they just keep bringing out dish after dish. It’s impolite to not toast and empty your glass when someone raises theirs to you. He confessed he'd left many a dinner stuffed and happy to have a taxi drive him home. Our dinner was tasty and filling, but we saved room for a nightcap or two on the way home.

For that, we went to my brother’s go-to place - The Big Bamboo, his pub away from home. Smokey like the restaurant but full of Budweiser-drinking ex-pats and chicken wings. It was like stepping out of China and into the Brass Cat.  A table full of Canadians screamed at a hockey game on a big screen.   My brother and I tossed down a couple Coopers Pale Ales as he told me all about life as an American in China. It was long 7000 mile trip to get to that bar stool but well worth it. Skype just couldn’t do that conversation justice.

Since this has become the food issue, here are a few of my favorite food shots...

An original 'pop-up shop', fresh pomegranates from the back of a bicycle..

Cornish Game Peking Ducks?..

Roasted chestnut anyone?

My nephews enjoying, none other than, Dairy Queen Blizzards.   What can I say, it must be in the genes...

One giant burger (meat imported from Australia), Blue Frog, Shanghai.   Mmm.

Ok, one more, from the Carrefour supermarket near my brother's house...

Not sure what you would do with one of those, but intriguing nonetheless.

Not sure if that made you more or less hungry than you were when you started.   Suffice to say, eating in China was an adventure in itself, not to mention having to learn how to operate chopsticks in a hurry.    I was glad I took a few chances in that area without being reckless with my insides, taking my brother's advice, 'when in doubt, don't ask what it is until after you've eaten it.'

Next up, taking the fast train to X’ian to see the Terracotta Warriors and on to Beijing to walk on that big old wall.