Monday, January 9, 2012
China: Around the World in 50 Days with Sara Kras, Fall 2011 (Guest Post)
My friend Sara Kras and her husband went on an amazing journey this fall, circling the world with stops in the Middle East, India, China and the Pacific. I think you will enjoy reading the reports of her adventures! Sara is a children’s book author with books about animals and world cultures and geography. Find out more at www.saralouisekras.com .
We are now in China and it has been a real eye opener. The country is bustling with construction. Huge modern buildings are being built in the major cities and massive highways are being erected to connect the country. Beijing, Xian, and Chengdu all have very new roads. Some put in only a year ago. I was really surprised how modern some of the larger cities were and also how many people live in them. Beijing had about 30 million, Xian had about 8 million, and Chengdu about 18 million. We also visited Lijiang, high in the mountains. It is a small city at 1 million. Joe mentioned that the entire state of Wyoming has only about 500,000 people in it so that gives you an idea as to how huge these “small” cities are.
The traffic in Beijing was horrendous. It seemed heavy at any time of the day. In order to control the traffic and cars per family, everyone in Beijing must enter a lottery in order to be allowed to buy a new car. Also, each driver can only drive 4 days a week. It is regulated by the last number on their license plate which determines the day they cannot drive. Another thing to note is we saw many accidents in China probably because many of the drivers are new drivers.
Tourists are everywhere in China and I don’t mean foreign tourists. Instead, there are huge amounts of Chinese tourists visiting the popular sites of their country. While at the Forbidden City, I tried to look at the Emperor’s chair. I had to join in with a mass of humanity straining to get a look. I have never been so squished in my life. Thank goodness I’m not claustrophobic. Our guide told us it was like that on the subway every day during rush hour.
We also visited a Hutong on a rickshaw, which was very touristy but interesting. A hutong is an old neighborhood of Beijing. These neighborhoods are what it used to be like before the government tore most of these old neighborhoods down to build all the shiny new buildings, which are everywhere.
Hutongs have public toilets but what is considered a public toilet in the states is not the same in China. Everywhere you go in China the toilet facilities are rated. Five star includes western toilets, doors, toilet paper, sink, and soap. Three star includes a single western toilet and door. The rest are Chinese toilets. One star is only Chinese toilets (squatting on top of a porcelain bowl) with doors. (Unfortunately, urine splashes on the ground, so you have to roll your pants up to stay semi-clean.) Zero star is squatting over a concrete slit with no door, just out in the open where you can have a discussion with your potty neighbor. Zero star is the kind of toilet found in the Hutong for the local residents. On the same topic as toilets, we stayed at the Fairmont Hotel which had an amazing toilet. Just push a button and get a rinse front or back, blow dry, and even powder! I don’t mean to have a huge potty discussion, but the toilet facilities really made life awkward. You have to have really strong thighs to withstand the squatting. I can’t imagine going through this at the age of eighty. Fifty was hard enough! Anyway, enough potty talk.
While in Beijing, we visited Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven, which was really a magical place. On the temple grounds, retired residents came daily to use the exercise equipment provided in the park, dance in groups, participate in a folk song sing-along, and play games. These games were games of physical skill such as twirling a long flag on a stick in figure 8s and balancing a ball on a paddle as you move it sideways, upwards and backwards. Groups of men played cards and women knitted in the park. It was truly a community social event. I got the hang of the flags, but I was terrible at the paddle balls.
We also visited the Summer Palace which had an outside corridor which went on for ¾ of a mile and painted on it were about 700 different pictures. It was truly amazing and beautiful.
But my all time favorite was the great wall. I hiked it for almost an hour. Even though there were many people on the wall with me, it was awe inspiring. You could just imagine the ancient Chinese soldiers marching up and down the “dragon’s back” and looking through the many parapets for invading Mongols.
After Beijing we flew to Xian to see the clay soldiers. My plan was to fly into Xian in the morning and have the day to see the clay soldiers and other areas of Xian and then fly onto Chengdu. We arrived at the Beijing airport at 7:00am and it was extremely foggy. Our guide told us that planes still fly when foggy at the Beijing airport, if only that had been true. Our flight was delayed by five hours! I couldn’t believe it. My hopes of seeing the clay soldiers at all were slipping away. What a waste of time and money to fly to Xian for nothing.
We finally arrived in Xian at 4:00pm after a 2 hour flight. Our guide was waiting for us and rushed us to the car. He said that the clay soldiers closed at 6:00pm but it would take us an hour and 15 minutes to get to them from the airport. He didn’t know if the ticket office would be closed. Our driver high tailed it to the soldiers and got us there in 45 minutes. We rushed to the ticket office and were able to get our tickets. After taking the tram we arrived at a building the size of a football stadium. Inside were rows and rows of clay soldiers all waiting for me and standing at attention. (Ha ha).
Even though we saw many whole soldiers, none of the clay soldiers found were whole except for the archer. They had all be smashed to bits and had to be meticulously pasted back together. It is really a massive project. At the other end of the stadium was the clay soldier hospital where the soldiers are pasted back together.
There is something to note about visiting the clay soldiers. The best time to visit is in the evening. Our guide was really surprised how empty the building was. He said everyone wants to go in the morning and there usually a line which continues outside the building. Tourists have only a few minutes at the front of the line to view the clay soldiers then they have to move on. We literally had the entire building to ourselves. We stood for the entire hour taking photos and walking around the entire building.
Immediately after seeing the clay soldiers, we had to grab something for dinner (KFC, which is very popular in China and just as greasy and disgusting there as it is in the states). We were then rushed back to the airport to catch our flight to Chengdu. We arrived at our hotel in Chengdu at around midnight. We stayed at BuddhaZen which is an old temple converted into a hotel.
The next day we had to get up at 6:30am to get ready to go to the Panda Research Center. Even though I was exhausted, the center was completely amazing. We saw baby pandas, one year old pandas, sub-adult pandas, and grown pandas. We also saw red pandas, which are related to the cat family and black swan floating in the manmade lake. I also paid too much money to sit with a baby panda. But it was totally worth it because he was so cute. His fur wasn’t soft like I thought it would be but rather rough. I also held his back paw which was warm. To placate the panda, he was fed honey on wooden sticks. He was very well behaved and let me stroke his ears, head, arms and feet.
Our guide then took us to experience hot pot, a local dish in Chengdu. We had the western hot pot which consists to two pots. The inner pot is hot spicy oil and the outer pot is a chicken broth. Meat, wontons, and vegetables are thrown in and cooked. It was very delicious.
The next day we departed for Lijiang, a beautiful town dominated by Snow Mountain. We stayed at the Banyan Tree and had a room with an amazing view of Snow Mountain. I spent hours staring at the mountain watching the world go by.
We visited Tiger Leaping Gorge where we were pulled by rickshaw drivers through a path blasted through the granite mountains side. We also visited Black Dragon Park , where snow mountain reflected in the lake; Old Lijiang (also known as the Venice of the Orient); and a Naxi village, local indigenous people. I got to learn a lot of about the Naxi from our guide as she was half Naxi. They are very similar to the American Indian as they worship nature and also have totem poles similar to the Eskimos.
We also attended the Impression Show at Snow Mountain. This show was produced by the same man who produced the opening show for the Olympics. The show was outside and had hundred of performers in native dress along with horseback riders. The music was amazing, along with the dancing and drumming.
We are now in Hong Kong at the Intercontinental Hotel. We have a room with a balcony and an incredible view of the harbor. Every night there is a laser show in the harbor and we have front row seats. We are headed to Bali tomorrow where I hope to have some true down time at the beach and Ubud area along with seeing the Komodo dragons.
(Look for Sara's reports on Egypt and Jordan, 11/28/11, and India, 12/5/11.)