Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Big Wild Goose Pagoda

Yesterday we ventured back down to the old part of the city to explore the parts we missed. Our host had lined up to take us to the Tang Paradise, a completely new, fabricated tourist attraction. They call it a "cultural theme park", but hubby and I convinced our host that we are interested in the culture that is buzzing around us, and not one that has been manufactured. He was quizzical but he happily complied. Instead we started a walk at the west wall and meandered around the streets until we came to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

Beyond the gates in the city square was an oasis of calm. My mind's eye immediately painted the layer of colour over the dusty leaves that would exist in springtime -- reds and pinks in the peony garden, luscious crab apple blossoms and brilliant greens of the leafy hedges and evergreen trees.

You could feel the sacred when you entered the meditating gardens and the Buddha temples. Visitors lit candles and the dusky aroma of incense burning filled the air.

The ancient tower was built in 652 during the Tang Dynasty and originally had five stories, and was newly renovated in 704. The pagoda holds sutras and figurines of the Buddha that were brought to China from India by the Buddhist translator and traveler Xuanzang. They say his journey to India took 19 years (that's how long I feel like I've been gone).

Beyond the gates of the ancient was a wide open plaza, newly built in the last five years, with a huge display of water fountains rising and falling to the music of Vangelis. Hubby's smile was wide at the strains of familiar. Vangelis is his favourite composer.

We ended our last evening in Xi'an with a traditional dinner of steamed dumplings - beef, pork and mushroom. They graciously ordered hubby a Coke and an order of white fried rice to supplement the meal. It was tasty but with at least two meals of rice and noodles each day, I think I am reaching my capacity. I am definitely going home looking like a dumpling -- this starchy diet is playing havoc with my waistline.

We spotted a Dunkin Donuts in the tourist area and ducked in to buy a dozen for the office. We are going to  have a little send off today before we leave and we thought it would be fitting to end on a western note. They will no doubt break out into little giggles as they seem to find hubby and I terribly amusing.

Next stop: Shanghai.

Lighting candles at the shrine

Monday, February 27, 2012

Breathing and Breath-taking

The sun as it appears through the veil of smog - couldn't see across the highway
We have been here in China for eight days now - and we haven't seen the sun, or should I say we haven't had sunshine nor have we seen the sky beyond the thick gauze of smog. Today was the worst - we could barely see across the road. It is almost unfathomable to realize people are actually breathing these toxins in on a regular basis. But it is taking its toll on me. My chest is really hurting and the sneezing is increasing. I can actually taste the air in the back of my throat. When I examine the photos that I shot today, they almost look like black and white; devoid of colour. The leaves on the plants look gray, covered in a layer of pollutants.

On a happier note, hubby and I went to the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses Museum. Actually it is a series of three pits that, in 1974, farmers discovered this incredible archaeological gem of gargantuan magnitude and importance. There are almost 8,000 life sized warriors and horses constructed from clay dating back to the 3rd century BC. And the moment you walk into the football stadium sized building that covers the "dig" you are awestruck by the sheer size and numbers of the artefacts. It is an eerie sight - not unlike gazing at a tomb filled with ghosts. Each warrior is as unique as a room full of breathing, living souls. I snapped away and this self proclaimed eighth wonder of the world captured my imagination and provided a much needed distraction from the dismal.

China is full of ancient, intrigue and rich culture. If I could breathe, I would sing its praises.But this trip has not been lost on me -- it is a privilege to travel to far away places and experience cultures first hand. And for that, I am truly grateful.

The work continues to excavate more treasures

Waiting for repair

A fierce ancient warrior 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Signs of the Times

And by hilly road they mean SUPER steep stairs leading to the top of the Summer Palace.

Stay left (and not just on the stairs)

Rule #1: Never pass without using; you never know when next you will pass.

Nice to see the Glory in English.
Not sure who they consulted about this.

No door hanger  "do not disturb" signs here! High tech all the way!
Promising to see signs of recycling; however it was an illusion.
Oh where, oh where ... Great Wall has its conveniences

Western temptation

If traffic rules were actually enforced, this would be a great concept.


Endless faces swimming in a sea of infinite. Will their hopes and dreams be buoyant and released on waves of possibility and realization? Or will they be smothered from the sheer weight of the masses? China could tilt the world to the side of all things good. They could. If only they would. 

And that is what we call optimism.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Walking the city wall
Today as a mixed bag of tricks. Hubby pulled an all-nighter attempting to solve some software glitches so he could resume training his team (the main purpose of our trip). We spent the better part of the day at the office and then in late afternoon headed down to the old part of the city. And by old I mean ancient. Xi'An is over 3,100 years old and is considered to be one of the birthplaces of civilization.

We walked the brick clay city wall that runs 16 kilometres and encircles the city. It is much wider than the Great Wall and features toilets every 120 metres!  I'll try to contain my excitement. There is a festival of lights going on and the city is decked out in elaborate lighting and carnival-like decorations. The wall gives you a bird's eye view down to the busy backstreets on one side, and a parkette that runs along the moat, on the other. It was odd to see people using exercise equipment that is stationed in the park - much like a playground for adults. People bending, twisting and even using treadmill devices alongside wizened old men playing majong and ping pong. The sight of an older man, his wheelchair parked beside him, using a stretching apparatus was very moving. It was the first time I had seen local people engaged in recreational activities. Their work week is 6 days long -- if they are lucky.

The winds turned bitter and hubby only had his windbreaker on so we took a pass on the stroll of the downtown markets and shops and tried to hail a cab to go for dinner. Our Chinese host is a bundle of happy energy about his culture and country and has delighted in surprising us with his choice of meals. He refused to divulge even the teeniest of details until the food is laid out before us. Occasionally he consults with, "do you like mutton or beef?". We all agreed that because hubby hadn't had any sleep that we should keep the evening brief. So after 20 minutes of not being able to hail a cab in rush hour, frustration began to seep into his good nature. Suddenly one of those odd little vehicles - motorcycle covered with a tiny cab and a few extra rear wheels - pulled up and the driver started yelling that there would be no taxis for hours. We all exchanged dubious looks and then piled in, hubby centering himself on the bench seat to balance the load. Our host kept apologising and hubby told him not to worry ... if we lived to tell the tale, it would be a good one. Needless to say the drive was harrowing; our driver honked vigorously and even drove up onto a sidewalk and sped along that way for a full block - trusting pedestrians to clear out of the way. In another instance he pulled out of the four lane traffic and used the oncoming traffic lane and again, honked and yelled, forcing the oncoming cars to veer out of our way.

We ended the evening with a traditional meal - for which our host said had no English name equivalent - that consisted of breaking up noodles cakes into a bowl and pouring broth, meat, vegetables and glass noodles over top. He also ordered us appetizers of sliced mushroom salad (a refreshing vinegary taste with rubbery texture)and cold Schezuan beef in a thick spicy oil topped with peanuts and chilies. The problem I have with the meat is that "beef" can mean any part of the "beef", if you catch my drift. Just as the chicken in the soup comes fully clothed in bone and skin. I struggle with that aspect of the meals and suddenly the tofu starts to look tantalizing!

It has been a good day in Xi'An. Stay tuned for future posts on "squatter vs. toilet", signs of the times, and "right of way".

Typical design
Festival time on the City Wall

Game on! 
Exercising in the parkette

Taxi alternative
Cold Szechuan beef topped with peanuts

Mushroom salad

Pickled garlic, chili sauce and cilantro to garnish
Noodle cakes
Supper time!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Hotel Musings and Rants

Team in training
I am sitting here accessing all of the guilty pleasure Internet sites I want through hubby's proxy server, as he trains his Chinese team. While I was waiting for the connection I tried every site that I frequent to no avail - Pinterest, Twitter, blogs, Google +, Gmail, Hotmail and even some news sites. That's why I was surprised yesterday when I was able to reach Kidlet on Skype.

We are not loving our hotel; it is actually pretty dreadful - which translates into comical. The door of the bathroom barely clears the toilet (so thankful for the western toilet) and the counter so you have to bend like a pretzel just to get in behind the door to close it. If I continue on my current path of snack food (that I brought along), me and the bathroom might soon not be a good fit.

The beds are three quarter width and as "firm" as a slab of rock. There is no box-spring, just a low wooden frame mounted with a vintage coiled mattress. I found an extra down duvet in the closet and used it as a mattress  topper to help soften the impact. Hubby insisted he didn't need it (but I think he has since changed his mind) but his bed is worse -- and very musical. Whenever he rolled in a certain direction, a loose spring in the bed would vibrate like a guitar string - I think in the key of G. I actually laughed out loud in the middle of the night. It all struck me as surreal.

The bathroom door is a little thin and lacking in privacy so when hubby heads in there, I pump up the volume on my favourite Chinese soap opera that features a female Kung Fu fighter. That all wouldn't be so back except for the window in our room that doesn't quite shut and the traffic below that honks and hums all night long. Ther is a steady stream of cold from the window and when the indoor cigarette smoke coming from the vents got more than I could take, and I opened it wider for some fresh air - it turned out to be "not fresher".

I took a shower and washed my hair and headed down to the lobby suit store (yup) to buy a bottle of local water to use for brushing my teeth. On the way back up I waited for  the elevator door to open and a guy walked out, butting his cigarette just outside the door. Needless to say I smelled like a tart from the local honky tonk by the time I got back to my room.

And to top it all off -- there is no way to chill my Pinot Grigio as the hotel doesn't have an ice machine.
That being said,  these experiences are all a part of international travel - eating new and different foods and sleeping in beds built for smaller people. In my experience, it is the challenges and uncomfortable moments that make the best stories and lasting memories - and that is my mantra of encouragement to hubby.

The evil side of me watches in amusement as hubby attempts to navigate the breakfast buffet. And so it goes.

We are making the most of our China adventure and tomorrow we will be visiting the old part of Xi'An - a welcomed relief from the new city full of technology parks. I'll keep you posted.

Hubby's breakfast of rice and eggs and steamed bread.

Remnants from my breakfast of sweet potato, egg, sausage and toast.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Trying to Breathe Easy


We flew from Beijing to Xi'An this morning and settled into our non-touristy hotel. This means two twin beds, no clock, no fridge/mini bar, a scratchy vintage TV that is devoid of CNN or anything else English, and smoking everywhere - even in the elevators. Sadly there is as much pollution here as in Beijing; or maybe not - but I still can't see the sky through the haze. In fact I can't see the buildings across the four-laned road in front of our hotel.

Tonight we had beef hot pot - a very delicious meal that reminded me of fondue. You have a pot of boiling broth and you cook raw vegetables, noodles, beef, shrimp with spices of your own liking. Hubby plopped a carrot into the broth and our Chinese hosts broke into laughter. Apparently the carrot was pickled and meant for eating as a relish. Ditto when I dipped my spoon into the delicious broth and started sipping ... more snickers and laughter at the Canadian eating the cooking broth. Still - bright spot for today.

A few things we haven't seen -- people walking dogs (we've only seen three random dogs so far), joggers, nor wildlife that would be typical in our city - squirrels, birds (only the odd pigeon).

This post will be short as hubby needs to use the proxy connection that I am using to access Blogger, Facebook, Google and Hotmail. The government blocking is very frustrating. I will post more pictures tomorrow.

UPDATE: Here are some food pictures of our night at the" beef hot pot" restaurant.

Dipping sauce of your own creation - pureed beans, chilies, cilantro.

All that remains!