Friday, June 28, 2013

China Trip Travelogue: Summer 2013.

Friday, June 7th, 2013:

Greetings from China! Staying in Dalian at a beautiful hotel. Sightseeing begins today! Travelled 31 hours, slept five. Can't wait for coffee! 

Saturday, June 8th, 2013:

After an exciting day touring the spectacular rock cliffs of Tiger beach with views of the Yellow Sea: Richy, Mom, her mother and I were able to people watch at Xinghai Square, which had a beautiful sculptures and a giant lawn (think Wash D.C.) which rolled out to the sea where there was a giant "book" made of concrete which could house several hundred tourists sitting, walking, and milling about. There is a children's fair of amusement park rides, which played Maroon 5, J-Lo, and other American pop songs. I was very surprised to see English translations on nearly every business sign and advertisement in the city of Dalian! Saw dinosaur bones and preserved giant whales, sharks and fish at the Dalian Natural history museum.

We met up with Richy's grandmother, aunt, cousin and father for dinner: one of the most spectacular meals I have ever seen! 

Sunday, June 9th, 2013:

Today we headed to Pebble Beach and to a meal at the Lan's family house. In the morning, we were able to see the Chairman Mao museum, the Dalian Wax museum, a "trick art" interactive photo exhibit, as well as a "Body Worlds" exhibit and several other places at the Pebble Beach area. It was a very fun day!

Monday, June 10th: (Flew to Beijing)

In Beijing we were able to see the 2008 Olympic area, and although it was raining lightly we had fun seeing the Birds Nest and the modern National Swimming Center, and the Water Cube, which was financed privately by donors who contributed  over $100M to build it in advance of the Olympics. Surprisingly, Beijing is still a developing city, with most of the buildings having been built after the Revolution and WWII beginning in 1949. Many other even more modern buildings in the downtown area were built between 2003-2010 for the tourists coming for the Olympics. The ancient buildings were two thousand to six hundred years old!

Especially memorable was the tour of the Forbidden City. With seven massive walled courtyards leading to the political buildings and the family living spaces for the Emperor, to the Imperial Gardens, the Forbidden city was truly a tourist highlight of the trip. 

The other parts of the city, like Qianmen (Tianmen Square) were massive. Our tour guide Jasmine said that the area can hold over half a million people. The ground was all squares of cut stone, and the intersections were blocked for pedestrians who needed to go underground to cross streets using the subway walking routes. Two or three times we sent our purses through x-ray machines just to go underground or into the square, but the police mostly waved us (my mom and I) through. Richy said it was because we were foreigners and more trusted. I wondered if it was because it was too much of a API in the neck to translate the directions to us. In Tianamen Square, was the Final resting place of the beloved General Mao. It was explained to us that he is submerged in "medicine" probably a chemical, in a crystal coffin, where he can still be viewed for limited hours. (We did not see him.) Also in the square is "the Chinese White House" where the politicians work, but the Preside does not live. Also, directly across from this building was an enormous museum (Beijing history.) I really enjoyed people watching in the giant square, seeing the little girls run with streamers, people with touristy hats, many foreigners. There were very serious guards, and marching groups of soldiers who were so quiet we were almost run over and had to jump out of the way! Attached to the famous Square is the more modern (Olympic revitalization) shopping center of Tianamen street with a Zara, KFC, and Starbucks where I bought a collectible Starbucks mug to add to my collection for 80Y ($20) which Jasmine and Richy thought was crazy- but it's worth it, because I had to travel so far to earn one just like Pike's Place with Rachel.

In Beijing we also saw an exciting night market where there were scorpions on a stick to eat, sea horses too, and fried cicadas.  We especially enjoyed the sounds and sights of these shopping alleys. Alleys in Beijing are called Hutongs, and they are the neighborhoods for most of the populations living in the city. There are over 3,400 hutongs or alleys in Beijing with restaurants, barbers, and shops of all sorts.  

I bought a bronze horse statue for about $70 USD, Richy was awesome at negotiating it down from a lot more.

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013:

Yesterday, (Tuesday, June 11th) we saw one of the most memorable sights of my life: the Great Wall at Badaling, about a three hour drive (because traffic was so terrible for the Dragon Boat festival) up into the majestic mountains of northern China. Reminiscent of the Grand Tetons only without the snow, I was haunted by the rows of cultivated mountainside cliffs where shrubs grew in rows as we drove into them. After sitting in a traffic jam for thirty minutes from the Great Wall highway exit, we finally exited our van with our tour guide Jasmine and liked towards the mountain city: facilities, restaurants and shops created to support the massive influx of tourists where "You are not a man until you climb the Great Wall," greets you in huge stone Chinese characters everywhere you go. There was even a "Hero Certificate" you could earn by climbing it! After waiting in a very long queue for the squat toilets, we made our way up to the Wall, where you needed a ticket and to pass through security to enter the entrance stairs. Like a moving river, people were climbing the North and South sections, taking photographs as much as us, taking in the impressive sights of the man made structure as it snaked up the impossible mountain cliffs with varying staircases and leveled street-wide walking way. Jasmine walked with us through two turrets, and Richy and mom even further to the next one, but I was determined to reach a high point, visible to mom and Richy as I ascended, and I sprinted as far as I could until the stairs became too steep to navigate safely at a quick pace. I was smiling the while way. I would have loved to have a whole day to explore much further, but in retrospect with the sloping descents and rail gripping deep stairs, my legs were sore enough today that I'm glad I didn't! We took photos and videos everywhere along the different points of the wall. It was incredible.

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013:
Today we took a flight from Beijing to Xi’an and when we were flying over China we could see incredible vistas of farmland. There were rice paddies, deep mining quarries, and terraced agricultural leveled mountainsides. Closer to Xi’an there were deep ravines of trees and plateaus of farmland above. The city appeared, again with hundreds (thousands?) of skyscrapers and buildings over five levels. Incredible in size. We met out tour guide at the airport, and were driven to the hotel downtown. Then we went out to see the Wild Goose Pagoda, the water fountain show (think Bellagio in Vegas!) and the Muslim Market where we made a dinner of street snacks and the famous Xi’an noodles. So incredible. Did I mention that we are seeing the Terracotta Warriors tomorrow? :) I can't wait. Also will see a dinner and dancing show. Will update again tomorrow- yay for WIFI!

Thursday, June 13th, 2013:

In the morning we drove one hour from downtown Xian to the farmlands where in the 1970's a farmer drilling for a well discovered a Terracotta Warrior head. (We met him yesterday and got his autograph!) He placed the head in his house and prayed to it for three months for rain, but none came, so he left it out in a field, disgusted. A visiting government official heard the rumor of the head and went searching for it, understanding its probable archeological value. After an initial assessment, the government sent an archeological team to excavate, and the three famous pits were found. The local farmers were rewarded with new homes and income, as the land became one of the largest "open digs" on the world. Teams still are excavating, having today only covered about half of the buried territory! We were able to see some restorers working to reassemble broken soldiers, horses and chariots: it was fascinating! I have a great video of my mom seeing the first pit for the first time- it captures her genuine surprise, wonder and emotions at seeing one of the 8 Wonders of the World. I loved getting that moment on film, I can't wait to share that and other clips of video with you. Be prepared for a long one! :)

From the dig sites and museums,  we went to see how silk is made at a local factory and silk shop: so interesting! It was fun for me to see Richy be weirded out by the dead worms in the cocoons where many yards of silk thread are unwound from the cocoon. Eight cocoons are wound together to create an even tougher thread and you wouldn't believe the silky softness of the stretched cocoon or the thread! We shopped in the store and bought matching traditional shirts which we wore later to the formal dinner and show!

After the silk area and lunch we drove to the nearby hot springs to see where the Emperor Tang and Lady Dian spent time relaxing and living when they were in this area. There was such an interesting story of how they met: Lady Dian was originally married to Tang's son, but when the Emperor saw her sing and dance he took her for his concubine and they lived happily for many years. Eventually, after a war he lost, the enemy demanded that Tang kill Lady Dian, or they would kill him. So Lady Dian was hung by her own scarf from a tree, aided by a helper, by herself. So tragic!

The grounds, pools, mountain views, elaborate pagoda style houses were inspiring. We took many photos and videos there.

After the hour drive back, and a rest in the hotel, we left in a taxi for dinner and a traditional show. The dinner had a delicious tomato and dumpling soup, and about twenty different kinds of famous local dumplings! We tried a "rice wine" which was too sweet for me! We had "healthy munchkins" which tasted delicious- made from rice, but tasting like a munchkin anyways.

The show was SPECTACULAR. Amazing costumes for the cast of over twenty dancers, acrobats and tumblers. My mom said that it reminded her of Circe de Soleil, with all of the cool tricks they could do. Many videos from that show too- there don't seem to be many copyright laws here! ;)

So now we are waiting for the plane after an INCREDIBLE day in Xian: put this city on your list! :)

Friday: June 14:

We flew to Hangzhou from Xi'an in the morning, met our tour guide and driver, and immediately drove the one hour into the downtown area to meet Richy's friends, other Chinese international foreign exchange students (Romo and his girlfriend Candy, John, Tom and Kartal) from my school for lunch at Romo's Uncle's restaurant: Hot Fish. After a delicious meal of fifteen or so different kinds of dishes, we departed for the West Lake area of Hangzhou. 

We took a man-rowed boat tour of the lake as a group, (now lacking Romo and Candy who didn't join us for the second part of the afternoon) seeing a lone gas powered speed boat amongst a hundred rear oar one man row boats which could fit about 2-8 people inside out on the water and moored near shore awaiting passengers. The boat ride gave us beautiful lake views of the greenery, rolling famous tea plant hills, a temple, pagodas and later the city skyline. I enjoyed the Chinese chatter of the kids, together again, and had fun communicating with these familiar members of our big International family again in English. They seemed so refreshed and happy since I had last seen them after exams (especially Tom and Kartal) it was almost like seeing new people! 

Back on the causeway of the National Park of the West Lake, we walked over the incredibly scenic and traditionally landscaped street wide paved paths. There were magazine quality scenic photo spots everywhere I turned: a pagoda amongst a hill of flowers, manicured lawns of closely mowed grass, half moon bridges, a moon gate over a river pebble stone walkway, a pond of koi fish, water birds along the shore, weeping willows hiding gently lapping water, secret paths through rock gardens, it's no wonder that this was the favorite spot of Emperors. I took landscapes and portraits, videos of walking, enjoying the scenic beauty of the distant bass of the local music festival and a loud group of tourists following us all over the paths that I jokingly coined "my friends" because clearly we had a bit in common!

[Random side note: Mom teases me for making friends everywhere we go because I have pantomime conversations with the locals multiple times per day. On the plane to Hangzhou, I mimicked stealing another passenger's breakfast brownie after pointing to one and our row mates laughed, and one asked me with fingers if I was two or four years old. (Richy helped to translate.) I've offered successfully to take photos of multiple groups clearly missing that photographer from the shot and on the Great Wall, one group raced to catch up with me and asked with gestures to take a picture with me! So I did and the we kept seeing them everywhere so we laughed and smiled with them the whole time at the Wall. Then I met a group of American girl college students traveling to most of  the same places as us. Then there was a little Chinese boy on the played hide and seek with who asked me basic questions in English (with help from his mom). She let us take his picture- he was adorable. End side note.]

After the lake side and park walk, our group traveled, a bit squished, to a  famous Buddhist temple nearby. My mom was especially looking forward to this addition to the itinerary because of her appreciation for spiritualism and affinity for calm, zen-like serenity and peace in such places. We entered the lines and had our tickets scanned, and were met by a long avenue of cafes and shops for visitors. We continued through the throng of street sellers towards the entryway. Our tour guide navigated us toward the notable spots, like a 600-year old concrete rebuild of a telescoping pillar where the founding monk was buried 1,000 years ago. He was inspired by the Buddhism of India, and there were hundreds of carved Buddhas in various forms in the outside rock walls of an inner natural cave with mountain goat paths of steep steps closed to the public from times long past. We saw a few monks during our time at the temple, and our tour guide explained to us that this was a day job, and that many of them went home to their houses and in some cases, wives at night, and even drove BMW's from tourist donations and ate meat even though they were allegedly vegetarians. I don't know whether or not this was true, by it was fascinating. While they were very wealthy, these few monks who had earned this status did have at the very least a Masters Degree and were very educated.

There were three temples of such size, scope and wealth as I had never seen. The Buddha of the second temple was the largest indoor Buddha in China, gilded wood rising from a concrete lotus and a rising alter of over forty feet high. 

There were dozens of other impressively large idols (15-40 feet high) of important figures in Buddhism in all of the temples, too. Most impressive, was a wooden wall with a hundred and fifty characters from local legends and idols of Buddhism together, made from clay, balancing on ledges looking down on visitors as high as the ceiling over sixty feet above us.

We shopped in the temple gift shop and headed out, as the temple was closing, to head out for dinner.

Our tour guide brought us to one of her favorite restaurants, which was in this cute tiny residential area tucked into the tea hills along a running brook, up a very narrow street off the beaten path of tourist cafes. It had the mood of a country bed and breakfast and they made original dishes of creative culinary art from local sources. John and Tom ordered some of the best dishes that we'd had in China yet: amazing dragon fruit and watermelon in sweet milk, frog leg curry, a quartet of exotic desserts, braised lamb ribs, and a delicious cooked local lake fish in broth. I ordered a green tea with millet and it was plain and not very delicious so I ended up drinking mine and my mom's, haha. Oh well!

After dinner we dropped the boys off downtown and drove to another part of West Lake to see a spectacular show directed by the man who staged the entire Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony. Due to the drizzle that morning we had secured seats on the top, covered level of a lakeside boat, which had a perfect view of the water. The show began with spotlights on a lone white figure walking out on the water towards the grandstand! It was miraculous! The entire lake where the show took place was on a man made stage just under the water. The cast of about a hundred played, ran, sprinted and walked in the water in the dark! The show lights ran all around the grotto, and lit up a bridge and a mobile water two-story pagoda where the characters lived. The musical sequences with illuminated fish, controlled by invisible actors in the dark, and a feather sequence, where each actor had a giant oversized feather to wave in perfect unison were breathtaking. I eventually kept my cameras on because I was tired of missing stunning choreography. At one point in the show, a giant metal inverted 'V' set piece came from being hidden underwater to rising like an erector set fifty feet over the actors, streaming water like rain, flood lit in wonderfully romantic colors as the main couple danced in love. Eventually she was torn away from him and they never found each other. Richy said this was because all Chinese stories (like the Lady Dian one from my last update) end in tragedy. So sad. 

Eventually we made it to the hotel, enjoyed the view of downtown Hangzhou from the twelfth floor for a moment, showered and crashed. No journal updates that night!

Saturday- June 15th, 2013

We awoke this morning and ate a Chinese breakfast (Dragon Boat festival lotus leaf wrapped sweet rice, "healthy munchkins" or sweet rice balls, sausage, fruit, fruit juice, delicious steamed pumpkin slices) and took pictures from the 17th floor where breakfast was located and them we checked out and met our tour guide to travel to a tea plantation. This very small district of Hangzhou makes the national tea of China, and has the best green tea leaves in the world. (The plantation we visited had been visited by Queen Elizabeth in 1986!) We had a tea ceremony and toured the tea drying process: very interesting! Then we drove to lunch. We tried twenty more new small plate dishes of Hangzhou specialties. My culinary vocabulary is currently stymied by my fatigue so I will just mention that again, this meal was spectacular! 

Then we took the most interesting ride in China so far, past the famous farmlands of Hangzhou, known for pearl cultivation, silk, and tea. I saw a chicken farm, bogs with fisherman and varied styles of houses ranging from a concrete forest of skyscraper apartment buildings as far as the horizon is wide, a sight unknown to the USA, except in Manhattan, to waterfront villas, to humble battered brick buildings.

We drove up though the famous small town of Wuzhen, where hundreds of cars, tour busses and vans were parked awaiting tourists and took our luggage, 5 rolling suitcases, up to the visitor center across very challenging stone walkways. Inside, our bags were taken by a porter, to be ferried to us an hour later. The water town of Wuzhen is a quaint "Venice, Italy" style multi-island river town and we were staying in a refurbished farmhouse style inn with adorable hosts, who were quick to help us choose a breakfast, accept luggage, even carried all of our luggage upstairs (we would never have let them if we could have grabbed them!) We were relieved that they accepted a tip, and our watermelon! [Tipping is generally unacceptable in China- as each service is a vocation and it is a socialist society.] After walking to dinner with our tour guide, she left us to explore the walkways, bridges, water views, scenery, locals, tourists, shops and boats by ourselves for the early evening. Walking in the evening lights in Wuzhen is one of my fondest memories in China. We shopped at many stores, took photos, and ate ice cream before heading back to the inn, our princess netted canopy beds in the adorable wooden cottage style room above the river.

Sunday, June 16th, 2013:

The next morning we ate breakfast (shrimp fried rice, hard boiled eggs, dragon boat bean rice wrapped in lotus leaves, coffee!) and continued to walk through the morning walkers. We ate second breakfast an hour later: we all had vanilla ice cream cones. It was so early that one of the locals actually laughed at us licking them!

Eventually we made it over a high stone bridge with views of an ancient very tall pagoda, then headed out to take a short tram ride to the main building to await out luggage which was again being ferried by taxi boat back to us. Such a charming city! I wish we could have spent another night enjoying it. Our tour guide showed us pictures of it from her trip in the snow and it was equally beautiful.

Then we drove to the town of Suzhou, where we explored a local restaurant for lunch, another Silk museum, and most memorably, "The Humble Administrator's Garden," something my mother and I had been looking forward to since reading the trip itinerary months earlier! I will definitely appreciate looking back on the photos and videos I have of this spectacular inner-city walked haven, even more than seeing it in person as it was stiflingly hot there. We absolutely melted with the crowds in the heat and after about an hour we exited to the busy street vendors along the walls of the garden to meet our driver and travel to the Glamor Hotel! I suppered with Richy as mom packed an incredible amount of things into her suitcases in preparation of the return trip to America.

Monday, June 17th, 2013:
This morning, we traveled about two hours to Shanghai, where we walked around in the famous Hutongs (shopping alleys) and again ate ice cream before lunch. Delicious beef curry, rice paper vegetable roll "trees," and other dishes. Hundreds so far this trip. I'm going to have to start running again in Tampa on Wednesday! 

Richy went shopping in the glamorous Xintiandi Shopping Area (Dolce and Gabbana, Harry Winston, Chopard, Armani, think Newbury Street!) for a Prom dress, and my mom and I walked around, saw a Shikumen 1920's style Shanghai open house museum: delightful antique artifacts! Then we walked to Starbucks and waited for the meet-up time. (I bought more Starbucks collectible mugs to add to my now international collection.) I ordered iced teas and then waited for the thirty people ahead of me to get theirs. It was hard to understand the order calls, but he called mine in English:) luckily! 

Later, we were able to see 360-views of the city from the top of the "Shanghai Pearl" building. Scary glass floors but awesome pictures! We had famous Shanghai dumplings for dinner: but I have good news, we have some just as good in the States! ;) More shopping in the fashion district with Richy!

Had a driving tour of "the Bund" then to hotel. Early airport time on the morning to begin our 24-hour trek home! Bon voyage! Can't wait to see all of you! Thanks for keeping up with our exotic trip! 

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013: Flew to Seoul, then to Atlanta, then to Tampa.