Category: Travel

Unfounded fear

            I wonder why we fear people who are different?

          Perhaps due to years of stranger danger caution from our parents. Maybe because our news media profit when they makes us worry. Or is it a survival instinct? I hope it isn’t only me, but I suspect it’s universal. I remember reading about a woman who travelled the world and invariably was welcomed but told that the people in the next town or across the border were less hospitable and she shouldn’t trust them.

            Whatever the reason, I’ve been afraid of visiting China for the 10 years my husband has been travelling there on business. Last month his itinerary was ideal for me to accompany him; I’d be able to spend time in several cities, including Beijing. He raised the incentive by arranging for us to visit the Terra Cotta Warriors that had intrigued me since I first read about them. I waivered in my reluctance.

            I reminded myself I experienced the same hesitance to visit Israel three years ago. Preparing for that trip, I imagined car bombs and terrorists waiting around every corner. Yet even when I joined a 4-person tour to Bethlehem, not realizing Bethlehem is in Palestinian territory, I was treated there with great welcome and hospitality.

            But China is a communist country. I’m a child of the Cold War and I remember it being big news when then-President Nixon travelled to China, an unheard of destination. I feared visiting a country that wasn’t known for respecting individual rights.

            Yet, my travel in Israel remains one of the highlights of my life and I had nearly let my fears keep me from that experience.

            I agreed to visit China, but I worried.

            So what did I experience? Without exception, everyone treated me with courtesy and respect. Men asked if they could take a picture of me with their wives. Women asked if I’d pose with their children. Teenagers stood to give me their seat on a subway, as they did for anyone my age or older. Tour guides politely asked me about my opinion of Obama, or which party I belonged to. Some shared their own worry that without a strong Russia, the USA’s dominance would endanger world balance.

            I can’t speak about China’s leaders or its politics. I only know that the everyday people are very much like our everyday people. They wait with smiles and hugs for their children to burst out of the building on the first day of school. They work hard to improve their families’ lives. They dance in the park when they hear music that suits them. They photograph what is unusual or beautiful. They carry iPods and cell phones and are frustrated by traffic jams and delayed flights. Both the church I attended and an acrobat show were full.

            Yes, their culture differs from ours, but in ways that seems minor, like the softness of voices, the use of parasols, the prevalence of bicycles, the acceptance of population density, or the challenge of living in a country of single-child families.

            I never felt endangered while in China (other than riding in a taxi) even when lost. My qualms were unfounded and I feel foolish to have waited so long to accept my good husband’s invitation to share his experience. I’ve been blessed once again by facing my fear. When will I learn to trust in God and never let fear direct my life?

China Trip 2010

August 29 Sunday Shanghai, China

I flew from 10am Friday until 5 pm Saturday local time. Yet it was daylight outside the airplane window the whole time! It seems logical when you think about chasing the sun, but I sure didn’t expect it. I can’t complain about the long flight, though. The poor woman in the window seat was motion sick the whole time and so my tiredness doesn’t compare.

We arrived an hour early and customs took only 5 minutes, so I was ready and waiting by the time my husband arrived to meet me at the airport. From the terminal we rode Maglev (magnetic levitation?) for about 12 minutes. It is an elevated train that traveled at 430 kph(267 mph)! Fastest train in the world at the moment. Then we transferred to a taxi the rest of the way to our hotel. It’s a very nice 5 star hotel, thanks to hubby’s employer. We’re on the 30th floor with access to the 33rd floor’s executive lounge where we eat breakfast and dinner included. I went to bed at 7pm and slept until 7am.

Sunday we had a relaxing morning. We walked through a small park across the street from the hotel. Then we taxied to St. Peter’s Church for the noon Mass which is in English. Typical of churches here, according to Husband, we climbed to the 3rd floor of the building to get to the actual church. Offices and a smaller chapel take up the first two floors. We are always amazed how much the same Mass is all over the world. We felt right at home with the songs, even. Getting a taxi afterwards is a challenge but we saw a metro sign and walked a few blocks to the subway.

We rode the subway to the expensive shopping area, specifically a street named Nanjing Road. Most of it is for pedestrians only and we joined thousands of people strolling the area. Probably a dozen people asked us if we wanted to buy bags, iPods, watches, or DVDs. I tired pretty quickly (well, I had been walking most of the day and it was about 4pm) so we returned to the hotel. On the way we decided to eat at the hotel, then go out to see ERA, a circus of acrobats.

What an amazing show! People bend and balance in amazing combinations, of course, but also dive through hoops, bounce up onto each other 4 people high, balance on rolling platforms while using their feet to toss bowls onto their head, stacking them to ten high. The grand finale is 7 motorcyclists who ride around inside a mesh sphere without killing each other!

All that and I’d only been here a little over 24 hours!

August 30, Monday in Suzhou and Zhou Zhuang

Today was my first tour while Good Husband went to work. I left at 9am and spent the majority of the day 90 minutes away from Shanghai in Suzhou, the garden city of China. Our city’s Chinese Garden is modeled after the first garden we visited, The Garden of the Humble Administrator. It blends the four elements of rock, water, plants, and buildings beautifully. It dates from 500 years ago. From there we walked to the Lion Forest Garden. The standout feature in this garden is collection of the porous rock with holes that forms under water. The rocks are all taken from Tai Lake and these particular rocks were chosen because parts of them look like lions. In fact, they say there are over 500 lions in the rock formations throughout the park. Like Humble Administrator, there are also beautiful pagoda style houses, lotus ponds, rainbow shaped bridges, and happy, camera wielding people.

We ate lunch and then toured a silk factory and watched all the steps from silk worms eating mulberry leaves, to sorting cocoons, to steaming, and unwinding. One in 5 cocoons has 2 pupae inside and can’t be unwound the way a single cocoon can. These are opened and 8 are combined and then stretched over and over until they make one very fine layer (one of thousands) in a quilt. The single cocoons are unwound into one mile of thread each, then 8 threads are spun into the fine threads that are woven into silk fabric.

The tour ended, of course, in a giant store with rooms for quilts, scarves, fans, framed embroideries, and clothing. I had a little too much fun there, but the prices were amazingly reasonable.

Next we drove to Zhou Zhuang, a water village that could be called the Venice of the Orient. Boats similar to the gondolas of Venice are steered with a long oar by standing women. Our tour included a ride through the canals of the little town, past shops and weeping willows on the sides, and under rainbow bridges overhead.

The two cities today are like traditional China was 50 years ago, and centuries ago. I’m so glad I was able to experience them. Shanghai is very much like big cities all over the world. But perhaps I am only saying that because I haven’t taken the Shanghai tour yet. That’s tomorrow morning. I’ll tell you all about it next!

August 31 Shanghai

This was a day of mistakes. I bought a tiny clay teapot that I thought was 120 yuan, or $18.  Decided to get 2 for that price. Only after I signed the credit card receipt did I discover each was 580 yuan, so almost $90! They are just little tiny teapots, brown clay that would only hold one cup of water, if that. I feel sick whenever I think about it. I objected but gave up too soon. I felt stupid but am telling myself I was just confused and tired.

We had started off around 8:30, after picking up more people from other hotels. Our first stop was Yuyuan Garden which loosely translates into a phrase that means honoring one’s parents because the man who built it 450 years ago (finished in 1577) did it for his father. That is what good sons do if they become rich; they build a garden home for their parents. A garden here includes various buildings for a family to live in and entertain from, beautiful ponds and waterfalls, and paths that wind between lovely trees and courtyards.

Everything in ancient times had meaning – a bilboa tree was planted because they can live 1000 years so they signify long life. A magnolia means happiness, so the two trees planted near each other they portend a happy, long life. Bats are named with a word that when spoken in a different tone means happiness, so they are often depicted near a symbol that means long life. Or near a turtle, which also means long life. Cranes and mallards depict lifelong love, since they mate for life. Dragons, of course, are lucky and the Chinese dragons spew water instead of fire so they bring the rain and make good harvests. In the buildings there are often two items on a mantle – a mirror and a vase, whose names together mean “speak softly in my home.” The furnishings in these buildings were from the Ming or Qing dynasties. Ming furniture is very graceful and has thin lines. Qing (pronounced Ching) is heavily ornate. Some of you will remember Aunt Katie’s elaborate wood chairs of that style. The Qing dynasty was the final one and dates to 1911.

Every tour takes us through several “opportunities” to buy from reputable businesses. Today we learned how fresh water pearls are made and, of course, the lesson released us into a vast store with 5 times as many people waiting to serve as would be in any US store. I smiled (to myself) when they told us they had a “special price just for you.” At least I wasn’t as tempted there as at the silk shop because Husband has been so good to us with bringing pearls back from his previous trips. I was interested though to learn how to quickly tell fake from real pearls. You rub them together gently and they feel gritty if they are real. If you keep rubbing they make an ashy powder that rubs off with no damage.

The second “opportunity” was a tea shop where a lovely young lady demonstrated the art of making tea and we were able to taste several kinds. They used a cup whose dragon and phoenix change color when the tea is ready. They also demonstrated tea flowers that open or bloom in a glass as the tea brews. That was where I made the teapot mistake.

Somewhere in between sight-seeing stops we also were offered jade for sale. Other places we drove and sometimes walked through were the Bund and the French Concession. These are neighborhoods where Europeans came and built their own neighborhoods with their own architecture styles. The Concession part of the name refers to when Shanghai was divided up between America, France, and England. Here I get confused about when things happened in history, but I believe it was at the end of the Opium War. China was “liberated” in 1949 and all the foreigners were sent home.

On the east side of the river is Pudong, a financial center with sky scrapers that are all under 20 years old. The Pearl Tower is a very recognizable landmark there. It rises 1535 feet and has multiple spheres at various heights. It holds a hotel, a revolving restaurant, a shopping mall, and several observation decks. It also functions as a radio/TV tower.

After the stop to look across the river at the Pudong area, I taxied back to the hotel to rest a bit before I’d head to the airport. The plan had been that I could stay in my room until 2pm, the latest allowed checkout time. Unfortunately, when I got to my room it was being cleaned already. Sigh.

Instead I made my way downstairs, hungry and exhausted. The humidity and heat here are unrelenting and take away any energy you wake with. I decided to eat at the hotel restaurant, rather than walk in the rain a few blocks to a Starbucks Husband recommended for lunch. Another expensive mistake. I opted for the buffet without checking the price. I nearly choked when the bill came for 340 yuan, or $51!

But now I’m safely at the airport and through security ready to fly to Yantai. Unfortunately, they are expecting a typhoon to hit tonight so chances are high we won’t’ make it again. We were supposed to fly from there to Beijing tomorrow so if flights are cancelled we’ll try a train. Things which are strikingly different here:

More common than cars, though there are enough of those for traffic jams, many people commute on bikes, motorcycles, and motorized bikes. The bikes are often rusted beyond any indication of color. They frequently are tricycles or have trailers that carry huge loads. It isn’t unusual to see a small family all balanced on a tiny scooter.

The women wear sparkly clothes or feminine chiffon when they dress up. And sparkly hair decorations.

Women my age often wear nylon anklets with their sandals.

Women carry umbrellas or parasols to shade from the sun.

There is visible air pollution that I thought was fog. Today with the rain it dissipated.

Great deference is shown to elderly. Young people give up their seats on the subway immediately when someone around 70 or older enters.

Smiles can be a sign of nervousness or embarrassment. The tour guide yesterday checked to see if I was ok because I was smiling so much.

People generally live in high rise buildings. Hundreds of apartment buildings are clustered together with more being built all the time. And not just in a downtown area but for at least an hour’s drive away from the city.

If you go to Starbucks, I’m told by the tour guide, you are considered very wealthy. Yet they are very popular here, too.

The sun sets around 6:30pm in early September. We think that is because the whole giant country uses one time zone.

Most of the “facilities” here are a porcelain fixture flush with the floor. People here squat to relax, so have developed muscles I haven’t. Squatting to use the bathroom is ok, but getting up can be a challenge. Ironically, they have emergency call buttons in the few bathrooms with a toilet because those are for the weak.

When there is toilet paper, it is often one large dispenser by the sinks. I never remember to take what I need before entering the stall. I’ve treasured the small packs of tissue that fit in a pocket.

Sept 1 Wednesday Yantai

Today is making up for my mishaps yesterday. I was nervous about filling a day by myself in this little seaside city. There aren’t the English subtitles written under most signs like in Shanghai.

Last night we did finally arrive by plane in Yantai, though we left 2 hours late. No signs of the 3 typhoons expected yet, other than light rain in the morning and evening.

After Husband left the hotel for work this morning I packed and turned my bags over to the concierge desk. I asked for advice about what to do until 4pm and she put me in a taxi to arrive at a museum, which sounded fine since it was raining. It turned out to be a wine museum, though, which I didn’t really want to spend time on. But the museum was within view of the ocean so I was set. It stopped raining just in time and I walked to a large paved area where people were fishing over the railing into the ocean. No beach, but I’m not a sunbather so that was fine. I could see in the distance a lighthouse and a Chinese-style gazebo with the gracefully curved roofs overlooking the ocean so I started walking that direction.

It turns out they are part of a park with a small entry fee. I was able to wander for 4 hours and see old homes and consulates, beautiful gardens, glimpses of the ocean, small temples with Buddha statues and burning incense, and finally the lighthouse and pagoda. An unexpected treat was a suspension bridge with chain rails. All along the rail metal padlocks in the shape of red hearts were attached to the links. Hundreds of them. It is called the Love Oath Bridge. The keyhole-less locks signify a permanent vow.

The pagoda was on an outcrop of rock and afforded great views of the ocean and some distant islands. Very picturesque. Of course I took lots of photos.

Speaking of pictures, picture this. My hair had frizzed because the morning was so humid. Add wind from the open taxi window to that. Next mix in sweating so much I had to stop to wipe my face off with a Kleenex. There I was standing next to a garbage can so I could throw away the tissue, hot, sweaty, with wild hair. And yes, even then an older smiling, nodding couple motioned to ask me if the lady could be in a photo with me. Foreigners, let alone redheads, are very unusual for people from outside the cities to see. I’ve already posed with many children who look at me and then at their camera-focusing parents like they can’t believe what they’ve been asked to do.

After the park I needed to change a large bill so I could take a taxi back to the hotel. I found a small museum of time (rooms of clocks from over the ages). Some ran on sand, others water, others rolled down an incline in 24 hours. Very interesting! And a good place to get refreshed. (I’m always concerned about finding restrooms when I’m sightseeing. Such an old lady!)

I caught a taxi, giving the driver the card the hotel provides with their name, number and directions. It says something like, “Please take me home.” Now I’ve been in the lobby waiting for Husband. I’ve had a nice piece of cake and green tea to tide me over until dinner and give me an excuse for sitting in the lobby café.

Our next step is a flight tonight to Beijing! I can’t believe I just wrote that line and that it is really true!

Sept 2 Beijing Thursday

We arrived too late on Wednesday to sign up for a tour, so Husband suggested I spend the day at the Cultural Museum. I puttered around the room in the morning ironing, repacking, and generally organizing. I finally realized I was stalling. I didn’t look forward to going out on my own in the city. Maybe I foresaw it would be a day of mishaps. But I forced myself, and with the concierge’s help, set off in a taxi toward the museum.

The hotel gave the driver orders and I thought I’d be delivered to the door. Unfortunately, he pulled over and motioned for me to take a skywalk across the street, to save him from going around a few blocks to get me on the correct side of the street. No problem. I paid him and got out, only to find that the crosswalk was closed. I crossed on street level, which is a terrifying experience. Right turners don’t stop at red lights and figure pedestrians will get out of their way. I made it safely to the sidewalk and then realized I had no idea which building was the museum. No signs in English. Sigh. I walked a while until I figured I’d gone too far one way and went back the other way. I did need to cross another street before I found an odd building with a banner that looked like it could be a museum and, thank heaven, was.

I wandered more in the museum but most displays didn’t have English explanations so I just looked at anything visually interesting. Halfway through the place, I realized I had missed lunch and was hungry. They had a tea room that sounded like it would do the trick but it only served tea (even though the sign did have English that said free dessert treats given with the tea.) No one there spoke English though, so I figured it wouldn’t do any good to pursue the matter. Instead I nibbled on the one little box of raisins I had in my backpack.

At about 4 I was feeling very tired and just about out of courage. I tried for a while to catch a taxi (I realized I’d never done that alone before), and when I finally did, I got in, gave him my hotel card and he gave it back motioning no, I needed to cross the street to take a taxi going the other direction. Normally that wouldn’t have unnerved me, but I’ll plead exhaustion because I was nearly in tears. I did cross and got another taxi, feeling relief that I’d soon be delivered to the hotel door.

When he stopped and I got out, I realized I had arrived in the dark, so didn’t have a good idea of the appearance of the hotel. If I had, I’d have realized he was dropping me at the wrong building. I was in the China World complex, looking for the China World Hotel, but standing in front of China World Office #2. I thought that was the last straw and really struggled to pull myself together. After all, I didn’t feel like I was in any danger, just totally frustrated and worn down.

I called Husband, who was in the hotel room and told him what had happened. I walked a ways and could see the name of our hotel way at the top of an inner building, but even with another half hour of circling I couldn’t make my way into the hotel. It turns out the lobby door is 3 stories up a car ramp and not visible from street level. Neither is any door to the hotel. From street level you enter a shopping mall that is connected to the hotel and then finally there are signs to the lobby. But I didn’t figure that out until Husband got help from the hotel staff to figure out how to get to me.

By the time he did find me I was starving, frustrated, self-pitying, and very relieved to see him. We ate at a café within view (I was not about to venture out any more) and then I headed to bed.

Sept 3 Beijing Emperor’s Tour

I was met by a Grayline tour guide in my lobby and returned safely 8 hours later. No worries; the entire day was organized and guided so I only needed to follow, listen, and enjoy.

We were a group of 8: 2 from Germany, 1 from Columbia, and 4 from Hong Kong who took the English tour because they speak Cantonese, not Mandarin. I’m told that in early days of the Communist Regime a vote was taken whether to make the national language Cantonese or Mandarin. Mandarin won by one vote.

Our first stop was the Forbidden City, the Ming Dynasty’s palace complex since it was built in 1420. Emperor Ming did things in a big way: he had 3000 wives and concubines. The city encompasses 9000 rooms on 180 acres. In 1949 when China was “liberated” from the Nationals who fled to Taiwan, the Nationals took more than 1,000,000 artifacts from the Forbidden City. They are still in museums in Taiwan, so not available to see here. However, the buildings, rooms, and courtyards are impressive anyway. And it is just a cool feeling to be in a place that was never seen by anyone other than the emperors’ servants and officials for more than 500 years. It was only opened to the public in 1961.

We walked through Tiananmen Square, which is in front of the Forbidden City and can hold a half million people. They say it is the largest city square in the world. No one speaks of what Tiananmen Square is famous for everywhere else in the world.

Everything in the Forbidden City is square, from courtyards to buildings. The Chinese people believed the earth was square. The city’s main colors are red, the happy color, and yellow, the royal color because the land was the Emperor’s and the land/soil here is yellow.

 In contrast, we next travelled to the Heavenly Temple where the buildings are decorated in blue, the color of heaven and are round, the shape of heaven. The temple was built as a location to honor the ancestors and the emperors were supposed to visit and pay homage there three times each year. It is surrounded by a lovely park the local people enjoy. They were playing with children, dancing to musicians, and taking in the beauty.

Next on our royal tour was the summer palace, about 50 kilometers outside Beijing. It’s ancient but in the 1800s Empress Cixi decided to rebuild it. She took the money that was meant to build up the navy and used it on the palace and gardens instead. The tour guide told us the Japanese overthrew the navy subsequently and fought for domination over China for decades. Cixi declared the lake in the center of the palace garden to be hers alone. Anyone who touched it lost the offending foot, hand, or head. Pearls were harvested from the oysters in the lake and she had them ground and made into a cream for her skin. (Lancôme and local sales people are still doing this today.) She was carried to the lake every morning for tea. For each meal she is said to have ordered 1200 different foods brought to her and she would choose one or two, demanding the rest be thrown away.

In the garden is a pretty covered wooden walkway about a half mile long, where a previous empress walked in the 1700s, protected from the weather. It is decorated with 14,000 different paintings.

At the end of the walk is boat-shaped pavilion made of marble. From this point, halfway around the lake our tour boarded dragon boats that would hold about 50 people and had a large head in the front and tail in the rear. Reminded me of my daughter’s dragon boat racing days and I wished she could see these boats. The boat docked at the end of a 17-arched bridge. In a large pavilion nearby, musicians were playing traditional woodwind instruments. It was the kind of atmosphere that made me want to sit and enjoy the moment. Unfortunately tour guides keep you moving (so that we would have time to visit another silk factory store, of course), but I did manage to buy CDs from the musicians. Two for $5.

I thoroughly enjoyed today’s royal tour. I was able to see some of the ancient China that we picture when we think of this country. I’m definitely glad I live today and not under the emperors!

Sept 4 Ming Tombs & Great Wall

We woke this morning to beautiful sunshine, a rarity here that the pollution usually hides. Our tour guide “Jacky” met us at 8:10 in the lobby and led us to his bus. We picked up only 2 more tourists at a single hotel. One was the engineer from Columbia who took the tour with me yesterday.

Even though this is Saturday, the traffic was slow. Jacky explained that 1800 new cars are purchased in Beijing every day. Those are new drivers, not replacement cars, for the most part. I think he also said China built 60 million cars last year and it didn’t satisfy demand!

We first toured the Ming Tombs. The location was selected by the third Ming emperor after his Feng Shui experts travelled for 3 years looking for the perfect location. It’s easy to see why this valley was chosen. It is surrounded by giant mountain “guardians,” including one that looks like a dragon and one that looks like a tiger. A pretty river runs through the valley and fruit trees thrive. Thirteen of the 16 Ming Dynasty emperors are buried here, each in his own part of the valley. We only visited one tomb, which in this case included a pretty garden with 3 sets of gates, several pagoda type buildings, an aromatic  grand memorial hall made of sandalwood, and a man-made mountain that hides the tunnels and rooms of the real tomb. No one knows where the entrance might be and that is the point, to leave the emperor in peace.

Most of the grand buildings, palaces, and temples here and in Japan are built of wood, even though there were master stone cutters. Wood survives earthquakes better. It doesn’t do so well with fire, of course, and lightening destroyed the Heavenly Temple less than 100 years ago. Still, they rebuild and the tradition continues.

A few interesting emperor stories from the tour guide. I think the Ming Dynasty ran from the 1200s to the 1600s roughly. Emperor #3 moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing to be near the majority of his army, who were located to defend from the Mongolians to the north. He built the Forbidden City as well as beginning the tomb location here. Emperor 6 was captured by enemies, so emperor 7 took over. Then the enemies returned #6 but #7 wouldn’t relinquish the thrown to him, calling him a retired emperor. Number 7 died a few years later and was buried in the tomb he had prepared. But #6 had his revenge. He became emperor again, had #7’s tomb destroyed and had him reburied in the lowly prince style.

After that stop we took the prerequisite sales stop. This time it was in a Jade store/factory where they educated us on the process of turning jade stone into works of beauty. (Oh, and how to tell real jade from fake – by the sound of ringing when tapped with a coin, and the wisps of cloud when held to the light.) I didn’t realize before that it can come in white, yellow, dark or light green. A subset of jade that is extremely hard and more valuable is called jadite. This factory specializes in balls they call “happy,” “lucky,” or “unity” balls. Through intricate steps they carve a single hunk of jade into many concentric spheres that can spin independently from each other. They signify unity, especially of a family, because they cannot be separated.

After shopping and a lunch in the typical Chinese manner (many dishes on a giant lazy susan in the center of the table that people pull pieces from with their chopsticks and either set them on their plate or eat right away), we drove to the Great Wall. Turns out there are many parts of it accessible near Beijing. Normally tours go to Badaling, but traffic was moving so slowly our guide opted to take us to another access called Juyongguan which is closer but not quite so tourist friendly. The wall here is VERY steep. I hadn’t realized people climb the wall (not as in climb up the side but climb it’s path.) There’s a Chinese saying that you aren’t a man (or hero) until you have climbed the wall.

The wall was built over many centuries, beginning with fortified city walls that were extended under the first Qin emperor in the 5th century BC to protect his united China. Portions continued to be rebuilt or added through the 15th century. Actual wall sections (not counting river and steep mountain barriers) are thought to total almost 4000 miles, most of it running along the southern edge of Mongolia.

The wall varies in width at the top but usually is wide enough for 2 people to walk side by side. Or should I say climb. At this mountain pass the wall rise steeply from the valley floor to the mountain peaks on each side of the river. This is accomplished with irregular and unlevel steps that vary in height from about 4 inches to 24 inches! By the time I’d gone up a hundred steps with many as high as my knee, I realized again I’m not in great shape. I was too tired to appreciate a sign that in broken English warned us to watch out for cardiac dysfunction. Still, there is a euphoria that sets in when you’ve made it back down safely. We’ve tackled one of the wonders of the world.

Sept 5 Xi’an Museum

We started the day at 5:15 and made it to the airport fairly quickly because it was so early. But then we spent a long time in a line to check in. When we finally made it to the gate boarding was just beginning. We rode a bus from the gate to the plane. 15 minutes later a second bus arrived and the plane filled. Then we sat on the tarmac for 90 minutes before take-off. So far none of our flights have left less than 90 minutes late.

But we had no deadlines today so Husband slept and I read. We finally did fly for about 90 minutes over green hills and mountains, landing in Xi’an, about 600 miles west of Beijing. Xi’an was the capital of China for 26 emperors, long before Nanjing or Beijing became capitals. It is a walled city from ancient times and they are very proud of their history. We came to see the famous terra cotta warriors and horses but that’s tomorrow’s story. Today we visited the provincial museum and really enjoyed it. They even had audio tour devices we could listen to in English!

We saw artifacts from China’s long history, starting with a one million year old human skull. We walked past ancient pottery, tools, and decorations. We saw models of old tombs and watched as art and technology progressed over the years, down through the dynasties. We marveled at 3000 year old bronze hinges and early gold coins. Silk pieces are saved from 2000 years ago. My favorite artifact was a wine pitcher (shaped like a tea pot) that was filled upside down through a hole in the bottom, and then because of a tube inside you could turn the pitcher right side up without any wine leaking out the bottom hole.

From the museum we knew we could walk to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and managed to find it, and the lovely surrounding park. We arrived just in time for the “fountain performance” and watched a fountain spray in relation to music. Think Disneyland type show, but this fountain must have been at least as long as 2 or 3 football fields. Maybe as wide as one, also. After watching for about 15 minutes we kept walking through the park. At the end of the park we found a little mall with familiar fast food restaurants: Pizza Hut, Subway, even a Dairy Queen. Pizza Hut had a half hour wait, and besides we were feeling a bit ashamed of ourselves for even considering eating pizza in China. Instead we went to a “hot pot” restaurant, where individual pots of broth are kept boiling on burners on your table. You place various raw foods into the broth and then fish them out to eat when they are cooked enough. The one English speaking waiter helped us make out our order and then brought us mushrooms (9 kinds), one inch cuts from corn cobs, thin slices of raw beef and mutton, sweet potato slices, and cherry tomatoes. I managed all that with chopsticks! Aren’t you proud of me? At the end you can drink the broth and then finish up with the ubiquitous dessert now in season – watermelon.

We were feeling very lucky to have had such an unexpected cultural dining experience. But wait, that’s not all! On the way back through the park we came upon a large group of everyday people standing in a loose formation. Then music started and they all began a kind of group dance, a little like the old “Hustle.” We watched for a few minutes and walked on. We found another smaller group who were dancing almost a ballet, it was so graceful. But not performers. Just people who were maybe exercising, or learning together.

Now we’ve survived one more taxi ride home. (I close my eyes and pray all the way.)

And I’ve written late enough to close my eyes, pray, and sleep.

Sept 6 Mon Xi’an Wall and Terra Cotta Soldiers

(written by Husband) Sunday and Monday, Sept 5 & 6, we visited Xian, one of China’s several ancient capitals, and the one where the famous terra cotta warriors are located.

China has had many different dynasties, located in a number of different capital cities, over the past 3000 years, many of them for portions of China, and some for all of China. The Western Zhou dynasties (portion of China only) had their capitals in the Xian area from about 1100BC to 800BC. The first dynasty (Qin, pronounced ~’chin’) that united all of China (by conquering 6 other kingdoms) was from about 221BC to 207BC. After this, China was divided and unified again, but this first unification is the most important. This is the emperor who had the terra cotta warriors and horses created as part of his tomb area.

Although over 70 emperors (from 13 different dynasties that existed intermittently from 1100BC through 900AD) are buried in this area, we’ll talk only about the Qin dynasty (and its only emperor).

OK, now to ~221 BC… In China, emperors begin building their tombs after their first year as emperor. The process took could take decades. So that the emperor could continue to have their power and exercise their rule in the afterlife, they needed all the materials, support functions, and support staff that would be needed to sustain them in the afterlife. Much like Egyptian pharaohs, they created complicated burial chambers, intending to resist entry, inside of artificial mountains. In the case of the pharaohs, the mountains were pyramids, whereas the Chinese emperors had natural-looking (but symmetrical) mountain-size earthen mounds constructed over their burial chambers. But the chambers and the mountain (also called the mausoleum) were only part of the funeral preparations. In the case of the Qin emperor, he also had a city built around his mausoleum, to sustain him in the afterlife.

Part of this city is a massive array of terra cotta (clay) armed soldiers and horses, as you’ve seen in pictures. There are over 6000 of them, all different, all slightly larger than life size (to be more imposing to enemies in the afterlife).  They are about a mile in front of the mausoleum hill, facing the direction from which enemies are likely to come (from the valley, toward the mountains). There are at least 6000 soldiers, 300 archers, 450 horses, and 50 chariots. They had real bronze and bronze-tipped weapons, such as swords, spears, daggers and javelins. The men are extremely well detailed, with appropriate clothes and accessories for the various roles and ranks of men in an army. They were painted in detail with color, but unfortunately the colors fade after they are unearthed. The Chinese are leaving many of them unexcavated until better technology is available that can protect them.

Our guide said that it took 700,000 people 30 years to build the city and the warriors.  The soldiers were placed in trenches, perhaps 10′ deep and 10′ wide (and hundreds of feet long), then the trenches were covered over with wood, then finally covered with about 3′ of earth. Unfortunately, less than one year after this first emperor died, his enemies entered the underground area and broke all the men and horses. We understand that except for one rare, celebrated case, no soldier was unbroken. Those that we see have been pieced back together, sometimes from hundreds of pieces each, (3 people working 6 months can piece one soldier together) in continuous archeological work since 1974, when the soldiers were discovered by a farmer digging a well. That farmer is still on the site, signing his names to books that people buy! (We bought one)

We saw all these things in 3 huge clear-span (no posts) buildings, constructed over the 3 pits where excavation took place and continues (we saw workers restoring additional soldiers). The largest of these could hold 3.5 US football fields!  Entering this giant building, and seeing thousands of soldiers looking at you from 2000 years ago is a surreal, unforgettable sight!

In addition to visiting the soldiers (which are actually many miles outside the city of Xian), we also saw sites in the old walled city, including: –    The drum tower and bell tower (two standard features of old Chinese cities, used for announcing the time of day and night). –    The historical museum (with artifacts from many periods of local history, back to 3000-5000 BC), and –    The city wall (which we walked on the top of in a downpour).

Lots more to say about Xian, but we have to stop someplace, and move on to describing another day…

Sept 7, Tuesday Expo

We are back in extremely hot and humid Shanghai. But we braved the elements and spent all day at Expo. It is huge. A bus drives to get people from one section to another. There are 5 major sections and in the whole day we only covered 1 and a half. Pretty much the Asia section, but the 4 largest pavilions here require reservations that you stand in line from 5am to 9am to get. We didn’t go that extreme, but were able to visit smaller province pavilions, as well as India, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. (My friend Brenda’s daughter Tracey is spending 2 years in Turkmenistan with Peace Corps so I was interested in that country.) We also spent time in the Theme Pavilion, which impressed us especially with one area that compared 6 particular families from around the world. One was from Phoenix, and the others were each from a different continent.

What an amazing experience. I never in my wildest dreams as a child would have guessed I’d visit China.

Sept 8 Expo 2

Yesterday we waited until about 4 to leave for Expo, hoping to miss the hottest part of the day. I think we succeeded, but it was still humid enough to feel sweat trickling down your back. We entered a different gate than on Tuesday and wandered a bit around Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Cambodia, and the Philippines. Several of the pavilions were having outdoor music or dance performances. Inside the Philippines, several acts of music or dance followed one after another for about 10 minutes. Then people exited and the next group was allowed in.

Many of the larger pavilions have a steady flow of people who walk spiral ramps and see changing video or photos or displays as they go. Croatia had one large walkway with ever changing photos or videos of different cities. We stayed and watched the full display once through so we could record all that it showed about Starigrad, where Husband’s family came from. Italy was massive and focused on their style fame, from clothing to buildings to cars. We felt a little trapped, even though it was so large because there wasn’t a planned flow or an obvious way out. At the top of the escalators people would stop, confused, which felt panicky because you couldn’t progress even though more people were steadily coming up behind you. Ack!

We hoped to see and go inside the Great Britain building. It is probably one of the strangest looking. Imagine a Koosh Ball. It’s a sphere made up of long thin spiny spikes whose colors change. Supposedly the spikes are filled with seeds as a symbolism, and when the building is red it is supposed to evoke the British Flag because you see white, almost like a cross, between the spikes. Yesterday was National Day for the British, though, so it was closed for a private celebration and we didn’t get inside.

Australia was interesting, all about the ongoing relationship and similarities and differences with China. It had an inner seating area for 1000 and a ten minute show that alternated between a circle of video screens that rose to about 20 feet tall, and then when they lowered we saw different scenes inside of the circle: beach, city, children playing.

India had a holographic show. Indonesia’s exterior roof was a rainforest to walk through. It is interesting to see what each country wants to portray about itself. The theme of this Expo is “Better City, Better Life.” Many of the countries are exhorting ecological improvement.

Sept 9, Thurs Expo 3

Our last full day in China.

We left the hotel around 1:30 for our last visit to Expo. The taxi took us to a gate on the north side of the river. We had spent the last 2 days on the south side. The north has more technology focus, rather than countries. Each pavilion covers another aspect of better cities. We began to realize that the visible line might have no real indication of the amount of time it would take to get in and see a pavilion. Sometimes there is another line inside, or around a corner, or a holding area once you make it in. But really, I think we were a lot better off than people who came before school was back in session. Our longest wait was about 45 minutes.

We crossed the river on an Expo ferry and then visited USA, Chile, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina. We might be biased but I think the USA pavilion was the best we saw. American college students greeted us in Chinese and even told jokes while we waited. They asked in English if anyone from America was there and I think we were the only ones out of about 1000 people. A video in that room showed many Americans trying to say ‘Welcome to the American pavilion’ in Mandarin and resorting to the shorter ni hao “neehow” (hello). It made the Chinese visitors laugh.

We were all moved into another room where we could sit (unusual for any pavilion) and hear a welcome from Hillary Clinton and President Obama, and then listened to children tell about their dreams for the future. I think the theme was that we are so much alike, wanting better lives for our children. The third area was another auditorium that we moved to and then watched a wordless video of a little girl trying to turn an inner city empty lot into a garden. After frustrating failure finally neighbors all got together and created a beautiful park. The idea was to improve our bit of the world. We were all surprised when a thunderstorm in the video made our seats shake and then we felt a misty rain fall on us.

From there we were released into a room that highlighted the companies that sponsored the pavilion, which included Intel, GE, and Disney, among others. Last we were allowed to exit through a gift shop, like many of the pavilions.

The only other really memorable pavilion was Argentina, because we arrived just in time for a Tango demonstration. Very well received by the audience.

After a half hour taxi ride we are back in the hotel. We need to finalize packing, go to bed, and then be at the airport around 10am. Thank you for reading my ramblings. I hope they have given you some mental images of what we’ve seen and done. It has been a wonderful experience!

But yes, I can hardly wait to be home, too.

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