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11/30/2005 8:47:00 PM
One last bit of trip news...

I acquired two extra souveniers while in China.  An ear infection and a sinus infection.  I won't be returning to work until Friday.  We find out about Jessa's extra surprises tomorrow.
11/29/2005 2:13:00 PM
Our final day was more subdued than the rest of the trip. We visited the Shanghai Art Museum in the morning. Then did some final shopping in order to avoid a currency exchange. We have Christmas presents. Lots of them.

As I sit here, on a plane going from Shanghai to Chicago, I opt to end this rather long-winded log.  Hopefully, the transition back to EST will not be too bad.
11/28/2005 3:01:00 PM
We ditched the tour early. We immediately set out for the Jade Buddah Temple. Although I am not a Buddhist, I find their temples to be tranquil and refreshing. The Jade Buddah Temple is a very active site, and there were hundreds of people throughout the temple. This temple gets its name from the enormous jade statue that it contains. I would have loved to have gotten pictures, but I did not want to disrespect their wishes. For no reason whatsoever, a shop within the temple grounds happened to have the paints and brushes that Jessa wanted. Fate perhaps. We spent three hours at the temple with our friend Alison. Her friend Jen had already departed for Tibet. It always is nice to have companions who understand. As usual, I took down the coordinates. They are: N031 14.594 E121 26.450. Google Maps Link.

(Jade Buddah Temple, Shanghai)

We then returned to the street markets to acquire tea, silk, and Christmas gifts. The locals were very friendly, and I'm quite certain that we made a certain family's day, as we purchased almost a kilogram of tea. We could not bring ourselves to haggle over silk prices. Our ethics prevented us from paying less than the opening offer of 20 yuan / meter. That's about $2 / yard for pure silk.

In the evening, Jessa attended the Shanghai Acrobat show, but I was far too ill. I caught a nasty sore throat, and was quite exhausted. I felt bad that I could not go with her, but I would have felt much worse, should she not have gone.
11/27/2005 1:46:00 PM
Our morning destination was the Xi 'An city wall. The original city limits are enclosed within a massive wall that is roughly 50 feet in height. It is quite enormous. The wall is mostly intact, with a few exceptions made to allow greater vehicle traffic in and out of the city.

I have never seen so many bicycles before. This country really has some interesting transportation. Many of the bicycles have been converted into trikes, to allow a pickup bed on the back. Most of the bicycles appear to be over 15+ years old.

It is also common here to see people selling home cooked food on the sidewalk. They simply have a steaming pot and serve with a spoon. I doubt there is any type of food safety standards. No one seems to mind.

Also, the amount of pollution is quite visible. It appears foggy much of the time. It is also extremely common to carry water, as water is not as accessible as in the US. Free water is rare (I have only seen it at the airport). American restaurants never charge for water. Chinese restaurants always do.  'Bottomless' drinks do not exist.

We have boarded our flight to Shanghai. I am again impressed with the efficiency of Chinese air travel.

We have a limited amount ot time here in Shanghai, so we set out immediately for the 'old city' and the Bund waterfront. The markets are just like in the movies. Millions of people, billions of tiny business deals. I got some wonderful pictures. We ate random food on a stick.  It turned out to be sugar-coated crab apples.  They were pretty good.

(Tourist Ship, Shanghai Bund)

This city is huge. Much larger than NYC. From what I've been told, Shanghai is almost as large as the entire state of Delaware.  Yes, I said state.

The concept of a single family home is almost unknown here in China. To afford one, a person would need to have an unthinkable amount of money. Something in the ballpark of several million US.
11/26/2005 2:00:00 PM
Another day, another factory tour. We left the hotel this morning and were informed that we would visit a place that produced reproductions ot the Terra Cotta warriors. I'm sure you can guess where this is going... Funny thing. They sure sold a lot of furniture for a pottery factory. I am not amused.

We then proceeded to the actual Terra Cotta Warriors. The warriors are contained within three excavation sites, each with protective building / museum over top of it. Very few of the warriors were originally intact.  Most have been reassembled from the broken fragments. The original damage was caused by structural collapses but subsequent damage has occured due to fear, malice, and stupidity. Of the 7,000 total warriors, only about 30 are without damage. It is impressive that the warrors are displayed in their original locations. We also had an opportunity to meet the farmer that originally made the discovery.  The state pays him to sit around and sign autographs.  He is a real farmer. He's so real that our guide warned us that he fears cameras.

(Close Up, Terra Cotta, Pit #1)

Our next destination was a museum of Chinese art history. I've been thinking a lot lately about the structures and wonders of China. Their great structures and tombs were built to appease the whims of their rulers. Although grand in scale, these works were created through the labor of the people, but without the will of the people. From what I gather, the Chinese people are now more free than in any other point in their long history.

I regret that I did not include time on this trip to visit Tibet.

With our museum trip concluded, we returned to our hotel. Jessa wanted to attend the 'Tang Dynasty Culture Show'. I wanted to spend some time engaging in some truly authentic Chinese culture. I enjoy being on my own in such a foreign place. I now realize just how bad my Chinese really is... I am more or less functionally useless. That's a shame. However, using a few key phrases, and a dictionary, I did just fine. I was inept, but the locals were kind. With one exception, their language skills were as bad as mine. Even the ones that speak English regularly do not do it well. Our guide is the best that I have encountered, and he is only passable.

I have noticed several interesting cultural differences.

Chinese cities are very crowded. The drivers are very dangerous. Much more so than even New York cab drivers. Oddly enough, I have only seen one accident.  I have been told that over 100,000 pedestrians are killed each year.  In semi-related news, over 1,000,000 (that's a million) people die in work-related accidents each year.  Considering that bamboo is considered to be a load-bearing scaffolding material, this isn't all that surprising.

Also, I'm sure you have seen Chinese people wearing surgical masks on the news channels... Usually during a SARS story. This has nothing to do with SARS. It is considered to be considerate if you are not feeling well; so that you do not spread your illness to others.

Some items are very cheap here. Some are not. Textiles are cheap. Food is cheap, with the strange exception of apples. Electronics are comparable. Services are cheap, but only because of a favorable exchange rate. It would be astoundingly expensive for a Chinese person to visit the US. The average salary is about $500/ month.
11/25/2005 10:37:00 PM
The Temple of Heaven is located in a very large public park in central Beijing.  There were hundreds of elderly Chinese folk throughout the park doing 'morning exercise'. In China, it is normal to take part in some activities every day (This seemed oddly staged to me, as if people were encouraged to give the tourists a good show.  Nevertheless, it was impressive.  The part that interested me the most was the calligraphy.  Although I could not read the texts, it was quite interesting.  The park had large concrete walkways.  People would 'paint' using water and long 'brushes' that were constructed from a sponge and a stick.  I got a great picture.

The trip seemed a bit rushed.  This was one of the more touristly-inclined sites, as people were expecting visitors.  Most of the monuments that we have seen were grand in scale.  Although the Temple of Heaven was large, it was smaller than the pictures I have seen implied. The temple is an entirely wooden structure; and in my opinion needs restoration.  We did not have much time to spend at the temple, as we needed to catch our flight from Beijing to Xi'An. If you would like to see the Temple of Heaven on a satellite map, the coordinates are N039 52.613 E116 24.420.  Google Maps Link.

(Temple of Heaven)

A Chinese airport is similar in construction to an American one; but in many ways simpler and better.  Security is odd.  They are less concerned with the American hang-ups; and they have an odd fixation with alcohol.  I find this odd, as they serve free beer in the cabin.  Speaking of beer, I have enjoyed quite a lot of it on this trip.  Since you are going to consume a packaged liquid anyway, why not try the local fare at each stop?  Mmmmmmm, cheap Chinese beer is good.

Also, there is another major difference between American and Chinese airports.  In our country, we have the planes pull right up to the airport building.  Here, you ride a bus to the plane, and use a portable stairway to board the plane.  It saves a lot of taxiing time, and in my opinion, is a pretty good idea.  A bus is certainly more agile than a 757.

Upon our arrival in Xi'An, we went immediately to the Big Wild Goose Temple.  This temple is important in the history of Buddhism in China.  It is quite an impressive sight.  I greatly enjoyed visiting it.  I even scored some prayer beads for a certain Buddhist that I know.  The temple is actually a tower, seven stories tall.  Big stories too.  It took a while to climb, but was totally worth it.  I would have spent the entire day here, if I had the chance.  I missed out on the opportunity to inflict my bad Mandarin on the Buddhist monks.  I collected coordinates at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda also.  They are N034 13.178 E108 57..549.  Sorry, no satellite link this time.  Satellite imagery is really weak over central China.

(Big Wild Goose Pagoda)

We were rushed out of the temple in order to visit an art museum nearby to the temple.  'Museum' is a flexible term, somewhat like 'bilingual' or 'western'.  This museum showed some crappy recreations of Qing dynasty clothing and styles.  Then we were led to another building for viewing traditional Chinese paintings.  We were given a lecture about how Chinese painting is performed, although it was very incomplete.  This 'museum' was just another ploy to sell overpriced items to the dumb tourists.  It's funny how the 'museum' closed immediately after our tour passed through.  Oddly enough, no actual Chinese people were given the same buying opportunity.  Jessa wishes to acquire some authentic Chinese inks and brushes on our trip.  That sounds like a great idea to me.  Although the 'museum' has hundreds of them on hand, they were little help.  Hopefully the hotel concierge can be of more assistance.

From the museum, we departed for the new hotel.  Xi'An is one of the oldest cities in China, but its main roads are more modern than many of the places that I have seen.  It appears to be the equivalent of an American 'College Town'.  Young adults are everywhere.  I've seen a lot of interesting modern sights in town, including a seven-story shopping mall shaped like a vertical accordion.  I have seen a store with over 500 models of cell phone on the shelf.  I stand out here.  This is a town for Chinese tourists, not foreign ones.  It's pretty cool to see the modern culture; even if they look at me strangely.

Rather than joining the group for the dinner option, we set out on our own again (with our friends John and Shiela).  We decided to find a local restaurant that was populated with as many locals as possible.  We have been advised to try the local specialty, a 'hot pot'.  A 'hot pot' is a type of soup-style dish with meat, vegetables, noodles, and/or tofu floating in it.  However, it is not cooked when served.  Picture placing a iron pot over fire and waiting for it to boil.  As it boils, you fish out items and eat them.  It's really quite exceptional.  I would recommend it to anyone.  Again, the staff spoke no English; but it wasn't a problem.

After dinner, we decided to explore the town.  The town is very modern.  We got to see the Chinese equivalent of the Mickey Mouse Club dancing in the streets (trying to lure people in to a Chinese Disney Store).  That was surreal.  There is no shortage of poor translations here in China.  No shortage at all.
11/24/2005 2:20:00 PM
Our second day began with a trip to the Great Wall. This trip was sidetracked early, as our tour was directed to the Jade Factory.  I don't travel all that much, so these factory tours were a new experience for me.  If you are interested, a factory tour is where your tour group is corralled into a store that sells the local items (such as pearls or jade here in China).  Every member of the staff acts like a used car salesman, and everything is overpriced by at least a factor of five.  Actually, this factory tour was exceptional; because it opened our eyes to the situation.  After this happened, we realized that this is our time in China, and we don't need to spend it except how we want.  More on that later.

After the factory tour, we arrived at the Great Wall (near the outskirts of Beijing).  Despite what we are told in the west, Chinese national monuments are not well maintained.  The area surrounding the wall was highly commercialized and looks like it was designed soley as a tourist trap. It is sad how the Chinese have sold-out their history to sell ''I climbed the Great Wall" t-shirts. The wall itself was amazing, especially because it was constructed in difficult mountainous terrain. I got some great pictures from high on the wall. Supposedly, the section of the wall in Beijing is one of the most restored sections. However, I found it quite sad how the wall is in such poor shape. The people seem not to respect their own culture, as many people had carved their initials into the bricks of the wall. It seems that the motivation behind the restoration is tourist and Olympic business. Shockingly, even high on the wall, the street vendors were still trying to sell their items.  Although downtrodden and commercialized the wall is still a remarkable creation. If you would like to see it on a satellite map, the coordinates are N040 21.013 E116 00.179.  Google Maps Link.

(Great Wall Outpost)

We decided that we needed additional time to explore the wall and also wished to visit a site that was not on the tour. Fortunately, two wonderful new friends also wished to do this. We acquired both directions and a driver. Although our driver spoke no English, he was a very nice fellow and was quite helpful. He first tools as to the Ming Tombs.  The tombs were rediscovered by accident and are in excellent condition. We took several pictures, both in the tombs themselves and in the surrounding grounds.  If you would like to see the tombs on a satellite map, the coordinates are N040 17.612 E116 13.159.  Google Maps Link.

(Sealed Ming Vaults)

We also stopped for some refreshments on the grounds.  This would be unremarkable except for the fact that I learned something new.  It is socially acceptable to wander around a national monument while drinking a beer.  If you are interested, Beijing style beer costs less than a Diet Coke.  I paid 5 Yuan; which is about $0.60 US.  From the tombs, we went to the real highlight of the trip, the Sacred Way.

The Sacred Way is an incredible sculpture garden. It is a long corridor with wonderful animal sculptures on both sides of the way. The statues were incredible. And it was the most tranquil place that I have ever encountered. This was unlike any of the other destinations. No one was selling junk. No one was harassing us. It was serene and wonderful. I feel that the pictures I took were wonderful, even though I have not yet reviewed them. If you would like to see the Sacred Way on a satellite map, the coordinates are N040 15.485 E116 13.181.  Google Maps Link.

(Sacred Way)

After we explored the Sacred Way, our kind driver returned us to our hotel. Our small group (Jessa, Jen, Allison, and me) decided to find a local restaurant that was actually frequented by locals, rather than by tourists. The one that we found was quite wonderful. No one there spoke English, but it didn't matter. They put up with my poor Chinese, and we ate their excellent food. Dinner and drinks for four cost only about eight dollars.  Best of all, we were the only white folk for quite a distance.  We did notice that most of the chicken in China is cooked with the bone in.  This makes eating it more of a challenge than you think, as it is often cubed or shredded.

In our time here, a large chemical spill has been announced.  It appears to have happened prior to our arrival, but was covered up by the government until recently.  I do not know all the details, but here is what I have learned from CNN International:

There is some type of a petroleum refinery near the town of Harbin (north of Beijing).  This refinery caused an extremely large benzene leak into the local waterways and rivers.  This has basically destroyed the local water, and the pollution is moving into other areas quickly.  I had never realized how polluted the water is in China.  To give you an idea, you cannot even drink the water in Beijing.  I'm not talking about being a careful foreigner either; not even the locals touch it.  The government denied, then downplayed.  Now they are 'investigating'.  I think the next stage is 'scapegoating'.

This concluded our second full day in country.  Next we are scheduled to visit the Temple of Heaven (the building on the back of the Chinese Panda coin).
11/23/2005 2:00:00 PM
On our first full day we visited Tian Anmen Square. It is really quite huge. From what we have been told, it can hold over a million people. We also had our first encounter with street vendors. Street vendors exist soley to sell junk to tourists. They are extremely pushy and in many cases dishonest. Also, they will make every attempt to pass you counterfeit money in change. If you intend to purchase something, have it in your hand first and use exact change. I succumbed to the lure of 40 postcards for a single US dollar. If you would like to see it on a satellite map, the coordinates are N039 54.211 E116 23.540. Google Maps Link.

(Tian Anmen Square)

The Forbidden City was quite an impressive destination. The entire complex has exactly 9999 rooms in total. It is a literal city, and can only be described as gigantic. It lot of restoration work is taking place at the moment. The whole city is undergoing restoration because of the 2008 Olympics. Some of the pictures show the facilities both before and after improvement work. If you would like to see it on a satellite map, the coordinates are N039 55.011 E116 23.440. Google Maps Link.

(Guardian Lions at Forbidden City)

Did you know that China's tourism authority rates the public bathrooms? I have had the pleasure of using two separate four-star bathrooms (and even a five-star later on the trip). Just for comparison, a four-star bathroom is roughly equivalent to an American fast-food restroom. Although I have not seen one, I assume that a one-star bathroom consists of dirt and a shovel.

We continued our first day by visiting the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace is another huge complex. In fact, it even has an entirely man-made lake used for naval instruction. We got hundreds of pictures at the Summer Palace; and we realized that it really was a good idea to bring the laptop. We need to dump our SD's every day. If you would like to see it on a satellite map, the coordinates are N039 59.411 E116 16.46. Google Maps Link. For an idea of position, the Summer Palace is few miles north and west of the central city and Forbidden City.

(Waterfront at Summer Palace)

Our final stop on our first day was the Beijing Pearl Market. This was just an overpriced shopping excursion for the benefit of the guide. Beware anyone with excellent English skills. More on 'factory tours' later.
11/22/2005 1:00:00 PM
We have landed in China.  That was a long flight (over 13 hours).  We have met one of the guides from our group, and are on the way to the hotel in Beijing.  From what they have told us, it is about an hour's drive from the airport.  It's been a long day.

Upon arrival to our hotel, we explored the local area a bit before stopping for the night.  We have discovered lemon-flavored potato chips.  It this isn't a cultural achievement, what is?

Important cultural note:  We are staying at a 'Western Hotel'.  This hotel exists for the benefit of foreigners, and has special accommodations for our requirements.  More on that in a minute.

A 'Western Hotel' works something like a Michigan 'Philly Cheese Steak'.  All the components are there, but it just isn't quite right. However, our hotel does have the most important item...the all-important Western Toilet.  For those of you that have never had the pleasure, a Chinese toilet is basically a drain that flushes. Nothing more. I have not yet discovered how to read in a regular eastern bathroom.
11/21/2005 10:57:00 PM
Well everyone, we're in China...

We departed from Philadelphia early this morning (depending on how you look at the time zones), connected through O'Hare, and are now in Beijing.  Customs and immigration took a while.  We have met up with part of our tour-group, and have done some minimal exporing around the hotel area.

The long-haul flight from O'Hare to Beijing took 13 hours in the air, more like a total of 14 counting all the boarding silliness.  That's a long damn time in a plane..  The first 6-8 hours weren't a big deal, but it was becoming a real problem at the end.  The crew was exceptionally friendly however, and a kindly passenger switched seats so that we could be together (we were slotted for different seating rows).

I have discovered a profound monetary difference over here. Exchange rate aside, the "value" is very slanted.  For example, I purchased four bottles of water and a bag of bizarre Chinese potato chips for the equivalent of $0.75 US ( 6 Yuan).  Imported items from the US are quite expensive though.

More to follow.  It's 8:55 PM here (early morning EST), and I've been up for about 30 hours.  Jessa has been up for about 50.