Riding the City Wall

Xi’an has a wall surrounding what would have been the old city. It is wide and flat and about 14km around. Our options on Tuesday were to walk a little way or ride a bicycle or golf cart around the whole distance. Feeling that my reintroduction to bicycle riding probably shouldn’t be a nine mile ride, I opted for the golf cart with some of the others. It was a very enjoyable view of the city, with the older town on one side, where there was a low wall, and the new city on the other side, where the wall had slits where you could place your archers to rain down pain on the invading enemies. You could see changes in the quality of the neighborhoods from poor to rich, which does beg the question: what’s the deal with communism here? Because it sure looks like every other place in terms of social classes. On the other hand, what I have not seen are those large pockets of poverty that I have seen in other developing countries. Is that because it is hidden, or because it doesn’t exist? Puzzler.

We passed the bicycle group halfway, and it looked like they were having fun. It really is a fun group of people on this tour!

After the circuit we went to the city museum. As I walk through these museums with mostly Chinese captions I get a sense of what it must be like to be illiterate, with no context clues to know what an object is for, and what it must be like when I present students with completely new information, especially my ESL students.

Our lunch today was in a local woman’s home. She gave us a card that indicated she has an online cooking course, or website. It was good food, and very interesting to be inside if one of the many high rises we have seen.

The airport, then our trip to Shanghai. Harold noticed that when our boarding passes were scanned, a picture of him popped up, and he could tell by the clothes that it was taken a few days ago when we checked in for the other flight. That’s not creepy at all…

In Shanghai, Ryan our final guide speaks excellent English with a strange combination of Irish and Aussie accent. I predict good times for our final day.

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Death by Dumpling

These cities are really big and nothing ever seems to be next to the last thing. But we are able to get in little catnaps on the bus, which is good because there is a lot of walking once we are off the bus.

We are staying in another top quality hotel, though like everyplace here, the plumbing is delicate and you have to put the paper in a little waste basket, not down the toilet, and you can’t drink the water that comes out of the faucet. Breakfast continues to be a wide selection, though there has been no “Thing” since I left the first hotel. What I especially like about this one is the days of the week carpet in the elevator. I had lost track a little, so seeing Monday in big letters on the carpet was helpful.

Yesterday we went to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, a massive complex of excavation. In 1977 a local farmer was digging a well and discovered a head. It was made of clay and very detailed. He had stumbled onto the terra cotta army that Emperor Qin had created to protect his tomb. Qin ordered the building of the Great Wall and clearly liked things on a large scale. They have already discovered thousands of soldiers, horses and chariots and they know there are more to unearth. They are waiting to excavate some areas because originally the soldiers where vividly painted but the paint vanishes when the terra cotta is exposed to the air. They hope eventually there will be technology advances to preserve the paint color.

There was an extremely long walk out of the site, and we passed all these noodle vendors, but sadly we kept going. After a little ride we ended up at a resort restaurant, which was nice, and had what we all like to see, that is, western style toilets, but there was just way too much food. 14 dishes!

After lunch we went to the Small Goose Pagoda, not to be confused with the Large Goose Pagoda of course. It was a Buddhist temple but is now a park. Some of us paid 5 yuan to ring the giant bell, and we also enjoyed looking at the 300 year old trees.

There was a little extra time, so our guide Jacky (a guy) took us for a tea tasting. We are getting pretty savvy about these extra stops. It’s a little like an Amway event. Taste the tea/learn about the jade/feel the pearls/see how they make the terra cotta warriors: Now, won’t you take a look at our gift shop? I think perhaps it is the cost of doing business, especially the government run jade shop. I’ll be interested in learning more when I get home, as my ability to Internet search here is, how shall we say, somewhat limited.

Then, onto the dumpling dinner and Tang Dynasty Music and Dance Show. The tour itinerary had said “not to expect to much from this dinner, it is just a new and different experience” and our group had much discussion about whether this was an error of translation, or if there wasn’t much food, or if it was bad food. Turns out it was average food, but plenty of it. By plenty, I mean, about seven appetizer dishes, soup and 14 (yes 14!) types of dumplings. Some of them came in cute little shapes, but after the giant lunch it was a real challenge. Eventually I began hiding dumplings in my soup bowl. Our table became dumpling drunk and had lots of laughs, because it was all so insane.

The show was very lively, beautiful costumes and really loud music. There were about 10 vignettes and what I saw (of course I dozed off, and you know I must have been tired because the music was LOUD!) was great. I now know a great deal about the Tang Dynasty, and also that they are trying to kill us with food.

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Xi’an

All well. Busy day seeing Summer Palace and flying to Xi’an. Off to see terra cotta warriors now!

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Lean in to the Forward Slope

Today I climbed the Great Wall and that was awesome, but probably the most important thing to know is that I am in the Japanese restaurant at the hotel and I ordered a roll that is called “Local Tyrants Volume,” and I have no idea what is in it. I also ordered what I thought was tea, but if you look closer at the caption, it’s a seafood soup. Which would explain the salty taste. And why there is a shrimp in the teapot. It’s also possible that I am drinking the soup out of my finger bowl.

The Great Wall has some steps that seem to be almost vertical grade and just to add to the fun they vary in height, so some are normal and others require a hands on push off or a major pull on the railing to make it up. I made it farther than I thought I would and at the point I decided it was time to turn back an entrepreneurial fellow offered to sell me a metal card saying I had climbed the Great Wall with my name engraved on it. I put him off at first, but as looked out over the scene it didn’t seem like a bad idea. It was the best purchase I made all day, far topping in satisfaction, the high pressure sales from the government run jade factory where we stopped along the way.

The walk back down is pretty hard on the legs too, but just as when you go up, the solution is to stop and admire the view while you recuperate to go on. On one of my pauses, a lady had her picture taken with me. This is the second time this has happened. Sarah says many people from the countryside have never seen a westerner, and like to have a picture to show the folks back home that they ran into one of these exotic creatures. My curly hair seems to be the attraction. It’s fun!

Along the way on the bus. Sarah explains things about culture and daily life. I’m quite baffled by the way things are here. They overthrew the feudal system, but still today if your father was a farmer you are labeled farmer and if your father was urban, you are labeled urban. Most of what I know about communism is from the book Animal Farm and since being a party member gets you a car clearly some animals are more equal than other animals.

The Sacred Way is a long path, guarded by stone animals and stone generals and court officials. (The last two stone officials are retired and their hats cover their ears because they don’t have to listen anymore.). It leads to the Ming Tombs where the emperors were buried. Most of the statues were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution of the 70s and the bodies were burned, but now things have been restored.

At this point everyone’s energy was about used up and some members of the group stayed back for a cool drink, but the rest of us pushed on. I can’t decide if the tour company thinks this is a good pace to go, or only that it’s necessary to fit it all in, but we are going dawn to dusk every day. The Great Wall and the nine flights down and five flights up of the Ming tombs were a rough combination. There was a warning sign before the tombs that said people who had heart conditions should take caution before “leaning into the forward slope.” So we leaned into the forward slope and were victorious seeing the marble thrones at the bottom of the tomb for the emperor and his two empresses.

For those who are curious “Local Tyrants Volume” was roll of shrimp wrapped in ham and fried, wrapped in rice and topped with more fried ham. It’s a good thing there is plenty of leaning into the forward slope on this trip. Maybe that’s the tour company’s motivation: keeping the calories balanced?

Tomorrow one more gigantic sight in Beijing to go, and then we fly to Xi’an.

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Great Wall!

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Follow the Flag!

So you always mock the tourists following the guide with the flag until you are the tourists following the guide with the flag. Sarah gave us ID badges with a yellow lanyard and once properly tagged we began to introduce ourselves. No Brits, but still an interesting group. There is a American Chinese grandmother and her two grandsons, a mother and daughter from New York, a family of four from California, a couple from Australia, though they are actually Argentinian, and a group of five from Delaware with two younger kids, dad and grandmother and grandfather.

We got on our bus, and Sarah briefed us about staying together and not taking any wooden Yuan. (Counterfeit cash is a problem here.) There was an ambitious agenda for the day: Tian’an Men Square, the Forbidden City, lunch, the Temple of Heaven, a visit to an historic neighborhood and a Kung Fu Show in the evening.

Highlights:

In Tian’an Men square Mao’s tomb is near the first Kentucky Fried Chicken in China. Mao’s frozen body is raised everyday for viewing and Sarah says he and the Colonel discuss east and west. There was a long line of people waiting to view Mao.

The Forbidden City was welcoming some sort of VIP, so at one point we were hustled away from the center building without ceremony, but we still got to see plenty. The Emperor used to have audiences at 4AM, chose concubines from a tray of cards, and slept in a different bed every night for fear of assassination. The complex has 9999.5 rooms, since heaven has 10,000 rooms, and you wouldn’t want to one up that. There was a garden at the far end of the complex and some of the trees there are 300 years old.

Lunch was in an embassy area and had the usual large assortment, though I think the selections were little Americanized. I’m glad I had my pre-week of strange dishes with little explanation. The meal was good though, and I enjoyed getting to know people in the group. My being here a week early also paid off because jet lag is hitting the rest of the group, but I was feeling perky, though the morning walk was long!

The Temple of Heaven is a large round tower where the Emperor would make sacrifices for a good harvest. Clearly a popular wedding photo spot, we saw no less than five brides in beautiful red gowns, several embroidered with Phoenixes which was the symbol of the empress. In the surrounding park there were many people playing cards exercising, and even singing or dancing in groups.

My favorite part of the day was when we went to an old neighborhood and had a rickshaw ride through the old alleys (hutong). After the noise and traffic and giant structures of the rest of Beijing, it was like a different world: quiet, small and with lots of people going through their daily life: playing cards, repairing a road, talking with their neighbors. There was a nice breeze as we rode and very little noise. I really loved that ride. When we stopped, we met our guide for this part of the tour, Victor. He said there had been 36 districts like this, but in a push for modernization 35 of them were torn down. We got to go into a small courtyard house and meet a man whose family had been living there for four generations, since the Manchurian court officials were thrown out in 1911 and the Han people moved into power at the end of The empire period. Originally his family had owned the whole courtyard, but in the 70s the government made them give up 3 of the 4 homes in the courtyard to others. The man and his family live there and pay no taxes, but the other families pay rent to the government.

We returned to Sarah and the bus and went to a theater that has the “The Story of Kung Fu” show. It was clearly designed to draw in the tourist trade, but is was very enjoyable, with lots of lights energy, dancing and feats of strength.

A long day, but a very interesting one. Looking forward to re watching “the Last Emperor” when I get home, as I understand a lot more about that period after today!

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Sugar Rabbit

My student Jack and I agreed that it was a touch surreal to be standing together on the opposite side of the world. He is spending a month staying with his Aunt and Uncle in a suburb of Beijing. They took a bus to come and see me. We met at my hotel and then took a taxi to an area of town that seemed more traditional and kind of reminded my of the high streets in Germany with aside plaza and then streets branching off. Along the way we met up with a couple cousins. Jack said he was related to everyone in China, so he was always running into people.

They were very nice, and as my George Mason handlers had told me, seemed to look on me as the revered teacher and in addition to a meal (8 courses and a duck) bought me a gift and had a sugar rabbit and a blown sugar horse made for me by street vendors. I was tasked with helping with the blown sugar horse and clearly was not up to standard because he had to start over.

Jack was really funny because he would give me asides in English like, “watch out, there’s more food coming,” and when I asked if they were buying me a present when there was some negotiation about my favorite color he said, “Oh yeah, just go with it.” He’s a great kid and I enjoyed hearing his perspective on China. He says Beijing is very modern, but the rural areas are more traditional. Also, you can only drive a car in Beijing if you live here, and even then, only every other day. It was a really fun night. They were very fun and clearly ready to show me a good time.

So now on to the tour. Sara, our Beijing guide, told me to be ready for a lot of walking today. My feet are delicate creatures and given my blisters and the selection of shoes I have I think I’ve decided, no matter how much a doofus I look like I am wearing socks with sandals tomorrow. I am also wearing black pants with a navy top, as I am sending a wash to the hotel laundry. Stand aside people. American tourist, coming through! I’m at breakfast and have spotted a table of older British couples that I hope very much are on the tour, since I had so much fun with a similar group last summer!

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