A Travellerspoint blog

China

Beijing: Things Once Forbidden

and sad news from home

rain 21 °C

Sep 14-15

(Anica)

Travel days, wow! We got on a over night train to Beijing from Xi'an. We fell asleep quickly. Wow we were there. We got a taxi to the Hoilday Inn quickly. Great, they let us check in early, a really nice room, we went swimming to

Sep 15

(Rob)

Our train pulled in to Beijing today at 7:30 AM, and despite immediately gathering up our things, we were practically the last ones to get off. The "soft sleeper" class was everything we were hoping for, and the eleven hours seemed like nothing because we slept for eight of it (well, I did. Anica woke Jenn up to go the bathroom, and that was it for Jenn's sleep). The hardest part was negotiating the wild: no signs in English train station in Xi'an.

We had a bit of a splurge lined up in Beijing with a Holiday Inn, and they let us check in at eight in the morning! This is, I'm guessing, one of the nicest and best-run Holiday Inns in the world, and seemed more like a 5-star hotel to us. Before our official check-in time, we'd already had the huge buffet breakfast, had a swim, put our laundry in, booked a tour and gone on-line. We even had the seafood buffet dinner to complete our day of luxury!

Sep 16

(Rob)

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Chairman Mao once said you haven't visited China until you've walked on the Great Wall. Well, as of today, we've visited China! We opted for a bus tour to take us out to the Mutianyu part of the wall, about 100 km from Beijing. After the obligatory stops at other people's hotels, and a factory (this time it was cloisanne, the enamel on pottery process) where we once again bought nothing, we arrived at the Wall. Actually, at the bottom of the hill where we rode a cable car up to the wall (Anica never gets tired of cable cars!). All of the Great Wall runs along the ridges of moutain and hilltops. This stretch is much quieter than the Badaling section that's closest to central Beijing. It's steep, too! Although restored, you still have to watch your footing. We loved the Ming dynasty-added stations every few hundred feet, with their steep staircases to great look-out points. I learned you don't just "see" the Wall, and look out from it. You really get a physical experience. It goes up and down, and twists so much that the best place to look at the Wall is...from the Wall! Even though it was cloudy/foggy, we could see as far as the highest peak in either direction, over which the wall disappeared, continuing on.

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Sep 17

(Anica)

Today we went to the Forbidun City. Great. Went to imperail wedding and birthday palaces. And Tiannanmen squre saw picture of chairman Mao and saw army guys too. After Forbiden City headed over to a park Bei Hai park and couldn't ride boats because it's closed. Walked to the other side. Just as we got close to these covered places with bences we pulled out our rain poncho and umbreallas. It started pouring. ran to the covered palce and met a man doing calligraphy and spelled me and mommy and Daddy's names in Chinse. The girls started smelling my hand! And they said 13, no 7. what! everybody gasped. We disided to go home and get room serve. Took 3 hours to get taxi. finally we got taxi and watched shark Boy and Lava girl. good night.

(Rob)

Having seen the Great Wall yesterday, today we tackled the other can't-miss sites of China: Tiannanmen Square and the Forbidden City. Both seemed every bit as huge in person as they do on TV. It was a day of walking. Lots. It was also a day of all-out smog. Everything we've heard about Beijing's air quality problems was true today. My eyes itched, my throat burned, and I coughed when I tried to read outloud from a tourist description. All of us smelled the smog with every breath, and could barely see the length of the Square. I don't think they'll be many Olympic track records set if the weather's like this!

Tiannanmen Square was packed, even though we got there by nine in the morning. Anica once again today drew lots of attention; several times she agreed to have her picture taken with people. One time, a young lady picked her up and held her like a baby. This doesn't bother Anica, but people who sneak up on her, or take pictures with huge cameras and then run off, really get to her. We try to shield her from getting poked and pinched, but occasionally someone just reaches out and strokes her hair. Anica continues to complain at times, but mostly thrives. She seems to like posing with the young tourists for their pictures. Almost everyone shows her how the picture turned out on the back of their digital camera. Those are shared moments.

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metaphoto: We took a picture ofAnica agreeing to have her picture taken with Chinese tourists in Beijing

Yes, then, the Square. Well, Mao is not on display currently, so we missed that macabre moment. We admired the huge Qian Men and Arrow Gates at the south end, the sculptures of revoultionary heroes, paused to seem some marches, and were stunned to see (this is new) floral re-creations of Chinese landmarks (think Rose Ball parade, but not moving). Then, we crossed the road (underpass) and emerged right in front of Mao's picture, ready to pass through Tiannanmen Gate. We'd been all over the Square, and seen nothing about 1989. We quietly told Anica the story of how we best know the Square.

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Through the Gate and into the outer court of the Forbidden City. At what point (just a century ago) would we have once been stopped, and, as foreigners, executed for entrying? There are a series of gates, really, and I guess where we paid our admisssion was the truly "forbidden" threshold.

The official name for the Forbidden City is now "The Palace Museum." As a museum, we chose to focus on the exhibitions concerning Imperial birthdays and Imperial weddings. These were interesting to all three of us. Anica seemed quite taken with artwork and treasures they contained.

As far as the grounds, they were monumental. It will be interesting to see how Versailles or Vienna compares, because the Forbidden City is vast. "City" is no misnomer. The five bridges over the golden waters are gracefully beautiful, and the marble carriageway impressive. Some of the grand halls are under renovation, but there was still so much to see, and even more that's never been open to the public. It's said there are 9,999 rooms, 9 being a lucky number.

Anica pointed out the huge iron cauldrons everywhere, and told us they once would have been filled with water in case of fire. She remembered reading that in a guidebook. Jenn pointed out the "roof guardians," those animal characters carved on the hip of the eaves, were also a form of fire prevention (of the spiritual sort). More good luck detail was found on the huge doors to every building and gate: each had exactly 81 studs on them (9 x 9).

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One of the many doors/gates as described above

Eventually, heading north, you pass into the Imperial Gardens. Until this point, there's not a single tree. The garden area is very artfully manicured, and smaller in scale. Soon after, you exit through another double gate/courtyard complex. Across the busy street are two parks, both of which used to be for Imperial use only. In this regard, they're similar to London's Hyde Park. We walked through both. By the time we got to the second, Bei Hai Park, it was like night was falling at 4 PM. The smog was bad, but was it this bad? And why were they not renting boats to take out on the pond? Soon, a thunderstorm began. Even with our umbrellas, we took cover in the pavilions by the pond. We weren't alone, and everyone seemed content to bide their time. A couple of men did calligraphy by writing with rain-water on the concrete ground. One of them struck up a conversation with me by asking where we were from. "Canada?" he said. "Do you play hocking?" I assured him that many of us did, indeed, play hockey. By this time, Anica was bouncing around like a bunny rabbit, and he drew a bunny picture. It was turning into one of those magical encounters that you just can't plan. Quite a crowd was gathering, watching the show being put on by the calligrapher and the little white girl. "How old is she?" he asked. "Seven," I replied. He frowned. Then he wrote "13" in the ground. "No," I said. I dipped my hand in the rainwater and wrote "7." There was a gasp and a murmur from the crowd. I could see women pointing at Anica and then to themselves, as if to say "she's almost my height already." The calligrapher turned out to be a real gentleman, and charming character. He asked Anica all of our names and wrote them (on paper too) in Chinese. He wrote that Jennifer was "very nice," I was "very cool," and Anica was "very beautiful." If this had been London's Hyde Park, he would have been the singing chimney-sweep. Meanwhile, the less-charming women were taking turns petting and smelling (yes, good curious sniffs) Anica's hand. She was mostly too distracted to object, but we laughed about it afterwards!

This delightful interlude was followed by an absolute ordeal in getting back to the hotel. Apparently, rush-hour Beijing in the pouring rain is a very difficult time to hail a cab. As in impossible. I once made a joking list of "all I really need to know about travel I learned from the Amazing Race." Well, today we used one of those tactics. When we couldn't get a cab, Jenn suggested we head for the Crowne Plaza, which was nearby. Within a few minutes, their bellhop had us in a cab. Rule #3: if you're not sure what to do, ask for help at the nearest luxury hotel. Even then, it was an ordeal for the taxi driver to get us across town. We could clearly sense that traffic was far worse than usual. In the end, it took us three hours from the time we left Bei Hai Park to when we got back to our hotel. We were so wet and tired that, for the first time ever, we ordered room service for dinner. It turned out to be yummy, comfy, and not all that expensive. Anica loved this, yet another new experience.

Despite the rain later in the afternoon, and taxi/traffic woes, it was a great day.

Sep 18

(Anica)

Today we went to the musem of natrul history and saw Animal Freinds of human Being with Dead animals but real. Same with all other exhabithans. Most of them have glass over them but not the panda. Insect world with insects that our dead. Animals at night is just like it sounds. Babys Discovery fairyland, Gallery of ancaint mamlles, Gallery of the Origin of Life, and Gallery of Invertebrates, Dinosaur park, Gallery of preastoric life. The aqurium though had real fish. After the musem we went on a serch for a (closedown) peking Duck restrunt. Ended up eating at youth restaurant. Good Night.

(Rob)

More rain. But since then the smog is practically gone. We were going to go see either the Temple of Heaven or the Summer Palace, both massive, sprawling, mostly outdoor sites, but decided to change plans for the rainy day. Jenn suggested the Museum of Natural History, and from the get-go Anica was keen on the idea. After four hours (!) there, she declared it "the best museum I've ever been to." Now this is not a world-class, state of the art museum, but it did have its kid-friendly aspects. There were a couple of little indoor playgrounds, for instance. There was a set of fun-house mirrors. We're not sure what point they made, because the English labels came at sporadic intervals throughout the museum.

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Anica experiments with the funhouse mirrors at Beijing's Musuem of Natural History"

The majority of the place was taxidermy. That made for quite a few "Night at the Museum" comments. There was even a dinosaur hall. Then there was the basement aquarium. The colourful blue paint did little to lessen the creepiness of the below-ground maze, where pickled fish lay still in tanks next to living fish.

We knew from our Chinese guidebook that there was a collection of "human bodies." We found it in an annex, where the entry stated "no photos." No kidding! Here were formaldehyde-preserved jars of human parts, and even whole bodies. Anica was taking it all in, with a kid's delight in things gross, but fascinating. "Anica, look, there's the left half of a baby's head." "Neat!" she'd say. "Anica, look there's a woman's torso floating in a big jar." "Neat!" We paused to gently make sure she understood they were real people who had died. Yep. On we went, through the deformed fetus collection and the full-body Chinese man, with all the skin flailed off him, except the belly button, pubic area and fingertips. Another full cadaver had a bag over his head. That really makes you wonder. (Jenn: Did he come that way?) So, this part of the museum, too, was a big hit.

Having worked up an appetite (?), we headed up the street for the famous, nearby Peking Duck restaurant. We passed a hutong (alleyway neigborhood) that was crumbling, a hutong that was torn down, and a hutong that was being rebuilt in a "cleaned-up" way for tourists.

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A hutong in the process of being razed

Unfortunately, the restaurant had been located in the latter, so it was gone (being restored).

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A giant wall hides renovations being done on a hutong just south of Tiananmen Square

After a typical taxi struggle, we had dinner back in our own neighborhood, called the "Youth Restaurant," where the food was unlike most Chinese food we've had before, but pretty good. No idea if it caused Jenn's gold crown to fall off her tooth! We're seeking dental advice from afar, but so far it doesn't appear to be a total emergency for her. Not what she needed, though!

Sep 19

(Rob)

Bright sun, and great visibility greeted us today. Sadly, though, when Jenn checked our email we got the news that her grandmother had died. This was not unexpected, but it's always a shock. Anica had lost the last of her great-grandparents. She had been lucky enough, however, to really get know her great-grandmother.

So here we are in Beijing. We took things slowly this morning, but eventually decided to go out and see the Summer Palace on our last full day in China. It turned out to be a lovely excursion, and just the thing for Jenn to take her mind off being so helplessly far from home.

The Summer Palace is just what it sounds like: a specially-constructed retreat for Emperors, built in the 18th century, but greatly expanded by Empress Cixi in the late 19th. We climbed to the top of the Buddhist monument, and enjoyed a glorious view of the lake and Beijing in the distance. We walked the length of the Long Corridor. Well-named, it's a "breezeway" over 2,000 long. Each wooden crossbeam and each wooden panel has a painting hand-painted on it. That's over 14,000 paintings of scenes from Chinese classic literature and of the grounds of the palace.

The highlight of the visit for Anica was when we rented a battery-powered four-person boat. We hopped in, and the guy tapped on the dashboard twice, the full extent of our instructions. But it was easy to manuever, and we let Anica drive it for about 30 minutes. She did a great job!

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We boated through the 17-arch bridge, and past the "Marble Boat" that Empress Cixi commissioned rather than modernizing the navy.

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Our goal for dinner was to get to a Peking Duck restaurant. We got a taxi right away, which was indeed too good to be true. He had a phony meter, and I argued with him over the price when we got out, eventually paying about half what his crooked meter showed.

The Quanjude Peking Duck dinner was a true feast. As in: more than we could possibly eat and costing a lot. Still, it was a great experience. We all loved the duck itself, which you actually roll up in pancakes like you're eating Mexican food. The many side dishes were not all loved equally, but we had room for dessert, and staggered out quite full. One of the hostesses helped flag us a cab and we got back uneventfully.

We're going to squeeze all the luxury services out of this hotel, including a late check-in before we hop on a train for Hanoi. This is our craziest train-ride: 40 hours, overnight, for two nights. It comes at a really weird time, with the news of Jenn's grandmother's passing, but we already have the tickets, and there's really nothing we can do here, either. On we go.

Posted by jennrob 21:56 Archived in China Comments (7)

A Grand Time in Xi'an

Walls and Warriors

semi-overcast 22 °C

September 11th

(Jenn)

Chengdu to Xi'an: A travel day that finally went right...

After the last couple, we were beginning to wonder if we'd been jinxed. But today we managed to grab some breakfast at Starbucks, debate the bill successfully with hotel reception (they seemed to want to charge us for our sponsor's membership), get a taxi to the airport, check in okay, have lunch at a great but expensive Chinese casserole restaurant, catch our plane on time, land on time, get the airport bus to the centre of the city (75 yuan for 3 versus 150 for a taxi), find a decent hotel (Xi'an City Hotel - twin room for $40 CDN) right around the corner from the Drum and Bell Towers, book a English-guided tour for the next day to the Terracotta Warriors among other sights, locate an office that sold train tickets (after much running around) and buy tickets for our overnight train from Xi'an to Beijing, find the Muslim Quarter (just as we were about to give up and eat at McDonald's), get lucky and find a waitress who spoke a little English so we could ask for her recommendations (we ended up with a spicy beef dish, a sweet and sour chicken dish (for Anica) and a basket of delicious steamed vegetable dumplings with sweet soy sauce), get an internet connection in Starbucks long enough to pay the balance on our Beijing-Hanoi overnight train tickets which we're buying through China Trip Advisor, and find (omg, finally, after /hours/ of looking, thanks to the cut and paste rough guide files we put in notetab light) the one and only ATM downtown that takes foreign debit cards.

At that point, our brains stopped working and our bodies demanded we take them back to the hotel and collapse. We obeyed.

September 12th

(Rob)

There was an early call - unexpectedly - to our day tour. Luckily, we were up and got ready in time anyway. The minibus held an interesting mix of people: couples from Australia, New Zealand; a student from New York; a woman from Scotland. And we're Canadian, as most of you know! The main attraction was the Terracotta warriors but the other stops turned out to be interesting. The first was a palace at the foot of a mountain, complete with hot springs, and baths that dated back to the 7th century AD. The next was a Buddhist temple said to contain a fragment of the Buddha's skull. Ashoka, the Indian emperor, was distributing authentic Buddha relics, and this one has endured. We were still skeptical. Perhaps it's our Protestant heritage kicking in. The stop at the first emperor's tomb site was not too visually dazzling. Basically the whole grounds remains unexcavated. We knew that from our reading, but still. Anica enjoyed the dance/pageant performance, however.

After lunch, we walked through the grounds to where a simple farmer, in 1974, found the first piece of a terracotta warrior. That same farmer (kind of a relic himself) signs autographs in the giftshop. He does look the the same guy, but again, skepticism. We all liked the "circle vision" (ie. 360 degree) movie theatre that introduces us to the history of the first emperor, the tombs, and the unification of China.

Then, breathtakingly, we stepped into the famous "Pit 1." It does not disappoint. It's a huge room, and the fact that not all the warriors are dug out only underscores the enormity of the place and the task.

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Apparently, it takes weeks to restore just one warrior. We saw ones assembled from fragments of hundreds. We saw rows of fallen, broken soldiers. Decapitated stone heads stared up at us. In the other buildings (Pits 2 and 3), we saw the famous "Kneeling Archer" and other special figures, including horses, that are in glass cases. One of the pits has a thrust viewing platform (like the new grand canyon platform) so you can look straight down at the ramp, horses, soldiers, etc. Each building is huge, and the grounds are monumental.

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A detail of the most recently restored terracotta warriors, including one with a touch of yellow paint still visible

Our tour guide explained how, for better or worse, the government moved farms, a village, and a market to create the present site. We also saw the nice, big home that the farmer now has (allegedly...).

The last stop was anticlimatic, a "tour" of a silk factory. None of us bought anything, which confounded the guides, we think. It was neat to see the stages of the silkworms, the looms, to stretch out the silk by hand ourselves, etc. Centuries ago, the process was a secret we would pay with our lives for uncovering.

September 13th

Today was another monumental day in Xi'an! We decided to see the main city sights: the Bell and Drum towers and, of course, the city walls. The towers were built in 770 and 780 respectively. There was a nice musical performance (mostly bells, of course) in the Bell Tower. The restoration of the paint colours on every roof, eave and gable is quite striking. The "shingles" are actually jade, too! Each "hip" has a row of animal characters carved into it.

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The Bell Tower, and public square, as seen from the Drum Tower

Then, came the wall. To me, this is one of the most atmospheric and evocative things about being in Xi'an. The walls form a rectangle 14 km long around the city. They date from 1370 in their current form, and boast giant gates at the four compass points. They are as wide as a six-lane highway, and there are 78 steps up to the top (this last detail is by Anica's count).

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We walked along the walls a very long way! We walked 1 km from the Bell Tower to the south gate, paid the admission and climbed up. Along the wide, wide top of the wall, we walked from the South gate to the West gate (got the only sustenance we could there: ice cream and soft drinks), then from the West gate to the North gate. At the West gate, a sign reminded us that this was the start of the silk road. Looking down at the gate and courtyard, this certainly fired the imagination. With somewhat overcast, cool (around 20) weather, it was the perfect day for walking. It was also really peaceful. Because of the fee, and the size, there are very few people up there. Most rent bicycles or rickshaws. So, at times, there was no one on the wall for as far as we could see. What a contrast to the teeming streets below!

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From the north gate, we walked back to the area of the Drum Tower and Muslim Quarter. Another kilometre or two. That brought the total to 11 km for the day, and we still weren't done. We found an even better restaurant (that Jenn and Anica in particular loved) on Islamic Street than the night before. There was just enough English-speaking for us to order lamb skewers, a spicy rice (in cubes) concoction, baked Chinese bread, a vegetable dish of mushrooms and bok choy, then..more skewers! Very yummy. Even with drinks, the whole sit-down dinner cost about seven dollars.

Sunset saw us atop the Drum Tower. Anica gave the traditional three strikes of the giant drum. This would have once been the nightwatchmen's signal to either close the gates, warn of midnight, or announce the coming dawn. From there, we got some great pictures of the Bell Tower and of the market at the Muslim Quarter.

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Anica's turn at the drum

September 14th

After a couple of busy days, we've slept in, and caught up on email, etc. before getting ready for our overnight train to Beijing. Being Friday, our favourite Muslim-Chinese restaurants were closed today (yes, there are 60,000 Muslims here, the descendants of a community begun by Silk Road traders), so we took the path of least resistance and ate Western (Pizza Hut, KFC). This is also because there are surprisingly few Chinese restaurants that aren't obvious tourist traps.

We've been the subject of a lot of attention here. Anica found some of it more aggressive than in Chengdu, and thus unwelcome. People touched her hair without asking, and some ladies poked and prodded here while she and Jenn were washing their hands. Mostly, though, Anica has continued to get a kick out of interacting with curious locals/Chinese tourists. If they're just looking, she'll give a wave. She also happily posed for pictures when asked, and then told the story of doing so to other Westerners we've run into.

We've really enjoyed Xi'an. Our hotel here, the City Hotel, has seen better days, but is good value for its current price (we paid $41 CDN per night, including breakfast - but that was for two twin beds only; Jenn and Anica were quite snug in one). The old-school looking bellhops got us a taxi to take to the train station, which was a major accomplishment in rush-hour Xi'an, so that was another plus to staying at the City Hotel.

Posted by jennrob 02:37 Archived in China Comments (9)

Fever and a Free Hotel

Chengdu, Sichuan province, China

semi-overcast 23 °C

Rob

(Sep 7)

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One of the star attractions to Chengdu, China

Getting settled in Chengdu has been much more difficult than we thought! We knew we were dealing with Anica being sick. Motrin every six hours was keeping her fever in check, but only just. The first additional obstacle came at the Guilin airport with the announcement that our flight would be delayed by an hour. Nothing unusual, but we called Sim's Garden Hostel and tried to make sure their driver would still be waiting for us.

After grabbing our bags, we found a girl holding a "Sim's Cozy Guest House" sign. We knew they were the original Sim's, and the girl, though not really expecting us, eagerly ushered us, and another couple, into a pair of taxis. I wonder how that other taxi ride turned out? Our driver started to curse, mutter and spit, and, after a while, motioned to us that he needed our help. No kidding! Lost looks the same in any language. Apparently, phoning them didn't help him too much, because he still got out and asked for directions about three times. Did I mention it was raining?

Over an hour later, we arrived at Sim's Cozy Guest House. "But this is not it," we tried to say! Everyone ushered us out, and Sim himself explained the situation. The "Garden Hostel," his new place, had been shut down the day before due to lack of permits. He offered to put us up in a "Cozy Guest House" family room for the night, but explained that it would only be available for that one night. We would then have two options: stay illegally - for free - in the "Garden Hostel" or he would put us up (again for free) in a "business-class" (his words) hotel. Guess which one we picked?

So, one night then at Sim's, but it did not turn out to be too cozy. Our room, on the roof-top, arrived at by way of labyrinth, was right beside a construction site. If you've ever wondered what time of night construction stops in Chengdu, the answer is never! I think there was a short tea-break about 1:30 AM. The work going on was organized by periodic shouting matches. The three of us, in our two beds, particularly found these outbursts, shall we say, rousing! Anica's fever was high again towards dawn.

Random Observation: Air China calls their moist towelette a "wet refresh turban needless wash." Kind of catchy, eh?

(Sep 8)

In the morning, at least, the offer that was too-good-to-be-true turned out to be true. A Sim's employee walked us to a hotel, which has just been remodelled, and we got to see the room we would stay in. It looked fantastically new, and clean and bright, and Jenn immediately said that it would be fine. The Sim's guy then paid for the three-night stay in advance!

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Not how Anica showers! She is demonstrating the unique configuration of this hotel room's shower stall.

At last, we could focus on Anica's fever. Since it kept returning, we decided to see a doctor. The cost was well worth it for the great care we got at a private clinic called "Global Doctor." Anica had tonsillitis and some bronchial infection, which was causing the fever. So we got antibiotics, a combo of fever reducers, a nebulizer, and we were at the clinic long enough for the Spanish-born doctor to see some results. "My baby," she kept calling Anica. "I don't like to see my baby not well," etc. Jenn and I felt like we were just the babysitters. She even called us later to see how Anica was doing, and gave us her own cell number. By night, Anica was feeling well enough to help call my Dad and wish him a happy birthday!

As for the sites in Chengdu, we knew it would be a write-off. The main thing is getting Anica healthy again. At least we're situated near the historic district, and, walking over from Sim's, and even when we're out to get supplies, we get some nice streetscapes. Also, Chengdu is booming. It's a huge city (12 million?), capital of the Sichuan province. We saw stores for Rolls-Royce, Prada, and other high-end Western brands. There are people here, and it's not the tourists (a few blocks away from Sim's and you won't see any Westerners), with huge disposable income.

Random Observation: We will never badmouth the ubiquitous Starbucks again, after the comfort they've offered here, and in Shenzhen, when we were just trying to get through the day.

(Sep 9)

Anica was feeling better today - fever gone - but still weak. Late in the afternoon, we took her to the nearby WenShu Monastery. Bad idea, in the end, for Anica, but we still got something out of the visit. The monastery is surrounded by a huge red wall, which hides the massive complex of temples and gardens inside.

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Part of the Wen Shu monastery walls, Chengdu

There has been a monastery on this site since the sixth century AD, which is mind-boggling considering the political and military turmoil China has seen. The Peace Pagoda does date back to that first era. Most of the other impressive buildings, such as the library, the shrines to Buddhist "saints," etc. are from the 17th century (just a few years removed from the end of the Ming Dynasty in 1644). Anica was most impressed by the pond, which had dozens - if not hundreds - of turtles in it (and some huge bullfrogs). Much of the grounds had signs saying "no photos," which were largely ignored. We eventually took a couple of photos where we thought it wasn't too inappropriate. Before we left, a "nun" gave Anica a couple of apples. Was it how cute Anica looked, or her sad, sick expression that prompted this kind gesture? We headed home wondering (arguing) about whether we'd be able to go to the panda base the next day.

(Sep 10)

It was touch and go to the last minute, because Anica was so tired this morning, but we made it out on the tour to the Panda research and breeding base. Are we ever glad we did! And, later in the day, Anica got a clean bill of health from the Doctor in our follow-up appointment. To the get to the Panda base, we signed up for a tour through Sim's Cozy Guest House. Nine of us left there in a mini-van at 7:20 in the morning. This was ideal, because it got us there right when the Panda base opened, and into the heart of the grounds in time for the feeding. After they're done feeding, pandas pretty much sleep most of the time, so we really were fortunate.

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The grounds are beautiful, with spacious habitats for the animals. The driver, using Mandarin and gestures, got us around the whole base at just the right time to see: the adults feeding, the "kindergarden" of pandas playing, the one-month babies being nursed, and the two-month old cubs rolling around a big crib. Anica loved it. All three of us loved it. Those were all the giant pandas, then we also saw the smaller red pandas (they seemed more active!).

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Red Pandas

Why are giant pandas such a national treasure of China? Aside from being endangered due to loss of habitat, and aside from being cute, I learned today that they are a mysterious species. They've been around for eight million years, longer than most mammals ("living fossils," according to one description). They were once carnivores, and still have the teeth for it, but now they just eat huge amounts of bamboo, which they can barely digest. Pandas are picky, difficult breeders, so any success in captivity is nearly miraculous.

Anica was so enthused, so glad she got to come here, and it was great to see her bouncing along again.

In the late afternoon, back in the city, we stocked up at a bookstore that carried English titles. Then we walked around a large, outdoor, pedestrian shopping area. Especially when we sat down on a bench to rest and people-watch we found we were attracting a lot of attention. People were doing double-takes, staring, smiling and pointing, or even looking confused to see us (we labelled one man "confused guy" because he passed us several times, same expression each time). Anica enjoyed the attention, and we said "hello" and/or "ni hao" to many people. This never failed to to get a smile! To be fair, the area was probably a big draw for Chinese tourists, so many of the gawkers weren't from big-city Chengdu. One older lady came up to us and asked in Mandarin something like "can I pet her?" and then stroked Anica's hair. Although in multicultural Canada any form of staring at "differences" would be considered rude, if not racist, here, today, it seemed benign and not at all overwhelming.

Posted by jennrob 07:34 Archived in China Comments (5)

A few days in the Chinese countryside...

sunny 30 °C

Sept 4th

( Jenn )

When last we saw our merry band of intrepid travellers, they were at the Shenzhen airport waiting for their 11 pm flight to Guilin...

The flight left on time, albeit from a completely different gate than the one on their boarding passes, flew through a lightning storm, and landed early at the Guilin Airport where a very nice gentleman was waiting (sign in hand) to take them to their hotel.

The trio had decided to book a place in advance after stumbling (online) on the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, a good distance outside the actual town of Yangshuo (they were seeking something a little more country-like after their time in Hong Kong). And thanks to their friend Denise calling for them, they managed to hold on to their reservation through the whole lost-baggage-and-missed-plane-crisis /and/ reschedule their ride.

The 90 minute ride to the retreat was - as usual - completely harrowing, but Anica was so tired she still fell asleep and Jenn and Rob actually enjoyed the craziness, the cool wind whipping into the car and the shadows of looming karsts keeping them wide awake.

Arriving at the retreat, we could hear the river rushing along at the front of the building but couldn't see a thing. As late as we arrived, the young woman at reception showed us to the third floor and our huge triple room overlooking the river (we still couldn't see it but we could hear it and it sounded lovely) and told us we could actually check in formally in the morning. We gratefully unpacked, threw on our pajamas and passed out.

We slept in a little (9 am), leaping out of our beds to fling back the curtains and see not only the river, the rain and the gorgeous green grounds but karsts, dozens of them, shooting up from the landscape surrounding the retreat. We gazed in awe. The air felt cool, smelled fresh and the idea of spending a rainy day inside was not necessarily a disappointing one.

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The view from our room

Freshly showered and clothed, we made our way downstairs for breakfast and to properly check in, at which point we were asked "What are you going to do now?" Now? Not a whole hell of a lot, we were all thinking, still completely exhausted from the day before. Will it rain all day, we tentatively enquired, feeling like maybe we should do something after all. We were informed it would likely brighten up in the afternoon and were pointed towards a three ring binder with dozens of pages detailing all the many things we could do in the region.

We /were/ interested in a short boat tour down the Li River (as opposed to the six hour one from Guilin to Yangshuo) but were told that the Guilin operators now have a monopoly and all the other tours are illegal and can be stopped at any time. So much for that. After yesterday, we weren't prepared to test our luck.

What about a cave, we asked. Was there one which would be suitable for a child? They frowned. Was a cave really suitable at all for a girl came the response. Rob and I looked at each other. Anica, when told of the exchange later (since she was running in and out of the building at the time), laughed her butt off. We settled on the nearby Dragon Cave, determining it to be untaxing and a nice walk back to the retreat after the recommended taxi there.

We went back up to our room, napped for a bit, spent some time reading and relaxing, then had lunch. After lunch, we changed, doused ourselves in bug repellent, watched a bunch of bamboo rafts floating down the river in front of the retreat, the passengers waving at us like crazy and trying to spray us (in fun) with water using these sort of water plunger darts.

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At three pm, our taxi driver showed up. There was a woman with him and we had no idea who she was. He drove but she took the money and when we arrived at the caves, went to the ticket booth with us. For a bit, we wondered whether she was our guide, but no, she finally disappeared without a word.

We headed up the stairs and into the entrance for the caves where a gentleman waved at the flashlights and bullhorns in front of him. Intrepid Canadians that we are, we were well prepared to pick them up and head in ourselves but apparently all the waving just meant sit your butts down, your guide will be with you in a minute.

Our guide finally turned up, a young woman who spoke a litte English - enough to tell us what the various formations were supposed to resemble and to answer our questions.

The caves themselves were very interesting, our favourite part the two boat rides through underground caverns at the end.

We walked home from the caves, our guide asking if she could accompany us to the Big Banyan Tree, for which we had asked directions. It was only after we said yes that we wondered if she was expecting to continue as our guide and whether we would need to tip her.

The Big Banyan Tree is exactly what it sounds like. 1500 years old, it is 55 feet wide and 28 feet tall. A very impressive sight.

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roots of the Big Banyan Tree

Leaving there, we told our guide, who seemed to want to lead us in more activities, that we were going to head back to our hotel. We asked if we could give her a small gift for helping us and gave her a small tip. We're still not sure if she was expecting it or not.

Our walk back to the hotel was great. Muddy but cool, the karst-filled landscape still blew us away again and again as we walked along the pot-hole filled gravel road back to the retreat.

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Sept 5th

( Anica )

Today we woke up and went to Yangshao town and people tried to sell us stuff like postcards, books, DVDs, t shirts, coloured balls, food, bambo rafts, flutes, and lots more.

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Look how far we've come!
- sign in front of restaurant on West Street in Yangshuo

we had dinner at drifters. we used playground excirsie things.

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Making use of the public exercise equipment in Yangshuo

It was SO FUN. We also got a mouse in our house, yes it escaped out of the trap.

( Rob )

Anica's described the hawkers on Yangshuo's West Street, probably named for all the Westerners who have long made it backpackers' central in China. It's still a nice town, though, with marble pavement and bridges.

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View of Yangshuo from West Street

At Drifters, I enjoyed the famous Yangshuo "beer fish" that's on everyone's menu, a whole fish cooked in beer with vegetables.

Sept 6th

( Jenn )

Anica's turn... to be sick :(

She's picked up a little bug and is feeling really crummy today. We took a local bus 40 minutes to a small town called Xingping and looked around the market (only there in days ending in 2, 4 and 6) but she started acting funny and very soon basically begged to go back to the retreat. We climbed back on the bus (although we were basically the only Westerners there, there were some locals who pointed out which bus) and one of the locals (who helps arrange small tours onwards to this fishing village we'd hoped to visit) actually called the Retreat, although we didn't know it at the time, told them Anica was sick and we were coming back. So... when we got to the bus station, our usual taxi couple were waiting to take us back to the Retreat. Yay!

We checked Anica's temp (38.5 C), gave her some Motrin and she slept for a while. Then since she seemed to feel a little better she had some plain rice for lunch and some white grape juice while Rob and I had Yangshuo noodles and hot & sour soup (full of red peppers at the bottom).

Apparently her lunch was not such a good idea as it all came back up about 20 minutes later *pets her*

Now she's in her pajamas and trying to sleep again. Her fever's down and we're pretty sure this was nothing more than a yucky little flu bug. Hopefully she'll be mostly right as rain tomorrow and luckily our travel plans (we move on to Chengdu) involve one taxi ride, a plane ride and another taxi drive with a pick-up at the airport - and we don't move until the afternoon.

(Rob)

Jenn's asked me to write more about Xingping and the market because this was more off-the-beaten-path, even if only for a couple of hours. Though we went with Eric and Norma, an American couple staying at our retreat, we only saw two other Westerners in all of our trip to Xingping. The market sold everything. Really. First, though, we saw an interesting peanut wholesaler. I dug out my Mandarin phrase book and found the word for peanut, saying it like a question to the men standing around. That got me lots of smiles and nods, and a fresh, tasty peanut to eat!

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Peanut for you!

We also saw more gruesome things, like monkey skulls (as mascots? talismans?) with a man selling roots, and dead snakes and turtles to illustrate some sort of miracle cure. The butcher's section had pigs' heads and hooves, and then there was all the live chickens, ducks, chicks, etc. in baskets. In the same aisle, men were getting their hair cut. Another aisle was for seafood, including live frogs and eels. Anica was only bothered by her own illness, not these sights. She said she would have enjoyed the market more if she was feeling okay. The local people were very friendly, especially in pointing out our daughter to their children. Very few demured at having their picture taken, but we still felt very self-conscious after doing so.

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Tobacco: sold loose or by leaf

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Is it still called poultry when it's alive?

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Dried roots being sold at the market in Xingping

Posted by jennrob 03:45 Archived in China Comments (3)

Catching Up with Anica

Some Excerpts from her Journal

semi-overcast 24 °C

August 17 - Nipah Bay, Pangkor Island, Malaysia

Today we woke up in the morning and saw a kitty cat sitting on our chair outside then it walked away. So we got up and had breakfast, for Mommy and Daddy scrarbeled eggs with tost butter and jam. For me fruit pancakes with chocolate sace and fruit jucie. Saw birds with two beaks looked like tocauns. Walked to the beach saw a few kitty cats on the way. When we got to the beach we played in the water and saw another one of those birds. BIG waves. had lunch. rested, went back to the becah. Bigger waves, played in the water, read my books, played some more, builed lots of sandcastles today, started walking back. Saw a family of monkeys with the cutest faces. Went back, saw the water at the beach that is small, had dinner, good night.

August 22/23- Georgetown, Penang Island, Malaysia

We got on a bus ride to Penang, when we ariveed we got on a ferry and taxi to Minngood Hotel. nice. looked around, unpacked, got some dinner snacks. good night. next Day we looked around Penang. went to Fort Cornwallis. perfect. had lunch, went to penang Hill, got on a train that took us up the moutian. had dinner, good night.

August 27 - Ko Samui, Thailand to Hong Kong

We had to wake up really early. Disappointed. had to get ready for the taxi come. I saw a water buffalo. So we had a flight on Bangok air to Hong Kong. great, they gave Mommy and Daddy Chinise food, for me wenires and chicken nuggets, cold orange juice, water, cantolope and orange pudding. We got to Hong Kong had dinner, good night.

Aug 29 - Hong Kong

Today we woke up and went and had starbuck coffe and then took MTR to the travel agency and i played nintendo for two hours then took MTR to hong kong and went on peak tram. had Bubba gump shirmp for lunch. went and met Mike, Siu Ling, Abigail and Isabel, played and ate at their house. Said Bye and rode star ferry back. Good night.

September 1 - Hong Kong

today we went on a two hour hike. it wa hard but went with michael and sueling and the girls. saw brooks, butterflys, one big bee, 2 worms, Dragonflys, Ant, Hawks, birds, then when we finshed are hike we had too go pee an a really dirty squat toilet. had dinner, finshed with ice crem that comes in lemon or cocout or orenge.

September 5 - Yangshao, China

Today we went to the Dragon cave and saw stalagmites and stalagtites and the lights that they put in. We also went on 2 boat rides and saw non-carved dragons. The boat rides were a suprise. We also saw a mirage - the water looked deeper then it was. We have mountin (behind) and river (infront) of our hotel. We've seen people on rafts trying to spray us. Our room is all wood and real tree bark.

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Good night!

( picture posted with permission of subject :P )

Posted by jennrob 07:08 Archived in China Comments (5)

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