A month ago we were in China exploring, laughing and eating rice. I don't think I've had rice since we've returned. Or watermelon. Definitely no Chinese beer.
It feels like our adventure was a long time ago. Funny how the routine of regular life takes over. Except this week for us has not been normal. Two of the dogs were sprayed by a skunk so we are still dealing with the clean up of that stench. I digress...
I created this video of photos which brought back great memories of a fabulous trip.
I must start planning the next adventure!
Why is it snowing on May 4? This "winter" does not want to end. There are many reasons we live in Canada, the awesome weather is not one of them!
It’s the second day back home. There is laundry to do, groceries to buy and sleep to catch up on. I am thrilled to be able to brush my teeth with running water. Brushing my teeth with bottled water in China did make me aware of how much water I waste brushing my teeth.
China is a fascinating country. The people are very proud and hard working. It is an odd mix of communism and capitalism. One of our guides said if communism is symbolized by red and capitalism by white, China is pink.
As our first guide George put it, China is governed by one party and that is the communist party. Although they don’t call themselves communists. The government owns all the land in the country and they can make you move out of your home if they have other plans for the land. People do not vote in China. The president is chosen by a small group of government officials. The current president/chairman is Xi Jinping and he is trying to clean up all the corruption in the government. This is no small task. The Chinese government was notorious for spending lavishly on restaurants, hotels and celebrations. The hospitality industry has taken a hit since the new president has decided to get rid of the waste. This was to our advantage because high end hotels are now giving tour groups good rates. That’s why we stayed in the amazing Pan Pacific in Suzhou.
The Chinese are hard workers and incredibly industrious. They do not get many holidays and if there is money to be made, they work. Our guide told us the Chinese live to work vs. North Americans and Europeans who work to live. I wonder why? Why make a lot of money if you can’t enjoy it?
There are a lot of people in China! The one child/couple policy for population control is still in place but it has been relaxed a bit. Rural families can have a second child if the first one is a girl or disabled, if the parent was an only child they can have an additional child, twins are OK, foreigners are exempt, etc. The penalty fee for going against the policy is three times your last year's income.
We were told that it is illegal to find out the gender of a baby through an ultrasound, but if you know the right people… Having only one child creates other problems – the singletons are often very spoiled by parents and grandparents causing other social issues and because of the Chinese family structure of supporting generations, one adult child has the pressure to look after two or even three generations of parents/grandparents.
China allows 10 Hollywood movies in to the country/year. Of course all the movies are edited to Chinese standards of decency. Avatar was removed from the theater because the government was afraid it might evoke a revolt. Although the official message was that the movie might stifle the local film economy.
Other things I learned:
I am very glad to have had the opportunity to glimpse in to the Chinese culture. For me the ChinaPac tour was perfect. The guides were excellent and we didn't have to worry about anything - food, accommodation, transportation, admission to sites, group check in at the airport - everything was taken care of for us. Even a wake up call every morning. It was a trip I will never forget!
Traveling makes me realize that I am fortunate to be able to take time off to explore different places. And, we are very fortunate to live in Canada. Even with snow in May.
It's been a very long travel day(s).
We were up at 3.40 am Beijing time and out of the hotel by 4.45 am. Check in was a bit slow at the Beijing airport but everything went smoothly. The food on China Eastern is not great. It's actually really bad. We had about three hours to wait in Shanghai until the 11 hour flight to Vancouver. We were starving but couldn't find anything to eat while we waited so a few of us ended up getting 6 orders of fries and 2 cokes for $50. We had to use up our yuan.
I can't sleep on planes so I watched a couple movies and played Bejeweled - there are lots of things to do on the back of a plane seat these days.
We finally arrived home to our excited pack of mutts at about 5.00pm. It's been a 31 hour day so far. We are trying to stay awake for another hour and then take some melatonin and hopefully sleep through the night.
I will post more things we learned about China - that I couldn't post while we were in China - over the weekend. The government monitors and blocks 'controversial' topics from the internet. What warrants being controversial is up for debate. Many social media discussion outlets like Facebook, YouTube and other blogging forums (like Wordpress) are blocked. Oh, and Tibet. They don't like internet chatter about freeing Tibet.
I must get ready for bed. My eyes lids are heavy and I don't think the steam from green tea or Chinese beer can cure these panda eyes!
Happy May Day! Today is a national holiday in China, but everything is open so it didn't hinder our shopping.
Have you ever met a champion cricket fighter? I have. Mr. Liu aka Cricket Liu is #1 and an animated character! More on him in a bit.
Today was our last day in China and we made the most of it.
We visited the Temple of Heaven. It was built in 1430 after the emperor had a dream that he had to build a temple where the seven stars are. He sent his men to find the seven stars. They didn't know what to do so they lied and told him they found the seven stars (rocks) and the emperor built the temple on the spot. The temple is 5 times the size of the Forbidden City (which is ginormous) so we only saw a snippet. There were seniors in the park playing cards, knitting, exercising and sleeping. We even walked by a band playing Jingle Bells. This is not the first time we've heard Christmas music on this trip! We looked inside the Hall of Prayer for Harvest. This is where food is offered up to god. The emperors knew as long as the people had food there would be no revolt so it was important to keep the masses fed. I didn't like the story we were told about pouring boiling water in the live animals ears so they would scream and god would know the food was coming to him/her.
Visiting a hutong was next on our itinerary. A hutong is an old area of the city where families live somewhat communally. They are a labyrinth of small alleys that lead to living areas. Families share kitchens and bathrooms. The hutongs are passed down through the families. First we got to see in inside a sitting room of a hutong owned by the Wong's for 100 years. The Wong's made us a delicious cup of jasmine tea and gave us a small gift. They explained what it's like to live in a hutong. The best part was when the animated Mr. Liu (a hutong neighbor) explained cricket fighting and how he is #1. He has a lot of articles and magazines to prove his cricket fighting prowess, including the front page of an Olympic publication. We met Tiger, his prize cricket, two other nameless crickets, some babies and two grasshoppers. There is a lot that goes in to the sport - wedding rooms, wedding water dish, a dish for babies, fluffy sticks to move them so you don't break their delicate legs, a scale to weigh them pre-fight and because they only live 100 days...caskets for the crickets who have won a lot. Cricket fighting is serious business - you can win enough to buy houses, cars, etc. Fascinating. We then did a rickshaw tour through the alleys of the hutong. So cool and something to experience. Meeting the Wong's, Mr. Liu and the rickshaw tour were a definite highlight of the trip.
If you ever need someone to bargain for you, call Aunty Deb. We had so much fun watching her work her magic at the silk alley market. She even tied a scarf around one sales girl's neck. Many belly laughs. I heard a lot of - lady you want to buy a...fill in the blank for whatever knock off they were selling. We visited another market after the Silk Market but it wasn't as good. They barely put down their cell phones to look at us.
Tonight was our farewell Peking duck dinner. We learned how to wrap the duck in the rice paper wrap with our chopsticks. Brenda struggled as the photo below shows. Dinner was really good and the farewell speeches emotional. Tonight we pack, have a short sleep and we will leave the hotel at 4.45 am for the airport. It will be a long travel day.
This has been an amazing adventure. Lots of laughs, wonderful sites, some questionable smells. I really like China and I wasn't sure that I would. It is cleaner, safer and more organized than I expected. There is a lot of green space, they even plant roses down the middle of the road. Today it was a bit smoggy but the smog wasn't too bad while we here. The people are really friendly - they wave to us and hand over their babies for photos.
Thanks to my family, new friends, Rennie, Roman and the China Pac guides for an outstanding (but not relaxing) vacation! Simply the best.
I''ve never eaten so much white bread and rice in my life. I'll need carb detox.
I will openly admit that for most of my life I haven't liked Chinese food. My parents did, so I would pout and hope there would be a hamburger on the menu every time we had to go to a Chinese food restaurant. I wasn't coming to China for the cuisine. The food actually started out ok, took a turn for the bland and greasy but is better in Xian and Beijing. Breakfast is usually good because it's in our hotel and there is a variety of food - western, Chinese and European.
Lunch and dinner are always the same. Sit down at a round table that seats 10 with a large lazy Susan in the middle and plates of food randomly arrive. Actually first the glass of beer arrives and we do our toast. I like the beer better than coke or sprite - they are too sweet. There is always a pot of green tea. Sometimes the rice is first - sometimes last. The food is a lot greasier than I expected. Everything, even cooked bok choy or cabbage has a greasy after taste. In Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou all the food is deep fried and coated in some sort of sauce (either very bland or very sweet). As we moved to central and northern China the sauces got spicier and tastier. We are usually served flat, breaded meat that is fried. Some people think it's chicken. Some people think it's spam. Not a good sign if you can't differentiate between chicken and spam! We've had neck of some sort served - we could tell by the vertebrae.
One day at lunch we had a whole fish, head included,on the plate (breaded and fried of course) and coated with ketchup. Looked like a fish horror flick. We've had a plate full of small, greasy, unpeeled shrimp. The Chinese eat them with the peels on. As Aunty Deb said, we don't eat whiskers! Too many eyes on the table means I'll be eating rice and granola bars.
As I mentioned in the previous blog, the plates are saucer size that we eat off. We learned that Chinese do not put soya sauce on rice. We do.
At the end of the meal is watermelon slices or mandarin orange slices.
Smoking is allowed in restaurants. Sometimes there is a little box of Kleenex on the table.
The carpets and upholstered chairs are usually filthy no matter how good or fancy the restaurant is. Even if the chairs have chair covers, they are stained.
We noticed food inspection rating signs in the restaurants. There are three ratings - fail, pass and excellent. I've only seen two excellent and one was at Starbucks.
We are getting the food Chinese think is more palatable for North Americans. They don't eat like this. I haven't seen any obese Chinese.
I held off posting about the food and I'm glad I did because it is much better than the beginning of the trip. We don't go hungry, but it I won't want Chinese food for a while after this!
KFC is huge here. We only went once. This morning I had ice cream for breakfast. It's ok though because there is All Bran on top!
Overall I am grateful that the food is organized for us and we aren't trying to feed ourselves. Who knows what we would order. Other than an upset stomach one afternoon which I think was from being over tired, I haven't been sick from the food.
Jade, the Great Wall, Cloisonné, Giant Pandas, Olympic Sites and cheap glasses. Authentic China!
The highlight of the day was the trek up the Great Wall. It sounded easier in my mind than it actually was, but it was worth it. Even in 30 degree heat. At one point I had to say Holy, I'm in China climbing the Great Wall. Surreal. We went to the highest point that we could get to. We were pretty sweaty by the top. The kicker was two Chinese women made it to the same point we did - one was pregnant and the other one was carrying a baby. Neither was sweating. We had noodle legs by the time we got back to the bus. And later when I had to use a squat toilet my legs found it challenging!
The stairs on the wall are steep, worn and different sizes so you have to be careful. We had a casualty on the climb. Aunty Mary Lou twisted her ankle and is hobbling around. Aunty Pat and Aunty Deb sherpa-ed her down (I just made up a new verb). Aunty Mary Lou is a committed shopper and she is determined to make it through the Silk Market tomorrow. She's a trooper.
We learned about jade and cloisonné today. Jade is an important stone in the Chinese culture. There are 1200 different kinds of jade - jadeite is the best. Confucius said there are five virtues of jade- benevolence, righteousness, wisdom, courage and trust. He also said men must wear a piece of jade as a behavior corrector. James bought me a beautiful jade bracelet so his behavior does not need correcting today.
We saw the Great Pandas at the Beijing Zoo. I was hoping a big fluffy one with a piece of bamboo in its mouth would come up to the glass for a photo, but it didn't happen. Their backs are cute too. We saw some of the Olympic sites before dinner. Traffic in Beijing is crazy. At one point there was four layers of backed up traffic on the ring road. Dinner was in an authentic Chinese restaurant. That means no forks. And Chinese men smoking at the table. At every meal they give us a saucer size plate to eat off. It's odd.
Did you know that sticky rice was used in some parts of The Great Wall to keep the bricks together? I didn't. 50% of the people who built the wall died in the process. It's also known as the great grave site.
We left the hotel at 8.30 this morning and didn't return until after 9.30 pm. Another full day. There is a lot to see and do here so we are always on the go.
In a nut shell - there was ice cream at breakfast this morning, I love the bathroom in our hotel, Beijing has good food, it's getting busier the closer we get the May 1 (a national holiday), willow trees add mystique to scenery, some tree is producing a lot of fluff, watch out for the dragon lady, warm beer is also good for panda eyes, I like gold pearls, women from southern China are like jade and the northern women are like pearls, ziggy-zaggy chanting at dinner followed by a rousing round of O Canada is good fun and Kung fu monks are entertaining.
Let me expand. This Marriott Hotel is awesome. The breakfast buffet has great variety. The bathroom has a wall of windows so lots of light and it's spa-like.
Our first stop this morning was the Summer Palace. The palace has a large clear lake (that produces pearls) and stunning views. We learned a lot about the Dragon Lady today (of the last Qing Dynasty). She liked power and to spend money. And she wasn't very nice.
Next stop, the pearl factory. I didn't know that gold pearls existed. They do. And they're expensive.
We spent most of the afternoon walking around Tian An Men Square and the Fordidden City (the massive compound of the emperor). The emperor had 3,000 concubines and 10,000 servants so it had to be big! The courtyards and buildings go on forever. It was warm today and we saw a bit of blue sky. I must watch The Last Emperor when I get home. We saw the building it was shot in. The history is fascinating. The last emperor (who was very young) was allowed to live in the forbidden city for a while after the revolution but he had to leave the palace in 1920's so the government could change it to a museum. He spent time in jail in Russia and China. The last time he went to the palace in 1964, he had to buy a ticket to enter.
At dinner there were a couple of tables of French students. For some reason they did a chant when their food came. That prompted Aunty Mary Lou to get her table to chant. And the fun began. Our whole section of the restaurant was doing the wave and we ended with O Canada.
This evening we went to a really interesting performance, the Legends of Kung Fu. It was a combination of martial arts, dance and acrobatics. It was high energy and great to watch.
I've got a bit of a head cold and the NyQuil is kicking in.
Tip of the day from our guide - 'the street food is good and cheap but your stomach is not made in China.' True.
Xian is an interesting city and has a lot of history. This morning after breakfast we walked to the city wall which is 600 years old. There are 72 emperor mausoleums in Xian because of the ideal burial feng shui - mountains facing the back and the sea at the feet.
There are three major dynasties to remember.
1. Qin (pronounced Chin)- Built the Great Wall and terra cotta warriors, conquered 6 areas to make a unified region.
2. Han - opened the Silk Road, introduced trade and cultural exchange, made paper and created the nation. This is also the dynasty that cherished women with small feet. Girls had their feet bound until their late teens to inhibit growth. 92% of Chinese are Han people.
3. Tang - Things like eating, concubines, low cut dresses represent the dynasty. Small feet are no longer in vogue. The population reached 1 million during the dynasty. They likely did more than eat and show a lot of cleavage but our guide didn't mention it.
The Terra Cotta warriors were one of the reasons I wanted to take this trip and I wasn't disappointed. Over 8000 warriors total (each with a different face we were told) in the three pits. Some are headless and some are still in the recovery stage. All very unique and interesting. I love the warriors they are working on. You can see the broken pieces and the amount of puzzle work and glue it takes to get them to look like a soldier. The farmer who discovered the warriors - while trying to dig a well on March 31,1974 - was at the museum signing and dating books. I got a book but not a photo. If you take his photo it's ¥20. The museum opened in August 1979 but didn't receive much international attention until 1998 when President Bill & Hillary Clinton visited Xian with the purpose to see the warriors and meet the farmer on a trip to China.
There are a lot of people trying to sell you boxes of low quality figurines as you are wandering around the museum. Watching uncle Rick barter for a package of warriors was a highlight. He didn't want the warriors, he wanted to play the game. Bartering is a sport here.
Before the warriors we visited the art ceramic and lacquer factory. Lacquer trees grow in the area. If you have a baby girl you plant a lacquer tree and when she marries you make her furniture from it. If you don't want lacquer furniture, you can have a full size terra cotta warrior made with your face. I was thinking that my parents would like a warrior version of me in their garden, but the shipping would have been pretty steep. The silk duvet from Suzhou will have to do.
We watched a creepy mannequin make delicious noodle soup for lunch. Xian definitely has the best food on this trip so far! Our time in Xian was short but full of history and amazing sites.
We flew to Beijing this evening and we are back in a 5 star hotel - a Marriott. With a Starbucks in the lobby.
Oh, another tip, never give a Chinese man a green hat. It means his wife is having an affair. Unless of course his wife is having an affair.
Give us a rice-less meal with some flavour and protein and we are happy! Tonight we had a dumpling feast and it was the first meal we've had since we came that we cleaned up all the food on the table. We had at least a dozen different kinds of dumplings artfully pinched to represent what's inside - pork, duck, fish. Following the dumplings we watched a Tang Dynasty Show. It was entertaining but nothing like our show last night.
This morning our tour guide, George, got us checked in at the Hangzhou airport and posed for a green bus group photo before leaving for home. We'll have a different guide in Xian. Our flight was delayed because of air traffic so we arrived in Xian, the cultural capital of China, at about 2.30 pm. We decided to skip lunch so that we could visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Grand Mosque. The pagoda is about 1400 years old but you are not allowed to climb it. It was interesting to see the monks and people burning incense to make a wish to Buddha. The park area around the pagoda is beautiful. I got my photo with my zodiac sign, the dog. James will posts the photo on his blog.
There are about 100,000 Muslims in Xian. The mosque (this is a male mosque - the female one is down the street) is very old and does not look like a traditional mosque. The most fascinating part was the walk to the mosque through a street that seemed to be dedicated to food on a stick and a very crowded market area - known for pick pockets. Walking through was a real experience for the senses!
Aunty Pat requested that I mention in the blog today that Aunty Deb (absent mindedly) left her purse (with passport) at breakfast this morning. Total panic when she realized it was missing. When they finally found the purse all the zippers were opened. Luckily it seems like nothing is missing. Whew! We like Aunty Deb and would hate to leave her in Hangzhou. No police involved.
Who would have thought that we would be eating KFC and DQ in Hangzhou? Dinner was "on our own" tonight and we didn't want Chinese. So popcorn chicken + an Oreo blizzard = dinner tonight. However, our day was much more exciting than that.
The excitement started with a drive in to the West Lake district. It felt like we were entering another enchanted world. The city quickly turned in to a forest with huge trees and then a big lake. It's very lush and green.
Our first adventure was aboard a boat for a cruise around the lake. We shared a boat with tourists from Hong Kong. At first they shyly asked to take our photos. By the end of the trip there were group photos and it was like they were part of our family. They were so cute and they were really dressed up for the boat ride.
We drove a bit more in to the tea farming area - Lonjing (Dragon Well) Plantation. As an aside, our guide told us that all youth in high school have to spend 10-15 days working on a farm so they learn to respect food and where it comes from. The tea grows up the mountain and this area is very famous for award winning green tea. This time of year produces the best tea. We learned about and tried the famous dragon well tea. So good. We also learned about the benefits of green tea and saw a shocking demonstration about how it quickly detoxes. I need to drink more green tea.
After lunch we climbed the 6 Harmonies Pagoda all the way to the top...and we have the stamps to prove it. Amazing how high up we were. The clouds and fog made every thing look very mysterious. Stunning views and steep stairs. Good training for the Great Wall. I rubbed Buddhas belly so I am anticipating good luck.
We had 3 hours to explore a market in the area. I didn't catch the name. This market has been here for over 800 years. Some of the current stores are 200 years old. Some areas of the market have a distinct/unpleasant smell. Kind of like fried liver drenched in sugar but worse. It was interesting to see the street food. Lots of things on sticks like sugar syrup candy crab apples, chicken and shelled crabs. We saw part of the copper museum and the famous copper statue of Buddha with 100 boys.
Tonight we watched the most amazing show on the West Lake produced by the same person who did the Beijing opening ceremonies. The show is called Impression West Lake. It's hard to describe but the lake, forest, mountains and pagoda are the stage for a beautiful love story. The story is based on the real story of butterfly lovers and white snake lady. Except this story is not as tragic...the couple got married in the end. The stage is under water, the forest is lit up and the costumes and staging were spectacular. If you ever visit Hangzhou, you should definitely go! I had one of those moments where I thought, wow - I'm in China watching the most stunning performance take place on water. Life is good!