Sunday, June 28, 2015

China: Beijing

Beijing was a blessing for these weary travelers. Of the 45 days we had been in China, we had only rested two. Rest days are also seldom actually spent resting. When traveling as we are one has to plan in some capacity pretty much every day. So, when we have a scheduled ‘rest’ day that usually means ‘spend the day planning the next 7 days’ day. By the time we made it to Beijing we were both jonesin’ for some serious down time. The first five nights we spent in a lovely place tucked in an alleyway near the morning market. After we were switched to a room with a bathroom that was big enough (the first one had a toilet with the front no more than 6 inches from the wall), we had a great stay and met a delightful young lady named Lemon. She was so cheerful and greeted us by name every time we saw her. We came back one night and she was in the street hula hooping. It was a great place but on our last day/night we opted to use our free Marriott stay and booked a room in a real hotel! There was a pool, a bathtub, a giant comfy bed and a gym where we were able to lift weights for the third time in 4 months. We were so relaxed and able to rejuvenate some in preparation for Europe.
Our Happy Dragon alleyway- this whole street filled up with vendors in the mornings for the morning market!

Jared: "Christy, it's just a Marriott."
While the accommodations were wonderful, they were definitely not the highlight of our time in Beijing. Our first night we went to the famed street market where they basically sell anything on a skewer. We saw starfish, silkworms, and spiders. Neither one of us was feeling particularly adventurous so we opted for the more safe corn on the cob and cooked pineapple.

Beijing food street can't handle the Hedges.

Seahorse and scorpion on the menu.

The following day we went to Tianamen Square and the Forbidden Palace. I told Jared as we walked up to the complex area that Tianamen Square has always felt very remote to me. He asked, “Like different and foreign?” I told him no, it’s not that it seems foreign, everything in China seemed foreign to me before I experienced it but Tianamen Square for some reason felt very far away. I think because of my age and background this particular cultural landmark seemed more inaccessible than the rest of China or Asia for that matter. The experience itself was actually not that remarkable. It really is just a square that you walk through in order to get to the Forbidden Palace. I kept thinking we had missed something. Perhaps if I were someone else, I would have seen something else.

At Mao's gate about to go inside.

Walking up to the first building in the palace complex

This little temple was nestled up on a rock in the palace gardens.

The Forbidden Palace is worthy of the mysterious, almost mythical name. The place matches all of the cinematic ideals you might have about China. The colors and designs were a nice culmination of the imagery we had seen elsewhere. There were also audio guides available which gave us some insight to the architecture and purpose of the buildings.

After the Forbidden Palace we went to the Summer Palace. This particular palace was built by an Emperor as a gift for his mother. It sits on a manmade mountain by a manmade lake. The land which was excavated to form the lake was used to form the mountain. The main area was along the edge of the water. Several of the buildings were closed but the ones that were accessible provided nice shade to escape from the heat of the sun. I especially enjoyed the pagodas and buildings that appear to be a part of the mountain itself. These look as though they were constructed around the jagged outcroppings and do a superb job (in my less than novice opinion) of incorporating the natural beauty with the architecture.

Along the river where there used to be shops

Little yellow glazed buddhas

A marble boat- used for gatherings, not boating.

So beautiful

Just tucked in next to the natural scenery

Our third day in Beijing was our Great Wall day. We both had been looking forward to this day for quite some time. This would be our third great wonder of the world and we spent quite a bit of time investigating our options to make sure we got the kind of experience we wanted. After being in crowds at almost every major site we visited in China we really wanted to find a way to be among as few people as possible. There are several sections of the wall that are open to the public and these range in popularity as well as degree of renovation completed. While we wanted to see some of the restored wall we thought it would be pretty nice to see a part that had not been “patched up.” The tour option we found involved the Jinshanling section of the wall that is in the mountains and has some serious up and down. We walked a total of about 6 km and started in a restored section then traversed to a portion that had not undergone any construction for around 100 years. There were probably only 15-20 people total on the same section and we were able to have some moments where no else was around. The Great Wall is unbelievable and the experience is one of those that subtly expands your perception of history and mankind. This did happen and people built it and that’s pretty cool.

It keeps going and going

Wow, that's a lot o' wall


She wanted to take a picture with us. How could we say no?

The rest of our time in Beijing consisted of shopping in the famous silk market, shipping the stuff we bought in the famous silk market, visiting some of the architectural sites of the city and relaxing in the Marriott. I was too tired to go see the Olympic Village when Jared went but we both saw the CCTV tower and the SoHo neighborhood.

This is the Temple of Heaven where the Emperor would pray for good harvests


CCTV tower- talk about a corner office

I just loved this little flower shop

And so it was that we said goodbye to Asia.

China: Hua Shan and Luoyang

Hua Shan is one of the Great Mountains and is considered the Most Precipitous Mountain in China. Or, the moniker Jared prefers, the ‘most dangerous’ mountain in China. However, it is still a tourist mountain in China and some of the hiking paths were paved and rails/chains were provided when the incline was especially "precipitous." It was a gorgeous hike and incredibly rewarding. I am convinced that the feeling of accomplishment after climbing a particularly arduous incline amplifies the beauty of the scenery from the top. Each mountain in China has been so different and so beautiful in its own way. It would have been easy to say, “Oh, we climbed one mountain and it was a hard climb and had great views, we don’t need to see another.” I am really glad we didn’t. I love being outside and hiking and each mountain has more than been worth it and has afforded us a welcome break from the pollution and hustle and bustle of Chinese cities. Enjoy these pictures of and from China’s most precipitous mountain:

Sunlight through the fog

This is just part of the way up

Still quite a ways to the top!


I loved the clouds hanging out just below the peaks


We made it to the top!

After we finished hiking, for the sake of time, we took the cable car down the mountain. We then had to take a bus to the main entrance to the mountain, and then we took another (public and free) bus to the train station. We ate dinner, retrieved our ‘left luggage’ and changed clothes so we wouldn’t stink on the train to Luoyang.

Once we arrived in Luoyang it was another public bus to switch to yet another public bus to finally arrive at our hostel. We were pooped and tired of buses and went straight to bed. When we woke, neither of us was as sore as we thought we would be. Perhaps we are getting used to going up a ridiculous number of stairs? The plan for the day was to visit the Longmen rock carvings. Yes, these were more Buddhist carvings in rock and yes, they were still different and impressive. The depicted representation and aspect of the Buddha differs based on region. These rock carvings were oriented more towards ancient boddhisatvas and traditional Buddhist beliefs. Where the ones in Dazu were painted, these either were never painted or their paint had completely faded. Also, across the river from these carvings is a Buddhist temple and summer house of a former emperor. Lazily, we walked around and admired the scenery before returning to the hostel. The evening consisted of a short adventure to a local mall and out for dinner (I found Indian food!!!).

So many niches with so many impressive sculptures

These are ancient guardians and they were HUGE! 

The second day in Luoyang, a Saturday, we spent the whole day at the hostel “relaxing” aka trying to figure out what the heck we are going to do in Europe. That evening there was a barbeque on the rooftop terrace of our hostel and we had the opportunity to meet some fellow travelers and we had a nice evening conversing and eating.

On Sunday, the Shaolin Temple was on the books. This temple is nestled in a forest and while it is a popular tourist destination, the transport to and from is not very convenient. We had to take a public bus to get there and the journey, which should have taken 1.5 hours lasted closer to three. There was a traffic jam in a construction zone and Jared had gotten out of the bus to walk ahead to see what the hold up was. While he was gone, the bus started going, and I started freaking out. Luckily, we were able to text and the bus driver stopped when I found him on the side of the road but my pulse was elevated for a steady 30 minutes after. Our bus journey was more exhausting than it should have been and our overall disposition was quite ‘blah’ by the time we arrived to the Shaolin complex. Our first stop was the Kung Fu demonstration. I think it was when the student popped a balloon with a needle THROUGH a piece of glass that we ‘popped’ out of our blah. The Shaolin temple is considered the birthplace of Shaolin Kung Fu and Zen Buddhism. The former was conceived when the monk, Bodhidarma arrived from India and, being denied entrance to the temple, went to a nearby cave and meditated for nine years. During that time, he devised a set of exercises to help him stay in shape. When he was finally allowed into the temple, those exercises were combined with the martial arts that were currently in practice and Kung Fu was born! This particular type of Kung Fu has since been ‘outlawed’ as it is believed that it is too powerful. The toned down version is called Wu Shu and the Shaolin Temple has a large, international school devoted to the teaching of this type of martial arts. Due to our admittedly late start and unexpectedly long bus ride, we did not have as much time as we would have liked to explore the area but it was a pleasantly passed day.
Hmm. Don't think I'll ever be doing Wu Shu

The pagodas with a view of the mountains

A pagoda forest!

The next morning we took our last high speed China train to our last Asia destination. Beijing is next!

China: Xi'An

The day after sleeping on a train it always feels like you have a bit of a hangover, and it's near impossible to not feel drowsy for most of the day. However, we pushed through and made it to the old city wall to bicycle around the ramparts for a couple hours. It was a fun way to see the city skyline and learn some of the history of Xi’an. That night we went to Muslim Street, an area with an abundance of street food vendors and fare not commonly available in other areas of China. However, the spices were quite typical of China, more specifically the Sichuan area of China. I was awake at 3:30 that morning with heartburn. Luckily, I still had some heartburn medicine leftover from India and was able to take some and get some rest that night. I needed to feel refreshed because the next day we were going to see the Terracota Army.

I am an awesome bicyclist

A view from the city walls

The main bell tower lit up at night

Muslim street food is serious business.
The Terracota Army is one of the sites that I have been looking forward to since we decided to take our trip. It is supposed to be one of the great wonders of the world, and seeing it in person only reaffirms that. The complex was designed and built under the direction of the first emperor of unified China. The first emperor of the Qing dynasty, he also began construction of the Great Wall and is historically regarded as one of the most influential emperors of China. Our visit began by a quick trip to the manmade mountain that houses the emperor’s actual tomb. There are rumors and beliefs that this tomb is booby trapped and surround by a river of liquid mercury. It is actually one relic that is known but has NOT been excavated. To this day, no one has entered the tomb. According to our guide, there are plans to begin excavation but nothing concrete. Between this mountain tomb and the pits where the warriors were discovered is about 1.2 kilometers of empty field. Since it's believed that the emperor would not have left the space between the known army and his tomb empty (since the purpose of the army is to protect him in the afterlife), it's assumed there are either more warriors or something else within this gap, and exploratory excavations are currently being conducted.

There are 3 pits at the warrior site, each with a different type of soldier to fulfill a different purpose. Pit number one is the largest pit with an estimated 6,000 terracotta figures. Pit number two has different cavalry and infantry units and is the pit where the only intact warrior has been found. The final pit is where the command post is located. Each soldier has a different face. It is believed that the workers who participated in the construction of the soldiers modelled the faces after one another. This is a particularly potent fact, since each worker was killed after completing his work in an effort to ensure the burial complex remain a secret. I thoroughly enjoyed our visit and this will forever be one of those places that is just unbelievable in scale and story. We met a fellow American and a couple from the UK on our tour and we enjoyed some beers and conversation with them that evening.

The tomb mound


The kneeling archer- the only intact warrior to be discovered.
So many

Just, wow- the infantry of Pit one

We took it easy the next day and had a date at the movies. Not even being in China could keep Jared from seeing the Avengers 2. We found a 3D theater and although I was quite disappointed there was only caramel popcorn, we had a nice time. After that, I went to get a haircut and came out of the salon a blonde.

We took lots of pictures. That is me and the guy responsible for my new hair.

I suppose when I don’t have a job for a solid 10 months, it is a good time to play around with my hair. The next day we had a quick morning train, climbed a mountain and then took another train to get to our next city.

China: Chengdu

We arrived with our feathers still ruffled from the poor experience with the guide in Dazu, but quickly warmed to the city. We booked our tour to the panda breeding center for first thing the next day. The breeding center was one of my favorite experiences so far. We were there as the center was opening and the pandas were being fed; it was a cuteness overload. We got to see a range of ages, some just barely a year and some decades old. The nursery either wasn’t open or did not have any babies, so we weren’t able to see any of the tiny ones, but the experience still felt complete.

Just look at that face

Chillin' and chewin'

Chewin' and chillin'

This little guy was taking a nap until the caretaker came out to get him

Three best friend pandas in a tree
They had red pandas too!

Our second day in Chengdu we visited  Mount Qingcheng, the birthplace of Taoism and Dujiangyan, an ancient irrigation system considered to be an engineering marvel for its time period. The first was on a mountain, where we cheated and rode to the top of on a cablecar in order to save time and ensure that we would also be able to make it to Dujiangyan that afternoon.

This temple was at the beginning of the climb to the pagoda at the top

Looking up at the pagoda

The pagoda

Here we are at Dujiangyan

Ancient dykes!
On Friday we went to Leshan mountain, the home of the world’s largest carved sitting Buddha. Measuring 233 ft this Buddha was started in 703 AD by a monk who hoped that the Buddha’s presence would help calm the waters of the river in order to improve navigation. Well it turns out the rocks displaced from the carving were dumped into the river and unintentionally made it navigable, so I guess it worked? The scale is astounding and it is hard not to feel impressed when standing at the bottom looking up. We spent a few hours walking around the area and saw some ancient tombs which were carved into the mountainside. They are all over the Leshan area and the visual effect is similar to a honeycomb.

Serious Buddha

At the bottom looking up!

Look! In there! It's a grave!

Our last two days in Chengdu were spent hanging out in the city and visiting the antique market, People’s Park ,and then getting some work done planning for Europe! During one of our city excursions, we stopped at a little noodle stall in the train station for lunch. Jared has an app on his phone called WayGo. This app allows a live translation of text and was one of the main tools we had been utilizing to order food or otherwise determine the meaning of unknown text. If the menu is written in a clear enough manner and the colors of the writing do not clash too much with the background, it is a huge help, especially in discerning the type of meat that is in a dish, since pictures can only convey so much. Anyway, with the help of Waygo we ordered a bowl of noodles each. This was our first real experience with Sichuan cuisine. It was freakin’ spicy. Like, Jared’s brow broke out with a nice sheen of sweat. To add to the spiciness, the pepper named after the province- the Sichuan pepper- has an incredibly numbing effect as well. So, not only is your mouth on fire but your lips are all tingly and numb. It is a super experience.
Writing calligraphy with a water brush in the park- I'm sure it has something to do with the ephemerality or something...

These are advertisements posted by parents for their children to find a husband or a wife- the marriage market!

We spent the last night on a train and woke up the next day in Xi’an. Our cabin mates were PhD students with a box full of rabbit bones on which they were going to run tests for stem cell research. We passed some time chatting with them and they even shared a cab with us into the city the next day.