Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Panda Parade

1,129 miles + $1,000= one squirming, watermelon-eating baby panda.

Finally, reason #2 we had come to China: Pandas. After talking to Lauren and Pedro, the previous Ao Jia teachers, we knew we had to come to China to hold baby pandas. And it was totally worth it!

We arrived in Chengdu on Wednesday evening and were driven to our hostel, the Lazy Bones, by a pick-up service. This place was pretty cool. We got a nice ensuite double for about $20/night, and arranged to leave early the next morning with a tour group to the Chengdu Panda Research Center, about 10km out of town.
Tea in the hostel

When we arrived, our non-English speaking tour guide led us on a romp through the confusing labryinth of the center in order to see the best parts of the reserve. We managed to make it to several enclosures to see feeding time, which was kind of fun. Of course, any other time we've seen pandas in a zoo they've been eating bamboo, so this wasn't exactly new to us (pandas must eat 20-30kg of bamboo a day!). After strolling around for a few hours, our guide finally led us to the highlight of our trip: Panda holding.

For about $150/each, Andrew and I put on hospital gowns, gloves, and booties and patiently waited our turn to hold a baby panda. The first panda they brought out was a little fidgety, so they swapped him out for a different one who was quite happy to sit on our laps and eat some watermelon.

We only got to spend a few minutes with the panda, and it was difficult to pet them while wearing gloves (we tried tearing holes in them but they were too thick) so I used my face to feel their fur! They surprisingly didn't smell bad and their fur was pretty thick and soft. Andrew swears his panda winked at him.

I'm really glad that this center takes so many precautions to protect the pandas. They only allow a certain number of visitors to hold them each day, and everyone, including Jackie Chan, has to wear gloves and gowns. Also, they don't allow anyone to spend too long with them, and they don't allow anyone other than paying visitors to be in the room with the baby. This was disappointing for one girl there, as her non-paying boyfriend wasn't allowed to go into the room with her. Thankfully, the staff was happy to take as many pictures as we wanted. And we got a free mousepad!

After our experience, we rejoined the rest of our group and went to the museum on-site. This museum was crazy weird. It focused on the reproduction of pandas, and included lots of graphic pictures of panda genitals, which seems weird coming from censorship-crazy China. After this, our group departed for the hostel, but we decided to stay an additional three hours and walk around the rest of the park.

We got to see more red pandas close up, and even witness some baby pandas playing with each other. We had a good time just watching them play and eat and sleep. There were guards at every enclosure to make sure no one tried to feed the pandas or spoke too loudly. However, there was on red panda enclosure out of the way, which was unguarded, and we took that opportunity to be a little naughty. Here, the wall was pretty low, and the red pandas came very close to us, obviously looking for food. Despite our better judgment, we hand-fed them little pieces of Fig Newtons (hey, at least it wasn't a steak or a Snickers bar, OK?). Andrew even pet them a little! These guys are cuter than regular pandas, I think.

We found out some interesting information about pandas while there. Apparently there are less than 1,000 left in the wild, mostly due to deforestation of bamboo-a-licious areas in China, but a major contributing factor to their demise is evolution. These pandas are not meant to survive. The males have evolved very tiny penises, and the females very long vaginas, making reproduction a tricky endeavor for them. If the female is lucky enough to conceive, she ALWAYS gives birth to a premature cub that she immediately tries to kill. In addition, despite the 30 odd varieties of bamboo which exist, pandas are very picky and will only eat three or four types. As bears, they should have a pretty varied diet, but for some reason refuse to eat anything but the energy-inefficient bamboo. So overall, these guys are destined to go the way of the dodo, which is sad. You can watch them play here:

At the park, we heard, but never actually saw, what we assume were ducks taking a bath. It sounded like someone was drowning Daffy Duck. It was hilarious and never ceased to make us giggle everytime we heard it. Have a listen!
When we'd had our panda fill, we returned to Chengdu and walked around the city a little. I stopped by Starbucks for some coffee, and we hit up a bookstore for a National Geographic magazine. One of the most exciting things about this city trip was that we found a vendor selling a type of berry that I distinctly remember eating as a child because they grew in my backyard in San Bernardino. This prompted an argument between me and Andrew, with me insisting that they were blackberries and Andrew adamantly disagreeing. He insists they were too long, the berries too small, and that they shouldn't grow on trees, as they did in my backyard. After looking them up online, it seems that I was correct, but Andrew isn't 100% convinced. Mom, do you remember what those berries were called?

OK, sorry for the digression. After our walk-about, we decided to brave Sichuanese cooking, seeing as how we were in the capital of Sichuan, afterall. Any of you who have ever eaten Szechwan food at a Chinese restaurant in the states probably know that it's SPICY. So we of course had to try it out and see just how spicy it was. The first thing we ordered was a tofu dish, that was VERY spicy. Even a jug of almond soy milk couldn't quite quench the fire. Then we moved onto to kung pao chicken, which many of you probably know. Surprisingly, this wasn't too spicy, but it could have just been that our mouths were numb after the tofu. We tried some other dishes, including dan dan noodles, and overall really enjoyed our dining experience. But probably the best thing we ate in Chengdu was this round, sesame-covered fried flat-bread stuffed with ground beef. It was heavenly.

After dinner, we walked to the local park, hoping to get Andrew's ears cleaned (apparently it's the thing to do in Chengdu) and visit a local tea house, but we arrived too late. Everything was closed down for the night. A little disappointed, we went back to the hostel and packed all our acquired wares for the flight back to Beijing.

All in all, we spent a little more than 24 hours in Chengdu, but I think someday we will go back. If the pandas are still alive, we'll take our kids to hold them, and hopefully make it back to the ear-cleaner. Afterall, Andrew's ears are pretty dirty!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Final Vacation

(Andrew leaves in less than two weeks. I'm definitely not freaking out.)

We took our last vacation together last week. After careful consideration, we decided to spend the majority of our time finishing up some last things in Beijing. Sorry if it seems less interesting to you folks; but we're really pleased that we went. We did some pretty cool stuff.

We arrived on Sunday evening and checked into a different hostel, the Sanlitun Hostel. This place was a cool, backpacker hang-out in the Sanlitun district, which is the big ex-pat hang-out part of town. This meant we had easy access to a variety of western restaurants, shops, and attractions. The big tell that we were in White Man's Land was the "No Honking" signs on the streets there. We spent our first night walking around this area, feasting on scallop and bacon pasta and shrimp and papaya salad at Element Fresh, and then spending some time lingering over drinks at Bookworm Cafe, a cafe that doubles as Beijing's English library.

Monday morning we got up early and headed to the Summer Palace. It was amazing! This place was the summer retreat for the emperor, and you can see why. It's set in a beautiful hilly, quiet region to the northwest of Beijing. There's a big lake, and we were lucky to see the beautiful cherry and plum trees in blossom. It seems spring has finally arrived!

We spent hours clambering up and down stairs, taking the boat across the lake, and posing for the paparazzi who followed us everywhere.
Cool dragon boat on the lake

I don't even want to think about how many pictures were taken of me. It could have been the crazy hat, but honestly, I get this reaction pretty much everywhere I go. You'd think I was back in Mali again.

Also, we finally got to go totally Manchu: we dressed up like the imperial despots we really are. I totally love the gold embroidery.
All hail the Emperor and Empress

We didn't get quite as much time as we wanted in the Summer Palace because we had a Noodle-Making class to catch at The Hutong. This cooking school was different from the other we've used. It's owned by an Australian team, and the quality is more professional (and more expensive). Overall, we decided that despite the Chinglish-y instructions at the other school, we prefer the more authentic atmosphere there.

Still, this class was really fun. Ever since watching the bonus footage on Kung-Fu Panda, where the Chinese chef skillfully stretches hand-made noodles, we knew we had to try this. Our teacher was really skilled at this; we weren't, so much. But it was a valiant, and tasty, attempt. You can compare the video of me and our teacher stretching the noodles.

Since we were in the area, we decided to walk around Houhai, a big pedestrian area surrounding a lake. We did a lot of shopping, picking up gifts for friends, family, and selfishly, ourselves. We got ourselves a pretty awesome tea set. We also hit up the local Mexican restaurant, Amigo.

The next morning was another early start for us. After eating breakfast in the hotel, we joined a tour group going to Mutianyu, a 5km section of the Great Wall situated in the hills about 2 hours north of Beijing. This section was less reconstructed than other parts, and not too crowded with tourists. We took the chair lifts to the top and then spent the next three hours hiking up and down the wall, visiting the different watchtowers. We only made it to 9 out of 23. Yes, we're wimps. The countryside wasn't as green as we had hoped, but there were plenty of plum blossoms to decorate the landscape with beautiful patches of white.
Crazy stairs

We did our part to get rid of the graffiti on the Great Wall, changing "Stanford" to it's proper spelling. Go Bears!

Andrew's favorite part of the trip was going beyond the "No Entrance" sign and climbing to the very edge of the broken down wall. But then again, he's a rebel.

We met some cool people on the wall, including a retired Frenchman who was traveling around learning Mandarin. It was fun speaking French again. It makes me feel better about not learning Mandarin; at least I'm fluent in some languages! After we had gotten our fill of acting like billy goats, we took the toboggan sled down the hill, which is definitely the weirdest, and fastest way to leave the mountain. It was fun! Then we braved the tout-filled souvenir street which seems to be obligatory at any tourist site in China. We scored some beautiful green table runners for us and a panda quilt for my niece Hailey.

After the Great Wall, we returned to Beijing and managed to drag ourselves to a Beijing Opera show. Before the show started, we could see the actors doing their make-up. Andrew and I sat through one hour of screeching, cat-like singing and at the end both concluded it was one of the worst things we'd ever heard. Seriously. First, despite being an opera, there wasn't that much singing (which was frankly, a relief, but I felt we were being cheated of our "opera"). Second, this was obviously intended for tourists. Everyone else in the theater was white, and the tickets were too expensive for such bad seats. The stories were superficial and not very interesting. There wasn't a real set, either, just different backdrops. Third, the music sounded, to quote Andrew, "Like a bunch of 7-year-olds banging on pots and pans." It was awful. The two cool things, though, were that they juggled a bunch of spears, playing "monkey in the middle" with the middle person kicking the spears out to the others, and finally, there was a man with a dragon mask that spit sparks.
For your listening (dis)pleasure

After sitting through that, we had to escape and nurse our sanity back to health so we went to Bookworm Cafe for an amazing dinner and some reading. Then we had a drink in the hostel bar before going to bed.

Wednesday morning was a little more relaxed. We stopped by Jenny Lou's, my favorite place for western goods, which was conveniently not far from our hostel, and filled our larder with avocados, tortillas, cheese, and root beer. (As we were taking a plane later that evening, the root beer turned out to be a bad idea since we were forced to drink it ALL in the airport before going through security.) After packing our things, we hopped on a bus and finally made it out to the 798 Art District, after multiple recommendations from friends. This place is made up of many different buildings, most converted factories, that showcase different types of local arts. We enjoyed ourselves, walking around the different galleries, but since most of it was contemporary art, we weren't really interested. But the Transformer was cool!

After that visit, we grabbed our gear and headed to stage two of our trip: Pandas!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Xi'an Day 2 and a Lama Temple sans llamas

This day was the real reason for coming to Xi'an: the Terracotta Warriors. We got on the bus at 9 am to go the 40km to the burial site. We met our travel companions: a giant from Montreal, a garrulous type from Oklahoma, and some Brits and Kiwis for good measure. On the way, the tour stopped in a museum replica factory (read "tourist trap") where we learned how the ceramic warriors were hand-made, and how the replicas are mass-produced. If you'd like, you can get a life-sized warrior of your very own for only $2,000 + S&H. There are five main styles of warrior: 1) common soldier with a top-knot on the right side, 2) archer with a top-knot on the left side, 3) cavalry man with a flat hat, 4) officer with an inclined board hat, and 5) general with a funny bow hat. Collect them all! There were also horses. The heads are made separate from the body and placed after both have been fired.

After escaping the labyrinth of furniture and other goods on sale for "best price", our tour visited the next stop: lunch to fortify ourselves for the long walk ahead. We had some of the worst Chinese food we've had in China, identical to cheap Chinese take-out. Tea was served in melting plastic cups...

Finally, we arrived at the entrance to the site and commenced the kilometer-long walk through souvenir stalls and KFCs until we arrived at the actual entrance. I've never seen a site so commercialized as this one. All of us noted that China has taken capitalism to a new level. On sale were billions of clay warriors, in addition to your typical tourist kitch. Most shocking were the pelts of the "Chinese Wolf" otherwise known as German Shepherd.

Finally finally, we arrived at the real entrance. Let's start with a little history. In 1974, a man named Yang Zhifa and his buddies were digging a well. They found some interesting clay pieces which they gave to the government. After a little excavation, the archaeologists realized they had stumbled upon something incredible. Around the year 245 B.C., a man named Qin unified many different kingdoms in China and called himself Emperor. He proceeded to do many incredible things, like build the Great Wall. He became a bit obsessed with death, so he decided to have a palace made for his afterlife. The palace was built underground (because that's where dead people live... duh) and was filled with gold and jewels and rare birds and flowing rivers of mercury. A 400 ft. mountain was then piled on top of it, requiring the work of some 700,000 conscripts. There was a secret entrance, and, in order to keep it secret, Qin had those responsible for the design and construction buried alive.

Of course, all this would be for naught if the dead didn't respect his authority, so he also needed an army to protect his stash. Thankfully, he settled for clay figures instead of requiring the real thing. So far, three pits have been discovered full of thousands of clay soldiers, each one different. One pit is the command post with generals and guards. Another pit is full of cavalry and chariots. The largest pit is full of foot soldiers, archers, and officers. Only a small portion of the soldiers have been unearthed, but it's estimated that there are more than 8,000. Originally, all of the soldiers had colorfully painted clothing, armor, and faces. They were also armed with real swords, spears, and crossbows. Each one had a different face, different build, and different clothing (like different belt buckles). They were arranged into formations inside paved underground tunnels braced by logs and reed mats.

Unfortunately, Qin was quite the tyrant and there was a coup soon after his death. The leaders of the coup raided the soldier pits, stole the weapons, and razed the tunnels, causing their collapse and destroy ALL of the clay figures.

So, we learned all of this as we wandered through pits 3, 2, and 1. Each pit is housed in a huge hanger that protects them from the elements. They were buried about 7 meters below ground level, so we didn't have an up-close-and-personal view that I was hoping for. The vast majority of the soldiers are still buried, presumably all crushed as well. The soldiers that you do see have been painstakingly re-constructed, each one taking about 9 months to complete. Imagine that for a jigsaw puzzle! It's a little hard to believe that the soldiers are the real thing and not replicas bought down the street, as there don't appear to be any seams or cracks, but China is known for it's adherence to the truth, so these must be real, right?

Warriors being pieced back together

Overall, it was pretty impressive to see the warriors. It left a lot to the imagination, but my imagination is up to the task of imagining rank upon rank of life-size, colorful warriors and horses to protect the Emperor in the the next life.

After visiting the pits, we went to the museum, which housed the open chariot and covered chariot made of bronze.

After the museum, we saw the panavision video that details the history I've just recounted, plus bonus footage of the craftsmen actually making the warriors and intense 360 degree battle scenes. We then visited the gift shop, where we bought a book signed by the guy who discovered it all: Yang Zhifa. We also splurged for a couple sets of replica warriors and the ever-elusive postcards.
Yang Zhifa autographing books

The next stop after the warrior pits was Qin's tomb, the big hill. Qin's tomb is a real-life example of Schrodinger's Cat. Archaeologists know where the tomb is (I think), but are afraid to open it because either a) it'll collapse, or b) it's already collapsed and everything will be ruined. They're waiting for some future technology that will allow them to excavate it properly. They're also worried about the "flowing rivers of mercury" that would probably kill the excavators. Soil samples have proven that there really is a lot of mercury. Lastly, they haven't determined how much sand to leave in the bag so that when they take the gold statue, it doesn't set off the self-destruct booby trap and release the giant rolling stone ball.

The garrulous type from Oklahoma generously paid for our group to take the ride around the hill where we saw them constructing, I mean excavating the 6th pit behind closed doors.

After our trip around the hill, we headed back to Xi'an, ate some dinner, and hopped on our overnight train back to Beijing.

The next morning in Beijing, we dropped off our bag at the South Railway Station (more like an airport than a train station), then took the metro to the Lama Temple. It's a big, old, famous Buddhist temple that once housed many monks and is therefore deemed a Lamasary! Despite the name, we saw not a single llama in the whole place. How do you like that?...

There were many Buddhists praying with tons of incense. It was really cool, and now I know what it must be like for heathens to appreciate the splendor inside the cathedrals, as I had no idea who the many-limbed, blue and red monsters were, nor did I understand the difference between the many different types of Buddhas and Bhodisatvas.

The absolute coolest part of the Lama Temple was a towering Buddha statue, apparently made entirely from one sandalwood tree. If true, the tree would have been similar to a giant sequoia. No joke, the thing was huge. There's a sign out front from the Guinness Book of World Records verifying that it was made entirely from one tree. Impressive. Most impressive.

After our visit to the Lama Temple, we grabbed some lunch and headed back to the train station, had a nice trip on the bullet train to Qinhuangdao, and were surprised to find Nicole's old student, Nancy, pick us up.

All in all, a successful weekend vacation.

And for your viewing pleasure, another amusing sign:

I love the smell of burning celluloid in the morning...