Thursday, June 12, 2014

Look out China here we come!

With my family traveling all the way to China to visit us, I decided a little tour of China was in order.  If you're gonna come all this way you really should see the Warriors and the Great Wall. We flew up to Xian and went directly to the Terra Cotta Warriors, which were built by China's first Emperor to guard his grave.  Over the centuries the tomb was forgotten until a farmer, looking for water, dug up a terra cotta head.  You can imagine his surprise.  The government bought the lands, at a ridiculously low price, and the farmer now signs a book at the gift shop.  After seeing all three pits, we headed back into the city of Xian to get settled in our hotel.  While I stayed back at the hotel with the kids, everyone else explored the Muslim district, which is known for its good food and shopping.

I don't know if it's us, or Xian, but we seemed doomed to see the city in the rain.  However, unlike our first trip, we were prepared with ponchos and umbrellas.  From our hotel we walked to the Drum Tower, which can be seen in the background of the photo. The Drum Tower, which is now a museum of sorts, was originally used to signal the end of the day.  The Bell Tower, where the kids and I are standing, was used to signal the start of the day.  Both towers now give musical performances throughout the day.  The kids were determined to hear the bell performance, so we waited it out, and got to hear what some of the bells sound like.  We met up with our guide at this point and enjoyed a yummy noodle dish for lunch, something Xian is known for.  The kids enjoyed slurping up their noodles, which, thank God, are a favorite.  Next we braved Xian's city wall.  The wall originally enclosed the entire city and you can see the difference between the old and new part of the city in the different styles of buildings.  By the time we got to the top, it was raining and very cold and windy.  We managed to get a quick group shot before booking it back down to the much warmer car!

Beijing, China's capital and, home of The Great Wall and Peking duck.  Our first stop was the Wall, which is about a 1 1/2 hours drive from Beijing, depending on traffic (there is always traffic).   Everyone has heard about the Great Wall of China, we learn about it in school, and saw it on TV during the Olympics. But, being there in person, standing on something that is thousands of years old, was absolutely AMAZING! That I got to share it with my family was the proverbial cherry on top.  I was worried that it would be crowded, especially when I saw the crowds walking down the hill from the cable car. But, when we got to the wall (via cable car) it was actually pretty empty.  We spent an hour exploring the wall and admiring the views, and even got to leave our mark behind in a tower that had it's walls covered with huge canvases for visitors to sign.  On the way down, the guys had the privilege of sitting in the same cable car that former President Bill Clinton sat in :-)  In keeping with the Presidential theme we had lunch at The School House, where President Obama and First Lady Michelle ate after their visit to the Wall.  We ended our day with a Chinese acrobatic show that was absolutely amazing, that had all of us in awe, but...I don't think any Presidents had been.

Day two in Beijing started with a tour of the Temple of Heaven, a religious complex where the Emperor would pray for a good harvest.  Before you get to the buildings you walk through a large garden where locals can be found playing games, singing, or cruising the marriage market in search of a suitable spouse for their child.  Who needs on-line dating when you've got mom or dad checking out the prospects at the park?  Both the kids and Steven tried out the games played by locals, who seem to enjoy teaching the tourists how to play.

After a tour of a local silk factory we visited Tiananmen Square.  Mom and Dad hold up the 100RMB in front of the Great Hall of the People, which is depicted on the back, and is the headquarters for the National Party.  There is also a memorial to Mao Zedong, and a monument to the People's Heroes.  It was a bit strange to stand in a place that has seen so much violence and to know that most of the Chinese visitors are completely unaware of the full history to the square.  But, the Chinese like Americans are proud to visit their nations capital and to see the seat of their governments power.

Our next stop was to the Forbidden City, which truly is a city unto itself.  The city is made up of 980 buildings, covers 180 acres, and was home to 24 Emperors culminating in 500 years of history. It was taken over in 1925 by the Palace Museum, and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987. Yellow is considered to be the color of the Emperor, so all the roofs of the Forbidden City are done in yellow.  During our visit we walked from the Outer Court, which was used for ceremonial purposes, to the Inner Court, where the Emperor and his family lived and worked.

For lunch we stopped at a restaurant just outside of Tiananmen Square and had some amazing Peking Duck, which our guide Rita showed us (fork people, as they call us) how the locals eat it. Our last stop of the day was a historic Hutong neighborhood.  Here was got to enjoy a ride in a rickshaw and the hospitality of a woman who's family has lived in the Hutong for generations.
Before leaving the Hutong we had the opportunity to meet a with THE #1 cricket fighting champion.  He had to be in his 80s at least, and he spoke almost no English, but his enthusiasm and charm had us all enthralled.  He showed us pictures of interviews he's done for magazines and news shows around the world, and then... we got to see China's #1 fighting cricket.  But, he does not limit himself to crickets.  He also breeds grasshoppers for their sound, and got a laugh out of the kids when he put one on Charlie's hat.

No visit to China is complete without a traditional tea tasting. If China is known for anything aside from silk, it's tea.  On our way from the Hutong we stopped at the Drum Tower to learn more about tea than most would care to.  The Chinese take their tea very seriously and use different pots and different methods of brewing depending on the tea.  As with most tastings, you only get a small sample to try, in what looks a lot like a shot glass.  We tried several types, including Oolong, Green, Black, Lychee, and Fruit tea.  As we tried each our server would explain the benefits the various teas offered.  The fruit tea is very sweet has no caffeine so it is often served to kids. Charlie, proving himself to have a very Chinese palate, by drinking down every last drop of tea served, even finishing off his sisters.  We ended up bringing home some Lychee tea and a beautiful tea set decorated with dragons and phoenix, a representation of male and female or Emperor and Empress, to add to my growing collection of tea sets.

Dinner time, or maybe not.  Our hotel was only a few blocks from the famous Snack Street, where you can find a mind boggling variety of things to munch on.  There are of course some typical snacks, like noodles, veggies, and dumplings, but that is not why you go to Snack Street.  You go to see, and if you're brave, to try some of the more unconventional snacks. Things like snake, spider, beetles, silk worms, sea horse, scorpion, and sea star to name a few.  Most of the vendors are happy to explain what they offer and will assure you, "it is very good".  I'm sorry to say that I was not that brave.  I did enjoyed a potato that had been sliced very thin in a long curl and then fried, and a sweet red bean paste bun that was made up to look like a pig.  Unsurprisingly, considering how much he enjoys watching Andrew Zimmern, my dad gave the fried scorpion a go.  According to him, it was crispy, salty, and actually quite good.  I just took his word for it.  I have a strict policy on eating things with more than four legs.

Having said good bye to Holly and Steven the night before, we headed out to see the Bird's Nest and Water Cube.  Although you can walk through the Olympic Park, we were happy with a view of the park from a pedestrian bridge.  From there we went to the Summer Palace, which is actually more gardens than palace, and was also very crowded. It was known to be Empress Dowager Cixi's favorite place, who is said to have embezzled money from the Navy to restore it. She also ruled China through first her son, and after he died, her nephew, whom she later imprisoned at the Summer Palace.

For our last meal in Beijing, we enjoyed Hot Pot, and popular Chinese style of cooking (think Chinese fondue).  We ordered two broths, a spicy and a non spicy, and then ordered meats, seafood, and veggies to cook in the broth.  There is also a bar of sauces to pick from to add some extra flavor or zip to your food.  We also ordered noodles, which are brought out by a chef who slings them about in a noodle dance before dropping them in your pot.  The kids loved cooking their lunch and almost forgot about eating.  After a delicious and filling meal we headed to the train station for our trip back to Shanghai.  It was an amazing whirl wind trip through China, filled with amazing experiences made even better because we got to experience them with my family this time.  We are so lucky to have this opportunity to live in China and to see Asia, and I'm so glad that we could share a bit of that with my family.