Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Day 4: Beijing Zoo and Acrobats

Alex had to work Tuesday afternoon, so we spent the morning shopping for souvenirs together on Wanfujing street. If ever it was in doubt before, this was when I fully cemented my position as master haggler extraordinaire. Some hints to those of you who will be in haggling situations in the near future:

1. Don't need the item. If they think you are likely to walk away from it, they will be much more likely to offer a plausible asking price.

2. Give them your money to hold. If you'd really be willing to pay $10 for something, give them $5 to hold. If they won't come down to $5, ask for your money back. They really don't want to give back money they're already holding!!

After lunch, Alex went off to work and I went off for my own solo adventure: the Beijing Zoo! I love animals, and I couldn't wait to see the famous pandas, so I was really looking forward to this excursion. The zoo itself was built like most others--a maze of sidewalks that don't follow any discernible pattern or organization. Thank god there were English versions of the maps! My first stop, of course, was at the panda exhibit!

Apparently it was lunch time for the pandas. If you don't find this video of a panda chowing down one of the cutest things ever, you don't have a soul.

I couldn't get very many good shots on the inside because of the poor lighting, crowds, and the fact that the pandas were very clearly "so over" their notoriety and were mostly interested in eating and sleeping.

There were a couple of other pandas outside.

This sign made me laugh...always good advice at a zoo!

Here I am, thinking about leaping across the rails to pet the fuzzy panda!

The rest of the zoo was ok. Having been to the San Diego Zoo before, I know what an outstanding zoo is like, so the conditions here were a little depressing. There was not much at all in the way of habitat replication for these animals. Most of them, if they were outside at all, were lucky to be on hard-packed dirt. Many just had cement. However, they were still the lucky ones. The vast majority of the animals were inside in cages. Even the rhinos and elephants were inside!! Most of them were caged individually, not even allowing for socialization (or commiseration). Here, spectators are feeding this bear bits of cotton candy (this goes back to the locals' complete disregard for any kind of rules!):

Other than that, the only other thing of note was that there was a dog pound as part of the zoo! I guess people in Beijing (or all Chinese??) don't really have large dogs as pets, so there was a kennel full of medium- to large-sized dogs--Dalmatians, German Shepards, St. Bernards, Labs. I thought it was a funny sight for a zoo, but I guess those animals are just as exotic as camels!

Click here if you'd like to see other shots from the zoo, including some funny-looking birds and monkeys and other, more pedestrian zoo sights (camels, tigers, turtles, etc...).

After meeting Alex back at the hotel for dinner, we took one last trip--the Beijing Acrobats show! We arranged this trip through the hotel, so we had a "guide" and had a cab arranged to pick us up and take us to the theater. Our "guide" was a young girl who had at least four large shopping bags with her--I guess we had interrupted her shopping for the day. She went with us in the cab, purchased our tickets for us from the box office, and took us to our seats. Then she left! That was her whole job! I wondered how much we would have saved if we had just done it ourselves.

The different acts were entertaining and there was a fair amount of "Ooooh and Aaaah" moments, so all-in-all the show was worth it.

Click here if you want to see other pictures of the Beijing Acrobats in action!

We packed our things when we got back to the hotel and got up bright and early the next morning for our flight from Beijing to Shanghai. We had a long layover in Shanghai, so we took the MagLev train into the city and walked along the Bundt, the boardwalk of Shanghai. The sea breeze was either idle or reversed that day, so the pollution was hanging over the city like a thick fog. We saw a street sponsored by Pepsi and ate lunch at a Pizza Hut, which was fine dining there! There was even escargot on the menu!

Here's a video of the MagLev train in full swing: 432 km/hr!

The view from the Bundt. As you can see, the pollution is even terrible on a coastal town!

The Pepsi Street:

After a few hours in Shanghai, we took the train back to the airport for our flight home! The flight back wasn't nearly as grueling as the flight over. That's the benefit of traveling with your best friend instead of alone!

All in all it was a whirlwind, fantabulous trip! We feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to go, even if just for a couple of days.

Thanks for keeping up with our journeys! Now that I've got a little more free time on my hands, I can catch up with all the blogs I've fallen behind on, including the MS150 (a two-day bike ride from Houston to Austin) and my half-ironman race!!

I hope your lives have been less busy but just as wonderful as mine has these last few months!


Friday, April 18, 2008

Day 3: The Ming Tombs, THE GREAT WALL, and the Donghuamen Night Market

On our third day in Beijing, we took the BIG TOUR. It's the whole reason I even went on this trip. Seeing and walking on the Great Wall of China is one of my Bucket-List items. We had great weather and were lucky to be paired with our fleet-footed, ever-so-elusive guide, Allen, again.

In order to give any mist time to burn off and the temperature time to rise, we started the day with the Ming Tombs. Many emperors of the Ming Dynasty are buried here, but only a few of the tombs have been excavated. The tomb we visited was the tomb of the 3rd Ming emperor, a general who seized control from his nephew (the 2nd Ming emperor). When the Emperor died, his 18 favorite wives were buried alive with him, 9 on each side of his tomb. That sucks.

To get to the tomb, we passed through the Yin-Yang Gate. This served as the gateway between the world of the living and the world of the dead. You had to step through leading with your right foot and come back leading with your left foot, and when you came back through, you had to shout some saying and then jump up and down and wipe any lingering spirits off of you. I would have been suspicious that this was all just an elaborate ploy to make foreign tourists look like idiots, but other groups of Chinese tourists were doing it, too.

This is the Emperor's head stone! As Allen explained to us, if you're an emperor, everything that has to do with you is much bigger than normal. As with a traditional headstone, the body was buried just behind it. If you look to the back of the picture, you will see trees on a hillside. That hillside was the emperor-sized coffin mound! The Emperor's body is buried under that hill.

Click here to see more pictures of the Ming Tombs!

After the Ming tombs, we had lunch at the local jade factory (and got to spend a great deal of time in their showroom and gift shop), and then it was off to the GREAT WALL!! We went to the Badaling section of the wall, the best-preserved and most popular section close to the Beijing area. We were told this big rock says "The Great Wall of China," but really, for all we know, it could say "Chairman Mao rocks!"

The wall was very steep in some places, making it a great hill workout for me. Alex was able to keep up with me without much difficulty, and even beat me on a short race up! Another challenge of the wall was that the stairs weren't uniform in height. Some of them were two-inches tall, others were two-feet tall!

You can kind of get a sense for how steep it was in places in this shot! The going up was hard, but the coming down was hard, too! By the time we were almost back to the bottom, our legs were shaking!

Here you can see the fantastic view. It was still very early spring, so there wasn't a whole lot of green yet, but you can get a sense of the mountainous terrain and the wall that just goes on into the distance.

Click here to see more pictures of the Great Wall!

That night, we went back to our favorite shopping area, Wanfujing Street, which was only a short seven-minute walk from our hotel. It was just off Wanfujing that we discovered the Donghuamen Night Market!

This 1/4-mile row of food carts serves tasty snacks and delicacies almost exclusively on sticks! Many carts offered sugar-coated fruit, which wasn't really all that exciting, except that they had these really tiny apples (the size of golf balls!). The majority of the carts, however, offered much more exotic fare! I know what you're all thinking, but no, we did not get anything. The locals were buying, the tourists were taking pictures and staring.

Giant prawns (on a stick)

Grasshoppers and black scorpions (on a stick)

Grubs (big, fat worms) guessed it--on a stick.

Click here to see more pictures of the Donghuamen Night Market, including bees on a stick, centipedes on a stick, sea urchins (not on a stick), and a great example of "Chinglish"--what happens when Chinese people try to translate stuff into English!

We grabbed dinner in a small, local restaurant near the CCTV tower (the tallest tower in Beijing). This time we knew not to order too much. We had a feast of peanut chicken, steamed rice, and broccoli, for the equivalent of $4 (total). Sweet! We also caught a great view of the city from the top of the tower and were inundated with Olympic stuff! Click here for some shots of the tower, the city, and me giving an Olympic press conference!

It was a wonderful, exhausting day! On our last day in Beijing, I went to the zoo and saw the famous pandas and Alex and I caught a show of Chinese acrobats. I'll post pictures of that soon.

Thanks for keeping up with our travels and stories!


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Day 2: The Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and more!

OK, Day 2!

We figured the best way to see as much as possible in our limited time was to go on a guided tour. While Alex and I both like the freedom of being on our own schedule (like we did in Ireland last year), we also liked the idea of being able to ask a guide to give us the inside information on the places we were visiting...especially since it wouldn't have been easy to find someone else who spoke English! So we signed up for two guided tours: one that would take us to the Forbidden City (a.k.a., the Imperial Palace), the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven, and another that would take us to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs.

Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into! Our guide for both tours was Allen (Chinese name Yun least, I think that's what it was). He was a short, Chinese 20-something. He wore a black business coat (long) and carried a briefcase (which I never saw him open). He did NOT carry a flag or wear a colorful hat or do anything else that would distinguish him from the other 10 million short Chinese people wearing black. And he was on a mission: to get us herded through the cool sights in as little time as possible so that we would have more time to spend in the tourist traps (a.k.a., the Pearl and Silk factories). So he walked really fast. When we stopped to take pictures, finding him again was like trying to find Waldo...only Allen wasn't wearing a striped shirt. So it was like a Where's Waldo where Waldo looks just like everyone else.

Aside from the ever-elusive guide issues, both our tours were great. The weather was gorgeous both days, and even though we did have to go a lot faster than we would have liked, it really was the only way we could have gotten in everything that we did.

Our first stop on Tour Day 1 was the Imperial Palace, otherwise known as the Forbidden City. It is called this because until about 60 years ago, only members of the imperial family were allowed to see/be inside it. It was completely forbidden, upon pain of death, for any commoners to not only go inside but also to simply look inside! The grounds were massive. The complex was divided into three different sections: the front section was the business offices, the middle section was the residential part, and the back section was the gardens. There were 9,999 rooms! This is because 9 is an important number in Chinese lore, and because only gods were allowed to do anything with 10,000 of anything. Allen explained that if a person was born in the FC and visited a different room every day, he or she wouldn't repeat a room until they were 27 years old!!

Here's Alex in the first courtyard of the palace. It was SO big!

This is the beginning of the residential part of the palace. Over to the left of the picture, you can see two golden lions. These represented the Emperor and Empress. The Emperor lion held the world (a sphere) under his paw, and the Empress held a baby lion under her paw.

This was the "honeymoon suite" of the palace. After getting married, the Emperor and his new wife would spend two days in this room. It couldn't be an extended honeymoon because the Emperor got married every 2 to 3 weeks! Emperors typically had more than 2,000 wives!

Click here to see the Day 2 photo album with lots of other shots of the grounds and the gardens.

After the Forbidden City we went to the Temple of Heaven. This was the temple where the emperors went to pray for a good harvest. It was a gorgeous area--very wide open!

This is a shot of the steps leading up to the front of the temple. The dragon-carved stone in front of Alex was the part that the Emperor walked on. No one else was allowed to step on that part!

Click here to see the Day 2 photo album and more pictures of the Temple of Heaven.

After the Temple of Heaven we went to the Summer Palace. This was perhaps the area that we did the least justice. It's not actually a palace--it's a summer resort for the imperial family. It was massive--7 times the size of the entire Forbidden City. We easily could have spent the entire day there, but we went in, went straight to the lake, took a boat ride across the lake, and left. We did get some nice shots of the grounds, though, and learned some very interesting things!

This was the entrance to the Summer Palace. The entire grounds is heavily wooded to help the imperial family escape the heat of summer. As you can see, Alex and I were in China right at the beginning of spring, so we were able to catch some beautiful blooming trees. Check out that white!

This is the famous marble boat. No, it doesn't float. It's marble. The story goes, the Summer Palace was built in the time of the infamous Dragon Lady, the mother of a 4-year-old emperor. She would sit behind a curtain behind her son and basically tell him what to do to rule the country. She was cruel and just a *bit* eccentric. She was the driving force behind the construction of the resort grounds. She had the lake dug, and the earth removed from that was piled next to the lake to create a man-made hill on which the residential buildings sat. She also had a lot of money to spend on building the first Chinese navy, but she spent a great deal of that on building this marble boat instead. And she stayed young-looking by drinking breast milk. From the source. Yeah.

Here's a shot of the residential buildings of resort. We got to ride across the lake on really cool dragon boats. But that meant that we didn't walk around the buildings at all. So you'll just have to imagine their opulence. It had to have been a pretty sweet view, though!

Click here to see the Day 2 photo album, including more pictures of the grounds, the dragon boats, and a Chinese Bevo!

After the Summer Palace, we went to the Pearl and Silk factories. They were both very interesting--we learned and witnessed how pearls are harvested from fresh-water oysters (and we got a couple of small ones as souvenirs!), and we learned and witnessed how silk worms' cocoons are stacked and stretched into luxurious silk blankets. Both of the demonstrations lasted about 5 minutes. We then had about 45 minutes in each of the factories' show rooms/gift stores. It was the only time on our tour Allen wasn't in a hurry to get us to the next place! We *almost* bought a beautiful blue silk duvet, but we came to our senses in the nick of time and walked away.

So, our second day in China was full of perfect weather, interesting factoids, and great sights! We went down to the Wanfujing shopping area that night to walk around and discovered the Donghuamen Night Market. Those are pictures you won't want to miss! I'll post those, along with our trip to the Great Wall, next!

Thanks for visiting,

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Day 1: Tian'anmen Square and Temples

The first day was cold and misty...not the ideal weather for tourist-ing around a city, but c'est la vie. Luckily our hotel was only a short walk from Tian'anmen Square, so that's where we started. It was cool to be in such a historic place!

The funniest part of this day is that I started to understand how much I stood out from the crowd. When Alex would stop and take a picture of me in front of a landmark, 2 or 3 other people would also take a picture of me! I got lots and lots and lots of stares. Alex also was quite a phenomenon. One guy took a picture of him--he was trying to be sly, but Alex noticed--and then the guy was startled when Alex took a picture of him!

This is looking into Tian'anmen Square. The tall skinny thing is a monument to the people, and the big building in the background is Chairman Mao's memorial.

They really do love Chairman Mao!

Here's Alex in front of the gate in Tian'anmen. As you can see, Chairman Mao's portrait has been hung in a very honorable, prominent place!

There were groups of soldiers marching by every 20 minutes or so. I thought it would be funny to get a picture of me marching with them. When they realized what I was doing, they didn't think it was funny. At all.

We left Tian'anmen Square and took the subway (what an adventure! From the looks I got, it was not a place that tourists frequent!) to the Lama and Confucius Temples. They were both beautiful, serene places filled with people praying and paying their respects.

The Confucius Temple grounds. That's Confucius himself. Well, not really, but you know.

A giant bell and bell ringer at the Lama Temple. You can see the ornate architecture in the background.

If you'd like to see more pictures of Tian'anmen Square, the two temples, our hotel, our first attempt at ordering lunch and tea, and the infamous "pant slits" on the kids, check out the Day 1 photo album.

Next I'll post about Day 2, including the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, and the world's hardest-to-follow tour guide!

Thanks for visiting!


Thursday, April 3, 2008

Getting There

After about five hours of sleep, I left the house at about 4:15 a.m. last Thursday morning. I'm fairly used to getting up around 5 or so, so it wasn't really that bad. The plan: 2.5-hour flight to Chicago, 14-hour flight to Shanghai (up and over the N. pole), then a 2-hour flight to Beijing. Coupled with layovers, it would equal a total travel time of almost exactly 24 hours.

There were lots of very interesting people in the waiting area at the gate in Chicago. There was an old Chinese man wearing a single gray glove, kind of like a weird, Twilight-Zone, Chinese version of Michael Jackson. There was a gay couple--one white, one Chinese--who were watching episodes of The Family Guy on a laptop way too loud. The funny thing about these guys is that they both had headphones around their neck. I guess they were more like fashion accessories than actual functional headphones. And there was a couple from Dallas who were on their way to pick up their Chinese adopted baby. What a trip it would be for them!

I got to my seat on the long flight before my seat-mate arrived. I was hoping for good luck here -- a bad seat mate on a 14-hour flight can be deadly. A middle-aged man approached and gestured to the seat next to me. I noticed he had a surgical-style face mask on his back pack. I thought maybe he, too, had heard about the awful pollution in China and had brought it for his trip. I was wrong.

Turns out the guy was a germ-a-phobe. He brought the mask so that he wouldn't contract TB on the flight. He then launched in a diatribe about "nasty" blankets and pillows that we are given. Super. Kind of just made me want to snuggle into my American Airlines blanket and sneeze on him.

The flight was really ... really ... really long. Although there were movies and TV shows on the little seat-back screens (30 Rock just never gets old), 14 hours is still a hard flight. I finally got to see Juno, though. Liked it. We were also an hour late getting out of Chicago, and I knew I only had a two-hour window in Shanghai in which I had to go through customs and then make my connection. It was a little stressful, but I knew that at the end of it all I would see Alex's smiling face waiting amid a sea of strangers.

Except that I didn't. He wasn't there. After 24 hours of traveling and the stress of making my Shanghai connection, I was devastated to realize that my struggles weren't over quite yet. I walked around the receiving area for about 15 minutes, looking for him in vain. Alex is so much harder to spot in a crowd of Chinese people than he is here!

Finally I found him. He had just arrived after sitting through 2.5 hours of traffic on the way to the airport (a trip that should have taken him about 45 minutes). He, too, was understandably stressed out, since he thought he might have missed me.

So that was the story of getting out there! It was long and at times harder than I had hoped, but it all ended well! Tomorrow I will post pictures of our first day in Beijing: Tian'anmen Square, Lama Temple, and Confucius Temple.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

We're home!

plane ticket from Austin to Beijing: $800
subway ticket to Tian'anmen Square: 2 Yuan
entrance ticket to the Forbidden City: 25 Yuan

Being the only blonde in a city of 12 million: priceless

I'm so sorry to all those who were looking for China-trip updates this last week. Apparently blogspot is on the list of Websites the Chinese government finds dangerous and therefore bans. But we are home safe and sound and four hours earlier than expected thanks to a favorable tail wind and catching the earlier flight on standby.

I will post lots of pictures and stories soon! Stay tuned!