Saturday, September 29, 2012

2012 Asian Adventure - Beijing (Part One)

Day Thirteen

We started our busy day with a short bus ride to Tiananmen Square.  People of my generation remember this place as the location of trampled dreams of freedom.  While the cloud of 1989 hung over this square there wasn't the feeling of being watched as there had been in Lhasa ... or maybe I'd just grown used to it.  The square was crowded with people, many visiting the mausoleum of Chairman Mao.  Our guide said the mausoleum was not open to tour groups (or was it foreigners?) and, frankly, was not worth the waiting in line.  She said cameras weren't allowed in the mausoleum and that you were filed through and weren't given any time to stop and look at the preserved body of Mao ... which she described as looking like a wax figure.  It was hard to not hear her skepticism ... I don't think she believes the body in the mausoleum is real.

We walked around the square, the third largest in the world, as our guide pointed out the government buildings and the museums bordering the square.  There are a few monuments and large video screens that help break up the square (making it easier to break up crowds perhaps ...).  We had our picture taken with the famous Gate of the Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen in Chinese - the south gate of the Forbidden City) and its iconic portrait of Chairman Mao.

Tiananmen Gate - Gate of Heavenly Peace - South entrance to the Forbidden City.
Passing under the street in a tunnel we came out in front of the main gate of the Forbidden City.  The Forbidden City is huge.  To reach the inner sanctum of the emperor you have to pass through five gates.  Each layer has its own compliment of meeting halls, banquet rooms, soldier's barracks, etc.  The deeper a visitor would enter, the more important they were.   We entered the city with the throngs of mostly Chinese tourists.

China is the most populous country in the world.  Until now, though, it never really felt that crowded.  Beijing, and especially Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, felt full of people.  We reached the second gate and we waited around  while our guide picked up our passes.  When she returned everyone did a quick head count and we came up one head short.  This had never happen in the last twelve days.  Early on, I think it was before we cruised the Yangtze, our guide gave everyone a slip of paper written in Chinese and English with her cell number.  We were to use it if we got separated.  One of the teachers from San Diego had gotten separated ... she used the paper ... it worked.  This was the only time when something like this happened the entire trip.

A foo dog in front of an ornate building in the Forbidden City.
We spent two and a half hours exploring this magnificent place.  It just went on and on.  For those into movies, "The Last Emperor" was filmed in the Forbidden City.  The city includes meeting areas, banquet halls, barracks for soldiers, and lavish homes for the collection of the Emperor's women.  While harem is probably more appropriate description, some of the Emperors did seem to collect women just to posses them.  This theme, collections of wives, would follow our travels through Nepal, Bhutan, and India.

The moat surrounding three sides of the Forbidden City.
We exited the city through the gardens and the north entrance and headed for lunch.  Thinking we were missing western food (our talk about the burgers in Xi'an may have sparked that idea) our guide took us to an Irish pub.  The food was good but, strangely enough, didn't feel very western to me.  Not all of our group agreed with having western food.  It's one thing to chose it on your own and another to have the tour company do it.  Another Chinese meal might have been more appropriate.

After lunch we visited the summer palace located on Kunming Lake (Kunminghu).  We weren't there to tour the palace but to take a boat ride.  This was fine with me as the Forbidden city would have been tough to top.  On the grounds of the palace we got our first close up look at the lotus, a flower with significance in Buddhism.  We'd already seen representations of the lotus in stone.  It was nice to see it in person.

Lotus bloom at the Summer Palace.
We left the entrance to the palace grounds and headed down a long covered walkway.  The corridor is said to be one of the longest in the world.  The walkway takes you through the gardens of the summer palace and provides views of the lake and gardens.  The corridor itself is painted with historic scenes and art.

At the end we got on a boat that would take us out on the man-made lake.  The excavated dirt was used to build Longevity Hill where some of the palace structures are located.  The boat was a relaxing ride.  A couple of little girls got their picture taken with several people in our group.

Summer Palace of Longevity Hill.
The boat delivered us to Nanhu Island, location of more summer palace temples.  We walked back to the mainland over a bridge that offers a nice view of the lake, and all the pleasure boats criss-crossing the lake, before boarding our bus.

Our last stop on this already busy day was a visit with a family in a hutong.  A hutong is a neighborhood characterized by narrow alleys made by walled in residences.  The area we visited is some of the only privately owned property in China.  Our guide described this area of Beijing as some of the most expensive residences in all of China.  I found this remarkable as it looked like a slum to most of us, myself included.  It was dirty, crowded, and not well maintained.  I suspect that the houses behind the walls were another story.  Most of these houses were owned by government and military officials.  We walked through some narrow streets unpassable by our bus and visited a family.  We enjoyed tea and talked about how the house had been passed from generation to generation.

After the visit we took a rickshaw ride around the hutong.  This was the least enjoyable part of the tour for me so far.  The rickshaw basically took us around in a big circle.  If the rickshaw was taking us to a particular place that was unreachable by our bus I would have been fine with it but, since we returned to the starting point without stopping along the way, it felt more like a cheap amusement park ride for the tourists.  This was a disappointment.  I'd looked forward to the rickshaw ride and it fell flat.  We did pass the bell tower that was closed when we went passed.  We were not far from the drum tower where an American tourist (father to one of the Olympic coaches) was murdered during the Beijing Olympics.  Both towers seem to have been closed since the Olympics.

That night a group of us went back to the restaurant where we'd had Peking Duck the night before and successfully ordered an awesome meal (pictures in the menu helped immensely).  The sweet and sour pork was incredible - we ordered three plates of it to the confusion/consternation of the waiters ... and we finished everything we ordered.  Ironically the members of our group who had complained about the western food at lunch went to an Indian restaurant for dinner.

Tomorrow was the last day of our China tour and one of the biggest attractions, one of the biggest in the world as a matter of fact - The Great Wall.

Pictures from day thirteen (07/05/2012) can be found in my 2012-06 China Google Photos album.

Our 2012 Asian Adventure continues ...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Photograph: Amongst The Corn

The corn is almost gone ... brought in almost a month ahead of normal ... but I managed to take this picture one morning on one of my walks before the corn was gone.  A Morning Glory I believe.

"Amongst the Corn"
by Bruce H.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book: Iain M. Banks' "Surface Detail"

I needed a book to read as I flew fourteen plus hour to Shanghai and another fourteen plus on the way back from Delhi to Newark, not to mention all the flights in China, Nepal, Bhutan, and India.  I settled on one more Iain M. Bank Culture book.  "Surface Detail" is the latest culture book to be published though another one will be out soon.

The book explores virtual worlds, specifically virtual afterlives.  In the advanced world of the Culture, people can live indefinitely and, when they are tired of living they can upload their conscious into virtual worlds of their choosing.  Theses virtual worlds have become virtual Heavens.  But what is Heaven without Hell?

Non-Culture worlds, believing that you can not have rewards without punishment have created virtual Hells to punish their criminals for all eternity.

Not everyone agrees the Hells should exist and, to prevent a war, created a new virtual world where the two parties could fight a virtual war.  If the side backed by the Culture wins, the Hells will be turned off.  If not, the Hells will go on existing to torment their victims.  Unfortunately the anti-Hell side ... is loosing the virtual war.

The book follows several different people, some in the real world, some in the virtual Hells, and some fighting the virtual war.  Their lives converge as the anti-Hell faction plans to bring the war out of the virtual and into the real world.

The book was very good.  It really made you think.  If you could live forever, would you?  Would you get bored?  Would you voluntarily choose real, irreversible death?  When does everlasting life become never ending Hell?  And most important of all, how can you tell if the world around you is real or just some incredibly sophisticated virtual world?

The book served its purpose: it entertained me on over twenty-eight hours of flights around the world.  I completed the 627 page book early in the morning at the Newark airport.  There are nine (soon to be ten) culture books.  When I started the series I wasn't that impressed but I stuck to it and frankly, Banks' style and his Culture have grown on me.  I'm looking forward to the tenth book.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

2012 Asian Adventure - Clay And Duck.

Day 11

For the first time since the Yangtze cruise we actually got out of a city.  Our first stop of the day was a big one:  The Terracotta Army.

The terracotta army, life-size, detailed soldiers, archers, and chariots made from terracotta, was built as a memorial (like the pyramids of Egypt) to the founder of the Qin dynasty (Qin is pronounced Chin and is where China got its western name), the first imperial dynasty of China.  The soldiers, located in underground vaults, were built to protect and serve the emperor in the afterlife.  The construction of the mausoleum and terracotta army took almost forty years to build and almost 700,000 workers.  There are an estimated 8,000 life sized figures in the complex.  Not long after the fall of the dynasty, a later dynastic leader sent mobs to break into the vaults and destroy and burn everything they could find.  After their destruction, they were lost to the world until 1974, over 2,100 years.

The Terracotta Soldiers
In 1974 a group of farmers were digging a well when they pulled up several terracotta body parts.  The villagers thought the parts were cursed and the farmers who found them were forced to leave their village.  Several years later some of the discoveries were sent to a professor who recognized the significance of the find and the Chinese government began excavation.  In the 2,000s, during a visit to China, ex-President Clinton asked to meet the farmer who discovered the soldiers.  The Chinese were frazzled as they did not know where they were.  They eventually found one of the farmers and, after teaching him how to write some basic words (he was illiterate) was introduced to the President.  President Clinton asked for his autograph and the farmer, not knowing how to write his name, simply drew three circles (representing past, present, and future - a very Buddhist idea).  Soon after this, the organization that was excavating the site hired the farmer, Mr. Yang.  He now has a desk at the gift store where he autographs books and photographs.

We toured the museum and three excavated pits.  The soldiers, now all in pieces, are slowly being excavated and reconstructed.  It is interesting to see the jumbled pieces and the complete soldiers side by side.  I learn shortly before leaving on this trip that the original soldiers were all painted.  Unfortunately the paint crumbled to dust when the pieces were exposed to air.  They are doing a great job restoring the soldiers but still have a long way to go.

Pit One - The largest of the excavations open to the public.
While we were walking around Chinese high school students were cornering members of our group to ask them survey questions about the facilities, how they could be improved, what we didn't like, and stuff like that.  I managed to avoid them but the Wife was hit up a couple times though one student did give her a post card as a gift for answering her questions.

After lunch we stopped at a tea house where we were given a tea tasting and a demonstration of the "Tea Culture" (sometimes referred to as the Chinese Tea Ceremony).  I opted for a cup of hot chocolate instead (I usually don't like hot chocolate but that cup tasted rich and delicious).  The ceremony for making the tea is very elaborate.  I sat back and watched as other in our group tasted different teas.

Different types of tea.
After the tea room we headed back to the gift shop for one final walk through. The most common souvenir is a set of miniature terracotta soldiers.  As we walked around the excavation hawkers would jump out of the bushes (literally at times) trying to sell you cheap sets.  It turns out there is a factory nearby that manufactures replicas for the museum gift shop using clay from the same area as the terracotta soldiers.  The hawkers are selling the factory rejects.  One thing we noticed is that most of these cheap sets smelled like dung.  We joked it was yak dung.

We decided to spend a little extra and buy a set in the museum gift shop.  After we'd bought the set a member of our group asked if we'd had them signed by the farmer.  When we said no he said don't be one of those people who appear on Antiques Roadshow and discover your set is worth $500 but if they had been signed they would be $10,000!!!  We went over, payed the small signing fee, and got the base of each figure signed by Mr. Yang.  The Wife then proceeded to carry the terracotta soldiers in her carry on through the rest of China, Nepal, Bhutan, and India - we got some strange looks from the x-ray machine operators.

After the terracotta army we went to the obligatory stop at a shop - this one being a furniture store.  The furniture was very beautiful and very over priced and nothing was bought.  This China trip had more shopping than any of our other General Tour's trips.  In Peru we had only a one hour stop at a market.  In Jordan we had a one hour stop at a store where handicapped women made crafts to sell.  In China I lost count of the number of hours we spent stopping at "official" shopping stops.  I guess this is one way to keep tour costs down - get outside sponsors.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the wall that surrounds old Xi'an.  It's pretty impressive but we knew we would soon see the great wall and the Xi'an wall was good but not that great.  We did see a ceremonial changing of the guard with soldiers in period armor and uniforms.

Back to the hotel and up the elevator passed the nonexistent fourth floor - the number '4' is unlucky in China.  Interesting how a secular society is so full of superstition.  That night we had another burger which I augmented with a trio of chocolate (mousse, macaroon, and ice cream).

Day 12

Day seven started with flight number seven.  We flew into Beijing and slowly made our way through some terrible traffic to our hotel.  It was the fourth of July and we joked with our guide that we wanted american flags, hot dogs, and fireworks to shoot off in Tienanmen Square the next day (Actually we really didn't know which day was the fourth - the date line really screwed with us).  Malinda just looked at us and ignored our requests.  I was never sure if Malinda really understood our American sense of humor.

When we were out of the bus, Malinda would hold up a stuffed panda on a stick for us to follow.  In Xi'an we kidnapped the panda and left her a ransom note.  Malinda read the note and totally ignored it.  For a while we thought she might think we were making fun of her but she claimed to understand our humor.  I still wonder if she really did.

After a rest at the hotel - and some underwear laundering for me - we went to see the Chinese acrobats.  I didn't really take any pictures (it was too dark to really get any good pictures) but take my word for it, it was amazing.  So was the ice cream bar I had there.

From the acrobat show we went to a restaurant across from our hotel where we had our welcome to China meal.  "Wha?!?" you say?   Normally this China trip starts in Beijing and ends in Shanghai.  For the first time they reversed the order of the tour.  So, instead of a welcome dinner on our first stop in China, we were having a welcome dinner in our last stop of the China tour.  The meal was one of the best Chinese meals I've had with the highlight being Peking Duck.

Beijing after dark.
Many of our meals were included with our tour.  In China these meals included tea or coffee ... or any hot water based drink.  Sodas and ice water were not free and had to be paid for separately.  We all understood paying for soda but we were a bit confused about the water.  During our meal someone at our table had an idea: we ordered hot water on the rock.  The waiters talked it over a bit and decided that hot water on ice would be included with the meal for no extra charge.  Bizarre.

On the way back to the hotel a few of us visited the Wal-Mart next door from the hotel.  It didn't have quite the same feel as the one at home.  I didn't buy anything.

Later that night there was a knock on the door.  When we opened it there was a roll of toilet paper with, I kid you not, sausages on forks stuck in the roll making it look like an exploding fireworks.  Nothing like wienies and toilet paper to celebrate the fourth of July!  Our friends from San Diego were awesome and quite creative with what they found at the Wal-Mart.

The last twelve days had been really full and we still had two more full days left in Beijing.

Pictures from days eleven and twelve (07/03 - 07/04/2012) can be found in my 2012-06 China Google Photos album.

Our 2012 Asian Adventure continues ...

Friday, September 21, 2012

Regimen Restart And Health Update

I posted, when I suspended my exercise regime for our Asian Adventure, that I would not use this as an excuse to stop for good.  I was good to my word as I did restart my regimen when I returned.
  • I restarted my physical therapy exercises (twice a week) and my abs work (thrice a week). 
  • After a pause of over a month I played it safe and restarted the walking at five miles and am building back up to the thirteen - fifteen mile range that is my goal. 
  • I started biking twice a week. I started really slow. My first ride was only three miles or about twenty minutes on the bike. I've then upped it three miles every two weeks and am now doing nine - ten miles. I was concerned how my knee would take the biking but it has handled it wonderfully and I now consider my knee to be 99.9% healed.
The one exercise I have not restarted is push ups.   Push ups was the one exercise that I really saw benefit from doing.  When I was doing them I had no back pain and I slept better because of that.  After stopping for two months my back pain is returning.  I stopped doing them at the end of May to let what I thought was a strained tricep muscle to heal.  After a two month break I felt that it had gotten much better and didn't bother me much at all.  I tried to restart my push ups but pain returned.  There was only one thing left to do - go to the doctor.

The day I went to the doctor I woke up with a sharp pain in my right heal.  I'd experience this before on the Camino but I'd thought it had been related to my twisted pelvis.  Since the pelvis issue had been corrected by my physical therapy I was at a loss.  At the doctors I asked about the shoulder and the heal.  A few questions and a little manipulation of the two parts of my body and he had a diagnosis.  The shoulder was rotator cuff tendinitis.  The heal was heel spur/plantar fascitis.

So I went home with oral steroids and anti-inflammatory meds.  They would hopefully treat both issues.  He also suggested icing my heel/foot after walking (which I am doing) and gave me nine exercises to strengthen the shoulder that I have to do twice a day - yeah ... more exercises ... not sure I'm happy but if it's necessary ... and it's only for the next ten days or so.  That's the good news I took away from this by the way - the doctor only gave me meds for ten days expecting this to be enough to correct my conditions.  I hope his assessment is correct and I'm back to "normal" in ten days.  If not, I'm back to the doctor I would imagine.

One nice side affect of taking these meds is I have had no allergy issues.  When my allergies bother me my nose holes shrink and clog up, especially at night when I'm trying to sleep.  Since I started taking the meds I've had no problems.  I kind of dread when I'm out of pills.

I'm starting to get tire of all this.  As soon as I fix one problem (twisted pelvis, knee, back pain) other problems pop up (rotator cuff, plantar fascitis).  I know I'm not getting younger but for once I would like to get all my issues dealt with without something else getting injured, irritated, or cranky.

I'm sure you all are getting tired of me complaining about my aches and pains on Homer's Travels.  I think I'm starting to sound like a broken and whiny record.  I think I'll shelve the health and exercise labels for a while.  You're welcome.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Back ... To The Pack

 Less than a year from now (Sept-Oct 2013) I will be heading out on my second Camino de Santiago so it's time to start getting ready.  Along with the exercise regimen that I've restarted, and I will post about soon, I need to update some of my gear.

Besides shoes and socks, the most important piece of gear is probably the backpack.  The pack I used last time was a GoLite Lite-Speed.  The pack served me well but a couple things have happened that are prompting me to buy a new pack.  The first was a failure of the belt buckle.  The buckle is a standard, two prong affair.  About a day or two before I arrived in Santiago the buckle decided to stop  buckling.  The lower of the two prongs had, over 30-some days warped (bent inward) to the point that it would no longer latch.  I ended up tying the loose belt ends over the bucket to help secure the pack - not an optimum solution but it got me and my pack to Fisterra.

The rest of the pack is in pretty good shape and I would just replace the buckle if it weren't for the second issue I had: the pack is heavy.  Heavy is a relative term of course but when you are carrying all your possessions over five hundred miles every ounce becomes important.  That is why I have started shopping for a lighter pack.

I narrowed my choices down to two: the Gossamer Gear Gorilla 2012 and the GoLite Jam 35L.  Both packs weigh in around 1 lb 11 oz (765 g).  My Lite-Speed is 3 lb 5 oz (1,500 g) so either pack would be about half the weight and save me roughly 1 lb 10 oz (735 g).  That's a huge savings over five hundred miles.

When I compared these two packs I looked at several criteria:

  • Price.  The Gorilla is $225.  The Jam is $99 (Reduced from $200 due to a change from retail stores to direct to customer selling by GoLite).
  • Size.  The Gorilla is 39 liters.  The Jam is 35 liter.  I was concerned that 35 l would be too small but, after looking at my 35 l dry sack that I used last time, I realized that it was almost always less that two thirds full.  Either size should be plenty.
  • Belt.  Last Camino as I walked my waist line shrank.  Near the end I couldn't quite get my belt tight enough.  This is important as a properly adjusted pack lets the weight of the pack rest on the belt/waist.  If the belt doesn't fit properly then more weight will be improperly carried by the shoulders.  Gassamer Gear uses detachable belts thus you can order a large pack (my torso is a large) with a medium belt (my waist is a medium/regular).  GoLite confirmed to me in an email their belts do not detach so if you buy a large pack for a large torso you get a large belt.  The smallest size for the large belt is 33 inches - my current pant size.  If my waste shrinks I may have issues similar to what I had last Camino.
In the end I thought belt length and comfort were more important than price so I purchased the Gossamer Gear Gorilla 2012.  Delivery was lightning quick (five days).  I was amazed with how small the box was and how light it felt.  I opened it up, put it together (attached the belt and back foam padding), put it on, and realized right away that I had to return it.  Don't get me wrong, I love the pack.  I like how it's configured.  I like the fit of the belt.  The pack had a lot of potential but there was, for me, a fatal flaw: the arm straps.

When I put the pack on the straps rubbed either side of my neck.  To make it worse, the seams of the arm straps ran along the inside of the straps so, as I moved, the rough seam rubbed back and forth on my neck.  I had visions of bloody scratches on both sides of my neck or worse, decapitation.  The issue was how the straps attached to the top of the pack.  The straps leave straight out from the top (See Figure 1).  My Lite-Speed straps are attached at an angle which takes the straps away from the neck (See Figure 2).
Figure 1
Attachment of arm straps on top of Gossamer Gear Gorilla 2012.
Figure 2
Attachment of arm straps on top of GoLite Lite-Speed.
In addition, GoLite covers the arm strap seam with a bead that provides a smooth surface along the side of the neck.  Figure 3 is the Gossamer Gear arm strap and Figure 4 is the GoLite Lite-Speed arm strap.
Figure 3
Gossamer Gear Gorilla 2012 arm strap seam.
Figure 4
GoLite Lite-Speed arm strap seam.
I did try the Gorilla on with an eleven pound load and I compared the feel with the Lite-Speed.  With a load the Gorilla felt better as the weight forced the arm straps out a little bit but you could still feel the seam digging in a bit even through the collar of my shirt.  The lite-speed felt fine just like it did the entire length of the Camino.

So I sent the Gossamer Gear pack back yesterday.  They have a thirty day money back guarantee so all I'm out is shipping.  I'm hoping that the GoLite Jam arm straps are the same as the Lite-Speeds.  Unfortunately I won't know until November as the Jam is out of stock until them.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

2012 Asian Adventure - Panda-monium

Day Nine

After breakfast and a lazy morning, we went to the airport and caught a two hour flight to Chengdu (flight number five).  We checked into the hotel and had a couple hours to ourselves.  I spent the time walking around the shops outside the hotel and buying us a pair of  Coke Zeros.

We were picked up and went out for dinner before we went to the Sichuan Opera (I hadn't eaten lunch and I only picked at my dinner - no appetite). The Chinese opera was not what I expected.  It felt more like a variety show.  We took our seats a few rows from the stage.  There were tables with tea cups in front of all the seats - the Chinese sure like their tea.  Before the show performers sat in front of mirrors in a room off of the main seating area putting on their makeup.  A crowd, including me, gathered around to take their pictures and to see how the colorful makeup was applied.

Actress putting on her makeup.
I returned to our seat as the show began.  Men with long spouted teapots - I'm talking three to five foot spouts - went around filling and refilling the tea cups.  Watching them fill a tea cup from a distance away was a show all by itself.

The show started with musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments.  This was followed by puppetry, singing, dancing. performances resembling opera, and comedy routines.  One of the most interesting was a man doing shadow puppets on a big screen.  He was amazing.

Chinese opera dancer.
The show ended with the amazing face changing dancers (Bian Lian).  The dancers have amazing costumes and their faces are covered.  In a split second the masks change over and over.  It is so fast you can't really see what it happening.  Their method is a secret - only males are taught because would marry out of the family and take the secret with them.  As with all secrets, more outsiders are learning the trick.  It was so mesmerizing I didn't even take a picture of them, the main attraction of the Sichuan Opera.

That night I didn't sleep well.  I think I was suffering from a lack of food, water, and the drop in altitude.  I was in a weird mood and I had difficulty clearing my head enough to sleep.  I was awake at 3:00 AM to hear the people cheering the Euro 2012 games in the bar next door to the hotel.

Day Ten

A terrible night's sleep meant a crappy start to day ten.  I was tired, cranky, and a little wobbly on my feet.  I felt sick.  I tried my best to hide it as we boarded the bus to go to the Chengdu Research base for Panda Breeding.

The Giant Panda - a relative of the raccoon, not the bear.
The morning was drizzly.  This means it was hot and humid.  We arrived at the research station and followed a guide as he took us to the panda enclosure.  The guide was not familiar with what General Tours' groups did but our guide Malinda knew and she let him know exactly what she expected.  The station guide was taken aback but did exactly what she told him.  (Our guide said that Beijing women are known for being pushy and you could hear it in her voice when she talked to the station guide.)  We were led into a building with cages (We were followed in by Chinese tourists who were curious where these foreigners were going.  They were shooed out by the station guide - Chinese can be a little pushy at times).

Inside the building we were given smocks, booties, and gloves to protect the pandas from any strange diseases we may be carrying.  I put this extra layer on and my temp went up immediately.  We helped cut apples for the panda.  Fortunately we'd arrived at the station a little late and the cages had already been cleaned out (cleaning out the cages is one of the things the tours usually did).  A couple panda cubs were called into a cage and, one at a time, we each placed a piece of apple on the end of a stick and fed it to the pandas.  We then went outside and, using a much larger stick ( 'pole' would be a better word), we fed other pandas in the open air pen.  The pandas were trained to stand on their hind legs to get food - this helped them get exercise.  Not feeling great I stood back and skipped this part and just watched the others feed the pandas.  After this it was back into the enclosure where we gave the cubs a bath with a hose.  I skipped this as well.

Panda standing to get a treat and to exercise.
As soon as our panda volunteer experience was over I tore of the smack, booties and gloves and practically ran next door to a small shop and bought bottles of water (and a magnet of course).  I downed my water on the way to our next stop - the babies.  For a $200 donation you could get your picture taken holding a baby panda.  The "baby" was larger than most teddy bears.  The Wife and I decided not to hold the baby.  All the other women in our group payed up and held the baby.  None of the men did.  As we were waiting for the women to cycle through the baby holding experience I found a chair in an air conditioned space and slowly felt myself return from the dead.

It was getting close to lunch time and we headed for the center's restaurant.  Along the way we saw a relative to the panda, the red panda, which showed very clearly that pandas were not bears.  Panda, both the black and white ones and the red ones, are most closely related to the raccoon.  The red panda were more raccoon-like and very cute.

Huge, and hungry, koi.
We ate lunch at the center in a small restaurant not far from a lake.  The lake was full of huge koi and black swans (a first for me).  I decided to go western at the restaurant and ordered spaghetti.  Best. Damn. Spaghetti. Ever!  Well it wasn't that great but it did complete my resurrection.   I'd obviously not eaten enough or had enough liquids in the last twenty-four hours.  I decided to top off the tank with one of those mystery Magnum ice cream bars - the Chinese description apparently said vanilla with dark chocolate coating - Yum!

As we were leaving the drizzle that had been lingering all day turned into a light rain.  We huddled under umbrellas while people of our group went through the little panda center gift shop where all things panda could be purchased before boarding the bus and heading back to the airport.

Flight number six took us to Xi'an.  Our guide was born near Xi'an in, what she described as, a small town ... of 200,000.  When you have a population of 1.35 Billion your idea of small becomes a bit skewed.  I think she was happy to be in a more familiar place.

On the bus to the hotel, for the first time, our guide suggested that there were parts of the city that were not safe for tourists.  This convinced most of our group to stay in the hotel that night and not go out.  We ended up ordering burgers from room service - something almost everyone in our group did - and had a satisfying western meal.  The burger, after almost ten days of Chinese food ... was awesome.

Pictures from days nine and ten (07/01 - 07/02/2012) can be found in my 2012-06 China Google Photos album.

Our 2012 Asian Adventure continues ...

Sunday, September 09, 2012

2012 Asian Adventure - Up On The Roof ... Of The World

Day Seven

Tibet.  The roof of the world.  The two days spent here were some of the more special ones on this trip.

We ate breakfast at the hotel.  We were the only westerners except for a couple, probably of European flavor.  The lack of westerners would be palpable as we moved around Lhasa.  We kind of stuck out.  The lack of westerners also emphasized just how lucky we were to be there.

On the bus and away we went to Norbulingka, the  Dalai Lama's summer palace.  The large complex includes several palaces/temples, a zoo (which we did not visit), and extensive gardens.  We went from palace to temple riding a couple trams.  The architecture and the gardens were incredible.  This is where we discovered that Buddhist monks, at least in Tibet, are camera shy and do not like their pictures taken.  The Buddhist have led much of the protests against the Chinese and exposure may result in  ... trouble ... for the monks.  In Tibet, and the rest of China I expect, to become a monk you must be licensed by the government.    These licenses are getting harder and harder to get and the ranks of the Buddhist monks and nuns is steadily shrinking.

Intricate carving on a column in Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's Summer Palace.

As I was looking at the gardens surrounding a temple, a gentleman in a suit came up to me and casually asked where I was from and how many days we were visiting Tibet.  I told him we were American and, having misunderstood, told him were were staying for sixteen days (The length of our stay in China).  When his eyes grew big I realized my error and said we would be in Tibet for two days.  That calmed him down and, as he walked away, he said that he was from Tokyo.  For some reason I didn't believe him.  In Tibet you always feel watched.

Norbulingka.
After the palace we stopped for lunch.  During our stay in Lhasa I expanded my culinary experience slightly by eating Yak meat.  It tasted like beef, naturally since yaks are bovines, and was a little tough.

After lunch we walked a block or so to Barkhor Plaza.  On the bus our guide had told us that he could answer any of our questions on the bus but in the plaza we had to be careful as there were microphones and people were listening to what we said.  You became keenly aware of all the check points we passed through.  At one point I was walking ahead of the group with another of our group and, apparently, this didn't make the police manning the checkpoints happy.  They talked to our guide.  Seeing the looks we were getting we rejoined the group.

Barkhor Plaza seen from the top of the Jokhang temple.
The Potala palace can be seen in the background on the right.
At Barkhor Plaza we went through a more rigorous checkpoint.  This plaza is famous for two reasons: The Jokhang temple, the holiest of places for Tibetan Buddhists, and the location of several recent self-immolations of Buddhist monks protesting the Chinese control.  This is where I felt the most watched.  Every now and then you would notice a person who didn't belong hanging around the edge of our group.  I am sure we were on video from several angles as well.  It was a bit oppressive.

As we waited for the group to get together to enter the Jokhang temple I noticed something on the ground near a group of police.  It looked like a large clamp, large enough to reach around the hips, connected to a long pole.  Next to it were two fire extinguishers.  They were partially covered by a tarp.  I knew what I was seeing.  The clamp was used to secure anyone attempting to self-immolate so they couldn't run around and the extinguishers were there to put them out if they succeeded.  It sent a shiver up my spine.  I noticed during the changing of the guard at least two of the soldiers carried fire extinguishers on their backs.

Jokhang temple is old, from the seventh century.  We passed by several people prostrating themselves in front of the temple.  This would be a common sight during our visits to temples.  Worshipers often prostrated themselves tens, if not hundreds, of times per day.

The temple was built for a King's two wives, one Chinese and one Nepali.  Both brides brought sacred statues from their respective cultures including a statue of Buddha said to be 2,500 years old.  Photography and all liquids are not permitted in the temple so I have no pictures of the beautiful statuary and temple interiors.  This prohibition of photography would extend to all the Buddhist temples we visited.

Tibetan women sitting in a shop.
The second from the left is holding a prayer wheel.
After the temple we shopped along the sides of the plaza before visiting a shop to see craftsmen painting thangkas.  The intricately painted cloth hangings were incredible detailed.  We didn't buy one here but we would find one in Nepal.

Painting a thangka.
Our first day in Tibet ended with a nice dinner out with the group.

Day Eight

Most of us woke up with headaches.  We later decided that while some of it was due to the altitude, a major component was all the incense we'd breathed in the day before.  Every temple we went to was full of incense smoke.  Some of our group bought surgical masks, a common sight on the street in Tibet and China, to help filter out the smoke.

Our second Tibet day was the big one for me as we were scheduled to visit the Potala Palace.  Due to the large number of visitors to the palace, you were given a ninety minute window to visit.  This means you had to arrive and climb the 300+ steps and be at the main palace door at a specific time and, once you entered the palace, your party had to leave by before the ninety minutes had expired.  Not making it would hurt the guide, possible resulting in them losing their guide license.

Circumnavigating the Gong De Lin Si Temple.
Our window for the palace was around 11:00 AM so we had time to visit another temple first to observe the Kora, a type of Buddhist pilgrimage and/or meditation.   The Kora consist of circumnavigating around a holy site while reciting a mantra or prayer.  Holy sites may include stupa, temples, the Potala Palace, even the city of Lhasa itself.  In Buddhism the Kora is always walked clockwise.  Other local faiths walk in the counterclockwise direction.  Holy sites such as stupa, temples, and the Potala Palace have prayer wheels along their exterior walls.  The prayer wheel contain prayers and mantras.  Spinning the wheels is the same as reciting the prayer orally.  As the pilgrims circumnavigate the site they spin the prayer wheels.   Many Tibetan carry small handheld prayer wheels which they constantly spin as they walk.  Everywhere we went in Tibet we saw people circling the buildings doing their Kora.

Prayer wheels at the Potala palace.
Arriving at the temple we joined the people walking around the stupa.  Next to the stupa were stacks of slate with prayers and mantras carved on them.  As we left the site we passed artisans engraving the slate stones.  I bought a palm sized stone with the mantra carved on it.  Another of the group bought a large piece of carved slate - we wondered if she would have problems getting that on the flight home but apparently it didn't give her any problems.

The Potala palace, home of the Dalai Lama.
Back on the bus we headed to the Potala Palace.  The views were magnificent.  While all of China was shrouded in clouds/fog/smog, the skies over Tibet were clear and blue.  We started up the stairs taking our time as we all were a little short of breath.  A few of the people in our group were elderly and they had to take it slow but we all managed to make it.  We arrived at the door a few minutes early and we got our tickets and went in.  The palace, home to the Dalai Lama before he was forced into exile in 1959, is magnificent.  Once again pictures were not allowed inside the palace so all we could take away were memories.  I have to admit I have never seen so many statues of Buddha in one place ... well ... I have now.  We made it out with only a few minutes to spare.

Nun gathering water ... this soon lead to a water fight amongst the nuns.
After a quick stop for lunch we headed for the Buddhist Ani Canggu nunnery.  We got off the bus and walked through the narrow streets passing stores, including a furniture store owned by our guide's family (We met his sister and aunt), before we arrived at a rather unassuming door.  Inside was a courtyard surrounded by the  living quarters and temple of the nunnery.  As we explored the nunnery we admired the cleanliness of the place and how well cared for it was.  The nuns were much more meticulous than the monks.  The nuns also turned out to be much nicer than the monks.  The nuns were fine with photography, the monks were not.  The nuns welcomed us, the monks were more aloof.  As we walked around there was a commotion in the courtyard.   Before we knew it water was flying all over the place as the nuns engaged in a water fight.  The nuns were smiling and laughing - releasing pressure before they reentered the temple to continue their prayers.  It was one of those spontaneous moments that makes traveling special.

The water fight ended and the nuns began filing into the temple.  We went up the stairs hoping to get a glimpse of the prayers.  Seeing us at the door, the nuns waved us in.  The monks would never had done this.  We stood lining the back wall as the nuns sat and chanted in unison.  They would do this hours at a time.  When they were not eating, sleeping, or working, they were praying.  A nun waved the Wife over and she went in and sat next to the nun.  It was very emotional for the Wife, and most of the women in our group. Tears were shed by some as we witnessed the deep devotion of the nuns.  I know this was one of the highlights of the Wife's trip.

Nuns praying.
Everyone who visits a temple gives a donation.  The donations are collected and a large portion of it goes to the Chinese government.  The nunnery had a store where they sold hand crafts.  All the money from these sales went to the nuns.  Our group made sure they were well compensated for their hospitality.

One hallmark of the General Tours is a visit with a family.  After the nunnery we went to a family's house  to see how the average Tibetan lived.  The family was a friend of our bus driver.  When we got there we discovered that only one of the family members would meet with us, the others afraid to be seen with foreigners.  Our hostess served yak butter tea, yak milk cheese, as well as the local Tibetan barley wine.  I skipped the wine and cheese but drank the tea - I wanted to be polite.  It was not to my liking but then I do not like tea in general.  We toured the house and admired their Buddhist shrine.  When we'd seen most of the house our driver came in and talked to our guides and we were hurried out.  Apparently the neighbors were a little leery about all the foreigners milling about.  The fact that we were making the dogs bark probably didn't help either.  As we pulled away from the house we all hoped we hadn't gotten the family in trouble.

A cup of yak butter tea.
That night, after dinner and some more shopping at Barkhor plaza we went to a live show.  The show was optional and we would have to buy the tickets.  Out Tibetan guide, a little wheeler-dealer, arranged VIP seats for the price of the cheap seats.  We were seated in the second row with almost no one seated in front of us.  A couple of little girls did sit in the front row in front of me.  Every now and then they would look over their shoulders at me and giggle.  The show was a mixture of music and dance and told the story of Tibet.  It was very entertaining.  The only mark on the night was, near the end of the show, a huge Chinese flag was lowered spanning the entire stage. You could feel the change in the atmosphere in the auditorium ... a definite chill.  The night ended with the dancers throwing silk scarves to members of our group (giving white scarves (Katas) is a form of welcome in Buddhism - we received three this trip - similar to Hawaiian leis).  The dancer in the picture below threw hers to the little girls.

Tibetan Dancers.
The two days in Tibet were some of the best of our entire trip.  You could feel the strength of the people even as they were being held down.  I have been in places with strong military presences (Guatemala during their war with the gorillas comes to mind) but I've never felt the sensation of constantly being watched like I did in Tibet.

As I said, we were lucky to get into Tibet.  During our stay here, except for the couple at our hotel, we saw no other caucasian travelers.  When we were at the temples and palace we were the only ones.  As we walked around we drew stares from the Tibetans.  This attention included the squeezing of butts by little Tibetan women - American women were a little more... big-boned than Tibetans were used to.  (The Wife's butt was squeeze by a nun ... she returned the favor.)  One of our group was even bitten - a gentle bite on the arm is a sign of endearment between mother and child in Tibet.

Two weeks after we left another monk self-immolated.  More followed.  I'm sure if it had happened earlier we would not have been able to experience Tibet like we did.  I just wonder how much longer there will be a Tibet to enjoy.

Pictures from days seven and eight (06/29 - 06/30/2012) can be found in my 2012-06 Tibet Google Photos album.

Our 2012 Asian Adventure continues ...

Sunday, September 02, 2012

2012 Asian Adventure - Cruising the Three Gorges (Part Two)

Day Five

Hilltop temple in the morning mist along the Yangtze river.
On our last full day on the Yangtze Explorer we had a choice to make.  We could either go to the relocation village or we could go to the Ghost City.  The relocation village would take you to a village relocated after the water level rose to see how people were taken care of after the dam was built and "get a glimpse of real life in China".  The Ghost City is a temple that represents the Chinese afterlife.

Now, our tour group had been together for a whole four days and we were already getting along awesomely so it was no surprise when everyone said, almost in unison, "Ghost City!"  Our guide was a little flabbergasted I think.  Most of us tour goers are interested in the old China and all the history.  The guide was pushing the modern China.  China has a very different way of looking at its history.  History is to be forgotten and put away to allow for the new, be it a new dynasty or a new form of government, to be front and center, one example of how Confucianism affects Chinese thought.  Elders are to be respected but, as soon as they die, all pictures, painting, or other images of the Elder along with all of his/her possessions are to be disposed of.  That is how China treats its history ... they dispose of it.  I think, it has only changed recently once they realized travelers would pay to see it.

So, instead of seeing the modern China of the relocation village, we went to the Ghost City.  Our guide came with us ... a bit reluctantly I think.  While she said she was not religious she said the city made her nervous.  It may have been the depictions of ghosts and the tortures of Hell ... or it may have been the over 600 steps we would have to climb to get there.

A protector of the heavenly realm.
After climbing steps from the ship up to street level we took a tram to the entrance of the Ghost City.  From there we walked the shop-keeper gauntlet and then up even more steps up to the temples.  To make it feel bit more like Hell, a new escalator had been installed next to the steps we went up ... but they were not working yet.  At the top we passed temples and shrines of various protectors, warriors, and gods.

We reached a set of three bridges -  one of the tests needed to pass into heaven.  One gives you health.  One gives you wealth.  One gives you love.  If I remember right you had to cross the bridge in seven steps so The Wife and I held hands and walked across the love bridge.  Neither of us was thrown into the water so we passed the test.

Golden God.
After another temple we walked a path lined with representations of ghosts, each representing a sin or a virtue.  The statues looked very new but they are supposed to be old.  The temple were built almost 1,600 years ago and rebuilt a thousand years later so a lot of the complex is close to six hundred years old.  This temple complex, unlike many we saw, was not destroyed during the cultural revolution because the soldiers were afraid - They didn't want to end up in Hell.  Who would?

An inebriated ghost.
At the top is a temple to the head deity who determines if you go to Hell or Paradise.  In the temple there were statues depicting the tortures of hell.  Many of these were pretty gruesome.  I see why the superstitious soldiers left everything intact.

By the time we'd gone through the whole temple complex and had returned to the ship I'd pretty much sweated through every item of clothing I was wearing.  It didn't seem hot but the humidity ....

There were things scheduled that afternoon aboard ship.  I ended up skipping some of it.  After a shower and lunch I skipped the Captain's tour of the bridge and the Chinese painting and Calligraphy demonstrations.  Instead I went to the ship's spa and had a ninety minute Chinese Acupressure massage.  When I showed up at the spa I pointed at the acupressure treatment.  They looked at my choice and asked if I were sure I wanted that and tried to steer me more towards a Swedish style massage.  I insisted and take into a room by the tiny little lady who proceeded to kneed my muscles with the strength of an amazon.  I swear she could have snapped your neck like a twig ... with one tiny little hand.  I also discovered that a little pain, when applied appropriately really relaxes your muscles.  The ninety minutes went by like seconds and I left feeling incredible

My massage ended in time for me to join the mahjong class already in progress.  I watched over the Wife's shoulder and learned the basic rules.  After coming really close to winning her first game, the Wife turned her place over to me where I proceeded to lose the next three games ... coming close to winning only once.  (SH from San Diego won all four games.)

We were all winding down from our three days on the ship and we were all ready to move on to the next stage of our China trip.  We were all getting a little tired of the hazy sunshine and the lack of wildlife - I saw a total of four birds over the three days.  Our guide and the ship's crew couldn't really give us an explanation for the lack of wildlife.  We all suspected a combination of habitat destruction by the dam and pollution.

Our last full day on the river ended with a Captain's dinner with a variety of Chinese food.  All the staff were in costume. We dressed up as best we could - I didn't really pack any really nice clothes but I did have a button down shirt and a nice, but casual, pair of pants.  The food, which up until then was excellent (we all ate way too much on that ship), was only mediocre.  Chinese cuisine is not on the top of my list but it was good enough.

I mentioned that I'd developed a disinterest in cruising.  I have to say my experience aboard the Yangtze Explorer has change my opinion a bit.  Small, intimate, informal cruises up interesting rivers now have an attraction.  I'm already thinking about taking cruises up the Nile and Amazon rivers someday.

Day Six

Our ship had docked in Chongqing the night before.  We had time to kill before our afternoon flight so we got on a bus and went to a shopping district in old Chongqing.  Our guide gave us some time and the Wife and I wandered around, priced a few things, explored the exotic shops (at least for us) and restaurants.  This street felt more authentic compared to what we'd seen in Shanghai.  We didn't buy anything.  We did look at the food ... but octopus tentacles on a stick didn't seem appealing.

Chongqing market street - the Panda is our guide ... follow the panda.
From there we went to the airport.  This is where the weirdness started.  Our next flight was taking us to Lhasa, Tibet and security was tight ... excessively so.  Our guide had told us she was worried about Tibet.  We were on a group visa which meant if one of us got sick and couldn't travel then all of us would not be able to go.  We could not be carrying an "excessive amount of literature" like magazines or books about Tibet.  We had to start being careful what we said and who we spoke to.  The guide also emphasized how lucky we were to have gotten our visa since Tibet had been shut down since some tourists unfurled a "Free Tibet" sign and several monks had self-immolated.

We got through security without any issues and we took the short flight to Lhasa.  From the plane you could see the hills become mountains and plains become valleys.  As we approached the Lhasa airport I looked out the window and saw anti-aircraft missile batteries ... we weren't in Kansas anymore.

Flying over the Himalayan foothills.
We were met at the airport by our Tibetan guide (Full blooded Tibetan - not a Chinese Tibetan), Max, who led us to the bus and talked about Tibet on the way to Lhasa (The airport is about an hour outside the city).  From the beginning you could see there was some tension between our two guides.  I perfect example of the Han Chinese - Tibetan relationship.

Lhasa is divided into old and new towns.  Old Lhasa is Tibetan.  New Lhasa is Han Chinese.  Lhasa is now half Chinese.  We passed through new Lhasa on the way to our hotel and passed several mining and drilling ministry buildings.  I now know why China wants total control of Tibet.

We checked into our hotel.  I crossed the street to a small store and bought some soda and water ... I even used one of the hand signals to indicate that I wanted six cans of Coke Zero.  The rest of the evening was resting, eating, and resting some more.  I felt very tired, had a mild headache, and I felt like I was floating - all altitude related I suspect.  Lhasa would be our highest spot during our Asia trip at 11,450 ft (3,490 m).  Our Tibetan adventure would start tomorrow.

Pictures from days five and six (06/27 - 06/28/2012) can be found in my 2012-06 China Google Photos album.

Our 2012 Asian Adventure continues ...