Sunday, September 30, 2018

Beijing's Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square

Forbidden City in Beijing

For our last full day in China we planned visits to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. We had a quick breakfast in the dining room at the Ritz Carlton then boarded the bus at 8:30. Our plans are subject to change a bit since the national holiday begins on October 1. The Chinese “Golden Week” beginning October 1 celebrates that day in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China October 1st 1949 was founded.  It is much like the Independence Day (July 4) celebrations in the US.  It turns out that Tiananmen Square is being prepared this morning and is closed to the public. That caused us to make a change and do our visit to the Forbidden City first.
In the Forbidden City
Patrick took our entry tickets to the gate for us and we walked through the area where the Emperor and high officials resided. Construction of the Forbidden City complex took place in from 1406 to 1420 and was the Imperial residence until the early 20th Century. It was called Forbidden City because common people could not enter the area. It was limited to the imperial family and employees.
There were 9999 rooms in the residence which is important because the number 9 is very lucky in China. Also, the emperor stayed in a different room every night to avoid assassination attempts. Emperors had multiple wives and many concubines who needed space as well.
Forbidden City
We saw large copper and iron pots that would store water in case of fire. In winter there would be warming fires under the pots to prevent freezing. The floor of the entire complex was covered with 30 layers of stones in alternating directions. This was to prevent threats from tunneling into the Forbidden City.
The area was very crowded since many Chinese citizens are off work in preparation for the upcoming Golden Week national holiday celebrations. We toured many of the buildings and took many photos before boarding the bus for lunch.
Brass pot in the Forbidden City
We were very happy to have a beautiful autumn day. There was abundant sunshine and temperatures in the mid 70s. A light breeze kept us very comfortable. We have always heard about the terrible smog in Beijing but we saw none of that in our three days in the city. I am certain there are days with temperature inversions or other factors that add to the pollution problem but we had great luck from the weather during our stay in Beijing.
Lunch was one of the best of our trip. At a local restaurant we had another lazy Susan family style lunch but had some unique selections with different seasonings or preparations than we have had. There was curry baked fish and very good Kung Pao chicken. Of course there was course after course of vegetables, noodles and rice.  Everyone enjoyed the meal.
Cindy & Mary across from Tiananmen Square
After lunch we took the bus to Tiananmen Square but it was still closed by the government to prepare for the national holiday week. We still had to pass through security just to walk across the street from the square. We saw the building where Chairman Mao’s body still lies in state. We walked past the major courtyards and the China Museum. There was significant police and military presence since major political figures will be in the area throughout the coming week. We learned that Tiananmen means "gate of heavenly peace."  It was built during the Ming Dynasty as a major gate leading to the Forbidden City.
We didn’t spend a great deal of time at Tiananmen Square and headed back to the Beijing Ritz Carlton. We got back around 3 pm then decided to take a walk around the city. We walked east from the hotel in the financial district through residential neighborhoods.
Tiananmen Square
Around 4:30 we decided to start back toward the hotel. We needed to meet Patrick at 5:15 to give him our evaluation and gratuity. We also needed to pick up our passports from him in preparation for our departure. On our way back to the hotel we walked through another Hutong that looked a little higher end than the one we visited a few days ago. Patrick had told us that some Hutong apartments have higher rent than newer condos further from the city center. Their location near the city center in Beijing can make a Hutong dwelling very desirable.
We got back to our room in plenty of time to get Patrick’s tip and our evaluation down to him. Since the bulk of the participants were eating early before going to a show on Kung Fu we decided to wait until their bus left before going to dinner to avoid the crowd.
The dining room at the Ritz Carlton was nearly empty when we arrived around 6:45. The buffet had several chicken and shrimp dishes as well as a seafood bar. We had several cooked dishes and a generous serving of fruit. We finished with the prepared desserts. On our way out we chatted briefly with a Keith and Krystal about our experiences traveling in Germany and wished them well on their upcoming trip to Hawaii.
After dinner we went up to the room to pack for our 12:30 departure from the hotel tomorrow afternoon. Our flight is scheduled to depart at 5 pm on Monday evening and will land in Detroit at 5:40 on Monday evening. We will have a short layover in Detroit then hop on a flight scheduled to land in Cincinnati around 9:30 on Monday night. If all goes as planned I will go in to work on Tuesday. After a 13 ½ flight I don’t know how alert I will be at work but I will give it my best effort.
After we finished packing Mary and Cindy started planning our next trips while I looked for something on television. With 50 channels in Chinese and only 3 in English it narrows the choices down a bit.
We plan to turn in early and perhaps get out for a walk around Beijing on Monday morning. It will be interesting to see the city on the national holiday.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Great Wall of China

We boarded the bus at the Beijing Ritz Carlton Financial Street at 7 am for our visit to the Badaling section of the Great Wall. We had gone to breakfast in the hotel dining room at 6 am. This breakfast was much more Western than our previous stays. Although most of the hotels offered eggs of some sort, the breakfast was largely Asian in influence. Here just the opposite was true. Most of the items on the buffet were to US and European tastes with some Chinese choices. We had some of the shrimp dumplings (bao), fresh fruit (melons, dragonfruit, pineapple) and Chinese noodles.
With traffic in Beijing it took nearly 90 minutes to arrive at the location to visit the Great Wall. The highway to access the visitor area is on the major route north from Beijing. That and the upcoming national holiday means that traffic was very heavy even at the time we left the hotel.
Mary at the Great Wall of China
We arrived at the Badaling section of the Great Wall around 8:30 and noticed immediately that the air temperature was much cooler. We were pleased that there didn’t appear to rain clouds in the sky but there was a slight breeze so we all took jackets. Patrick gave us tickets for the funicular rail up the mountain and we went up the incline. At an altitude of over 6000 feet we could feel a much cooler air temperature. The major issue was the wind. The howling wind made the air seem very much cooler. We were all bundled up to keep the wind from freezing us.
Our group at the Great Wall of China
We walked down the Great Wall in the steeper direction until we came to a section that we thought was too steep. Since we liked the view from that spot we decided to take a few snapshots then walk the other direction. We turned around and started walking the other way passing the point where we started. As we approached the end point for this section of wall several in our group told us that a Chinese couple was fighting up on the wall. As we approached we saw a Chinese lady really smacking a man around. He was making little attempt to defend himself. He was scratched and red from her smacks and scratches. Someone eventually got security to separate the two.
We took a number of snapshots of the wall and surrounding countryside then walked back to the interpretative trail just below the Great Wall. There was some signage indicating the UNESCO World Heritage Site status but there really wasn’t enough information that either of us would consider it an interpretative trail. We stayed bundled up as much as possible in the strong wind then made our way down the mountain on the funicular rail around 10:30.
Great Wall of China
We took the bus for a 40 minute ride to a company that makes jade, jadeite and nephrite carvings and jewelry. A speaker talked to us about the three materials and what each was best suited for. She also taught us how to recognize genuine materials from reproductions and how to determine one grade of jade from another. She discussed the art of carving jade and the various shapes of jade carvings and what each shape symbolizes. After a quick walk around the store we went upstairs to lunch which was the common family style lunch. Most items on the table were familiar from previous meals but we thought it was good. We went back to the sales area after lunch and bought some jade jewelry items for family and friends.
Statue of a Ming general along the Sacred Way
We finished our day by going to the Ming tombs which is the area where the emperors from the Ming Dynasty are buried. We walked along the Sacred Way admiring the stone statuary from the 1300s depicting generals, warriors and animals. Since the day was beautiful and sunny we enjoyed the walk. We took a lot of photos of some of the more interesting statues. On the way back to our hotel our bus passed by many of the sites from the 2008 Olympic Games. We got back to the Beijing Ritz Carlton in the Financial District around 4:30 to rest after our travels.
We elected to not have the optional Peking duck dinner with the group.  Instead we went into town with a group of about 30 from the group who made the same decision. We had eaten duck on several occasions over the past few weeks, and we just wanted a more low key evening. Because our guide, Patrick, took the 30 or so visitors to the duck dinner we got in David’s bus to ride into the restaurant.
Our bus let us off in an area of inner city Beijing where a lot of small shops and restaurants catering to local residents are located. We walked down an alley (Hutong) to the entrance of the small restaurant. We were in a room with the four of us as well as Keith and Krystal from Greenville, SC. We enjoyed chatting with Keith about some of their recent travels to Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean and the Yucatán. Krystal shared her enthusiasm for essential oils with us. Because she has a very limited diet she was unable to eat any of the plated dinners we were served but planned to eat some of the snacks in the hotel bar after we returned. The name of the restaurant cracked us up, Grandmas Kitchen! It was obviously for local Chinese despite the name.
The restaurant staff did not speak any English but David did a great job of communicating our needs to the waiters and cooks. We had a choice of meat loaf, chicken cordon bleu or a vegetable roll. The meal started with vegetable tomato soup followed by a garden salad with Thousand Island dressing. Everyone in our room had the chicken which was not a typical preparation for chicken cordon bleu but was really quite good. The chicken was pounded thin and stuffed with a mix of chopped ham, cheese and mashed potatoes. It was rolled in a light crumb coating and baked perfectly. There was broccoli and garlic bread on the side. Dessert was a very good slice of apple cake. We enjoyed our meal and chat with Keith and Krystal very much.
We returned to the Ritz Carlton after dinner. Mary and Cindy played cribbage while Mark and I read. We turned in early since had a busy day planned for tomorrow in Beijing.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Hutongs of Beijing

We awoke early for our departure from Xi’an. Like Lijiang, we enjoyed this city and left reluctantly for Beijing. We had put our checked bags out the night before so it did not take long to check out of the Wyndham Grand Xi’an South. We boarded the bus to the airport where we would fly to Beijing. The flight was delayed nearly an hour so we ate the boxed lunch packed for us by the Tang Café at the Wyndham. There was a club sandwich, fruit and dried peas that are very popular in China. Once we took off the flight was rough but uneventful getting us to Beijing by about 2 pm. Porters collected our checked bags for delivery to the Beijing Ritz Carlton Financial Street where we would be spending the next three nights.
Rickshaw ride through Hutongs of Beijing
From the airport we took the bus directly to inner city Beijing where we took a ride in a rickshaw or petite-taxi. These bicycles are outfitted with two wheels and a covered cab behind the driver. We rode the rickshaws through the Hutongs of Beijing. A Hutong is basically a community on a city alley. The word Hutong is Mongolian that translates literally to well since these collections of homes originally formed around a shared water well.  These are collections of homes of working class people. Each home is typically composed of 3-4 buildings surrounding a small courtyard. These buildings may house an extended family. The government typically owns that buildings and charges rent to residents. Many homes in the hutongs now have running water. However, there are community toilets that serve a number of homes along the narrow streets.
The rickshaw took us to a home of a single retired lady who has lived in her home in the hutong her entire life. Her parents lived in the hutong at one time but she now shares the space with her sister and niece. She served tea to us and told us a lot about daily life in the hutong. She began hosting tours of her tiny home in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics. At that time Leonardo DeCaprio and Michael Phelps visited her home.
Mary with glass balls that were painted on the inside
She introduced her niece who is an accomplished artist who has been featured in recent local magazines. Her specialty is painting on the inside of bottles. She uses specially angled tiny paint brushes to paint scenes and Chinese characters into the glass bottles. We bought ornaments that were hand painted on the inside of the glass from the artist. We will give these to Sarah and Emily’s families as gifts from our trip.
Historic Ming Bell Tower
We reboarded the rickshaws to go to Beijing’s bell tower where a bell was rung at 5 am when the city gates were opened. Another nearby tower beat at drum at 7 pm when the gates were closed. By the time we arrived at the tower there was a heavy rain so we were happy to go inside to escape the weather. The bell tower is an interesting and attractive building that was constructed in the 1200s during the reign of Kublai Kahn. 
In bell tower we were treated to a tea tasting. Our host gave us small cups of a variety of oolong, pu-er, green and fruit teas. The hostess spoke English fairly well and had a good sense of humor. She shared what Chinese folk medicine holds that each type of tea does for the body. We smelled each of the dried tea leaves and tasted each of them as brewed teas.
Sampling tea at a tea room in the Ming Bell Tower
Our bus picked us up outside the bell tower and took us to dinner then to the Beijing Ritz Carlton. This five star hotel is very elegant but a bit dated. Our 12th floor rooms were clean, comfortable and quiet which is everything we expect in a hotel. The bathroom wasn’t as fully appointed as the ones in some of our previous stays but was still extremely nice.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Terracotta Army

Terracotta Army buried since 221 BC

We went to the busy breakfast buffet at the Wyndham Grand Xi’an South at 6:30 and had tea, rice congee and a mix of Asian fruits. We went back up to the room to brush teeth and shower before we needed to be on the bus at 7:30. While this shower doesn’t have the side water jets, the rainfall shower head was very refreshing.
The morning was much cooler than we experienced on prior days. Not only had we been moving north but we are now east of the Himalayas resulting in a change of climate. The morning was a combination of cloudy, fog and smog. We took light jackets and either ponchos or umbrellas since rain was in the forecast for the day.
We arrived early at the site of the Terra-cotta Army and entered the exhibits before most of the visitors. Since Viking had purchased our tickets in advance we did not have to wait in any lines but entered the grounds directly. Our first stop was at site one which is the largest excavation. We were amazed at row upon row of life sized terra-cotta soldiers. It was immediately obvious that each soldier was unique not only in the role of the soldier but in details of facial features. We saw officers of all rank, infantry, archers, charioteers, mounted soldiers, cooks and every description of soldiers. Restorers have been able to determine the rank and job description of each soldier from the clothing, hair style, weapons and body position. The life sized figures are realistic down to every detail from the footwear all the way up to the hair.
The terracotta army is the project of China’s first emperor who united the warring provinces. Prior to Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi each province was a separate kingdom. When one province would take over another province through warfare, the enemy soldiers would be taken prisoner and re-educated before being released. In most cases the enemy soldiers would return to help the former province fight against the invading kingdom. After coming to power in about 221 BC, Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi simply buried the captured enemy soldiers alive to prevent future treason. In that way he conquered and unified most of what we now know as China.
The History Channel special, China's First Emperor, shows the role that Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi had in unifying the warring provinces.  However, it also clearly shows the brutality and quest for power of the dictatorial emperor. 
In his quest for immortal power, the emperor had an army of thousands of soldiers constructed of terracotta and placed in formation in giant pits. The complex of soldiers, horses, weapons and implements was surrounded by a moat of mercury. This was covered with woven mesh fabric held by wooden beams and covered in fine soil. All of this was undiscovered for over 2000 years until a farmer near Xi’an was digging a well in March 1974 and came upon some clay figures underground. He alerted cultural experts who studied the area and initiated scientific excavation. The excavation is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Workers piece broken terracotta soldiers together
We saw a number of workers down in the pits meticulously removing soil and extracting bits of buried artifacts to be reassembled. While there are thousands of soldiers that have been reconstructed, there are many thousands more that have not been extracted or even discovered.
In pit three we saw the model of the military headquarters. The over 2000 year old figures here were not produced with weapons other than ceremonial items. This smaller chamber was well excavated and most of the soldiers were reasonably complete although many lacked the heads at this time.
This was one of the better stops on our trip.  I have been infatuated with this site since learning about the discovery of the buried clay army when I was a college freshman.  I never dreamed that I would actually go to the site but took advantage of every special on the History Channel or article in National Geographic to learn more about this ancient wonder.  Being able to share the experience of being here with family was a special day that certainly topped the bucket list.
Pit two was the least excavated of all of the locations that we visited. Scientists are using ground penetrating sonar and side scanning sonar to map unexcavated items in the pits. Renderings show that, like pit one, thousands of terracotta figures are arranged in formation under the packed earth. At this time excavation is not being done at this site. However, we saw a great deal of equipment set up to explore the site without digging. We learned that the scientists are waiting to dig until technologies emerge that allow for better preservation of the artifacts. Of special concern is the color of the paints on the soldiers. All of the soldiers that we have seen are earth colored, but we understand that this is because the pigments degrade very quickly once exposed to atmospheric oxygen.
We learned that the emperor died at the age of 49. There is some evidence that he died from mercury poisoning. There is debate as to whether he was intentionally poisoned as an assassination or whether he ingested mercury in his quest for immortality. At his passing he was succeeded by his son, Qin Er Shi, an especially cruel dictator whose reign lasted only 3 years.  He was forced to commit suicide by his ministers.
Our group with replica terracotta soldiers
When we left the terra-cotta warriors we walked to the bus through the ever present gauntlet of street vendors pushing cheap trinkets and fake jewelry. Bob, our friend from Hawaii, stopped and asked about a pelt for sale. The vendor told him it was a wolf skin. It was clear to us that the hide was from a golden retriever. There were many vendors selling cheap copies of the terracotta warriors of all sizes. Patrick, our guide, told us that these are very poor quality trinkets and are made from unfixed clay or plastic. Most of our group was not tempted by any of the stands.
My fierce warrior face
From the archaeological site, we rode the bus to a company that makes high quality reproductions of the terracotta warriors from clay that is fired at high temperatures in a process similar to the construction of the original terracotta warriors. The replicas are available in sizes ranging from two inches to life size. The deal that was being promoted is a life sized warrior with two interchangeable heads. One of the heads is on an original warrior from the pit. The other head that could be put on the body was a likeness of the buyer. The six foot statue would be sculpted within six weeks and sent to the buyer’s home postpaid for $2000. Several people in our group bought terracotta models including two people who bought ¾ or full sized statues to place in their gardens.
Mary in warrior mode
We continued through the store to see their facility to produce furniture produced with the highly lacquered traditional Chinese finish. The wood in many of the pieces was beautiful. We especially liked the chests made of camphor wood that had a sweet odor when the lid was opened. They also had an area where they were selling antique Chinese furniture that has been restored or stabilized. We enjoyed from of the elaborate carvings and hand work on the furniture.
We continued on to the upstairs of the building where we had a nice traditional family style Chinese lunch with the lazy Susan. The meal was not unlike many of the others we have had in the country except the preparation and seasonings were a little different. We enjoyed our meal since we had worked up an appetite with all of the walking around the terracotta warriors site.
At Xi'an city wall
After lunch we boarded the bus to travel to the ancient city wall around Xi’an. This wall which was built in the 1300s is one of the most complete city walls in the country. In addition, at over 8 miles in length, it is the longest city wall in China. We spent a good deal of time walking along the top of the wall despite the rain that was starting. We looked down on the moat below the wall and considered the difficulty that an invading army would have in breaching the city wall. Like we saw at the wall around Jingzhou, there was a closed courtyard at each gate. This was done to trap invaders if they were able to get past the first gate. Archers on the top of the wall could shoot down on the invaders before they were able to get through the second gate. We also learned that there was a guard tower every 120 yards along the wall. This was because the archers were only accurate to about 60 yards. This allowed two towers to cover the 120 yards between the two. The view from the 700 year old wall was worth standing in the rain.
Flutist at Xi'an street fair
We returned to the Wyndham around 5 pm and returned to our rooms to warm up and change clothes. Since we had traveled north from Chongqing and Chengdu we were no longer having the heat that we had dealt with. Rather than joining the group for the dinner and show, we decided to walk around for a while before going to dinner. There was a nice park with fountains and ponds. Many Chinese people walking in the area wanted to take a photo with us or greeted us in the few words of English they knew. Everyone we encountered smiled and seemed very friendly. We saw few other Europeans in the area other than the four of us. We continued behind the hotel in the open mall area that was being decorated for the upcoming national holiday week. The area had decorations hung from light posts and stages were being constructed throughout the area. We walked for a bit until we got hungry and decided to give McDonalds a try. Mark saw that there was a McDonalds about a mile away so we decided to see how a McDonalds in northwest China is different from those in the US.
Lights at Xi'an street fair
We went into the restaurant and used the touchscreen kiosk to make our selections. However, we were unable to complete our order since only Apple Pay, face recognition and Union Pay are accepted. We cancelled our orders and attempted to order at the counter so we could pay with cash. We couldn’t find anyone who understood English well enough to help so we pointed to pictures and the clerk was able to get most of our choices correct. The Xi’an McDonalds had some unique menu items including mango, pineapple and pomelo (similar to grapefruit) ice tea. I had a Russian burger which had two thin burger patties and a German sausage with a pomelo ice tea. Mary had her usual double cheeseburger. The priced when converted from Yuan (RMB) would be about the price at a US McDonalds.
Xi'an prepares for the national holiday
The evening was dark by the time we left the McDonalds so we walked back through the area where the holiday fair was being set up. We had a real treat awaiting us. There were many acts performing on temporary stages all along the strip. We saw several orchestras, a violin duo, a flutist, vocalists, rock bands and many other performers. We appreciated that these acts appeared to be local amateurs that were out playing without a tip jar or fee. There were many lights placed in the area including searchlights all over the sky, lights on all of the park statuary and on columns. It was impressive that many people were out keeping the area clean. There were people constantly wiping benches dry if there was a mist of rain. Other workers were constantly sweeping the sidewalks and streets. Even if a leaf fell from a tree, a worker quickly swept it up. Xi’an was the neatest and cleanest city that we had ever seen. Although Xi’an has over 8.5 million people, it had a very friendly feel and seemed like a great place to live.  We walked around, took snapshots and watched the performers until we were ready for bed.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Chendu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

Because we didn’t arrive back at the St. Regis Chengdu until after 10 pm, we were tired when we went to bed. We slept well until a little after 4 am then showered before going to the hotel breakfast buffet at 6:30. We loved the Chinese Opera last night but we turned in later than we were used to going to bed since we are still not fully adjusted to the 12 hour time difference here in China.  
Since we had packed the afternoon before so our bags could be transported to Xian, we didn’t need much time to prepare. We hoped that we would beat the breakfast crowd by showing up at 6:30 when the dining room opened. However, it looked like everyone had the same idea because the dining room was very busy. We had our usual breakfast of Chinese dumplings, steamed rice cakes and hot cereals. The servers were so busy that we didn’t get tea until we were nearly ready to leave. We didn’t stay long at breakfast since we needed to be on the bus to the panda preserve by 7:30 am.
Our local guide, Annie, gave us information on pandas telling us that the population had been rapidly declining because of habitat loss and diminishing food supplies. It turns out that pandas only feed on a few varieties of bamboo that grown in a small area of China. At one time pandas were widely distributed around much of the country but are now confined to Sichuan and portions of two other bordering Chinese provinces. The panda preserve promotes breeding of pandas as well as education on the importance of protecting these endangered species. China is very protective of the remaining pandas in captivity as well as those in the wild. A foreign zoo wishing to have a panda cannot purchase one. They can only rent an animal for one million dollars per year for a five year term. This all assumes that the zoo can provide adequate facilities and care to satisfy the Chinese panda team. In addition to the million dollar annual rental, the cost of feeding and caring for the panda far exceeds the rental. The types of bamboo required to feed the panda must be imported the regions of China where the bamboo grows.
At the Chendu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding we probably saw 60 pandas. The adult giant pandas need to be housed separately so they do not fight and injure each other. Since they are bred by artificial insemination, they are not even housed together for breeding. The younger pandas can be kept together to romp and play until they are about 4 years old. In captivity, the pandas often live over 30 years.
We started our tour of the adult pandas since they are usually more lethargic and are only active at meal time. Locals say that the giant pandas only eat and sleep. Because we were at the panda preserve early in the day at meal time we were able to see the adults moving some.
From there we went to the teenage pandas. These rowdy youngsters were full of energy and loved to romp and play with each other. They playfully bit and climbed on each other and tussled on the wooden structures provided.
The baby pandas in the nursery stole everyone’s heart of course. Some of the babies were tiny with eyes just starting to open. One newborn had a worker come in to wrap it in a towel to assure that it was staying the proper temperature. Each of the wooden cribs held up to eight baby giant pandas.
We were disappointed to learn that our visit to the panda preserve would not include the lesser red panda. However, during one stop we saw a sign pointing to one of the red panda areas so we opted to split from the group to see if any were out. We were pleased to find four red pandas chasing each other through a bamboo forest. They were running so fast that we were scarcely able to get a snapshot of them. These appeared to be adult red pandas who didn’t seem to have a problem with being in the same area. We walked on and caught two more red pandas feeding up in the bamboo. They were practically over our heads in the tall bamboo stalks. We quickly snapped a few photos then rejoined the group before were missed.
After spending about three hours at the panda preserve, we met for lunch at the café on the grounds of the preserve. We had a nice Sichuan meal with the usual lazy Susan and choices of beef, pork, chicken, vegetables, bamboo, lotus root, rice and noodles. Several choices were very spicy and included lots of hot Sichuan peppers. We all had our fill and walked toward our bus for the short ride to the train station.
We had about an hour to wait for our train so we walked around the Chengdu train station to look around as we waited. The train arrived at the station on time, and the Viking groups took most of the seats in our train car. The seats of the train were roomy and we were able to move around as we wished. We read, napped and played card games as we traveled the nearly three hour train ride between Chengdu and Xian. The ride took us through some beautiful country. We transitioned quickly from farm land to cities with skyscrapers and the ubiquitous cranes building more skyscrapers. We counted about 60 separate railroad tunnels on the rail line between Chengdu and Xian. There are times that we exited one tunnel then immediately entered another tunnel. The train ride was very smooth even though it went over 100 miles per hour at times. The train is not a mag-lev train like we saw in Shanghai but is a standard rail electric train.
We got to the Wyndham Grand Xian South Hotel around 6:30 and checked in quickly. Like all of our other hotels on the trip, our rooms were very nice. We have a large king sized bed and a roomy full featured bathroom and a complete business center in the room. The free Internet was fast and reliable.
We didn’t get to dinner until nearly 8 pm. The Wyndham had a nice buffet of Chinese and Western menu choices. We are eating Chinese at most of our meals. Our feeling is that we can eat Western foods when we get back but the authentic Chinese dishes will probably never be as available to us again. We have also noticed the differences in the food as we traveled across the country from east to west and now back toward the north and east.
Xian, along with Athens, Cairo and Rome, is one of the ancient capital cities of the world. Xian is one of the smaller mega-cities in China at 10 million residents. Although still a very large city, Xian seemed to have a very friendly atmosphere.
After dinner we went to our rooms and prepared for our early departure to the terra-cotta warriors exhibit on Thursday morning.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Chinese Opera

We slept well last night not waking until 6 am. I love the shower at the St. Regis Chengdu. There is a shower wand, a rainfall head and a series of body sprayers that can be selected. I normally take a quick shower but this is exceptional. We went to breakfast with Mark and Cindy at 6:30 then prepared to board the bus for our 8 am departure for the Sanxingdui Museum.
Jade Bi
This museum is a group of building displaying artifacts from a people in the area from the stone and early bronze ages. The first building had a lot of jade artifacts and stones used and food preparation, as weapons and for ornamentation. We saw a lot of the circular disks or bi that we saw at the museum in Wuhan. There were also a number of artifacts that they called tablets but looked more like giant jade swords to us. I found the partially finished items of most interest since they showed more about the process of making the item. There were also some raw stones that
Bronze age sculpture
showed where jade was being cut.
From this museum we walked the short distance to the bronze museum. The first thing we noticed was the size and number of bronze masks. Most of the masks had exaggerated features like huge mouths, bulging eyes and sharp noses. There were also bronze trees were believed to be ceremonial in nature. The museum was very large and we did not have time to see all of the exhibits.
We were appreciative of the handheld voice guides to the museum. We could enter a number for a labeled exhibit item and the device would give a succinct but informative description of the items. Since the archaeological site was used for several years the time span of the artifacts was quite large. It is believed that the stone and Bronze Age populations lived in the area from 7000 to 711 BC.
From the museum we went to a nearby Sichuan restaurant. As the capital of Sichuan, Chengdu is known for spicy Sichuan cuisine. We had a seemingly endless array of chicken, beef, pork and vegetables with sticky rice and noodles. Mark and I had a local beer which was surprisingly light and similar to light beers in the US. Like many other meals we have had in the area, it was served family style with a circular lazy Susan in the center of the table.
We were back at the St. Regis Chengdu by 2 pm and had time to take a walk around the city near the hotel. There were a number of street vendors pushing cell phones, phone plans, foods and other small electronics. It was apparent that the vendors were marketing to locals since we found no one who could speak English. We attempted to negotiate on a couple of things but were unable to communicate well enough to come to an agreement.   We found it interesting that everyone in China pays for things on their phones.  On several occasions we found that even street vendors have QR codes so buyers can easily pay for purchases on their telephones.  Chinese people seldom pay for anything with traditional credit cards or with cash in favor of scanning their phones.
Street vendor selling roasted potatoes and corn
The stands that I found most interesting were selling roasted potatoes and corn from a makeshift wood stove on the back of a three wheel bicycle. It just struck me as odd to have these merchants using technology and tools that could have come from the 1600s.
Walking around Chengdu was a lot more pleasant that our walk around Chongquing on Sunday night. It could be because Sunday was a national holiday weekend. Another related reason could be that there was a concert not far from our hotel. The most probable reason is that Chengdu has about 10 million few people than Chongquing. We also understand from our guides David (Chongqing), Annie (Chengdu) and Patrick that the attitudes of people in Chengdu are a lot more laid back than in other areas. Annie attributes this to the spicy Sichuan food. In any case, our walk was short but pleasant. We went up to our room on the 24th floor of the St. Regis Chengdu to change and get ready for the Chinese opera.
Chinese Opera
We had a short time to get our bags out in the hall outside our sleeping rooms by 4 pm. The checked bags were going to have a 12 hour drive by truck to our Wednesday evening destination in Xian. We laid out clothes for the Tuesday night dinner and opera outing as well as for our Wednesday morning trip to the panda preserve then train ride to Xian.
For dinner we went to the restaurant that is most popular with local Chengdu residents for Sichuan food. There was plenty of the spicy Sichuan food with less highly seasoned options available as well. Like all of our other meals in the area, it was family style with a lazy Susan in the table center. We all enjoyed our meals although we believe that some in our group are beginning to tire of Chinese food and meal procedures.
Chinese Opera
After dinner we had a short bus ride to the Shu Feng Ya Yun Sichuan Opera and Tea Room in Chengdu. The venue was a covered courtyard surrounded by local shops. We were seated around tables of five with tea cups and snack bowls at each place at the tables. The porcelain tea cups had loose green tea in the bottom with a lid that could be tilted to strain the leaves from the tea. As preparations for the show were being made, we were invited to watch the cast prepare their makeup and costumes. There were vendors selling snacks and food. We were especially interested in the practice of offering massage and ear cleaning off stage before the performance. We did not take advantage of any of the goods or services being offered. Throughout the performance there were servers circulating with pots of hot water to refill our tea cups. These pots had spouts up to three feet long so the servers could reach the cups of guests sitting back from the aisles. It was amazing that they were able to fill each patron’s cup multiple times throughout the play without spilling hot water on the guests.
The performance started with a skit involving actors in elaborate traditional Chinese costumes. Acrobats did flips across the stage and the characters sang and danced. A scrolling LED sign told the story as the actors sang but it was all in Chinese so it really didn’t help. The skit, like most of the ones to follow, lasted only about 10 minutes. Other skits were much easier to understand and were more enjoyable to us. A musician played a Chinese style violin which has only two strings. He was very talented and played beautifully. We kidded that he is China’s answer to Charlie Daniels.
Shadow puppets at the Chinese Opera
The next act was a skit with a hand puppet that moved realistically. A musician played a small brass instrument that seemed to be a little like a bugle but was the size of a recorder. We all loved the lady doing shadow puppets. Using only her hands, she made birds, rabbits, wolves, dogs, owls, cats and other animals. There was a costume skit about two wise men who used their wisdom to trick an evil warlord and one about a henpecked man that included some balance and acrobatics stunts.
The final act was costume changing with is very popular in China. Singers came out in traditional robes of warriors with masks. They would change the color of their robes in the flash of an eye, too quick to discern how they removed their robes to reveal another color beneath. They then came into the audience and changed masks in similar fashion. We were amazed with the skill and precision of the actors and had a great evening. In addition, the skits changed frequently enough that it kept us engaged.
This performance was nothing of what we expected from a Chinese opera but we certainly enjoyed it.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Dazu Grotto

Entrance to Dazu Grotto

We woke at 5 am and put our bags out for the porter to load into the truck for our trip to Chengdu. We went to breakfast with Mark and Cindy around 6:15 and had a very good meal of mostly local breakfast items. Bacon, eggs, toast and cereal as well as other Western breakfast choices were available but we usually ate Chinese as much as possible.  Mary has really come to enjoy the bao which are dumplings filled with meats or bean paste.  I look forward to the steamed black rice and the Chinese yams and sweet potatoes.  Although the terms yam and sweet potato are used interchangeably in the US, they are very different foods from different types of plants from different parts of the world.  Fortunately, we had access to both at most breakfasts here in China.

The light rain had gotten heavier and we knew that our rain gear was in our checked bags, but Cindy and I were able to catch the porters before our bags were loaded onto the truck and retrieved our jackets. Patrick wanted to get an early start because holiday traffic was expected to be heavy, and we wanted to be at the Dazu Grotto in time to see the carvings.
After about a two hour drive in the rain we arrived at the Dazu Grotto. We walked a short distance then boarded golf carts to go to what would be called a hollow or canyon in the US. We were treated to hundreds of elaborate carvings in the limestone. The carvings were started over 1400 years ago but have continued by faithful Buddhists over the centuries. Detailed panels depict Buddhist gods, prophets and disciples. Interpretations of Heaven and Hell teach the consequences of good and bad behavior. Carvings illustrate how good Buddhists should live.  There are also depictions from Confucian and Taoist teaching. This illustrates the blending of these belief systems that is so common throughout much of China.
The beauty and craftsmanship of the panels were amazing enough but considering that the panels have been in place for over a millennium is even more impressive. During the Cultural Revolution Communist Chinese soldiers destroyed religious artifacts and locations on orders from Chairman Mao. However, farmers in the area who realized the importance of Dazu Grotto did not tell the soldiers about it. The remote location of the carvings in the hollow did not let the soldiers have a clue that they were there.
We were amazed with the detail and size of the carvings.  We thought there would be a few old statues, but we were treated to over 50,000 statues in the rock walls of Dazu Grotto.  Although the carvings started around 650 AD during the Tang Dynasty the work there continued until 1911 in the Qing Dynasty.
The Dazu Grotto was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. Until then the site was closed to all foreigners. Only Chinese Buddhists could come here to worship before 1999. Even when we were there most of the visitors were Chinese. Many visitors kneeled down to pray before the carvings. It was quite impressive and was one of the highlights of the trip. Even though we had to walk around the grotto in a steady rain, it was still a memorable visit.
We walked back to the bus in the rain then rode for three hours to get to Chengdu. This city of over 16 million is probably best known to westerners because of the Szechwan or Sichuan style of Chinese food from this area. Although there are several things that we want to learn about Chengdu, we certainly want to try the local Sichuan cooking.
We arrived at the St. Regis Chengdu at 5:30. Patrick needed our passports to check us in and he had our room keys ready for us when we arrived. When we got to the rooms our bags were already in the rooms which were spectacular. We have a huge bedroom with a king size bed, two desks, a multidirectional shower, a fully automated bidet, a television with Bose sound that sinks into the desk and automated lights and curtains. Our corner room looks out on a beautiful view of the city.
We dressed for dinner but decided to step over to the McDonald's across the street. They had a number of local Chinese and Sichuan choices available. Mark and Cindy tried some popcorn chicken and fries to see how they are different from McDonalds in the US.
We went to dinner at the St. Regis a little after 7 pm and had a large array of Chinese and specifically Sichuan choices. We had several meat and vegetable choices as well as fruits and cheeses. Mary and Cindy finished with a coconut crème brule. We all enjoyed our meals. We went up to get some sleep since we leave for a visit to the museum in Chengdu at 8 am.