Friday, August 20, 2010

Day 22. Around Beijing and the end of this adventure

We met at 8 am in Tian’anmen Square with Annette and Alberto, a couple we had met in Xi’an and with whom we had made plans to spend a day visiting Beijing. Annette reminds me a lot of Faby: brunette with brown eyes, short, pretty, and with an enviable bronze complexion. She is German, has a German mom and a Bangladeshi dad, and like my beloved daughter is a polyglot who feels at home anywhere in the world. Alberto is Catalan, speaks very good Spanish and English, and is tall and of fair complexion (just like DJ!). They are traveling through China for three weeks, after which Alberto will back home to Barcelona and Annette will go to Hangzhou for a year to complete her degree in Economics. Pretty interesting travel buddies for the day, wouldn’t you say?

The Forbidden City was a bit of a disappointment. It is a must-see landmark in Beijing, but in summer it is hot and terribly crowded. Besides, you only get to see the central one third of the whole complex, where the big palaces are. OK, one would think, there should be plenty to see in the big palaces. Alas, no. They are essentially giant warehouses, with a rug, a throne, and a few imperial amenities (you need to add with your mind a throng of 3,000 concubines, flowing banners held by eunuchs, lanterns, gongs, and colorfully dressed courtiers to get an idea of what the place might have looked like in its heyday). But you have to do your imagining as you peer through rather narrow openings since the public is not allowed inside the warehouses.

The imperial garden, at the far north of the complex, is OK, but not as imperial as Versailles or those of the European nobility. Besides, the soot that floats over Beijing gives all surfaces a slightly shabby aspect.

Fortunately Klaus had recommended climbing the small wooded hill that rises north of the Forbidden City, and that was delightful. An additional fee of 20 yuan cut the crowds by at least 90%, so you could actually stroll through the woods, stop to look at groups doing dance/exercise, and from the top of the hill look at the Forbidden City, which from the distance does indeed look imperial and vast (this is when we realized tourists only have access to one third of the whole complex).

With our karma and feng shui restored, we ventured west, to the lakes that border the Forbidden City to the west, and where the Winter Palace and the White Pagoda are located. I never identified the palace, but the complex of the White Pagoda was quite interesting, with several temples devoted to different incarnations of the Buda and his coterie of angels and demons.

The lakes themselves are a favorite place of relaxation for the Beijingese, with all sorts of opportunities for boating, strolling, or picture-taking. Now, the Chinese have taken into picture-taking with a vengeance, and are intent on dethroning the Japanese as the biggest collectors of tasteless pictures. Interesting characteristics include total lack of the concept of framing, avoidance of any sense of normality (either by being stone faced or by breaking into silly poses), and incredibly long intervals to actually snap the picture (why, in comparison with them el Coquito is like lightening in taking a picture).

Thoroughly satisfied with ourselves we were thinking of quitting for a few hours, but we dug deep into our reserves of inner strength and went walking through the Hutongs west of the imperial complex. You see, Beijing was built from scratch as a planned city in the 1420’s, and as soon as the imperial and administrative complexes were delimited a couple of million squatters established residence around them (actually, they were probably the workers and artisans that built the imperial complex). Well, as time went by the “old city” became defined by a network of alleys with small, single family residences, where the people lived in a type of vecindad or vecindario, doing half of their living in the communal areas. So the narrow streets were where kids played, food was prepared in small coal burners, bucket showers were taken, clothes were hung, and socializing took place. With the Olympic games in 2008 many of these vecindarios or Hutongs were razed to the ground, but a few were rebuilt as a show piece of history, and the remaining ones were give a coat of paint to brighten their squalor. Luke felt we were wasting our time walking through little ugly streets, but I hope one of these days he will remember walking through the history of old Beijing.

After a quick lunch at Yoshinoya (one of my favorite fast food restaurants from Japan) we said goodbye for a few hours to Annette and Alberto (we were meeting again at 6 pm), and Luke and I headed home to take a break. Fortunately Klaus has a good collection of action movies, so we relaxed for about an hour and a half watching Die Hard 4 with Chinese subtitles. Nice :)

By 5 pm we were on the road again (or shall I say in the metro again), headed for a dinner date with Klaus, Annette, and Alberto. Klaus figured that if we had come all the way to Peking, then the least we should do is have a traditional Peking Duck dinner. He had chosen a strip of nice restaurants intermingled with pubs and handcraft shops, along the shore of one of the lakes, for our dining experience. The restaurant was super popular and super crowded, because on top of serving delicious meals they also put on a dinner show. We missed the first part of the show waiting for a table, but we thoroughly enjoyed the second half, looking at the jugglers, the dancers, and the magicians! (When I was a little boy my parents took us to see a Chinese magician, who I remember as being marvelous. He wore a Mandarin robe, and long mustaches, and performed the most amazing tricks I had ever seen. This show totally reminded me of that wonderful memory).

The Peking Duck was superb, but this was an upscale restaurant so I didn’t get to gnaw on the head, neck, and bones of the carcass. Schade! The trick with Peking Duck is that it is sliced very thin and is served with very thin steamed tortillas, a strongly flavored duck gravy, cucumber strips, and onion strips. The diner takes one of the tortillas with his/her chopsticks and lays it flat on the plate, dips in the gravy two or three slices of duck and lays them on the tortilla, adds a few slivers of cucumber and onion, and then wraps it tightly to form a small package that can then be daintily placed on the mouth. Well, since we had the League of Nations at the table the results were as varied as burritos and Knödels, but they certainly didn’t resemble the sample we had been given. Ah, but the taste was not affected by the outside appearances, and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.

Klaus then invited us to go for a walk along the strand, and to have a beer in one of the outside pubs, and so we let the night drift away until . . . shit, what time is it? Ten? Oh my, the metro closes at 10:30 pm!

We quickly gathered our tiliches, and at a brisk walk headed for the bus stop, rode to the metro station, and there said goodbye to Annette and Alberto. They are a very neat couple, and we wished them the best of lucks for the year to come. I am sure Annette will come back speaking Chinese like a native, but I am sure Alberto will pine for his vivacious girlfriend alone in Barcelona.

Then we turned and ran into the metro. Oh, good, the last train is at 11:20 pm. But it was already 10:40 and we had a good stretch to go, including two transfers. We made the first transfer on the nick of time, and we ran with the rest of the stragglers to try to catch the second transfer. We were almost there when the crowd came to a sudden, silent stop. The last train had just pulled out of the station and we had missed it! (At the end it was not such a tragedy, since we were already within walking distance of the house, but it was a first time experience to have missed the last metro train by seconds :)

Well folks, that is it. I am actually writing these notes on Day 23 (August 18), and in a few more hours Luke and I will be boarding the plane for Seattle, will have a layover of 5 hours in Sea-Tac airport, and then will take the last leg of the trip to Sacramento, where we should arrive at 7 pm of August 18. Luke figured that this trip has involved something like 9 flights, 12 major stops, 4 bus rides, 2 hard bike rides, and 1 death march. During these three weeks we have made many new friends and visited old friends (“one is silver and the other gold”), Luke has collected many girlfriends, and we have seen wondrous sights. We have tasted exotic foods, dined in fine restaurants, and enjoyed breakfast with the locals by the curbside. Best of all, we came to say hello to our Chinese brothers and sisters, and got a warm brotherly embrace from them and an invitation to come back soon. Not to worry, we will.


Day 21. Travel to Beijing

And just like a magic carpet Eastern China Airlines deposited us unharmed at Beijing airport a little past noon. It took us a while to get our backpacks and navigate through the metro, so we were 20 minutes late for the appointment we had made with Klaus at a park near his work. No Klaus, but he got there ten minutes later. He had correctly assumed that if we had not shown at the prearranged hour it was because of some delay, went back to work, and this was his second visit to the park. We exchanged greetings and the key to his apartment, and a few minutes later we were on our way to home!

It was so nice to kick off our boots, turn on the air conditioning, pop open a coke, and sit down in front of the TV to just relax. We saw a funny martial arts movie playing in the late 1800’s (“Once Upon a Time in China”), and were just reaching the end when Klaus got home.

OK, what shall we do? Let’s go to the Donghuamen Night Market! We quickly charted our way through the metro, which at 7 pm was packed to the gills (so much so that we got separated, because Luke and Klaus couldn’t stuff themselves in the car I had oozed into), and reached Wanfujing street, which is the shopping street in Beijing. The night market is an alley that opens into Wanfujing, and its famous because of the odd things it offers to the gourmand. Well known are the skewers of small scorpions, which are still moving before they are deep-fried and given to you with a flourish. Luke and I had to taste them, of course, and have the photos to prove we did it!

Other oddities, which we didn’t try, include skewers of tarantula, big black scorpions, lizard, cycada, cycada cocoons, bird nests, snake meat (tastes like chicken) and sea horses, in addition to the common fare of spicy beef, squid, chicken, meatballs, and dough balls. There were also drumsticks of every species of bird known to man, and tasty-looking roasted lamb legs (although now that I think about it they could very well have been roasted dog legs). The merchants add much to the color and din of the market by offering steaming bowls of noodles or rice, so you can easily make a meal by picking a little here and a little there from different stalls. And for dessert you can have a skewer with glazed fruit, that somehow still looks fresh and crunchy after having been dipped in gleaming caramel.

Alas, my companions were more horrified than enthusiastic at the cornucopia spread in front of them, so, after feasting my eyes and trying to store in my memory the scents, colors and music of one of the most remarkable markets I have seen in my life, we ended going into a regular restaurant to a tray of steamed buns, and cold dishes of chicken and vegetables (only to find out that Luke has never eaten cold chicken and didn’t care for it at all!). The kid eats scorpions but won’t touch cold chicken; what’s up with that?

Day 20. Biking through Xi’an

Luke has gone native! Since there are several ways in which this expression can be used I better explain. It first comes to my mind by the fearless way in which he plows across traffic in a bicycle, as if traffic laws were not even a recommendation but a downright annoyance.

I imagine I could also use the expression in the sense that he is beginning to think like a Chinese. Perhaps it is the fact that his physical features straddle a fine boundary so sometimes he is regarded as a foreigner (in which case he draws the stares and admiration of children), and sometimes he is regarded as a chinito (in which case he draws in rapid-fire Chinese conversation). Have you noticed how he squints his eyes when he looks at you? Well, Chinese young women find that squint adorable, so he gets a lot of smiles and batting eyelashes. No wonder he is thinking on moving to China after he finishes college.

OK, now that I have permanently embarrassed my travel companion it is time to get started with my narrative: Trying to be economical we decided to rent bikes and enjoy a Sunday in the city on the cheap. Our first stop was a very large city park just outside the old city walls. It is the equivalent of Chapultepec, in that lots and lots of people had come to walk, to do tai-chi, to practice the Chinese violin, to kick the hacky sack, to paddle in the lake, to visit the zoo, to play in the mini-fair, and even to practice ballroom dancing.

After a thoroughly enjoyable hour of people-watching we got back on the bikes and headed for the North and South Lakes, a few kilometers out from city center. We were having a good time, even though I had to cringe at Luke’s lackadaisical disregard for city traffic. (I have to revise my former statement that Chinese are terrible drivers. They are very good in the sense that they will come within millimeters of running you over, but once their bluff has been called they will actually stop and let you step in front of them. I am just to weak on the knees for playing the chicken game with a bus!)

There we were, a good 10 km from city center, when my back tire went “bang!”. What to do? Buses here don’t take bikes, and a bike is too large for the little taxis they have here. Luke offered to strap the bike to his back, but that was a bit too much to expect from the lad, so we parted company with the understanding that he was to continue the tour and be back at the hostel by 2 pm, while I would simply walk the shortest route back home.

It was a long but nice walk. I made a few stops to buy pop frozen bars, take pictures, or just stare at interesting shops. The bird pet store was particularly interesting, not only because all sorts of wild birds were flying around the cages, but also because they also sold these small straw cages (about the size of a tennis ball) where a giant, noisy cricket was to be had.

I made it home around 1:45 pm, and Luke was already waiting for me. The folks at the hostel were really mortified that the bike had failed on me, and they refunded me the whole rental fee. I need to praise the wonderful staff of all International Youth Hostels we had stayed at, and very particularly Ken and Wen from the Xi’an hostel, who have not only been fabulous hosts, but have also become close, caring friends. They are wonderful examples of the young Chinese, who appreciate the value of tourism and go out of their way to care for their charges!

We figured that lunch had to be traditional and cheap, so we asked our excellent hosts and were directed to a noodle shop just outside the old city wall. Great! Throughout our three weeks in China we had not had a straight bowl of noodles, so it seemed fitting to close our stay in this wonderful city with a treat. And what a treat it was! For 28 yuan (about US $4) we had two delicious bowls of noodles with chives and beef, a giant Coke, and a half liter of cooold beer. Best deal in town :)

As our last hoorah we climbed the old city wall (now beautifully restored), rented bikes anew, and did the 14 km circuit along the crown of the city wall. This wall is immense! It must be a good 30 m high, and at the crown 15 m wide, so when you ride along it you are high over the city, and facing a wide avenue ahead of you. Nice place to ride and think.

Day 19. Disaster strikes

Luke had been partying until an ungodly hour, so I let him sleep until 9 am. I know, unheard off. It was cool and overcast when we got out of the hostel, but we were silly enough not to carry and umbrella with us. First we walked a couple of blocks to the corner where the breakfast vendors congregate. We had a pocket of noodles, a Chinese crepe, and fruit yogurt drink for about a dollar each.

We had decided to spend the morning at the Shaanxi History Museum (Shaanxi is the state or province where Xi’an is located), so we started walking toward the bus stop when a light rain started. We could have gone back for the umbrella at that point, but the rain was too light and we didn’t want to backtrack, so we decided to tough it out. Bad mistake.

The bus dropped us a long block from the museum, but by this time the rain had started in earnest and we were quite wet in a matter of minutes. Still, the day was young and we felt like this city was now ours so in good spirits we platched all the way to the museum. Then we saw the line and Luke almost went back. It was looong! It turns out that the museum is free, but in order to get a ticket you have to write down your name in a list, show your identification, and write your identification number in the list. Since there were some families with four or five family members the process was taking forever.

By the time it was our turn we had been standing under the rain (very light by now) for about an hour. Ah, the sacrifices a tourist must make.

The museum was magnificent. It turns out that this state, and the valley where Xi’an is located, have been heavily populated for a very long time. Fossils of Homo erectus have been found at a couple of localities, and as we had learned yesterday there were a number of Paleolithic and Neolithic villages sprinkled here and there. Their presence is richly documented by pottery, stone implements, and the first bronze implements.

Then come the different dynasties that made this city either their capital, or at least one of their main cities. Don’t quote me on this, but I believe the city was important in the times of the Shang (1600 to 1046 BC) and Zhou (1046 to 256 BC) dynasties, and became the capital of the Qin dynasty (which only lasted as long as emperor Qin was alive, from 221 to 207 BC), under the name Chang’an. I have told you about the terracotta army, and the museum had a very nice display about it, but there are also tons of artifacts and structures of this time that have been exposed throughout the city. Then we have the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), which was a time of considerable advances in technology and agriculture, but the golden age of China and the city come with the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 AD). Fabulous palaces were built throughout the city during this time, trade with the surrounding area and the countries of the Silk Road flourished, the court become most refined (with a superabundance of portly ladies that Luke and I dubbed "the ugly fat concubines"), and the goldsmiths, silversmiths, and statuary carvings reached their pinnacle.

Less than 20 years ago a hoard was discovered in the city, and the artifacts were being displayed in a special exhibition called “The Treasures of the Tang”. The crowning piece of the collection was a beautiful carving of a water buffalo in agate (as luck would have it, the museum had a reproduction for sale, but they no longer have it because now I have it, he, he, he :)

The final dynasty to call the city home was the Song dynasty (960 to 1279 AD), which perfected the art of the three colors glaze on pottery and terracotta statues (you may have seen reproductions in the form of horses or camels with an ochre, celadon, and brown glaze).

Luke lost interest about half way through the museum, but he was a good sport and didn’t complain aloud as I went from one exhibit to the next. All good things must come to an end, though, so sometime around 2 pm we left the museum, at peace with men and the world, and entered the first restaurant we saw for a well deserved lunch. Spirits were high, and we were thoroughly enjoying a quiet day in “our city” when disaster struck:

From the restaurant we walked a long block to a big park developed around a Buddhist temple with a tall pagoda. We were in no hurry, so we enjoyed the walk, Luke became acquainted with a traditional Chinese toilette (“Damn uncomfortable”, says he), and we did plenty of people watching on our way to the entrance to the temple. For example, we have noticed that people here sit on their haunches to rest, rather than sitting on a bench. So we get to the ticket counter, and I reach for my wallet, and . . . no wallet. Damn! Trying not to panic I casted my mind back, and concluded I must have left it on the table at the restaurant after I paid for lunch. We turned back right away and fifteen minutes later were at the restaurant, but without success. The waitresses seemed honestly distressed, and according to them no wallet had been found, but . . .

So I lost my driver’s license, my ATM card, two credit cards, and about 80 dollars in Chinese money. Not a tremendously big loss, but with it went all the ability we might have had to get money from the ATM. We have taken stock of our resources and count 100 yuan that Luke has, and 500 yuan, 50 dollars, and 100 euros that I have in my passport pouch. We should also get 100 yuan back from our deposit at the hostel. Considering that we only have three more days to go, we should be able to make it through without problem. Still, I am vexed that after so many years as a traveler I have made the mistake of leaving my wallet at a restaurant table (Tantos aňos de condesa y no saber menear el abanico!).

Rats, rats, and double rats!

PS. To celebrate our new found poverty Luke and I went to the movies tonight. It was some sort of psycho-thriller called “Curse of the Deserted”. A definite B movie, and some of the weird parts we definitely didn’t understand, but it was a new experience.

Day 18. The Terracotta Army

Today could be seen under two lights: the slow and anti-climatic view of the straight tourist, or the awe-struck view of the student of antiquity. I will have to combine the two in a single narrative, which may make for some contradictory statements, but so is life.

We could have attempted to visit the foothills of the Li Mountain on our own, but this time it seemed more expeditious to book a tour. So the day started late, with pickup at 9 am, lazy stroll to the other youth hostel (which is about ten times larger than ours), sit and wait, wait and sit, and finally we got started at 10:30 am. Traffic was fierce, so our driver chose to take a shortcut through less savory parts of town, and it was not until 11:30 am that we got to the site of the Neolithic village of Banpo.

Banpo was occupied in the middle of the period that Chinese archaeologists refer to as the Matriarchal period (7,000 to 5,000 BC). It is a particularly interesting site because one can see the actual surface excavated by the archeologists, on which it is easy to recognize the foundations of at least three different types of dwellings, cooking pits, and the moat that once protected the whole village (a monumental piece of engineering a good 6 meters deep and about 1,000 m long). Ah, if only Uri were here to witness all these wonders! Within the village there were also a significant number of burials and utilitarian pottery.

The next stop was at a handcrafts shop, with the excuse that they would explain to us the way in which the terracotta warriors were made. They actually did a good job at describing the process of molding and firing, which was no small feat given that the statues are life size. The trick was to fire them in parts, to later put the parts together. We learned two important facts: First, the warriors had been painted in bright colors. Unfortunately very little of the color remains today, so they look instead black due to the fact that they were fired in reducing wood fires. Second, four years after the death of emperor Qin Shi Huang Dhi (pronounce the first word Chin), a rival warlord got into the mausoleum complex and smashed each one of the estimated 10,000 statutes (actually, he missed one, so there must had been 10,001 statues). This latter piece of intelligence really shocked me. I though they had found the whole army intact, “standing frozen” as a guard of honor to emperor Qin. Instead I learn that what you see today is the patient labor of hundreds of archaeologists, who so far have only reconstructed 10% of the whole army.

Illumination comes at a price, however, and for the little lecture we had to go through a gauntlet of sales people that were trying to sell us everything from a full-size terracotta warrior (I was tempted . . . it would look so nice guarding the library) to lacquered furniture and silk rugs.

The next stop really annoyed me (I tell this in the order in which enlightment came to me). We had booked a visit to the mausoleum of emperor Qin, and instead we were driven to this Las Vegas type of building, where 30 years ago government artists had built a model of the mausoleum, together with little figures milling around the streets. It was a very large model (say 50 by 100 m), and clearly they had put on a lot of detail, but it was not the site I had expected to visit! Our guide gave us some bullshit about the government having decreed 50 years ago that no one was to enter the site, because archaeological technology was not advanced enough to cope with the proper excavation and preservation of the site. I now wish I had put more attention to the model, because in fact it was built with as much archeological information as was available at the time. For example, the scale of 1:100 was as accurate as they could get it, so that means the mausoleum was about 5 km by 10 km in area. 50 square kilometers! That is half of the size of Teotihuacan! Fortunately I noticed, on the periphery of the outer wall of the complex, the miniature representation of the elongated pits filled with row after row of terracotta warriors, and from that got the idea that the warriors were but a small part of the mausoleum. The mausoleum itself had an outer and an inner wall, with lots of small structures scattered through, and a central dominant artificial mountain 100 m high. I believe the mountain was just a decorative feature.

Anyway, still upset for what I considered an underhanded switch I barely turned my head when the guide pointed out a small mountain in the distance, and mentioned that it was the central artificial mountain of the mausoleum complex. Had I been thinking clearly I would have used this central point to draw on the landscape the possible footprint of the complex.

So finally we made it to the site of the terracotta army, where all of China had decided to congregate. We dutifully followed the throng to the exhibition halls, and in reverence entered the hall of Pit 1, where most of the reconstructed warriors are exhibited. The “pit” is immense and the rows of warriors and their horses seem interminable. However, the reconstructed statues occupy only about 10% of the excavation area. Behind them you can see the “work in progress”, which are jumbles of fragments of soldiers and horses that are being patiently put together by an army of archaeologists. What a monumental project! And yet, the whole professional life of some of these archeologists is going to be to put together a dozen statues. It seemed to me a job that is at once sublime and extremely limited in scope.

I was musing about this as I walked through Pits 2 and 3, which are nowhere as impressive as Pit 1, when everything clicked together as I walked through the Exhibition Hall, which is a museum of “the other stuff” that has been recovered from the mausoleum. Now, remember that in the model the warriors were but a peripheral feature of the 50 square kilometers site, and that there were a lot of other features and structures within the site. “The other stuff” are materials that have been recovered from exploratory excavations elsewhere within those 50 square kilometers, and the magnificence and variety of the artifacts is but a taste of the information that remains to be recovered.

I came out of the hall and stared at the foothills of the Li Mountains. Out there, 5 kilometers distant, I could see the artificial mountain that marked the center of the site. All of a sudden the throngs of tourists became so many Qin dynasty people, milling around and building what will no doubt earn the title of Eight Wonder of the Ancient World. Yes, the terracotta army is magnificent in its own right, but what will be found over the next 100 years of archeological work baffles the imagination. This is a unique opportunity of seeing a site at the very initial stages of exploration, and to an old archeology buff like me is a thrill to contemplate the possibilities.

The ride back to the hotel was slow and full of traffic, but I enjoyed the chance to mull quietly on what I had seen, both factually and figuratively. I just wish I could have a second look at that model.

Back at home Luke went in the search of girls (that boy has some punch with the fair sex, and because he looks much older than he really is he comes up with really cute co-eds), and I went to the supermarket. Yes, wherever I go I enjoy going to the supermarket to see what they have for sale. It is a way of confirming that yes, I could live here if need be. So I pushed my little cart through the wines (I bought some Great Wall wine that turned out to be pretty good, and got a corkscrew as a present from an obliging employee), the meats (they have chorizo and patitas de puerco!), the fish (wonderful variety), the veggies and fruits, the spices, and the sauces, to name but a few, and ended with 80 yuan worth of merchandise that somehow I will have to eat over the next three days.

Finally, to wrap a very full day, I had a foot massage, that Lucienne had recommended as being very special. Actually it was a little brutal, but I was happy enough to make an appointment for a lower back massage and acupuncture tomorrow evening. Why not? After all, I don’t come every day to China :)

P.S. I forgot to make some historical remarks about emperor Qin Shi Huang Dhi. He is remembered as the first emperor of the whole of China, and gained this distinction at the end of the Warring Period (500 to 221 BC), when his state (the Qin state) defeated the other major state in southern China. For the fist time, then, most of the territory now known as China was under a single ruler. Now, you don’t get to be top dog by being a nice guy, and emperor Qin was no exception to this rule. With a fist of iron he imposed on the whole land the Qin script (and to do that burnt any books written in any other script, and buried alive all scholars that could have rewritten the burnt texts), the Qin coins (round and with a square hole in the middle, rather than the spade or knife-shaped coins used in other states), the Qin distance between cart wheels, and the Qin everything. He started working on his mausoleum even before he became emperor of all China, and was buried in it around 207 BC. With his death the Qin empire started to fragment, and four years later the country was once again a mess of warring factions. Remember that one of these warlords took it upon himself to destroy the terracotta army outside of the mausoleum walls (nobody has any idea if he got inside the mausoleum itself).

Day 17. Travel to Xi’an

Luke stayed up until the wee hours of the morning playing games with Lucifer and her Corean gang (I am just reporting it as I heard it), so he barely had any sleep before it was time to get up and catch a taxi for the airport. Punctually at 7:45 am the plane took off and two hours later we were in the historic Xi’an. It was here that the emperor who unified China established his capital, around 200 BC. Since then it has been the capital of the empire on and off, so it has relicts from just about every single dynasty.

The wall that surrounds the old city has been reconstructed, with is monumental gates and all, and our hostel lies at the base of the south wall, on the inside of the city, along what is called “ancient street”.

As soon as we dropped our packs we headed for the Muslim part of the city, with the idea of getting a Muslim lunch: Lamb stew with pieces of unleavened bread (they actually brought us the bread and the empty bowl, so we could break it in little pieces ourselves before the broth was added), cold breaded fish on a sweet sauce (Luke ordered it thinking it was chicken and ended not liking it), a mushroom medly, and a super spicy chicken dish that had us sobbing after the first bite. We then went to look for The Grand Mosque, which didn’t look so grand because visitors are not allowed past the first hall.

We then went to look at the monument that marks the beginning of the silk road, the trade rout that extended from Xi’an through the Gobi desert, Kazakstan, the Caspian Sea, the Carpathian Mountains, Poland, and finally Holland (with a southern branch that went through Iran, Irak, Turkey, and from there the Mediterranean). The monument itself is well done, but the real thrill is to think that we were at the point where caravans with hundreds of camels would gather, to start of a trip that would take them through 5,000 km of oppressing heat in the desert, and of freezing nights in the mountains, to maintain alive the flow of goods from east to west and viceversa. I can almost hearing them saying “Bye Honey, I’ll see you in a couple of years” and off they went!

Our last hurrah was visit to the Forest of Steles, a museum devoted to the preservation of the stone steles where the teachings of Confucius were first written down, legends were carved, and legal mandates were preserved for posterity. It may seem dumb to wander through rooms filled with stone pillars where the Chinese characters can barely be distinguished, but in a way is like browsing through a library where very old manuscripts are preserved and exhibited to the public.

As I said, trying to read a stele is very difficult, but the museum has developed a nifty technique in which they apply a thin layer of wet “paper” (kind of a hybrid between a fabric and paper), which when it dries shrinks and clings to the stone. You can then roll ink on the said paper, and create a negative copy of the stele (it is called a “rubbing” but I think it is closer to inking a lithograph stone). It is such a neat technique, and such a chance of having a museum quality copy of an ancient document, that I couldn’t resist. There was a stele, dated 1530, that showed a topographic map of the Yangtze River, in a stretch that had had catastrophic flooding in the past, and the accompanying text described the actions that the Ming dynasty engineers were taking to prevent flooding. It was exquisite . . . and they had made a “rubbing’ of it . . . and it was so tempting . . . and . . . and . . . and I just had to spend a small fortune getting it for the library! I will still have to invest quite a bit getting it mounted in fabric before it can be exhibited, but I think it will be magnificent :)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Day 16. Hot and frustrated in Nanjing

Today had all the hallmarks of a crummy day: It was unbelievably hot, the stupid city only has signs in 10% of the streets, I was working with a totally inaccurate little map from the Lonely Planet book, nobody could figure out what I was talking about, and at the end I had to eat a big slice of Humble Pie. But let me start from the beginning:

I had told Luke that the only reason we had come to Nanjing is because it was the home port of the Treasure Fleet, a fleet of hundreds or even thousands of vessels that between 1405 and 1430 was the main maritime power of the world. The fleet had sailed under the orders of Admiral Zheng He (also written as Cheng Ho), and it charted and visited all of the “known” world, which for the Chinese meant all of the Indian Ocean (but read 1421 The Year China Discovered America for a tantalizing hypothesis that Chinese ships sailed along the west coast of the Americas). So this is a big deal for anyone interested in the voyages of discovery, right? Wrong! It seems that nobody here has heard of this great event in Chinese history, and that I was doomed to get blank stares in response to my inquiries.

Prior to arrival I had consulted a website, which gave the location of the archaeological excavation that in 1985 found the shipyard where the enormous treasure ships had been built (they were behemoths that would have made an 1800’s man o’war look like a little barky in comparison). The location was very close to the center of town, so I dragged Luke there, and we walked up and down, left and right, clockwise and counter-clockwise around the area without finding the site. All my inquiries were responded with blank looks, and for once nobody could understand my most basic questions. Luke was a tower of patience and common sense, and time and again told me that it would be a lot more reasonable to have the ship yard by the river, and not in the center of town. Yes, it would make sense, but this crazy city without names on the streets was not reasonable, was it?

In the pointless search we visited the Imperial Lake (Nanjing was the imperial capital under the first emperor of the Ming dynasty), the city wall, and the Jinming temple, but the bloody Zheng He museum was nowhere to be found.

At the end I gave up (yes, I must confess I actually gave up), and trying to rescue the day dragged Luke in the direction of the Taiping Museum, but even this was being very difficult due to the miserable street signals and the lousy “sketch” I was using for a map, so at the first stationary store I found, I walked in and bought a real city map. Armed with this we reached the Taiping Museum without any problem. Boy, but was it hot! We stopped under the shade of a tree to rest, and goaded by my previous failure I studied the new map in careful detail. Nothing. Nada. No bloody Zheng He museum.

And then Luke’s common sense came to haunt me: “But the shipyards had to be by the river.” So I followed the course of the river in the new map and, bingo! There it was. Plain for all to see. I jumped to my feet and almost dragged Luke out of the stupid Taiping Museum, hailed a cab, and sped toward the riverside location.

Yes, it was not a figment of my imagination. The site of the three Ming shipyards really exists, and it really has been excavated, and it really has bronze haut reliefs depicting the arrival of the Treasure Fleet to the great ports of antiquity in Taiwan, Vietnam, Borneo, Sumatra, Hormuz, Siam, Sri Lanka, Calicut, Malacca, Goa, the Read Sea, and the West coast of Africa. Yes, it really has bronze copies of the stele that Zheng He had erected at each of this landings, and it really has a bigger than life statue of the famous admiral, and the gigantic rudder recovered from one of the Treasure Ships, and a true-scale reconstruction of what one of the medium size vessels might have looked like.

It is a pity that the day was impossibly hot, and that I had spent so much of Luke’s energy in the morning’s foolish wild goose chase, and that there was no one else in the archaeologic park to share on the experience. It really seems that nobody in Nanjing knows or cares about the voyages of Zheng He and its Treasure Fleet :(

After the small triumph represented by finding the site, there was nothing else to do but come back to the hostel and try to chill and rehydrate. In an hour or so we will go to dinner, and early tomorrow morning we will take off for Xi’an.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Day 15. Travel to Nanjing

Another travel day, so not much to report. We took the bus around noon and by 5 pm we were entering Nanjing. I have noticed a bit of anxiety in Luke when we arrive to a new place, and he has to be reassured often that yes, I know exactly how to get there. This time was a bit harder to keep the deception because the bus station was in a seedy part of town. As is the normal pattern, I asked for the nearest metro station and got some vague waving of the hand. Luke picked up on the uncertainty, and started worrying right away. I managed to get him going for about five blocks until I finally found someone who knew a bit of English and she categorically informed us that there was no nearby metro station.

In triumph Luke said “OK, now we take a taxi, right?” Why is it that people that are lost always want to take a taxi? What is the fun in that? “No, we take the bus”. Not that I knew where the bus was going, but I was not going to give in so easily. So we jump on the bus and, oh delight, there is a map of the route posted behind the driver. Everything was in Chinese, of course, but a map is a map and I am good at reading maps. So after a few seconds inspection I was able to assure to my worry wart companion that in 10 more stops we would find a metro station (which we did, so the rest of the arrival process was a piece of cake).

Luke met a couple of gringos at the hostel, and was happy to be able to talk to them in English. They suggested we accompanied them to dinner, and we were gladly to accept. Whatever made me think that a couple of gringos would know their way through an unknown city? Mind you, on the way in I had spotted a row of very fine, simple restaurants around the corner from the hostel. But no, this kid claimed that he knew of a nice place to eat and dragged us for a couple of miles to the financial district of the city, where there were lots of banks but nowhere to eat. I had to take over and turn off the main street until we found an eatery that looked adequate.

Alas,there was no picture menu in this place, so at random we ordered some chicken dish (very good), a fish dish (good), and some vegetables (limp and tasteless). On the way back I guided the small troupe to the metro, and from there it was easy to return home.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Day 14. Hong Cun and the Emerald Pools

Everything hurts... Legs, arms, knee, ankle, bones, skin. I didn’t realize it, but I must have been making faces going down all those damned steps, so even my ears hurt! Speaking of steps, I dreamt that an infinite number of coolies had been building steps all night, and that I will have to go down them for the rest of my stay in China.

The truth is that we woke in our friendly hotel, looking forward to a new day. The manager of the hotel is an older Chinese American fellow, educated in California, who a few years ago came to China to venture into the hospitality business. He is, of course, perfectly bilingual, and was of great help setting us to a delicious dinner last night, a traditional Chinese breakfast this morning, and a tour of a historic Ming dynasty village.

A traditional Chinese breakfast consists of tea with milk (with sugar added for Western palates), rice gruel (plain, with sugar, or with spicy pickled bamboo shoots), a hard boiled egg, and steamed bread rolls. We put the spicy bamboo in our rice gruel, and Luke credits it with a wonderful laxative effect that a half hour later completely cleared his digestive tract.

For our tour of the Ming village of Hong Cun our genial host had retained the services of a very professional lady, who drove us in her brand new car. Enter scary driver number three. Like our driver in Yangshuo, this young woman was very professional and serious about her driving, but she followed the “rules of the road” to the "T", which involved squeezing her car into incoming traffic, much honking, and passing in blind curves. Now, we all know that passing in a blind curve is very dangerous, so if need be, you want to do it fast and with lots of power. In the Chinese mind this could lead to an ugly accident (as opposed to a not so ugly accident), so in an uphill they pass in the blind curve at a crawling pace, and in fourth gear, with the car shuddering. At least you have lots of time to pray during the whole ordeal.

I have the theory that here driving is learnt by looking at old movies, where James Bond speeds down a mountain road in San Marino. On the downhill they like to imitate the style, but they are not quite sure why one cuts curves. So they speed up to the curve, cut into the opposite lane well before they come to the curve (and therefore are unable to see if anyone is coming their way), and then screech their way through the inside of the curve. This time there is no time for prayers, so I had to rely on the “medallita de San Cristobal” that my Mom gave me for this trip.

The last scary moment came when we were barreling at great speed through a small village, and I saw a woman holding a child getting ready to cross the road ahead of us. The woman looked up when she heard the horn, and I could read in her eyes her belief that she could beat the car in the crossing (remember that the concept of taking turns to pass is unknown here in China). She braced for the run, and I applied the brakes on my side, but our driver just clenched her teeth and accelerated even more. She was going to beat this woman and her child to the crossing or else. Well, she knew more about the Chinese psyche than I did, because indeed we beat the mother and child with about 10 cm to spare. Piece of cake!

It was with some relief that we arrived to the village of Hong Cun. The village was established 500 years ago, when an oak and a gingko were planted on a knoll overlooking what was probably an ox bow lake. Since then every marriage in the village has circled the oak three times to assure happiness and prosperity, and every funeral has circled the gingko three times to assure peaceful eternal rest. I had never seen a gingko tree this old, and was kind of startled to learn that they grow to form sober trees.

The village has been continuously occupied since Ming times, and the old part of town is a real time machine to older times. The residents welcome tourists and the money they bring, so one is allowed to peek into their houses and look without pressure over the handcrafts they offer for sale. It is nice to be able to shop without pressure, so Luke and I bought a couple of souvenirs and tasted a couple of the local breads. One in particular is prepared on a spinning hot plate (like a potter’s wheel), where thin strands of colored batter are intermingled to form a giant crisp crepe. The crepe is folded into a flat “burrito” while it is still hot, and becomes very crisp and brittle as it cools. Very yummy and entertaining.

After the Hong Cun village our driver suggested visiting the Emerald Pools, so off we go again, at high speed, to new adventures. The Emerald Pools are formed along one of the rivers that come down from Huang Shan, on a stretch where the river gets out of the intrusive rocks and cuts through the gneisses and greenstones that form the country rock. They are indeed limpid pools with an emerald green color, strung like beads along the river canyon. Oh God, not the steps again. This is what that army of coolies was doing last night! But to be a real tourist you have to suffer, so I limped my way up and down the river, oooing and ahhhing, like a good tourist should. As an added incentive we learned that it was here where many of the flying scenes of Crouching Tiger – Hidden Dragon were filmed.

Our excellent driver delivered us to the bus that in due time would bring us back to Tunxi. Once we got there, however, we had some distance to go to get to the hostel. We could have taken a taxi, but what would be the fun of that? Instead we took a bicycle rickshaw and comfortably sat in the little cab as the daredevil lady driver braved the traffic to bring us safe and sound to the doorstep of our hostel.

I had laundry to do and memories to put down in writing, so I stayed at the hostel for the next two hours, but Luke had excess energy to burn so he rented a bike and went for the grand tour of Tunxi. Later we went out to dinner and had a clay pot of noodles, and barbecued squid, chicken wing, mushrooms, and beef. We topped it all with a nice piece of pastry bought at the “panaderia” (yes, they have “panaderias” just like in Mexico), and after an evening stroll headed for our beds for a well deserved sleep.

Day 13. Huang Shan (Saturday August 7)

Six in the morning and we are already in a minibus that is making a perfect imitation of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The Chinese are lovely people, but they are the wildest drivers I have met (and I have seen pretty crazy driving around the world). I will have two or three other chances to tell you how wild they are, so this time I will limit myself to notice their total ignorance of the concept that if I let you pass then I will have the road for myself. No. I must pass right now, which means all of you have to shrink away to let me pass (they do the same when walking). So, if there is me and another car going my way, and there are two cars coming against us, then we have the problem that four of us must fit at the same time in a two lane road. Since nobody wants to give way, well, that means we will have to live with clearances of just 2 millimeters on each side!

We got to the town of Tang Kou, at the foot of Huang Shan (The Yellow Mountain), around 9 am, and found all the tourists we had missed at Tunxi. They were everywhere, swarming like ants. Much to my displeasure I found out that there was an entry fee of 230 yuan each, plus 80 yuan each for the cable lift. Actually, this is like 50 dollars total, which is not that much, but certainly highly priced when you compare it with national parks elsewhere in the world. On top of the cost, the queue was like “la cola para la masa”, and packed like only the Chinese can pack a queue. It was not until 10:30 am that we finally stepped into the gondola of the cable lift, and all of a sudden the ground disappeared below us and we were lifted into a surreal world.

Huang Shan is a Mesozoic intrusive massif, which has been recently uplifted. The granite that forms it has two sets of vertical joints, so weathering and erosion have combined to create a forest of spires, hundreds of meters high. The total elevation of the mountain is only 1,600 m, so the vegetation is luxurious, and the small umbrella trees hang from impossibly small crevices on the face of the rock sentinels, creating an other worldly effect.

So, here we are at the Chinese Yosemite, and there are a million Chinese tourists around us (oh, yes, the majority of the tourists are Chinese visiting their beautiful land). I didn’t think this was a problem, because in Yosemite you lose the crowd as soon as you step out of the flat, easy path. Not here, though. The Chinese are tough, and no stinking 60 degree slope is going to stop grandma from climbing the peak to enjoy the view. Besides, here we are in a civilized country where hundreds of workmen have labored to build beautiful staircases that go up and down the said peaks. And I am not talking about rickety ladders. Oh no. Here we make staircases out of granite blocks, carefully chipped to have the perfect shape and firmly set in concrete. How I learned to hate those steps!

My hope of finding accommodations in the mountain were dashed by the roiling crowd. Well, then second best would be to complete the whole circuit in one day and go back to sleep in Tang Kou. I decided this around noon time, so we headed to the northwest of the park, where the real cliffs are to be found (The Grand Canyon of Huang Shan). The map showed two loops, each about half a kilometer in length, that were highly recommended, and after that we could follow the advise of the Lonely Planet guide and head for “the western steps” (curse the Lonely Planet editors forever and ever as we shall soon see).

So, the loops may be only half a kilometer in length, but what nobody tells you is that there is nearly a kilometer of relief in the course of the loop, or that you have to descend about 2,000 steps on a 70 degree slope and then climb a similar number on the other side to complete the loop. The landscape is . . . well . . . indescribable. This stairway to heaven hung in the middle of space, with peaks soaring hundreds of meters above us, and a chasm of some more hundreds of meters at our feet. This is the closest I have come to soaring like an eagle, and the feeling was at once terrifying and exhilarating.

And then, after climbing half a million steps my knee decided that it could not take the half a million and one and went “twang”. Rats, rats, and double rats! We were deep in the center of the park, so I knew that we needed to start back right away, before the knee swelled up. The choices were to climb to the top of the ridge and from there reach the cable lift station, or walk down toward the west gate of the park. Somehow walking down seemed a better idea (it was definitely the wrong idea), so Luke and I started down an interminable 10 km of stairs. The one “good thing” is that suddenly the crowds disappeared, so we were able to enjoy the raw beauty of the towering landscape. Right at the start of the descent from hell we found a couple of Aussies, who had also chosen this way down, and on and off we met as they overtook us or we overtook them.

After the first kilometer my knee was throbbing, after the fifth kilometer my balance suffered because my knee was giving, and after the tenth kilometer I was dragging. This is when we came upon the first path sign: Left: climb 5 km to the pass and down for another 9 km to Tang Kou. Right: 4 km to Tai Ping. Well, we wanted to go to Tang Kou, but 14 km was out of the question. Maybe we could go down to Tai Ping and take a taxi to Tang Kou. Luke went back to let the Aussies know what we were doing, just in case they wanted to come with us and share a taxi.

I went ahead, limping slowly, when out from behind a tree popped out this girl, about 18 years old, with a big smile. We greeted each other in Chinese, and then she started a rapid fire explanation in Chinese. Alas, she didn’t speak a word of English, and besides learning that her name was Wen I couldn’t understand anything else she was saying. So we went back to playing charades, and I told her we were very tired and trying to reach town, and she told me not to worry because she had phoned her uncle in Tai Ping to come pick her up. Right about then Luke, and Katie, and Marcus arrived, and I brought them up to date. Aha, like a knight in shining armor here comes Wen’s uncle in a nice little car. I can only imagine his confusion when he found his niece in the company of four big, sweaty foreigners. No problem, apparently. We piled in the little car, he turned around, and we went back to Tai Ping.

They asked us where we were going, and on hearing Tang Kou there was much shaking of heads, and I quickly understood that to go to Tang Kou would imply driving all around the mountain massif. So we explained that we would like to take a taxi. Consultation ensued while we were drinking some bottled water (Wen’s treat at a local store), cell phone calls, and . . . nothing. No taxi could be found. OK, said Wen’s uncle, I will take you, so we piled into the car again and off we went.

He was the second scary driver we met that day, so let me tell you about the second peculiarity of Chinese drivers. They rely heavily on the horn to attempt to clear the way ahead. The problem is that nobody gives a dam about said honk; in fact, I think they open themselves just a little wider when they hear the horn. But for the driver the horn is a magic shield against incoming cars and trucks, so as long as they have it nothing can go wrong. Well, something did go wrong. The horn stopped working! Just like that. It was a devastating blow to Wen’s uncle, who kept pressing at the button in disbelief. From there on his driving became even more erratic and insecure, and as if in a wicked turn of fate incoming buses and trucks became more numerous. We were all a nervous wreck when we finally came into Tank Kou, after a ride of nearly 75 km!

I cannot describe how grateful we were to Wen and her uncle, who out of kindness and friendliness took an enormous amount of time and effort to see that we reached our hotel that night. It would be as if I found someone in Waterford who with signs managed to make me understand that he was heading for Sacramento, and I were to say “no problem, hop aboard, I will take you there”. Our opinion of the Chinese is soaring right now :)

We spent the night at the same hotel that Katie and Marcus were staying at (Lonely Pines Hotel), and we had dinner together that night. The topic of conversation was, of course, how we all wanted to have an adventure in the Chinese mountains, and how faith had turned it into an unforgettable experience. Life is good!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Day 12. Trip to Tunxi

Not much to report since this was a travel day, so I will have to fill some space by telling you about Luke’s adventure last night.

So, we got to the hostel around 9:30 pm, bushed after walking like dogs at the Expo. But Luke, young pup that he is, still had some energy to go find something to eat. Well, temptation came his way, because the local eateries are close to the metro station, and being so close to the metro he figured he would take another look around The Bund. So he jumps in the metro and just as he is getting of the station at Nanjing Rd. he sees that the metro station is closing! Fear struck because (a) Nanjing Rd. is pretty far from where the hostel is, so he would have to walk a significant distance, and (b) he is not very oriented at night, so there was a pretty good chance he would get lost. Just then a local hoodlum comes and starts making conversation, and pretty soon figures this poor kid is lost. “No problemo”, says he “give me 25 yuan and I will take you there in my motorcycle”. Now, we have all taught our children not to talk with strangers, but these are desperate times and at the end we see Luke on the back of the bike, flying through the night streets of Shanghai (the term shanghaied comes to mind!). But this story has a happy ending, because the other guy was as good as his word and duly delivered Luke to the hostel in one piece. Ay, ay, ay, if his mother knew where her baby has been she would not be able to sleep at night.

For obvious reasons Luke had a slow start in the morning, and it was already 10 am when we arrived at the bus station, facing long lines to buy tickets in a narrow, crowded hall. But once again life was made easy by a friendly young man and his wife, who came to our rescue seeing we were clueless foreign devils. He was distraught to find out that the first run to Tunxi was at 4 pm (we had probably missed the morning run), but on my advise bought the two tickets for me. They said goodbye and headed for their own bus, while Luke and I pondered what to do.

We had a good 5 hours ahead of us, so staying at the bus station was out of the question. On the other hand, we had already made up our mind to leave Shanghai, so it was only half heartedly that we headed for the Pudong district, to see the big buildings and riverside views. After a few hours of that we looked for a place to have lunch (crab claws marinated in wine, curry vegetables, and steamed eel), and got back to the station in perfect time to catch our bus.

Tunxi must be a good 500 km from Shanghai, which we did in about five and a half hours, running mostly on a new highway. We got at Tunxi at about 9:30 pm, and right away got a taxi. The cabby brought us to the start of a brightly illuminated alley, and by signs told us that the hostel was down the alley. Turned out to be tourist alley, with all sorts of merchandise aimed at tourists, but not a tourist in sight. Maybe it is true that the Expo has diverted to Shanghai all the tourism that would otherwise now be at the mountains.

Tomorrow we will be going up the mountain, Huang Shan, so it will be a couple of days before I am able to connect again. I expect some fabulous mountain views and tough hiking.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Day 11. The World Expo 2010

We are all excited about going to the Expo this afternoon, but we had to find something to do with ourselves during the morning, so we headed to the Shanghai Museum, which according to the Lonely Planet guide could take the whole day to visit. On the way I had a noodles burrito (yes, folks here seem to have an interminable variety of ways in which to eat noodles!) and Luke had a Gatorade. He is still not quite up to normal as far as going to the bathroom is concerned, so he is taking it easy.

I thought the museum was about the history of Shanghai, but alas that was not it. It is a fabulous collection of art, from 5000 BC to the Ching Dinasty (which ended in the early 1900’s). It includes stone artifacts and carvings, terracotta statues of Buddha and his buddies, lots of terracotta pottery, bronze castings, the most impressive collection of Chinese ceramic through the ages, jade carvings, coins, seals, rolls of Chinese calligraphy, and beautiful prints. I think both Luke and I enjoyed the prints the most. For one thing, we had just been in the karstic landscape that seems to have inspired many Chinese painters. For other, many of the artists use the single stroke black line as their basic technique, which is what Luke uses when he draws, so he could really identify with the overall effect.

I was a bit baffled by this extensive collection, since a lot of the artistic patrimony of China was destroyed during the dark years of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. By looking carefully at the descriptions of the pieces, however, I was able to solve the mystery: Either they were the results of extensive archaeologic work done in the last 10 years, or they were gifts of private collections that were kept in Hong Kong and other expatriate Chinese communities.

Lunch followed: A spicy seafood soup (with big hunks of tofu, yuck!), a chicken in lemon sauce, fried noodles Hong Kong style, and some pastry filled with sweet beans for dessert. Our waitress was a hoot, and totally got into the charades game, so we laughed a lot during the meal.

To kill a couple of extra hours we went for a walk through old town Shanghai, which is a warren of narrow alleys in which houses alternate with tiny store fronts. Our ultimate goal was one of the few surviving Confucius temples. This turned out to be a spacious temple complex, well maintained and with pretty pagodas and gardens. Very few people in it, however, since the communist regime frowns on religious practices. Luke wondered why would a temple be erected to Confucius. He was admittedly a great philosopher (way back in the 6th century BC), and his ideas have pervaded the way of life of the Chinese for 2,500 years, but he is no god. A very cool room in the temple complex is the library, where some very old editions of books that convey Confucius ideas are housed (Confucius, like Socrates, did not seem to have written anything himself, so all we now about his thinking is through the works of his disciples, and the disciples of his disciples). It is a serene building, and the collection is well displayed. It has the distinction of being Shanghai’s first public library!

The time came at last to head to the Expo, but we were misinformed about the right metro station to disembark, so we ended having to walk an extra half a mile to get there. Not good, because my foot was hurting a bit and we were going to have to do a lot of walking within the Expo itself. And so we did!

The Expo grounds are absolutely immense, so to get from one pavilion to the next you have to hoof it. By past experience in the Zaragoza expo I new that you cannot possibly see it all, so I suggested to Luke that we skip the China pavilion (after all, we are here seeing the real thing), and that we concentrate in the pavilions of other Asian nations, and maybe Africa. Well, even with this reduced goal there was no way we could see it all. I have already mentioned the distances involved, but one also has to take into account the lines to get into the pavilions, and the time you want to spend gawking at the displays. It is easy to get into a feverish frenzy and rush through the pavilions, but that is really not what it is all about. The Expo is like the opportunity of taking a condensed trip through the world, so the way to do it is take your time and get into the marvels that each country has on display.

We very much enjoyed going through the pavilions of Malaysia and Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand, and the smaller nations of Africa. It gave Luke and I a chance to talk about other countries I have visited, and those we would like to visit next (except that we ran out of time and energy to visit the Egypt pavilion, which is what I have my sights on for the next trip).

Exhausted we finally decided to quit sometime around 9 pm (after only 5 hours of walking, what a pair of whimps), but it took us nearly an hour to get to the gate, and another half hour to reach the metro and get home. My feet hurt, and I am a bit concerned because the next three days are supposed to be spent hiking around Huang Shan, one of the five must-see peaks of China.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Day 10. Trip to Shanghai

Luke is not a happy pup. He has been a bit constipated throughout the trip, but today in the morning his constipation reached its high point and he was not feeling well. We will have to stop by the pharmacy in Shanghai and get him a mild laxative.

We had arranged for a private ride to the Guilin airport, and our driver showed up punctually at 8 am. I had arranged the drive through a travel agency, so I imagine she makes her car available for this kind of drive to the airport to supplement her income. She was driving a new and immaculate VW Golf, and was a most careful driver. Having said that, a careful driver has to adjust herself to the rules of the road, weaving in and out of traffic, or pushing for her turn at an intersection in the face of formidable odds.

We made the 60 km trip to the airport in good time, and arrived with two hours of free time before our flight. The flight itself was uneventful, but different in that this time I got a window seat (I much prefer aisle), and there were no clouds or haze so I was able to look at the landscape. The Yangtze River (or Chang Jiang in Chinese) is absolutely enormous, broadening to more than 1 km as it approaches the sea. All around it are wetlands, shipyards, peers, and warehouses, as witnesses of the importance of this port to the flow of goods from China to the world and viceversa.

Landing at Shanghai it took us but a minute to figure the metro system, and armed with Special Expo 2010 passes, good for many trips, we zipped to downtown and our hostel with no problem. Well, there were a couple of moments of indecision, but a kind passerby quickly put us in the right path (Luke and I have reflected that throughout this trip we have been very fortunate to find kind people that have made the effort to talk to us and help us with the little hiccups).

After we checked in at the hostel we went to take care of two important businesses. First, get money from the ATM (I was successful but Luke was not; it may be that he chose savings account instead of checking, so he will try again tomorrow), and second get some sort of laxative for Luke. The latter was a lot of fun, because the young woman at the pharmacy really got into the charades game with us, and you can imagine that mimicking constipation and its cure has infinite potential for having fun.

Later we walked to the entrance to the Expo, but figured it was already too late to get our 90 yen worth of fun. We will do it tomorrow. Instead we took the metro to Nanjing Rd,, which is the shopping street of Shanghai. The color, light, and glitz are incredible! Girls, here you could get your dream job, and become a shopping consultant for country bumpkins (yes, we looked enough like country bumpkins that more than once we were offered the services of a guide to take us shopping). Christine, you have to come to Nanjing Rd.!

From there we walked to The Bund, a term used by early European traders to refer to the muddy banks of the Huangpu River, a tributary of the Yangtze River that divides Shanghai in the old (west of the river) and the new (east of the river). Here it was that the big trading houses built their warehouses and offices, and eventually these early monuments were transformed into banks and houses of exchange, until The Bund became the financial heart of the city. The river is no longer allowed to run naturally. Instead an impressive water front has been built, such that the river now runs higher than Nanjing Rd. The walking avenue on top of the dike is a super popular walk for residents and tourists alike, to catch the evening breeze, gawk at the neon lights of the new Shanghai, gawk at the old architecture of The Bund, and take millions of pictures. We did our share of picture taking, but finally gave up and headed to our well deserved rest.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Day 9. The bicycle tour

I finally got my wish of devoting a day to a big bicycle tour around Yanshuo. We started pedaling east, toward the town of Fuli. It was a busy highway, full of buses and trucks, and the 5 km there were not particularly pleasant. But then we turned north, toward Xingping, on a much smaller country road. This is where I felt we had finally reached agricultural China. The main crop is rice, but there is enough variety in vegetable plots and orchards to give a feeling of prosperity, all framed by the spectacular view of the karstic mountains.

Here they get two crops of rice. One is being harvested right now, and the second is being planted for harvest in October. So, on one hand we saw plenty of farmers working on cutting the loaded rice stalks, and threshing the rice out using a very clever type of threshing machine. The left over stalks are then dried in small bunches, but it is unclear to me what they are used for. One use is to cover the bikes and motorcycles of the ag workers, so they won’t be cooked by the relentless sun. The end of the harvest process is to spread the rice on small concrete pads, for it to thoroughly dry out. The rice is raked every now and then with big wooden rakes, to make sure that it is thoroughly dry before it is taken to market.

The big sacks of rice are transported on an interesting type of vehicle: a one piston light tractor, which pulls a medium size truck bed. Just like one sees in the county fair, these one-piston engines use a fly wheel to keep the engine turning in between the firing of the piston. They have a distinctive rhythm to them, that goes well with the general scene (but they leave behind big black clouds of diesel fumes—the smell of money!).

Did you know that peanuts are the root and not the fruit of the plant? I had always imagined they dangled from the plant, like green beans. The plant itself is quite unremarkable, so I could die of starvation in a field of peanuts and never know any better.

The planting of the new rice has its own charm. First, you plant the rice in trays, with one plant to each bump in the tray. While the nursery plants grow, you harness your water buffalo and plow the parcel. Then you flood the parcel, and use a kind of paddle wheel (once again pulled by your water buffalo) to break the clumps of soil into an even-textured bed of mud. By this time the little plants are ready to come out of the tray and go into the ground. Rookies place each plant in the mud by bending at the waist over and over again, but old crafty farmers throw them like darts at remarkably precise distances.

Once we arrived to Xingping we faced the challenge of crossing the Li River. Fortunately there are a large number of bamboo rafts to choose from. Not so fortunate is the fact that they all want to sell you the scenic tour, so it took some firmness on my side to negotiate a simple crossing of the river. By now it was getting close to noon, and the sun was shining relentlessly on our backs, so after crossing the river I dropped my shorts and went for full body dunk. Luke was shy and contented himself with sitting under the shade of a bamboo. Incidentally, big bamboo trees have a heavy canopy of leaves, so heavy in fact that under their weight the tip of the tree bends down. From my vantage point in the river, they looked like a herd of brontosauria coming to drink at the riverside.

Resuming our bike ride, we found that our black top road had been transformed into a narrow dirt trail that meandered through the fields. My cup of joy was full to overflow! With my conical Chinese hat, I could adopt the persona of a farmer of old, driving his bike toward . . . the mountains? Hmm, this doesn’t look so good. These mountains are beautiful to behold, but they look pretty steep. Onwards we went and, yes, the path took to the mountains. That it was a regular traveled path we could not doubt, because from time to time a moped would pass us, but if biking is much superior to walking, walking is much superior to walking your bike up the steep slope. Don’t get me wrong, we were in the midst of incredible beauty, but it was hard work. Finally, huffing and puffing we reached the top of the hill and there, like a mirage, was a little store.

The store here is the meeting point of everyone in the small hamlet, so there were many welcome grins when we gasped “Ni Hau”. The owner of the store immediately came out to welcome us, and promptly put out two small stools for us to sit down. But first things first and we made a beeline for the cooler, where I found an ice-cold Iqe beer and Luke found a big bottle of Sprite. We sat down to be the center of attention, the lady of the house brought out a small electric fan, and between laughs and hand gestures we explained that we were visitors in a tour of Yangshuo. This was the small hamlet of Daopin, and our hostess explained that we had the option of taking the long road to Putao, or the much shorter route to Yangshuo. By now the short route seemed the best option, but from her gestures we understood that there were several forks in the road so we had to be careful.

With much regret we said goodbye to the good people of Daopin and embarked on three hours of grueling mountain biking. Every time we reached an intersection we stopped and waited for someone to come by to get directions. Luke commented on how friendly everyone is here in the mountains. They stare at you like a strange animal, but as soon as you say Ni Hau or Hello they break out into smiles and words of greeting.

Together with many breathtaking views of the distant river and the mountains that rise into the air as “piloncillos” we saw many signs of prosperity. Many farmers are building beautiful roomy houses two or three stories high. I think that these enormous houses are meant for extended families, so they are built like small hotels. Also, after what seemed miles and miles of gravel paths, we reached a brand new concrete roadway. China is indeed on the fast track of development.

A final word regarding this bike ride: It is not for the faint of heart, but it is the most beautiful thing we have done in this trip. We must have gone a good 50 km (20 miles), and we got back to Yangshuo completely exhausted but completely satisfied with the result of our adventure.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Day 8. The Li River

Last night Luke discovered the fun of staying up all night, shooting the breeze with fellow travelers. The party broke about 2:30 am, but then he stayed up talking with the cute girl that was operating the bar. Somewhere along the line she lost the padlock for the door of the bar so she couldn’t leave. They ended dozing in the chairs of the bar, and that is where I found them at 5:30 am lost in sleep (in reality I didn’t recognize Luke, and simply thought the two attendants normally slept there).

By 8 am we were ready for the minibus that picked us up, and by 9:30 we were at the ferry wharf, where it seemed thousands of people were trying to board one of the dozens of ferries docked. Later we heard that this was a very small proportion of visitors compared to other years, presumably because there were so many people at the World Expo in Shanghai. Well, somehow we all got sorted out, boarded our ferry, and started the most magnificent trip one can imagine. The river meanders through steep buttes, partially covered in a dense green vegetation, and partially exposing the limestone that forms them where vertical walls make it impossible for the vegetation to get hold.

Visibility was quite good, so I cannot tell you about peaks emerging from the mist. However, I can tell you of the play of the sun in the green and white of the mountains, and on the reflection of these peaks on the water of the river. It was a magic trip.

Included in this trip was a Chinese lunch, which was served in tables of six people, and which included leek soup, rice, crunchy crabs and small shrimp, potatoes cooked with pork, green beans cooked with beef, cauliflower, and a few other things I cannot remember right now. A regular feast it was.

Our tour guide, Trudy, worked real hard to make us all comfortable, and took special care of me and Luke. She finally talked us into taking a tour of the countryside around Yangshou after docking (for a modest fee, of course). She even made it her job to see that we were comfortably installed in our youth hostel (a supercool one, partially excavated into the side of one of the limestone buttes), and afterward escorted us to the place where the group for the tour was meeting. The bus took us to a small village about 10 km from Yangshou, where we got to see a traditional farmhouse, and where I bought myself a traditional Chinese hat at the general store. Across the village is one of those tall bridges, and from the top of it we got to see another fabulous landscape (Trudy called it Shangri La).

Our next stop was a small pier, where we boarded bamboo rafts to take a trip through one of the smaller tributaries of the Li River. These rafts are awesome, since they have a draft of less than 5 cm and can float through almost anything. Evan, I think you should get one of these through the internet. I can totally see you floating through the Eel River (and I can lend you my Chinese hat!)

The raft trip included a stop to see a fisherman using cormorants, a “drunk” girl singing folk songs (to me it sounded the guide called her a “drunk” girl, but she was really trying to say “young” girl), and a water buffalo and its calf. I also got a chance to buy “green fruit”, which looks like a fat green grape but is totally different in seeds and flavor.

We are finally back at the youth hostel, and I am typing these notes looking at a magnificent sunset among the peaks of Yangshuo. Couldn’t ask for a better office!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Day 7. Guilin

Southern China Airlines tele-transported us west, to the City of the Mountains, Guilin. Since it has the same moniker as Monterrey I should probably rename it the City of the Mounds, but I have to acknowledge that the mounds may only be 50 m high, but they are bloody steep! OK, remember all those Chinese paintings you have seen with impossibly steep mountains rising through the mist? Well, they represent the landscape around and within Guilin. It is what is called a karstic landscape (the name comes from the region of Karst, in eastern Europe), an forms when a limestone terrain gets exhumed by the rapid cutting down of rivers. In the case of Guilin this is not a phenomenon you watch in the distance, but what makes the street turn or end abruptly.

Before we boarded the plane we were approached by a representative of Southern China Airlines, who offered pickup service at the other end for what would have cost to take the shuttle. OK, Lady Fortune is smiling on us. We get to Guilin airport and indeed a charming young woman is waiting for us, gets us into the minivan, and along the way tells us touristy things about the city. I smell a rat. And what are our plans? Ah, yes, “they” can arrange the boat trip to Yuangsho for just 480 yuan, but since we are only going one way and not using the return trip by bus she can cut the fee to 420 yuan each (plus lunch). That is like 70 dollars each, which is a good price for a long ride along the famous Li River, so at the end I sign up and we are set for tomorrow (later I found that at the youth hostel I could have secured the same deal (minus lunch) for 380 yaun. So indeed, Lady Luck is looking after us, and we have booked a fair deal. Isn’t that neat from Southern China Airlines?

To top our good luck, she and the driver have nothing else to do and wait while we check at the hostel so they can give us a ride to downtown. Neat folks!

First order of things is to get lunch, which this time consists of fish cooked in beer (a Guilin specialty), duck in beer (another Guilin specialty), and fried rice. Wow, it turns out to be massive amounts of food! Luke is tepid about the duck (which was very spicy and stringy) but liked the fish and rice. Still, we could not finish it all (and you know how I feel about leaving food on the plate). Good stuff!

Next we went to the Ming Palace park, and climbed the Hill of Solitary Beauty to get a fabulous panorama of Guilin and the surrounding karst topography. At the park we also saw the Examination Complex, and Luke even took a test on Chinese calligraphy (I don’t think he passed). The examinations were the process through which the learned government officials were selected (who we, in the vernacular, call the mandarins), and it was a system that dominated Chinese life for well over a thousand years.

We then took the infamous bus 58 to the Reed Flute Caves (if Luke ever looses patience waiting for something just whisper bus 58 in his ear and he will calm down). Yes, the bloody bus took forever, but eventually took us to the caves, which were quite spectacular. Too bad we could not understand the explanation of the guides, but we ooo’d and aaah’d at the magnificent formations, just like any good tourist should. I stood firm at the onslaught of vendors at the exit, but poor Luke caved in and bought a nice shirt.

By now we are expert bus travelers, so we took bus 3 to downtown, and walked along the Peach Blossom River, the Two Lakes, and the Li River. “But why are we walking?” asks Luke. “Because we are not in Kansas anymore, Toto”, says I, “and because walking here is different than walking in Oakdale”. He really enjoyed the walk, though, and I believe he is slowly coming to realize that part of travelling is just to walk and get a feeling for the people and their city. Incidentally, I like Guilin, and could easily live here.

So, there are lots of pigs here in Guilin. No, I do not mean the people that pick their nose, spit, or throw trash on the sidewalk. No, I mean pigs. Stone pigs, pigs on billboards, pigs on the side of vans. I am not sure what this is all about, but I intend to interrogate our guide tomorrow.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Day 6. Guangzhou

We slept in, so it was already 7 am when we hit the road. Let’s see, where shall we start? Let’s take the metro (old hat by now) to the memorial to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Chinese Republic. I tried to explain to Luke that he was the equivalent to George Washington to the US, or Miguel Hidalgo to Mexico, but it took a while to sink in. Anyway, he is a revered figure throughout China, but they lay it particularly thick here in Guangzhou, so I suspect he was born here.

The memorial is solemn, but the lack of original memorabilia is noticeable. This “museum”, like many we have seen, have photos or reproductions, but no original material. I wonder how much of this original material may have been lost to the ardor of the Cultural Revolution, in the late 1960’s.

To find the exception that proves the rule, we then walked to the recently excavated tomb of the second emperor of the Han dynasty (II century). Fortunately for us, the tomb was discovered in 2003, and so escaped the purge of the Cultural Revolution. The museum is interesting (but all it has is what was found in this particular tomb), and the museum store had reproduction pieces to die for. I was very tempted, but at the end took control of myself and realized I could not be carrying the piece I wanted in my backpack (now, as I write this, I am kicking myself for not buying it, because I will probably never again have the chance of buying a bronze brassier from the Han dynasty).

Throughout our tourism it has been pretty hot, so I have not told of the many breaks we have taken. Now that we know the system, we zero on a small shop, buy a soda for Luke and a beer for me, and we sit in little stools outside the shop seeing the world go by. In this particular attention we saw the technique of a potted plant merchant, who carries her pots in a bike. An amazingly large amount of people stop to contemplate the plants (only 1 in 4 had flowers), so she takes the plant out and puts it on the ground, the costumer walks around it praising its merits or tallying its defects, they argue, he walks away, she snatches the pot and puts it back on the bike, and the circus starts again. The best beer I have had so far :)

Next was a visit to Yuexiu Park, the Chapultepec of Guangzhou. Streams of people flock to this urban park, which eventually could be followed to the top of the mountain, several kilometers away. Alas, we were not so adventurous, and modestly limited ourselves to a short walk up the hill to the Guangzhou Municipal Museum. A very neat exhibition, again showing artifacts excavated after 2000, which does a good job tracking the development of the city from Neolithic times to our days. As part of the visit we saw the Five Rams monument (should be called the One Ram and four She-goats), which commemorates the legend after which the city is named: The “place” used to be a miserable hamlet in the delta of the Pearl River, with nothing to eat. Then one good day, five immortals came from heaven riding a ram and four she-goats. On their shoulders they carried stalks of rice, as a present to the humans that were starving in the delta. Ever since, the region has enjoyed incredible prosperity, being able to feed themselves with plentiful rice. So Guangzhou has two other names: “Yangcheng” or City of Goats, or “Suicheng” or City of Rice Stalks.

“OK”, said Luke, “are you ready to get back to the hostel?” “What? Do you know what time it is?, said I. “It is only 11:30 am, kid. We have a long way to go.”

And a long way we went. I wanted to walk through old Guangzhou, which reminded me a lot of old town Mexico. First, every space open to the street is a potential trade spot. So, the street is a series of small shops, and people live either on top of the shop, or in “vecindades” in the inside of the block. Access to these warrens is through long and narrow corridors (we saw one that looked like the long and ark entry to Hades). Second, merchants of the same trade are all in the same block or segment of the street. So, you have one electrical components store after the other for a solid block, and then you have only toy stores, and in the next block only dried seafood stores. How much business can one store get? Well, it seems to work because (a) the costumer prefers the choice opportunities, and (b) the closely knit merchant community can set a fair price (a rogue who tries to undercut the price is quickly busted by a group price war).

On our passage through old Guangzhou we stopped for lunch at an authentic Dim Sum Cantonese restaurant (we were, once again, the only foreigners), where Luke was introduced to the pleasures of Dim Sum. It was a fabulous opportunity to sample the 1,000 different types of small dishes that Cantonese cuisine has to offer, so we ate our fill for less than 10 dollars.

After lunch we walked around some more, and then went to walk through the campus of Sun Yat-sen University, which is the equivalent of Stanford University here. It is a beautiful campus, mostly built between 1905 and 1910, before the 1911 revolution. We took this chance to relax from the hustle and bustle of the market place.

Our last leg was to take the taxi boat from the university to the hostel. We got here around 6 pm and are now “taking an afternoon off”, washing clothes, watching TV, and computing with a glass of nanche-wine by the side. We deserve a few hours of R&R, because tomorrow we need to leave for Guilin at the crack of dawn.