Friday, September 26, 2008

Pedicab Scares

We finally took the plunge and indulged in our first pedicab ride. Let's put it this way...the brakes work! (Julie has the bruises to prove it!) We also got very intimate with a series of cabs, which our driver did not hesitate in challenging (despite their larger size and surplus of metal). Desi will resume posting when we succeed in reviving her...

~Steve

Read This Sign Carefully

It's a wonder the emperors ruled as long as they did...

~Steve

And I Didn't Even Faint!

A year ago this time (maybe even today...oooh!), I nearly did a header into the bath at Berkeley Springs. Here we are a year later and a half a world away, at Huaqing Hot Spring, outside Xi'an. A long time ago, this was the place where some emperor used to hang out with his concubine, a woman considered one of the beauties of the ancient world. (You be the judge...) Then, at the turn of the 20th century, the Empress Dowager Cixi fled to Xi'an when the Nationalists were closing in on Beijing. And, finally, this was the place where the "infamous" Xi'an incident of 1936 took place. Why was it infamous? What exactly happened? Frankly, we have no clue. All we know is that China's rulers have had good tastes when it comes to the whole therapeutic bathing thing...

~Steve

Mysteries of the Terra Cotta Warriors

The story of the terra cotta warriors has been pieced together, but is quite mysterious in nature. Emperor Qin Shihuang (the first emperor of China, back around 200 BC) was obsessed by immortality. From what I can gather so far, he assembled 750,000 workers to construct these warriors and the place to entomb them, so that they could escort him into the afterlife. Their existence was never recorded and those involved in making them were supposedly either killed or buried alive to preserve secrecy.

A few items I don't quite understand in all of this:

(1) How could no one know about it if 750,000 people worked on it? It seems as if someone would have leaked the information on this.

(2) (Probably the biggest mystery to me personally.) The warriors were found holding weaponry. Bronze swords, crossbows, arrows, and spears. Yet not one weapon appears at the site. In fact, a placard states that the weapons have been removed. One would think that you would either see some of them in the piles of pottery pieces, or at least a picture showing the warriors holding these weapons before they were removed.

Any experts out there who can offer some assistance?

~Desi

Yang Xiansheng

As you all can tell, we went to the terra cotta warriors today. We went from pit to pit, and out the back of the final pit, Pit 3. Outside was a huge gift shop building. A Chinese classic "bring tourists out of the site and into the gift shop."

Inside, there are three main rooms. We chose one and went in. We walked past a big book table with an older man sitting behind it. We kept walking and it was mainly statues of the warriors for sale. We went back to by the book table. Above the table, there was a picture of the man who was sitting there, shaking hands with Bill Clinton. If you read the sign, you found out that this was the man who discovered the warriors. A sign next to him said, "No pictures!" The only reason he was there was to sign books they were selling for 120 yuan.

What do you think we did? Bought the book! I brought it up to him and Mom got a picture while he signed it.

Earlier, we wondered what happens to someone like that, who makes a major discovery. Now we have our answer.

~Zoli

Kevin

Who is Kevin? Kevin is one of the many different kinds of terra cotta warriors. He is called the "kneeling archer."

Before we came to Xi'an, the site we were most excited about, of course, was seeing the terra cotta warriors. Everyone has seen the latest National Geographic TV show on them, so you probably have seen what a few of the different warriors look like. Our favorite warrior is the kneeling archer, or Kevin. It all started back on our first cross-country trip, when we were in LA. We had breakfast one morning with a couple who are related to my dad's cousin by marriage. We sat outside in their back garden, which contained a statue of a terra cotta warrior. They had bought the life-sized statue in Xi'an and had it shipped back to the US. It just happened the statue of the kneeling archer and, for some reason, they named it "Kevin."

Ever since that day, this particular type of terra cotta warrior has been known in our household as Kevin. So today, when we were all going to finally be able to see the real Kevin, everyone was overwhelmed at the prospect. After an hour and a half in Pit 1, we finally moved on to Pit 2...the home of the kneeling archers. The pit was huge, but there weren't any whole warriors to look at. Only pieces of their bodies and limbs. On one side of the pit, however, there were a few glass cases that contained whole warriors. And kneeling in one of these cases was Kevin. We were all so excited to see the statue we had known about for years. He was kneeling on one knee with his hands in the position to hold a bow and arrow. He had a few steaks of red paint on the back, which is rare on the now colorless warriors. I know we were all blown away by the whole seen, but seeing Kevin was one of my favorite parts.

~Julie

Pit 1

Today I was totally blown away. It was a wall of wow that hit me as I entered Pit 1 of the terra cotta warrior archaeological site.

After navigating to Bus 306 near the Xi'an train station and riding an hour or so (some portions were through fields of pomegranate trees), we reached a large parking lot (uncommon for China). We processed through tables of trinket sales people, got our tickets, and entered the complex of modern buildings. Not sure of exactly what to expect (we'd seen pictures but weren't really prepared), we entered the excavation site known as Pit 1. Think of the largest airplane hangar you've ever seen, multiply it by ten, and add a tasteful facade to the front. Upon entering, you are faced with thousands of individualized "pottery" statues. Men in carefully detailed uniforms, all with different faces, lined up and seemingly ready to do battle.

In addition to the warriors and horses which are intact, there are thousands more which are yet to be unearthed. There are piles of pieces of warriors, as well as a section of the layout that is dedicated to piecing together fragments like jigsaw puzzles. Beyond Pit 1 were Pits 2 and 3, which were much smaller but impressive in their own right. They contained other types of warriors, like archers and officers.

The sheer magnitude of this set up gave me chills down my spine. The mysterious nature of the story behind the place as well as several unanswered queries of mine continue to do so.

~Desi

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Xi'an Discoveries: Biking the Wall

Another major feature of Xi'an that, until this week, we were clueless about was the fact a 700-year old Ming dynasty wall still circles the city. This is not just any little wall we are talking about. Something like 50 meters high. Eight miles in circumference. Hundreds of battlements along the way. And, for us, the best part...you can rent bikes!

From this perch, we saw old sections of the city that were strewn with burning garbage (literally). We saw areas that have recently been refurbished with new buildings made to look like classic Chinese structures. (Think new urbanism...) We saw the chaos of the train station and bus terminal from a safe and quiet distance.

Along the way, we got jostled around quite a bit. (It's like riding on big cobblestones.) And the weirdest sight of all? Two beautiful golden retrievers, looking totally out of context, amid the concrete of their "backyard." Definitely the kind of thing we could never had noticed
from the street. Interesting place, this Xi'an...and we haven't even been out to the Terra Cotta warriors yet...

~Steve

Xi'an Discoveries: The Muslim Quarter

Before yesterday, essentially all we knew about Xi'an was that it is where the Terra Cotta warriors are located. Some quick research via the Internet and tour books clued us in that there are some other interesting things to check out while in town.

One great discovery has been the Muslim quarter. This section of town is full of lots of incredible foods. Some are familiar. For example, there are dried fruits everywhere. We decided to try out the dried kiwi slices. Julie will agree with me when I say they were excellent, vaguely similar to, and maybe better than, dried pineapples.

Then there is the brick oven-baked bread. The guy basically takes the dough and slaps it against the side of this circular, fire-filled chamber. Kind of resembles naan, but with different seasonings. Even though they're like the size of a frisbee, we wolf 'em down three at a time.

Other treats are not recognizable at all. We kept seeing people walking down the street munching on these orange-colored little cakes. Desi was thinking nangua bing, the pumpkin cakes she has become very attached to. So I asked these guys who were passing by, "Zhei shi nangua ma?" Is that pumpkin? "Bu shi," came the reply. No, it isn't. Well, what is it then? Not understanding the response, I decided to go for it anyway. How bad could it be with so many people biting into it? The verdict? I have no idea what I just ate, but it was unbelievable! Man, the food in Xi'an is good!

Then, just a few hours ago, Julie went up to this place where they had a bunch of apples on display. They looked really good. After some inquiry, it sounded to us like the apples were served in these bowls with some kind of syrup and other pieces of fruit. We weren't that far off...except for the fact that the apples were not part of the deal at all! They must have just been there for show. Another excellent surprise. There were apple pieces, plus lots of other types of fruits floating in the bowl.

All this, and we haven't even mentioned the great little noodle place where they serve steaming starch water in little bowls nor the fact that we did some good, cheap shopping while eating our way from one end of the Muslim quarter to the other...

~Steve

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Olympic Lanes...Jia You!

There has been a lot of speculation about how Beijing will change (or not change) now that the Olympic period is over. We will offer nothing profound on this question, but we can celebrate one small difference..the Olympic lanes are open for general traffic!

This is the kind of small victory that one celebrates in their everyday lives, even if it ultimately doesn't have a big impact on the environment, human rights, or global politics. For weeks, we have sat in traffic jams while the Olympic lanes remained wide open, with the occasional black car zipping by.

So when the taxi driver who was taking us to the airport for our flight to Xi'an moved over and left tire tread all over those dreaded Olympic rings (I will take glee in watching them get dirty and fade away), I wanted to turn around and hive-five Desi and the kids. Forget the fact that it was pre-dawn and the 5th ring road was pretty much deserted. It was the principle, the idea that we could use the Olympic lanes if we wanted. Ah, life's little pleasures...

~Steve

Finally!

There I was last night, standing in front of a few (more on how few below) of China's finest graduate students. At last, the culmination of years of hard work and preparation. And, as usual, what transpired defied all planning, both for good and for bad.

The Room. At Beida, the classrooms are kept locked until a few minutes before class begins. There are these young women who walk around with huge rings of keys. These women are dressed in black pants, white button-down shirts, and ties. (Kinda reminds me of what banquet servers wear in the US.) Not only do these women open classrooms, they also open up the metal cabinets where the classroom computers are kept.

Unluckily for me, my laptop has a foreign operating system. (Like me, it apparently doesn't know enough Mandarin to communicate effectively with its Chinese counterpart.) This led to the women with the key rings walkie-talkie'ing a supervisor, an older sounding lady who said (through lots of static) that I would have to change my laptop to a Chinese operating system. When I indicated my unwillingness to make this move, they called in the person who deals with the really hard technology problems...a young guy wearing a t-shirt and jeans...perhaps older than Z. Just in time, he had everything working properly and I was ready for show time.

The Students. At the designated start time, there was a grand total of two (2) students in the room. Desi and I had been joking about how no one would show up, given my low profile at the School of Government. (I literally have not met a single other professor. I've seen a few working in their offices. I even borrowed scissors from one, but that's as far as it went.)

I decided to wait a few extra minutes, and eventually a few more students wandered in, bringing the grand total to six. Off we went...

The Mug Shots. One of the first things I did was show students mug shots of various American political figures. Everyone recognized George W. Bush. Barack Obama was familiar to some students. (Someone else I showed the photos to asked the following question when John McCain appeared on the screen. "Is that a Russian guy?") Nancy Pelosi? Forget it.

The Pacing. As I was lecturing, I was constantly plagued by doubt. Am I insulting my students, by speaking too slowly, using words that are too simple, and making gestures that are too big? Or am I talking completely over their heads? Here is what one student wrote on an index card..."I can't speak English well. Fortunately, I can understand what you said."

The Questions. At the end of class, students had only one question about the course. It concerned the short essays they will be writing during the semester. "Will the essays be in English?"

Lots of questions about me. Some were predictable. "Where are you from?" "Do you like China?"

Others questions were less obvious. "How tall are you?" Of course, I could only answer in feet and inches.

Getting the Word Out. One of the last things I told students was to let their friends know about the class. On the way out, one student came up to me and said, "I will tell my friends. I think you are a good teacher."

Well, I have been told that I am the second best teacher in my family...

~Steve

We Just Had to Go to the Beijing Zoo

And it was pretty much as you would expect. Take the National Zoo in DC, let succession take over, add around twelve more pandas, and you're there.

The one exhibit we were looking forward to seeing was the American animals. We were hypothesizing what types of creatures they would have on display. Our agreement...squirrels, a cow, a pig, and maybe a few dogs. We were intrigued by the prospects.

Unfortunately, we never found it. We followed the zoo map to the letter, but went from Australia to Africa. There was no America. We now figure that the exhibit was probably a traveling Meiguoren exhibit and that we were probably it!

One of my favorite moments was when a man didn't know that I understand Chinese. All I have to hear is waiguoren and my ears perk up. I responded to him with some Chinese that got his attention! One of my least favorite moments was watching several people throw food to the sloth bear. Apparently, this pastime has been on the decline, but the bear seemed to be expecting it and was looking a bit chubbier than other sloth bears I have seen.

In all, we had a great time. But I certainly wouldn't put this on your "Top Ten Sites in Beijing" list.

~Desi

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Riding on the Great Wall

No matter how far "out there" you think you are, there is always some sort of ever-present sign of civilization. We have spent two days visiting the Great Wall so far. And in both situations there have been different modes of very distinct transportation that will take you to the Great Wall and back down the mountain to the parking lot.

Our first trip to the Great Wall was to Badaling, one of the most famous tourist areas because the mountain it is on is the highest locally. This attracts many Chinese because they all want to reach the highest point, get their picture, and then go back down the wall. However, at this location, there is an alternative to climbing the wall. For 30 yuan, you can take a roller coaster-looking ride either up or down the mountain. It deposits you at the edge of the wall, so you only have a short distance to walk to the peak. We didn't choose this option for the way up, but it seemed irresistible for the way down (Z and I couldn't help it!). It turned out to be a relatively slow moving ride, but it was a lot of fun because it twisted around the mountain, giving beautiful views of the Great Wall and leaving you where all the tour buses are waiting.

Yesterday, we ventured to a new part of the wall called Simatai. Since we were on a bus that only gives you three hours to see the wall before you have to load up and head back to Beijing, we were on a little bit of a time constraint. When you enter the Simatai park area, there are two options...either take a hike all the way up a trail to the wall (mind you, this is a very tall mountain), or you can take a cable car to a closer point. With the time considered, we took the twenty minute cable car ride to the top. (It has a beautiful view, if you can get over the odd noises the cables make.)

When you reach the top of the cable car trip, you have to jump out of the car before it starts on the return journey. It only takes a few moments to realize that you are still a forty minute hike from the wall. But don't worry...the Chinese have another ride in store. The "incline" is a few benches that you can sit on that are connected to a cable. The cable pulls you up to the next point along the line. From here, your feet have to carry you the rest of the way to the wall.

Alpine slides, cable cars, and inclines...what will it be next?

~Julie

If Everyone Sold the Same Exact Thing, Who Would You Pick To Buy From?

This is what I was thinking yesterday, when we were on our crazy bus ride back from Simatai (our driver thought he was driving a Corvette...enough said). As we approached one town that, we're guessing, was the home to a large apple orchard, there were tons of roadside stands set up, one after another, selling...you guessed it...apples! Same kind, probably the same price, stand after stand.

I suggested to Steve that they all pool their apples and take shifts. I guess that just wouldn't be the Chinese way. I don't really get it, but this certainly isn't the first thing I don't understand about this culture. Perhaps everybody just likes to be out and amongst people. Not such a bad idea, when you really think about it...

~Desi

No Front Pew For the Ballas in Beijing

You have to arrive pretty early for Mass if you want even a shot at our normal seat. I mean...really early. Today we visited our second cathedral in Beijing (Xuanwumen) and, by chance, arrived close to an hour early for Saturday evening services. Already, the church had many parishioners on site. Some were inside, practicing songs with the choir director, and some were outside, sitting on benches and talking, or praying near a beautiful statue of the Blessed Mother.

After sitting outside for a bit, we entered the church in search of a seat. At first, we sat in the front pew of the second section (that was the closest we could get and still see the altar). We were quickly, but politely, told that this is where the "little angels" sit. These little angels are little children who process in at the beginning of Mass dressed like angels.

After moving to the side pews, we found our view obstructed by large columns. We moved back further...still couldn't see. (It must have been funny to see the waiguoren on a quest for the perfect seat.) "Let's just sit somewhere," I thought. We found three pews that each had one seat that had a view. Z in the first, Julie in the second, and Steve and me in the third. While Steve still couldn't see the altar, we did have a TV right in front of us. I think Steve would call this a "Catholic church with Chinese characteristics."

While I'm certainly enjoying the enthusiasm that the Chinese bring to the entire setting of the Mass--hearty responses and joyful singing by everyone--the Mass is exhausting. Trying to pray in my head in English while trying to figure out some of the Chinese language while trying to recognize some of the Chinese characters in the songs (which are flashed up on the screen) while being in awe of just being here...I think you get the picture.

I have a new appreciation for our usual "distraction-free" front pew...

~Desi

My Green Guy

Back in the States, Jacob and Justin, two of my best friends, gave me a small action figure toy called a Baukughan. It is green and looks like an alien. It has a magnet that springs it open. We joked about taking pictures of it on the Great Wall because it was our last time seeing them before we moved to China.

The day before we left, I secretly packed him in a small black pouch and put him in my backpack. When we arrived, I took him out. He stayed on my shelf until we went to the Temple of Heaven. I brought him and took a few pictures of him.

A week later, we went to the Great Wall. What was the first thing to go in my Camelback? Him. A couple of shots here and there.

Two weeks later, we went to the Great Wall again. So did he. This time, I got the most surreal picture of all!

Thanks Jacob and Justin!

~Zoli

A Taxi To a Bus To a Cable Car To an Incline

There are two fascinating things about Simatai, the section of the Great Wall we visited this weekend. The first is this series of modes of transportation we had take to get to this spot about two and a half hours away from downtown Beijing. We started out bright and early, catching a cab to this church not that far from Tiananmen Square. Why a church? Well, right out in front of the cathedral is this depot for long distance buses. Imagine the area in front of the National Cathedral in DC. A driveway. Some grass. Very pristine. Now fill it up with buses everywhere. This is roughly the strange scene that greeted us when the taxi driver dropped us off.

Onto the Simatai bus we jumped, anxious not to miss it. Little did we know that the departure time seemed to be a bit, uh, flexible. Ba dian ban. Eight-thirty, we were told, would be when the bus pulled out. I got the feeling that they wanted to sell as many tickets as possible before hitting the road. So all of that hurrying up, and here we were waiting again. Rather than "Beijing Huan Ying Ni," the city's motto ought to be "Hurry Up and Wait" (however that would be translated into Chinese).

Anyways, we finally hit the road, passing the incredible new CCTV building on our way out of town. (You really need to do a Google images search and check it out...) We made one stop on the way, to hit a public toilet. Our guess is that this was because the driver had to go, as there was no such break on the way back.

As we were presumably closing in on Simatai, this dramatic set of peaks came into view. Really tall. Really craggy. Definitely worth a snapshot out the window. Approaching even closer, we suddenly realized that the Great Wall ran along the top of these peaks, and that this in fact was Simatai. How on Earth are we going to get up all that way?

The answer? Run the gauntlet of workers trying to convince you to take mechanized forms of transportation to the top. Sure, you could walk up. But our driver only gave us three-four hours before meeting back at the bus. It quickly became clear that, to spend any significant amount of time on the wall itself, we would have to fork over some cash, and first take a cable car and then an incline in order to reach the summit. They had us unsuspecting waiguoren right where they wanted us.

Which takes us to the second thing about Simatai that is fascinating...the wall and the views it commands. Sections of the wall have obviously been worked on at various points since the dynasties. Others, though, are in more natural (and thus much worse) condition. This led to things like standing on top of watchtowers, climbing through windows, and looking out over deep ravines.

As for the views themselves, they were, of course, obscured by the fog, mist, or whatever that was hanging in the air. (Uh, we know...) That said, we looked out at mountain after mountain, so unreal that it looked like an overly dramatic painting. But it was the real thing. And there's a motel at the bottom of the mountains. I think we'll be back...

~Steve

PS: Blow up the bottom picture to read what the red sash says...