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.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Ni Hao China - Part 2

With all the restart activities and Valentine's Day prep behind me, I can get back to my China travel blog.  Now where was I...

It’s been a few weeks since I returned from China, and if I’ve seen you, some of my stories may sound familiar, so apologies in advance if I repeat myself. A lot of people have asked me ‘how was it?’, and it’s hard for me to just say, ‘it was awesome, unbelievable, amazing’ without a little bit of hesitation. My trip is settling in nicely as time goes by though, and it's now approaching awesome status in my mind.  When I was there, it was hard to not feel at least a little bit on edge most of the time. China is just so different. Signs looked like ancient hieroglyphics and words coming out of people’s mouths had about the same meaning as a dog's bark to me. There was no way to blend in. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being the only non-dark-haired non-Asian in a crowded subway car. I consider myself fairly well-traveled and even got to live in France and the Netherlands for months at a time back in my corporate days, but I’ve never felt so illiterate and an island as I did in China. Things I took for granted, like taxi drivers speaking English or understanding the specials your waitress is describing, were just not going to happen, and I quickly realized that the sooner I accepted that, the more I would enjoy this little adventure on the other side of the planet. 


I also realized adding international data roaming to my cell phone service and the Google translate app to my Iphone might not be a bad idea.

While getting into a taxi with only my passport, phone, a stack of Yuan, and a taxi card with my desired destination written in Chinese on it became an adrenalized-infused adventure, both for the fact that I never really knew if I was going to end up where I planned and that driving in China was absolute mayhem, such challenges turned out to be the defining experiences of my trip and the most memorable.   Especially since I lived to tell the tales.

Sure, it was amazing to see the giant pagodas at the Ming Tombs and walk through the Forbidden City in Beijing, and I will get to all that, but it was the feeling of being immersed in a culture so foreign and far away that really made it for me.

One of the biggest eye-openers was seeing how most Chinese people actually live. It’s pretty well known that China has been enjoying a huge trade surplus for a number of years and been floating us loans to cover our growing debt. It wasn’t hard to notice they are definitely spending some of their cash on improving their infrastructure. New highways, vast arrays of high rise apartment buildings, airports and train stations could be seen in varying states of construction everywhere I went in China. From first glance, it seemed China really was in a state of unabashed prosperity. Not to mention that a good portion of the Shanghai skyline is less than twenty years old!

The part I wasn’t expecting to find was that the majority of the population lives in what you and I would call poverty. It’s difficult to know how accurate statistics are but World Bank estimates 70% of the population lives on less than $5.00 per day. For most, this means living in an unheated house with no kitchen and a bathroom they share with their neighbors. My brother has a housekeeper who takes a shower in their house, because she doesn’t have one at home. I will say, though, I rarely saw a homeless person or a panhandler. The government supports their citizens in need, but there are no free lunches.  Everyone gets a job to earn this support, even if that job may involve sweeping a fifty foot swath of sidewalk with a hand-thatched broom all day long.    Poverty rates are definitely declining, but there still exists a large gap between lower income and upper.   In fact, one of their major challenges is trying to create a real middle class.  It will be interesting to see how they do at that.    Obviously, there's a lot more to this, but in the interest of your time, I'll leave it there for now.

The first day my brother took me on a little bicycle tour of the local neighborhood near his home.  The interesting part, and it’s hard to say without sounding condescending, is I never felt unsafe. A similar neighborhood in the U.S. would definitely not make me feel that way, even on such a Sunday morning. We visited a ‘wet market’, appropriately named for the liberal use of water to hose down floors, keep produce wet, and of course have tubs for the live fish to swim in.

My brother picking out some fresh edamame.

This first immersion excursion also included my first taste of ‘street food’. A tasty, crepey thing with egg and some mystery sauces from an old plastic bowl and painted on with an even older paintbrush, cooked to crunchy perfection on a big flat hot plate. A good friend had warned me it wasn’t an ‘if’ but a ‘when’ I’d get sick from the food while I was there, and I was fairly certain her prophecy was about to come true.

Darned if it wasn’t some of the best food I had the entire trip, and it passed through me without a hitch. I think it cost about a buck, and I split it with my brother. A definite confidence builder for my street food adventurousness. Bring on the stuff on sticks!

Much more to tell, stay tuned..