Maria Holland

Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

Confucius Say, Man Who Run Behind Bus Get Exhausted

In Uncategorized on January 31, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Dad was not feeling well today.  The day before yesterday, he started going a little bit hoarse, and by last night’s dinner he was not speaking at all, trying to conserve what little voice he had.  (Lucky Bisterbosch family, right??)  Because of this, he stayed home today to rest while Mom and I went out adventuring.

After spending much of my night on Beijing’s public transportation website, I had complete information on how to get to the South Cathedral for Mass.  We walked to the nearest bus station, caught the 104快 to 崇文门西 and got off, just as planned.  We also caught the right bus from that stop, 特2, but – you guessed it – in the wrong direction.  We got off to change directions at the train station, which so confusing that we ended up just grabbing a taxi.

Even resorting to a taxi, we barely arrived before the 10:00 Mass time that I found on the internet.  Good thing Mass started at 10:30!  In the end, all my attempts at choosing the right route came to nothing, but the fact that I found the wrong time saved us.  Oh, the irony . . .

The South Cathedral isn’t exactly what I would call beautiful, although the outside is striking in a European-church way.

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The inside is kind of random, looking like a second-hand shop for church decorations.

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Once Mass started, though, I found myself appreciating the patchwork-like decor of the church because it seemed to reflect its congregation.  The South Cathedral is the center of Beijing’s international Catholic community.  Interestingly, their ‘international’ Masses (of which they have two) are not just ‘English’.  The readings were read in French as well as English (and let me tell you, it was a treat to hear 1 Cor 13 read in French).

It was nice to go to English Mass – almost my first one in 5 months because I’ve barely understood the few I’ve been to in Xiamen.  It was certainly the first homily I’ve understood more than 10% of since coming!  Instead of murmuring English to myself throughout Chinese Mass, I now mutter a combination of Latin and Chinese after the English responses.  It was also great to hear some familiar church music, but it kind of made me miss my wonderful Newman choir even more :(

After Mass we went to check out the gift shop.  It was a good call, because they had so much great stuff!  I laboriously pored over Chinese titles for quite a while before making some great finds.  I found a tiny tiny [what I think is a] breviary in Chinese, as well as an English-Chinese Catholic Dictionary and a Chinese-English Catholic Practical Handbook.  The last thing is so amazing because it’s just what I wanted – in fact, it is so exactly what I wanted that I never even considered that it might actually exist!  But there it is, with such hard-to-find translations as the Prayer of St. Francis; the names of saints, the books of the Bible, religious orders and missionary societies, the ecumenical councils, important encyclicals; a list of China’s seminaries and important missionaries in China’s history; and a Chinese version of O Sons and Daughters (one of my favorite Easter songs).  I was so happy . . . I bought two!

Mom and I had a good lunch and then headed out along the rest of my perfectly-planned itinerary for the day.  Unfortunately, this morning’s misadventures were a mere foreshadowing of the afternoon.  I wanted to go see the North Cathedral but after taking the indicated bus to the indicated stop, we had to walk at least a mile before even finding the street we were looking for.  After numerous backtracks, a kindly woman directed us right to . . . a Protestant church, were we nearly walked in on a Korean service.  We gave up on that and went looking for the tomb of Matteo Ricci, the first Catholic missionary to China (and possibly the first Westerner to enter the country after Marco Polo), who was buried at another church in the area.  Although I had a wonderful time telling people we were looking for a place “where they put people underground after they die” because I didn’t know how to say cemetery, this search was also a failure.  (In my defense, I have found at least two addresses online for the location of this tomb, neither of which come with a Chinese name for the church they’re buried at.)

Despite my failing record in Beijing, I would like to point out that I have basically mastered 8 other Chinese cities and gotten myself and others around pretty well.  Also, Beijing suffers from a complete lack of decent maps; the only one I’ve found depicts the entire city, making street names illegible and even the Forbidden City almost too small to see.  I find out each day how inaccurate Lonely Planet’s maps are, so I basically have no resources to rely on.  What I’m saying here is . . . it’s not my fault – blame Beijing.

Despite the logic presented above, I was feeling thoroughly defeated by this time.  We were 0 for 2 on the day’s planned itinerary.  We got on a bus to go home and, since I had triple-checked the posted route, was fairly confident we were going to make it.

Then our bus got in an accident.  Yes, I’m serious.  It was ridiculously minor – in fact Mom and I didn’t know anything had happened until the driver turned off the engine in the middle of the road – but apparently the driver of the other bus thought it was a big deal.  They got out and started yelling at each other in the streets while Mom and I got out to take pictures of the perfectly-intact buses.

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We opted not to wait for the resolution, and got out to walk.  Luckily, we were on an interesting road.  Apparently we were in Trophy District, because every store for blocks and blocks sold personalized trophies, banners, coins, and buttons – but mainly trophies.  (Okay, there was one store selling long underwear but they probably won’t last long.)  Seriously, I want to know who was the 40th guy to open shop on this street?  Did he look around and think to himself, “You know, there’s a niche in this area just waiting to be filled by my custom-made trophies.”?  How much of a market is there for this stuff in Beijing, and how much business do each of them get?  I’m fascinated even by the idea of a Trophy Street.

For an idea, here are photos of a very few selected shops on Trophy Street:

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We had plans to stop for noodles on the way home and, since I was hungry and my pride was at stake, I vowed to find the restaurant no matter what.  Although it took us 2 phone calls and one helpful Chinese passerby, we did eventually find the Ajisen ramen shop, in the basement of an enormous shopping mall, a block away from where LP said it would be, and with a different name.

We caught a motorized 三轮车 (three-wheeled vehicle) home, which turned out to be the second high point of the day.  The driver was a jolly man, sort of a mixture between Santa Claus and Grandpa Garibay.  Unlike the taxi drivers we’d had so far – reticent to the point of being mute – he talked to me like I had heard Beijingers would.  He told me I need to stop enunciating so much, made me practice saying “yī èr sān sì wǔ liù qī, qī liù wǔ sì sān èr yī” (1 2 3 4 5 6 7, 7 6 5 4 3 2 1) over and over, and sang us a song.  Wonderful.

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Going Dutch

In Uncategorized on January 31, 2010 at 12:24 am

As I fell asleep last night, a very appropriate song came up on my iPod’s shuffle: 北京欢迎你, or Beijing Welcomes You.  It’s a cute song that was written, I think, for the 2008 Olympics, but felt very fitting.  Happily assured of the warm welcome awaiting me, I drifted to sleep on my rocking berth. 

The welcome wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, though.  Our train arrived around 7:30 a.m. – although the distance was longer our previous trip, this was my shortest-ever Chinese train ride – and we were woken up around 6:30 to exchange our cabin passes for the tickets we need to exit the train station.

I couldn’t find mine.  Call it payback for mocking my dad yesterday, but I looked everywhere and couldn’t find it.  I was feeling really panicked as I checked every single bag and each pocket therein.  The conductor just watched me, saying “If you can’t find your ticket, what will we do?”  Envisioning my fate as Charlie on the MTA, I really wondered if they were going to let me off the train.  Then, right before we arrived, the conductor mentioned that there’s a 5 yuan penalty for losing the cabin pass.  Seriously?  He had me all worked up when I could have just paid the 80 cent fine?!?

Safely out of the train station, I found a bus stop and we got a bus in the direction of our hotel.  We came in at the Beijing West Station and were headed into DongCheng (the eastern part of the city) so we drove right through the middle – passing Tiananmen Square on the way.  It was so weird to pass such a place while riding public transportation.  I was straining to catch street signs and the like, and then bam! there’s Tiananmen Square.  And then we just kept driving by.  Tourism on the cheap!

It was also weird just being in Beijing.  It’s the capital of China and I’ve technically been there 4 times, but the only familiar places to me are the airport and the KFC in one of the train stations. 

When we got off the bus, we opted for a taxi ride to track down the exact location of our hotel – many experiences have taught us asking directions in China often includes switchbacks, and it was too cold and we had too much luggage to enjoy that sort of hunt.  The taxi driver had a lisp and the heavy ‘er’-laden Beijing accent, which was almost too much for me to handle at 8 in the morning. 

Then we got to the hotel where my travel agent had booked us a room.  When we went up to look at it, we found two small beds in a tiny room.  We told her that was unacceptable, but she replied that they were going to add a bed . . . and then,  pretty much in the same breath, said that the room was too small to add a bed.  So basically, they sold us a room that didn’t exist.  Great.

There we were, in an unfamiliar city with no hotel, no map, carrying 3 suitcases, 3 backpacks, and about 200 kuai ($30).  After looking at 4 rooms and swiping 3 credit cards, we finally found a mediocre room in a chain hotel for twice what we’ve been paying in other cities.  I was not happy, but at least we could set our stuff down finally.

After a short rest, we went to the Forbidden City.  It’s a short walk from our hotel, including part between the wall and a moat that was quite pretty.

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The museum is pretty cheap, so we decided to splurge and get an English-speaking guide.  I’m glad we did because she had some interesting stories to share.  My favorite was when she told us about the 金砖, or ‘gold bricks’ in the emperor’s throne room.  They’re not gold at all, but are called that for a few reasons.  First of all, the stone used was very time-consuming to make and thus very expensive.  Secondly, most Chinese never got to enter the Forbidden City (it ain’t called that for nothin’!) and figured that the emperor’s throne room would be paved in gold.  My favorite reason was that the people who were transporting the bricks from the place of manufacturing (in Suzhou, near Shanghai) to Beijing were southerners, and so in their accented Mandarin they said jīn zhuān (金砖, or “golden bricks”) instead of jīng zhuān (京砖, or “capital bricks”).  I have to put up with the southern accent all the time, so I really appreciated that story.

It was a beautiful day in Beijing (for real!) with sun, warmth, and blue sky.  The palace, especially the parts repainted recently, were truly brilliant.

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After our guide took us through the emperor’s palaces along the main axis of the City and showed us the residences of the Empress Dowager CiXi and the Last Emperor PuYi, we went through the artifacts exhibits by ourselves.  There were some ridiculous pieces of jade, gold, and silver, even such mundane items as ear picks!

Coming out of the Forbidden City, we saw a line of taxis.  What a welcome sight, we thought, after the trials of public transportation in Chengdu and Xi’An!  We happily ran towards one . .  . then another, then another, as each one waved us away.  We’re still not exactly sure why, but apparently the taxis outside the City are not for taking people to other places.  Obviously . . . sorry, that was a stupid mistake on my part.

By the time we got a taxi home, we were all pretty frustrated.  I can take 麻烦 (hassle) from China up to a point, but then I get frustrated, angry, and extremely tired in quick succession.  I felt like I had been in a physical struggle with Beijing – and lost. 

We recouped at the hotel for a few hours, then met up with the Bisterbosches for dinner.  Aleid is my good friend from XiaDa, and she had just arrived in Beijing with her parents (visiting from the Netherlands) as well.  We managed to find each other on the streets of Beijing, and then walked together to 全聚德烤鸭店, a chain of restaurants well-known for their Peking roast duck. 

It was great to see Aleid again; we compared travel stories and commiserated about our parents.  Apparently hers are like children too – she told me, “I remember the first time my dad said to me: ‘Aleid, I need to go to the toilet.’!”  They want to eat bread every day for lunch and are still mastering basic phrases in Chinese.  I guess parents the world over are pretty much the same!

The dinner was excellent, too.  After a whole day of wondering if this was what the song meant, I finally got a taste of Beijing’s welcome.  We got a few side dishes, but the main course was a duck.  It was carved right at the table and then placed before us for our dining pleasure. 

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We ate the crispy skin after dipping it in sugar, then started on the meat.  To eat it properly (as we had to have a waitress demonstrate), you take a piece of meat with the attached fat and skin, dip it in the mystery (soy?) sauce, place it on a super-thin pancake thing, add a scallion, roll it up like a burrito, and eat.

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Delicious!  Afterwards we got a little certificate so that I can prove to everyone that we ate Duck #131410. 

We split the check.

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Back at the hotel, the kiddos went to bed (Dad’s sick and lost his voice) while I stayed up preparing for tomorrow.  I still don’t have a decent map so trip-planning requires integrating Lonely Planet, Google Earth, and Beijing’s rather impressive public transportation site.

Soldiers – Terracotta and Otherwise

In Uncategorized on January 29, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Today, our only [almost] full day in Xi’An, was pretty busy.  We got up early, grabbed breakfast, and then set out to see Xi’An’s most important sites.  We were driven around by Stephen, a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend (yes, this is literally how we are connected).  He first drove us to the Terracotta Soldiers where we got to see the “8th Wonder of the World”. 

We spent about a half hour trying to find our way in; when we finally found the entrance, we were about as excited as they must have been to find the thing in the first place.  The theater was “having a decoration” so we looked around the museum first.  It was nice, and gave us a little foreshadowing of the magnificence to come.  They had a lot of warriors on display, so we could see the detail up close – seeing just a couple, plus the knowledge that every soldier (all 6000 of them) have different faces, is almost mind-blowing. 

There was also a special exhibit of some bronze horses and chariots that they found not far away.  They were particularly impressive, and I really enjoyed the exhibit on the materials and manufacturing used.  I learned the words for copper and bronze, and found out that the Chinese were chrome-plating thousands of years ago!  I only started welding two years ago, and I’m really not good at it . . . haha. 

We toured the pits in reverse order of when they were discovered – 3, 2, 1 – saving the biggest and most impressive for last.  Pit 3 has a lot of officers and is thought to be the command room.  It was there, as luck would have it, that Dad spotted a Chinese officer and (through me) struck up a conversation.  He was at least as pleased as Dad was to meet a fellow officer, and even more so when they discovered they were both majors in the artillery (although he was anti-aircraft artillery and Dad is field artillery).

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Pit 2, as Dad said, “needs some work” – it’s mostly unexcavated.  Still, it’s almost as impressive as seeing the stuff they’ve dug up, just thinking of the undiscovered possibilities beneath.

Pit 1 is basically a huge aircraft hanger, more than two football fields long.  When you enter, you’re immediately confronted with regiments of clay soldiers, facing you down in rows.  That pit isn’t fully excavated yet either, but they’ve already found 2,000 and expect a total of more than 6,000. 

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To be honest, as an engineering student, I was almost as impressed by the buildings housing the excavation pits as I was with their contents.  Thinking of the surveying and design work that must have preceded building, and the care they must have taken during construction of such huge covers over such precious contents, was incredible to me.  I actually found it really exciting; maybe the engineer in me is still there somewhere.

After the morning’s sightseeing, our new friend Steven took us to lunch.  It was the first time we’d eaten rice and with chopsticks in basically forever, and I hadn’t had eggplant in a staggeringly long time – at least three days.  The food was delicious – an eggplant-and-green-bean dish, this tasty vegetable I recently discovered, some stuff with egg, and a lamb steak – and the room was warm and sunlit, just the way we like it. 

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The afternoon’s destination was the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi.  Lonely Planet calls it Xi’An’s underrated highlight, the city’s must-see besides the Terracotta Warriors.  This guy was also buried with a ton of terracotta figures, but they’re not warriors – they’re servants, eunuchs, and domesticated animals.  Basically, this tomb is to daily life what the Terracotta Warriors are to the military. 

The human figurines originally had wooden arms and silk clothes, but those are gone now so they look a little like mutilated dolls.

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The animals were quite impressive – surprisingly lifelike horses, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, dogs, and chickens.  In the museum (which is totally underground, by the way) you can walk over the excavation pits and look at them through glass floors.  Dad was really weirded out about walking on glass, but I thought it was a cool perspective.

At the end of the museum there was a short film introducing the history of the mausoleum’s occupants.  We paid the extra 10 kuai to get in, even though they didn’t do a great job of marketing it – it wasn’t until we got in that we realized it was 4D, just like the show at Hulishan

Another funny story about the theater:  I bought my parents tickets about 10 minutes before the show started, but when it came time to go in, Dad couldn’t find his.  This is a frequent problem we have (especially him), but usually the ticket-takers are forgiving – or at least remember selling tickets to the strange foreigners – and let us go in anyway.  This woman, though, was having none of it.  As Dad frantically went through his pockets, she even remarked to me in Chinese, “I just saw you give it to him!”  Then she told him, through me, to take his time because we still had “5 minutes until the show starts”.  Luckily, he found it, but we were really amused by her adamancy. 

As we left the underground museum, we saw a huge gate that had been restored nearby.  We went out there for a photo op and then I saw the huge power plants in the distance.  It was an interesting juxtaposition of old and new, so I took a picture.

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While not quite as ironic as the legendary Goose Lady picture of 2007 (showing one woman’s wind turbine in the shadow of a coal-burning power plant), it strongly reminded me of that picture, which has been used in SENEA powerpoint presentations too numerous to count.

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The car rides in between were nice; our driver was friendly and the car was warm.  Also, for maybe the first time since I came to China, he turned on the radio to music, which I enjoyed immensely.  Between that and the radio (slash somebody’s iTunes) at the hostel, I heard Fireflies by Owl City, Party in the USA by Miley Cyrus, and Bad Romance by Lady Gaga, on the radio for the first time!  (I have the songs on my computer, but hearing them unexpectedly is totally different.)  From emails and chatting with friends, I gather that these are quite popular and often heard in the US, so for a few minutes there I felt like I wasn’t missing out on life in America.  It was special.

I was worried about fitting both destinations in one day, but we got back to the hotel with time to spare.  We picked up our laundry there (after extricating it from somebody else’s load) and took a break before braving the train station.  First we crossed the street to grab some Chinese fast food for dinner, and on the way were treated to this beautiful scene – one of the gates in the city wall, all lit up for the New Year, with the huge moon hanging over the whole scene.

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Our train to Beijing left Xi’An at 8:30, and we got to the station about an hour ahead of time.  Dad’s search for a quiet corner was even more hopeless than the last time, so we settled for shoving to the front, intimidating a couple out of their seats, and chilling there.  (Just kidding.  Kind of.)  We filed on to the train with the several hundred other passengers in an orderly fashion (definitely kidding here).  As Dad complained about carrying the suitcases down and up the stairs of the underground tunnel, I joked that he could just set it down and let it be carried by the crowd (I was kidding, but it may have worked).

When we successfully got on the train, we discovered that trains in and out of the capital are a little bit nicer than others.  Even in our hard-sleeper berths, we almost had doors, and we had overhead storage in our compartment!  This is good, because there were 6 of us crammed in there and, as we discovered as we prepared to get off the train in Beijing, two other people had stashed suitcases in our room! 

Our bunk mates weren’t that exciting – a couple headed to Beijing to see their son and a badminton player who pretty much just slept – but the car was full of interesting characters.  There was a guy who studied in England and now works for a petrochemical company in Houston, a little kid who liked to walk around and make fun of Dad’s Chinese, etc.  Most notably, there was a young man who sat outside our compartment and started talking with Dad.  I stepped in to translate and found out that he was a graduate student at the Xi’An military academy!  Most Chinese know about West Point, but he was even more interested in Dad’s school.  We talked for awhile, learned the ranks of the Chinese army, and promised to exchange patches. 

They shut off the lights at 10:10 or so, without warning, at which point we decided it might be a good idea to sleep.

Slow Train to Xi’An

In Uncategorized on January 28, 2010 at 10:02 pm

Last night after our meal/betrothal ceremony, we made our way towards the train station.  Like everything else in this trip, we’re going about our train rides backwards.  I took them to the best city in China before going to dirtier, more crowded, and more hectic places; we started in the delightfully warm south before heading north to frozen Beijing; and now, after riding the world’s fastest train, we’re taking a normal Chinese train. 

Dad was hoping to find a quiet corner with a power outlet so he could write, but I think he forgot we were in pre-Lunar New Year China, not a small US airport on a sleepy weekday.  We barely managed to find a seat.  We were the only foreigners in the entire train station as far as we could tell, and I’m pretty sure that when Dad was sitting down I was the tallest person in the room.  Needless to say, we got people-watched, but also did our share of people-watching.  I think our luggage (suitcases, not their contents) alone was more expensive than the entire load that some people carried; most people went with the enormous-rice-bag-stuffed-full-and-even-beyond option. 

I went to the bathroom before getting on the train, which turned out to be a very bad idea.  “I don’t often say this”, I told Mom upon my return, “but wait and go on the train.”  Not only was the bathroom set up over a single, regularly-flushed trench, but only three of the bathrooms had doors.  Observation of the day: it’s perfectly acceptable to text while squatting in China – I can testify to this personally. 

We boarded at 9 and were on our way right on time at 9:20.  This was my 5th overnight train, but a first for my parents.  We had hard-sleeper berths, which meant beds stacked three-high all the way down the car. 

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Mom and Dad had lower bunks where we sat for a while, and when the lights were turned off I moved up to my middle berth. 

I thought the train was under 12 hours, but it turned out that we didn’t arrive until almost 1.  This is probably because we spent approximately as much time stopped as we did moving.  There was one particular time when we stopped for like 30 minutes to let another train pass; I remember because I really had to go to the bathroom but there’s “No Occupying While Stabling” (Chinglish for “Please don’t use the bathroom while the train is stopped”). 

The good news is, we got to sleep in all morning before getting to Xi’An!

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Arriving in Xi’An, I quickly realized we were at a bigger tourist draw than I’d ever been in China.  The hostel we were looking for was about 1 km away, so we were planning to walk.  But then a woman came up to offer us a taxi ride, and I figured I’d at least ask the price.  “30 yuan” (almost $5), her response, was so ridiculous that I wished I knew how to say “Hell, no!” in Chinese.  As it was, I mocked her offer (which should have been, at most, 80 cents) and told her that I knew it was only a kilometer away.  She replied, not ashamed at all, “Over a kilometer.” 

We walked to the hostel (Qixian) without a problem, but there I found out that I had been Chinese-lied to again.  I had called to book a hostel room the night before and was told we had a room with two big beds; I arrived to find out the room actually only had one.  We were offered a four-bed room (but no bathroom) but I decided to take a (very small) stand.  So often I put up with the ridiculous situations I get into in China, and I let the lies and misinformation slip by uncommented.  But this time I was sick of it; I told them I was unhappy with how they had handled my reservation and told them we were going to the other hostel in town.  We ended up finding a good room with three beds and a large bathroom, here at the Shuyuan Hostel.  It’s quaint, our room is warm, and we got to do laundry, so I’m happy we came over here! 

We went for a walk through the Muslim Quarter this afternoon, where we bought some souvenirs and had dinner. 

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My parents have definitely liked Xinjiang cuisine the most so far on their trip, so maybe someday when (not if!) they come back to China, we’ll try to go straight to the source – Urumqi! 

Back at the hostel, we arranged for a doctor of Chinese medicine to come and work his magic with Dad.  He got a 30 minute massage and then opted to try acupuncture on a problem area that’s been bothering him for almost a year now.  I can’t decide if the acupuncture pictures are acceptable to show or not, so I’ll settle for one of Dad and the good doctor.

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Tomorrow we’re going to the see the Terracotta Army and the Tomb of Emperor . . . Something.  We should be headed straight to the train station afterwards, so more details on all that will follow in about 36 hours, from our final destination – Beijing!

We’re Not Losing A Daughter, We’re Gaining a Village

In Uncategorized on January 27, 2010 at 8:27 pm

(Written by John, with liberal editing by Maria.)

Since we had no set itinerary for today, we slept in (in our own beds) till around 9:30.  It was great!  But when we woke up, the room was very cold, and we found our room door wide open.  Apparently someone (Maria) didn’t close it all thee way last night.  We decided she has now made too many mistakes on this trip, and we hatched a plan to get rid of her off by the end of the day.  Little did we know what lay ahead, but more on that later…

We went down to the dining room to use their wireless and have breakfast.  The girls had delicious egg sandwiches, and I had fried eggs with bacon, plus a wonderful-crepe like pancake with a banana and chocolate filling.  Then Cis and I left Maria for awhile (she had boring travel guide planning to do), and we walked around the pretty little town of Baoguo.  It has a beautiful park with many waterfalls and statues, mostly tributes to the Bhuddist religion that considers the nearby Mount Emei one of their sacred sites.

IMG_1482 Cis got a little creative with the camera and took this very nice picture of me by one of the elephant statues.

IMG_1485 After we linked back up with Maria and checked out, we only had to walk a hundred yards to the bus station to catch the 1:00 bus back to Chengdu. 

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It was a two-and-a-half-hour ride back to Chengdu and the hotel where we had stowed three of our suitcases during the two days exploring the sights of Leshan and Emeishan.  The ride was uneventful, although it was probably the nicest country we have seen yet (other than the area around Xiamen).  Once we neared Chengdu, though, the inevitable construction boom was again visible, with huge new buildings going up everywhere, al covered with a green plastic mesh that probably is used to shield workers from the sun and wind, and to contain any loose construction material from blowing down onto pedestrians.

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Once back in Chengdu, we had several hours before our over-night train left for Xi’An, so we went looking for a Uyghur restaurant that Maria read about in the Lonely Planet Guide Book.  The description of their food had caught her eye (and her stomach): “[Their] specialty is dapanji (literally, ‘big plate chicken’) – a massive portion of chicken, potatoes and peppers stewed in a savory, spicy sauce.  Even the ‘small’ plate (Y30) will serve two or three.  When you’re part way through the meal, staff dump a pile of handmade noodles into your dish, perfect for sopping up the sauce.  Lamb skewers and grilled flatbread are good accompaniments.” 

We flagged a taxi to take us there, but when he dropped us off at the right intersection, we couldn’t find it.  After asking directions, we found the right storefront – and immediately realized we had been there before.  On our last evening in Chengdu before leaving for Leshan, we stopped here to eat lamb kebabs and naan from the street-side component of their restaurant.  The food was great, but Maria was a little unsettled by a strange interaction with one of the workers.  While we were waiting in line, one of the men had walked by us, smiled appreciatively at Maria and clicked his tongue in a warbling-like sound.  Although nothing like that had ever happened to her in China, she figured it was a cat-call and interpreted it to mean: “Hey, that is one good-looking dark woman; she would make a fine Uyghur wife!”  We didn’t think much of it since we had no plans to return to this restaurant, but God (/Allah) moves in mysterious ways . . .

As we walked in and sat down, the young man (who, because he looks like a Uyghur version of Paulie Shore, we nicknamed Paulie), was especially attentive to his customers – well, mainly Maria.  He pretty much completely disregarded Cissy and I, and while we thought it was a little rude to disrespect his future parents-in-law this way, he seemed to be truly in love, so we decided to overlook this problem.  Besides, we won’t have to pay for a hall or catering for their reception because they can host it right there at their place.  The restaurant is fairly large, as you can see from the picture below.

IMG_1564I was anxious to seal the deal before the family realized their mistake, which could happen as soon as Maria started her incessant whining, or if they asked her to do any manual work such as refill water pails, mop the floor, make rancid yak butter to add to the tea, or butcher the chickens, so I accepted the additional meat offering and we shook hands.   After finishing our meals and promising to return once we collected the goats needed for Maria’s dowry, we went on our way.  Inshallah, we will soon be rid of her.

[Maria: It is a delightful fantasy my parents have created.  But really, who would have ever thought they’d be so happy to see me married off to a Muslim?]

Create-Your-Own China

In Uncategorized on January 26, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Today is the 5-month anniversary of my arrival in Xiamen and, in the tradition of this blog, I’m going to share some general thoughts on my time here in China.  Dad did [most of] the blog today, so I’m even off the hook and don’t have to write about the events of today.

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is the parable about three blind men who come across an elephant and try to figure out what it is.  One feels the tail and thinks it’s like a rope; one feels a leg and thinks it’s like a tree; and one feels the trunk and thinks it’s like a snake.

This reminds me a lot of China.  I’ve had the opportunity to touch the elephant twice, but still my observations and experiences are incredibly limited in the vast scope of things.  I realize this every now and then, when I realize that someone else has touched this huge animal somewhere else and come up with a very different conclusion as to it’s nature.  The Lee’s, for instance, my Cantonese-Canadians friends from church who have a private car and driver and had never tasted malatang – even their Xiamen is different than mine! 

Also, it’s interesting to think about my two different experiences, and marvel that they’re part of the same animal.  ‘My China’ is both a heavily wooded hillside and a tropical island studded with palm trees.  My China is both a Special Economic Zone and the Yanbian Sub-Autonomous Region.  My China is the site of both massive foreign investment and the home base for many foreign missionaries.  My China is a port with special concessions to the outside world, and it’s also a launching point into a neighbor that is much more closed to the outside.  My China is populated by people who speak not only Mandarin, but also Korean and Minnanhua.  My China is both a farm where I worked with dirt and poop and a university where I spend my time studying.  My China is a small group of Christians gathering in a house and a cathedral packed full of faithful to see deacons ordained. 

There’s also a list of things that My China is not.  It’s certainly not Beijing, and it’s definitely not Hong Kong.  It’s also not Shanghai or Guangzhou or Chengdu; I felt as much like a tourist there as my parents did.  The Great Firewall is more a part of My China than the Great Wall is.  There are a lot of things that I thought would be part of my China that aren’t.  Fortune cookies don’t exist here.  There are no pandas or bamboo anywhere near the places I’ve lived, and it’s hard to even find those things as souvenirs.  As much as I can, I avoid tea and Buddhist temples, so those really aren’t included in the China I’ve made for myself.  My China usually doesn’t even seem communist – maybe just really inefficient sometimes. 

This trip with my parents has been a chance to see parts of China that aren’t really part of My China.  Eating dim sum in Guangzhou, riding the world’s fastest train to Wuhan, watching pandas in Chengdu, seeing the world’s largest statue of Buddha, and climbing the Great Wall aren’t part of my life here any more than a weekend in New York City would be.

I was really excited to show my parents My China but I’m realizing that they’re creating a China of their own.  Our drastically different language abilities certainly influences perceptions, and by the time they return home they’ll have spent as much time in Chengdu as in Xiamen, and even more in Beijing.  (Anyway, My China includes a lot of restaurants that charge under a dollar for a meal but don’t really offer much in the way of tables, chairs, or shelter from the elements, so it’s probably better that we’re exploring something new together.)

These last two weeks have been an interesting learning period for me.  Classes ended and I’ve completely stopped my Anki vocabulary reviews (trying not to think about the digital pile of flashcards that will await me after my parents return home), but I haven’t stopped learning Chinese.  I’ve added to my vocabulary as I’ve tried to accommodate my parents’ interests – you might be impressed at how well I can converse about the military in Chinese, for my Dad’s sake.  I’ve gotten to practice translating from Chinese for them, which is a significant step harder than internalizing meaning without having to verbalize it.  I’ve also had to translate the other way, expressing things on my parents’ behalf that I never had the will or skill to say before.  I’ve booked more planes, trains, buses, and hotels than I’ve ever done in English, and became familiar with a few cities based on maps written entirely in characters.  I’ve also gotten to act as a Chinese teacher for the first time, shepherding my earnest pupils from their very first Chinese words to the sometimes-painful process of piecing them together. 

I think that it’s also been a period of learning life lessons as well.  I’ve taken responsibility for this trip in a way that I’ve never done – or had to do – before.  On previous trips there have always been friends to rely on or at least consult, but here I am the cultural expert, translator, tour guide, map-reader, travel agent, and teacher.  It’s been exciting to find out that I’m capable of doing this, even in China. 

To be honest, I’ve been amazed at how well this trip has worked out.  It’s definitely due more to a series of lucky coincidences/blessings than to my skill, but we’ve had some wonderful experiences.  The perfect timing of everything in Xiamen, our local tour guide in Guangzhou, or blessedly brief stay in Wuhan, our special hour with the young pandas in Chengdu – it was all better than I had imagined or could have planned. 

That is, until today.  I really was in a bad mood, right up until we put the numbers into Quicken and I could get them out of my mind.  I guess the mountain was nice and the scene from the top was pretty special, but I am still put off by the unexpected things we ran into today.  My time in China is punctuated by episodes of receiving wrong information, but today was especially bad.  From the littlest things like trying to find the ticket counter or the right bus station in Leshan, to the big things like the price of entrance to Emeishan, I was fed wrong information from every source.  By the time I got to the summit, I had calculated that we had spent about $100 on this expedition – approximately our daily budget for food, lodging, local transportation, and tourism – and had a hard time enjoying the vista properly.  Sometimes My China isn’t very honest and it’s almost never straightforward, and by the end of today I just didn’t want to deal with it anymore. 

I think that it was just a little bit of a bad day, but I guess 1 out of 150 ain’t bad.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

In Uncategorized on January 26, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Today’s travel blog is written by Dad (John) with comments by Maria [in brackets].  Note: Maria is also writing a bonus blog, in honor of her 5-month anniversary! 

Our tour guide (Maria) finally failed us today.  First, she failed to ensure a timely departure – failing to set her phone alarm and failing to remind me to set my alarm – so we overslept till 0800 instead of getting up at 0630.  Since our hotel room rate only included two free breakfasts, Cis (who is known by many as “St. Rita, the Martyr”) sent Maria and I down to breakfast while she stayed behind to shower and pack up.  The breakfast was excellent, part Western and part Chinese: fried eggs, fried rice, meat dumplings (“boazi”), green beans with pork, orange juice, thick white toast with strawberry jam, and black coffee!  I smuggled a hard boiled egg and the cream puff back to the room for Cissy, and then we checked out.  Hope we can find as nice a hotel in Beijing for anywhere near this price ($25 for all three of us)!

We walked about a hundred meters to the bus station and booked seats on the tourist bus to Mount Emei, or “Emeishan” as it’s called on Chinese maps.  It was just a 30-minute ride away, which gave me time to read Maria’s blog from yesterday on her computer.

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Once there, we took a taxi into the nearby town of Baoguo, directly at the foot of the mountain, to the Teddy Bear Hotel recommended by the Lonely Planet guide book Maria carries everywhere (affectionately called “the Brick”).  We checked in and got advice about going up on the mountain, then caught another tourist bus for the long ride up the mountain.  This was a smaller 18-passenger bus in which we were the only Westerners, as usual.  The driver was terribly aggressive, pounding on the horn anytime anyone got in front of him, and we flew around hairpin corners on all the way up – except for the time we came to a complete stop for what we later found out was a rockslide.  At least one young lady was sick along the way,and she threw up out the window!  It was also very misty/foggy, so the hour-long ride up was pretty exciting.

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I had a comfortable center seat by the engine, so I was able to stretch out and sleep most of the way up, as usual.

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The first thing we noticed when we got to the top was the monkeys running around the parking lot.  Even though we expected them, they surprised us with their numbers, their size, and their quickness.  We watched one come up to a group of three Chinese girls, quickly snatch a plastic pop bottle out of one of their purses, twist off the top, and drink it.  It was amazing, just as if we were watching a Sprite commercial!

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After buying a bamboo pole to fend off the monkeys, we walked around the parking lots awhile, trying to figure out what to do.  We had originally planned to go up but the icy conditions really took us by surprise and we weren’t sure if we wanted to make the 1.5 km hike.  We also were a bit put off by the haze, which was so thick we doubted the vendors who told us we could see the sun if we climbed and caught the cable car.  We figured they just wanted to make money off renting us crampons for our boots, and we were starting to feel like we had finally encountered the classic “let’s take the tourists for all their worth” scam.

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A little while later, we crossed the path of some people walking down the icy stairway and they gave us their crampons to use for free (these were just simple lace on climbing points; nothing fancy).  Since they offered, we lashed them on and started up.  It was a bit slippery in some places, but then we saw 2-man native porter teams practically running up the trail carrying bamboo litters with full-grown people on them.  They even stayed in the center of the trail, where was the ice was thickest, while we used the more clear paths on the right by the handrail, so we stopped complaining and shouldered on.  At one point we stopped for pictures, and some boys jumped into the picture, flashing the ubiquitous Chinese “V” symbol. 

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Once we got to the top of the trail, it was still very hazy, so we decided to let Maria ride up the cable car alone to the real summit, while we sat in the waiting room area and read/snacked.  It was very cold, and of course the doors were open, so after about twenty minutes I went over and shut the doors.  [Chinese people seem to have this completely irrational fear of non-circulating air, so every non-heated area is open to the outside.  Buses whipping down icy mountain switchbacks, posh hotel corridors, and even the nicest restaurants confound us Westerners by opening windows and doors, as if cold air is one of the main food groups along with white rice and chicken feet.  More on this later.]  It was funny watching Chinese people come up to the door and look at it like they hadn’t seen a closed door before!

[Maria – I was in a bad mood when we got to the top, because the whole day had contradicted my plans and confounded my expectations.  Emeishan is, in my mind, exorbitantly expensive, with every price even higher than those quoted in the sources we consulted.  Entrance for all three of us was $50, the roundtrip bus ride up the mountain was another $30, and the cable car was almost $20 – per person! – with no student or elderly discount.  After paying the ridiculous entrance fee, though, I did want to reach the summit and at least get pictures of the sun we vaguely remembered seeing long ago, so I went up the cable car alone with the camera.

The cable car is pretty nice and surprisingly large, with a capacity of 100 people.  My fellow passengers excitedly shared rumors of sun at the peak and some actually shouted when we broke through the last layer of clouds into pure blue sky.  I’ll admit, it was pretty epic. 

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At the top, there was a short hike to the Golden Summit Monastery at the actual peak, but I just walked far enough to get some good pictures.  Since I was above the actual cloud line, I was lucky enough to witness the Sea of Clouds.  Below me was pure puffy whiteness, punctuated by a few other mountain peaks in the distance, looking like islands in the white. 

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The way back down was a little exciting because the cable line disappeared in front of us as it re-entered the dense clouds. 

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Luckily, the invisible line held up and I made it back down to rejoin my parents.]

At 5:30, we caught the next-to-the-last bus off the mountain.  Our driver going down was pretty calm compared to the driver going up, which was a good thing since the visibility out the front window was about twenty feet, and it was starting to get dark too.  Then, about a third of the way down, we were told to switch to another bus, and that driver was the worst.  He hacked and spit very loudly, rode the horn, and drove like a maniac.  We were all thrilled when we pulled back into town safely, but we were a little disappointed in the day.  But, as Maria has ingrained in us and as we’ve come to see first-hand, going anywhere and doing anything in China is usually a great adventure!

Like all towns and cities in China, Baoguo is busy preparing for the Chinese New Year, now only two weeks away.  The town is nicely lit up with Christmas-style lights, and there are red lanterns and other pretty decorations everywhere.

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We ended the day with a nice meal at the Teddy Bear Hotel, which included a hamburger and fries which I mostly ate, and several delicious Chinese dishes of fried rice, egg-and-tomato, and egg-and-potato, and a large bowl of beef & greens in the spicy Sichuan style.  Then we retired to our room for the evening, which is remarkable mostly for the fact that it has three beds.

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We’re looking forward to a good night’s sleep before we head back to Chengdu, retrieve our luggage, and head on to Xi’An.

10:10 to LeShan

In Uncategorized on January 25, 2010 at 11:13 pm

We got up early today, but we had a very strong motive for doing so – Peter’s Tex-Mex Restaurant opens at 7:30, and we were there shortly after.  We enjoyed our second meal there as much as the first, and I got to taste pancakes, bacon, and eggs fried hard for the first time in almost five months. 

 

We took a bus from there to the long-distance bus station, arriving around 9:30.  There was a bus leaving a few minutes later, but maybe that one was sold out because I ended up with tickets for the 10:10 bus.  About an hour and a half into the trip, we slowed down, came to a stop, and the driver turned off the engine.  We were stopped for at least 20 minutes, during which time a bunch of guys took a smoke break and even Dad and I went out to look around.

It was a little surreal, standing on a highway packed with traffic, all at a complete standstill.  It was like an everyday street crossing, but as if the cars had been paused while we were still free to move about.

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When we finally got back on our way, we moved forward very slowly until we passed the cause of the traffic jam – it was the 9:40 bus, which had rear-ended another bus.  The passengers were milling about the accident, and we hoped there were no serious injuries.  It was startling to realize how close we came to being on that bus!

We were only a little late arriving in Leshan, and immediately got on a bus to take us to a hotel that had been recommended by Lonely Planet.  We made a friend on the bus, though, who said that hotel was nice and offered to take us to a nicer place.  She seemed nice, so we took her up on it.  She was unbelievably good to us, accompanying us to a hotel on the outskirts of the city and paying for the taxi to take us there.  The hotel that she set us up in is by far the nicest we’ve stayed in yet and should cost 350 yuan a night but we’re getting it for 180 ($25) due to the strings she pulled. 

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We didn’t luxuriate in our room for long, though, because there was a giant Buddha to see.  Leshan’s claim to fame is 大佛, or Giant Buddha, the world’s largest Buddha.  He was carved over two hundred years before in an attempt to calm the waters around him, at the confluence of three rivers.

We opted to view him from the water, and took a speedboat out to see him. 

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He’s . . . big.  71 meters tall, to be exact, which even dwarfs Dad.  For some scale, here’s a close-up of his hands and some tourists:

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There was also the option of climbing down and around the Buddha, but the ticket was pretty expensive and we rather liked our seated tour so we decided not to.  Instead, we wandered around the town.  Unanimously, we’ve decided we very much like Leshan.  Away from the Buddha-related tourist things, it’s just a nice town.  We walked down random side streets and came upon all sorts of interesting things.  Overall, our impression of Leshan is that all people do here is knit, have tiny dogs, and make cute Chinese babies. 

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It’s one of my favorite parts about China and was glad my parents got to experience it with me.  We found the shoe fixing area of town, the children and maternity clothes district, and the cell phone block.  We saw a little girl taking drum set lessons (and doing really well); a young woman practicing calligraphy; an old man cutting hair on a corner.  Some of the things we saw surprised even me – my first Chinese pet store and my first female sanlunche (pedicab drivers)!

We ate as we walked, grabbing spicy meat pita sandwiches, pineapple-on-a-stick, fried bread, and a donut. 

After returning to our hotel for a little while, we went back out for dinner.  We went all the way down one street, going in every restaurant – looking at their menus and asking questions – before saying 不好意思 (sorry) and leaving.  We ended up eating skewers of meat and vegetables, partly because I didn’t want to say no to them too.  It was really good, though, and only $8 so why not?

Early morning and mountain climbing tomorrow, so good night!

Killing Him Sweetly

In Uncategorized on January 24, 2010 at 11:30 pm

Today was a pretty typical Sunday, starting with Mass in the morning.  The main difference was that we had only vague hints at the location of the church and a Mass time of questionable accuracy.  If I’ve learned anything over my few months here, you always leave for Mass early.  We left the hotel at 9 even though the church was reportedly “not far”.  But when we got off at the right stop, no one had heard of the street we were looking for, despite asking about 6 or 8 people. 

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So with 8 minutes to go we got a taxi.  The street name and street number were wrong, so if Dad hadn’t seen the statue of the Blessed Mother as we drove past, we would not have made it to Mass – how’s that for a miracle?  They were singing Amazing Grace as we entered; of course the words were in Chinese but in my heart, I was thinking of those who once were lost and now are found – like us!

There aren’t a ton of Catholic churches in China, but I have yet to see one that isn’t full.  This one was no exception, and we relied on the kindness of strangers to find seats.  The cathedral is beautiful, and they had an organ!

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After Mass, we explored the huge church complex.  We met a sister, one of the habited nuns I’ve seen in China, and took a picture with her.  (No, I didn’t suddenly grow 3 feet; she’s just that small.)

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Then as we were leaving, we happened upon a ceremony in front of the church – something concerning the beginning of the confirmation process for young people.  I wonder if this is going on at my church in Xiamen, too!

[Note: A few days later, I read an article on the Union of Catholic Asian News and was surprised to discover that it was written about this very ceremony!  It turns out that it was a coming-of-age ceremony for church members who have recently turned 18, a ceremony that originated from Confucianism.]

The church, since it turned out to be nowhere near our hotel as we had expected, was actually quite close to Chengdu’s main park, RenMin GongYuan.  We walked over there and got to experience it in all of its weekend glory.  There were a ton of people there – cute kids, cute old people, and everyone in between.  They were flying kites, feeding fish, playing board games, dancing, practicing taiji, singing, playing instruments, drinking tea . . . There were also a lot of vendors, selling candy, pop, grilled meat, fruit, tea, and a few specialties.  It all played right into mine and Mom’s plan to kill Dad, the diabetic, because they had juice made from pure ground sugar cane and beautiful decorative suckers hand-made from melted sugar. 

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We easily could have spent an afternoon there, but we had a lunch date we were particularly excited about – Peter’s Tex-Mex Restaurant.  It was so legit – Texas map on the wall, Mason jars for glasses, checkered table cloths, and Texas flag shirts for staff – that I still can’t believe Peter is Chinese.

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The food was great, too.  The nachos were okay but the quesadillas and salsa made my heart melt.  We also tried their chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, garlic bread, green beans, carne asado, refried beans, and rice.  The Texas Brownie for dessert was the perfect ending – overall, highly recommended!  (In fact, we’re planning on retuning for breakfast in the morning!)

After eating our fill, we went for a walking tour of Sichuan University.  This was my first-choice school, so it was interesting to see where I might have ended up.  It’s huge, and has more of a U of M feel than XiaDa, which seems to be more on the same scale as TU.  It’s nice, but certainly not as beautiful as XiaDa.  Dad particularly enjoyed the sports complex, where he challenged a series of ping pong players til he found an equal opponent.

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Turns out the kid was 6.  Who knew?

Continuing in our plan to kill Dad, he bought a candied fruit stick (and loved it).

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Our prior plans for dinner were immediately scrapped when we came across a couple of Uighurs selling lamb skewers out of – literally – a hole in the wall.  Believe it or not, this was my parents’ first taste of the fat of the lamb, and after sharing the first 10 skewers we went back for 10 more. 

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At least he didn’t only eat sugar today – there was also some fat. 

I never needed proof, but for all you doubters – Dad declared this meal, which cost a total of $4 and was bought from a small shack with questionable health inspection results, the best one yet in China. 

The day’s events, especially our makeshift dinner, brought up a few more ways in which the parent-child roles have reversed on this trip:

  • They sit in the back of the car because I always get the front seat

  • I have to give them money to put in the collection basket

  • They always want to eat before the food is ready

  • They eat off the ground (true story!)

Back in the hotel, we’re packing for our departure from Chengdu tomorrow morning.  We’re heading first to Leshan to see the world’s largest Buddha, and then to Emeishan for a taste of mountain climbing, Chinese-style.  We’re hoping for good weather, smooth travels, and ready internet access!

Best Job in the World

In Uncategorized on January 23, 2010 at 11:15 pm

We got up early today and caught a taxi headed north to the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base.  Feeding (and the most active time of the pandas’ day) started around 9:30, so we made sure to get there around 9.  The area is pretty large, and visitors walk from exhibit to exhibit on beautiful paths shaded by patches of bamboo. 

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We went right to one of the panda enclosures, where there were about four Giant Pandas sitting about 10 feet from us, snacking on bamboo.  It’s fun to watch them eat, because they collect a bunch of leaves in their mouths, then hold the bunch in their hands and eat it like a carrot or something.  They’re a pretty sedentary animal when full-grown, living what seems like the ideal life – eating and sleeping. 

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The enclosures here are pretty natural, and we were excited to be separated from them only by a moat and a low bamboo fence. 

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Next we saw the Red Pandas.  We almost didn’t go because we figured they couldn’t be cuter than the Giant Pandas, but were glad we did because they are darn cute.  Unfortunately, they move quite fast (unlike the glacial movements of the Giant Pandas) so they were harder to photograph.

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The park was a little hard to navigate (about the only thing we didn’t like about it) but we made the trek out to the Giant Panda Houses, the furthest exhibits.  They were absolutely worth it, though, and really made the rest of the park pale in comparison.  We found the 1+ year-old pandas, which absolutely stole our hearts.  Unlike the full-grown adults, the little guys had lots of energy.  They wrestled with each other, chased their keepers, and climbed trees. 

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They were hilarious to watch climbing, because they would get themselves in untenable situations, draped over a branch on their belly or in some Twister-like combination of feet and leg positions.  They were pretty good going up, but would flounder and flail at the top and half-fall all the way down.  They also fell for real sometimes, which scared the heck out of us the first few times! 

For all the pictures we’ve seen of pandas, I realized today that we rarely see them in action.  Even in zoos, America only has a few and if you catch them when they’re lazy (as they often are), you don’t get a feel for their motions.  They seem like a mix between a fur rug, a beanbag, and a slinky.  They often seem to fall downhill more than walking on their own power, so it’s a mystery to us as to how they get uphill in the first place.  They really seem like they don’t have spines but we saw a skeleton and apparently they do. 

Inside the enclosure with them was a young man whose job seemed to be feeding them and checking them over after falls. 

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After a while, I started a conversation by telling him that we thought his job was the best in the world.  All the other visitors had left so it was just us and we had a nice conversation with him.  He told us a little bit about these bears and even introduced them to us by name (not that we could really tell them apart).  Best of all, when they were eating, he turned one of them around so that they were all facing us!

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I said that these young pandas were really active, but I should mention that there was one notable exception.  One of them – Dad’s favorite – was perched at the top of a tree for the entire duration of our visit, which was at least an hour, even while his buddies were pigging out below him.

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He was facing away from us the whole time and looked like a big ball of fur at first.  He did wake up for a few minutes and stretch out in the sun, but then curled back up – I guess his position was really comfortable.

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It was a really special hour for us, although the entire visit was nice.  We figure that we saw nearly 40 Giant Pandas and another dozen or so Red Pandas, which is an insane amount considering there are only 270 or so Giant Pandas in captivity. 

I got that number from a Wikipedia article, which had some other interesting Panda facts:

  • although they eat mainly bamboo, they still have the digestive system of a carnivore, without the ability to digest cellulose efficiently, so they have to eat a lot of it – 20 to 30 pounds of bamboo shoots a day.
  • The West didn’t know about the Panda until 1869 when a French missionary, Armand David, received a skin
  • The first Westerner known to have seen a living Giant Panda is the German zoologist Hugo Weigold in 1916
  • Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (son of Teddy and an interesting character in his own right) was the first foreigner to shoot a panda
  • in the 1970’s, panda exchanges were a diplomatic move; now pandas are only loaned to other countries for 10 years
  • Baby pandas are tiny, about 1/900th of their mother’s size – the largest mother/child size difference among mammals.
  • Some conservations think that panda conservation is a waste of money because there is “not enough habitat left to sustain them".  “The panda is, unfortunately, virtually unsavable. It lives in the most overpopulated country in the world, it feeds on plants when it ought to be eating partially meat, it transfers all sorts of nasty diseases among itself, it tastes nice and it’s got a coat that looks good on someone’s back".

We took a bus back into town and ended up right near a recommended Sichuan 小吃 (snack) restaurant.  It was crazy busy and chaotic in there but I managed to order food and it magically came to our table, so that was cool.  It was fun to try about 15 different things without having to eat a lot of any one thing. 

The restaurant was in a cool part of town, just off a pedestrian mall that was just packed with people.  We liked the area even more after finding a donut shop!  They had beautiful donuts and the 6 that we tried were delicious. 

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We got to watch them make the donuts, too, which we decided is the second best job in the world.

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I looked at their list of flavors after eating, though, and I don’t understand how this place that creates such wonderful things could also create something as evil as a seaweed or meat floss biscuit.  That is just not right. 

For a change, we went back to the hotel in the afternoon to rest before heading out in the evening.  After a nice nap, we went back to Tianfu Square in the middle of town.  Dad got to see Mao for the first time, and we got to see the area lit up at night.

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All the fountains were on, and even dancing to the music; it was really beautiful.

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We stopped for dinner at a 兰州拉面 restaurant.  拉面, or “pulled noodles” are a specialty of northeastern China – Xinjiang and Gansu provinces – which are populated largely by Muslims (the Uighur people you hear about on the news).  It’s one of my favorite foods and almost like a chain in China, as Uighur food everywhere is pretty much the same – delicious noodles with beef or lamb.

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Dad wanted a picture with the owner, which is pretty funny when you know that the guy grabbed his butt while it was being taken. 

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Back by our hotel, we stopped at a little convenience store to get ice cream.  When we got to our room and opened them, though, we discovered that one of the containers had melted and lost most of its ice cream.  We nearly dismissed it as a lost cause, but in the end decided to go back down to the store and ask for a new one.  Surprisingly, the worker immediately told us to just get another, which means . . . there are take-backs in China!