Friday, August 31, 2007

China Trip - Final Part (Shanghai)

I arrived home from China today. I am really tired from being awake for over 30 hours but I am still on a high from the trip.

Boarding the MagLev Train
I woke up early on Friday morning to take the MagLev Train to Shanghai's Pudong Airport. The ride was very smooth and I loved how the whole train would sharply bank as it made it's turns. The trip took only 7 minutes 20 seconds to travel the 20 miles, reaching a top speed of 268 mph which makes it the fastest train in the world. The cool part is that every car has the time and the current speed of the train displayed, so I could tell how fast we were traveling. I nearly jumped out of my skin when the MagLev Train going the opposite direction blurred past my window with a loud roar. My camera finally died on me after taking a couple pictures of the train standing in the station. Bummer! I would have loved to get some shots of the landscape flying by.

The very commercial Nanjing Road in Shanghai
I had a good final two days in Shanghai. On Wednesday, we experienced a heavy thunderstorm in the morning but we took advantage of the bad weather to visit the Shanghai Museum. My favorite exhibit was the chronological history of porcelain "China" which this country invented and is so famous for. It was interesting to see the advances as the porcelain ceramics got thinner, more colorful and more intricately designed over the past 2000 years. The exhibit of ancient Chinese paintings was also fascinating. I really enjoyed the fine detail in the landscapes and paintings of trees, flowers and birds. They kept the painting exhibit hall very dimly lit, but motion sensors would light up each individual painting as you approached them. It was pretty cool.

Dragon in the Yu Yuan Gardens
When the rain died, we went to the Yu Yuan Gardens, the former private garden estate of a provincial governor in the 16th century. The landscaped vegetation was in a maze of walls, rock formations, fish ponds and old buildings. The early rain kept away the normally large crowds and gave the intricately designed cobbled paths a clean sheen. After going for a walk through a Hutong area of Shanghai after lunch, we decided to relax and go to the movies. We ended up seeing the new Harry Potter movie in 3D at an IMAX theater. (It was in English with Chinese subtitles.) It was my first time seeing a 3D movie. It was very impressive during the magical showdown with Lord Voldemort.

Surfing the Canal
Our last day, we went to the village of Zhujiajiao, the Venice of Shanghai. The white buildings with their black roofs and all the distinctive stone bridges spanning the canals were built during the last two Chinese dynasties. We went to a nice restaurant called "1121" in the French Concession section of the city for our final dinner together in China. I liked the way they served the tea. The waiter sent a foot long stream of hot water swirling into our cups from a tea pot with a long narrow spout. He had very good aim. The Lemon Chicken was delicious.

I love Broccoli
p.s. It is really hard to window shop in China, they are the masters of the high pressure sales technique. You have to keep up a fast pace and not let your gaze linger too long on any item if you don't want to get cornered.

A Map of China on the River Boat that displays Ads
p.s.s. On my way home to Leucadia from LAX Airport, I saw an V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft hovering low over the I-5 freeway in Camp Pendleton. It is one of the Marines' new planes that can turn it's propellers up to fly like a helicopter. It looked pretty cool.

Monday, August 27, 2007

China Trip - Part 3 (Li River & Shanghai)

I flew into Shanghai this afternoon after spending two days in beautiful Guilin. Yesterday, we took a four hour boat ride down the Li River between Guilin and Yangshuo. The area is famous for it's thousands of limestone karsts. They are the steep, tree-covered pinnacles that are seen so often in paintings and films of the Chinese countryside.

Bamboo raft on the Li River
The Li River was very beautiful. It was surrounded on both sides by the karsts that jut up to 1,000 feet high and the river was filled with water buffalo and fisherman on their narrow bamboo rafts. I could see the cormorants (the water birds they train to catch fish) perched on the boats waiting to be taken out by the fishermen at sundown. The birds wear metal rings on their throats so they don't swallow the fish.

Kids shouting Ni Hao as they ride past me
The highlight of my trip so far is the bike ride once we reached Yangshuo. Within ten minutes of riding, we were out peddling through small villages and rice paddies as the sun set over the limestone peaks. (I took some great pictures.) We got caught in a hard pouring thunderstorm near the end of the ride back. We watched the lightening under an awning until the rain died down enough to venture back outside.

Standing on a bridge amid rice paddies watching a man gut a chicken in the canal below me
After dinner, we went to a light, dance and music show called "Impressions" that uses the natural environment as it's stage. The show had a cast of at least 500 with singers and boatman going back and forth across the river with the karsts brilliantly lit up in the background by intense spotlights. As we watched it, we commented on how much it look liked the type of cultural performance seen at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of an Olympic Games. It turns out, the show was created by the Chinese director of "Hero" and "Raise The Red Lantern" who is also doing the Opening Ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Soaked from being caught in a downpour in Yang Shuo
My first day in Guilin, I went to one of the caves that are inside the karsts. The Reed Flute Cave was big and all lit up inside to show off all the the strange formations. It was fascinating but I prefer my caves a little dark and spooky. It was nice and cool inside though compared to the blazing heat outside. We ended the day by going to a cooking school in Yangshuo. We started off at the local farmer's market where they had all the fresh vegetables, spices and live animals and fish available. (We bought the fish we were going to cook for dinner out of a little pool.) There was a couple of skinned DOGS hanging from hooks but I didn't see any live dogs in cages. I don't think I could of handled that. We cooked our meals out on a farm and they turned out great. We had a local teacher from the area.

Showing us how to cook with a Wok
Today, we walked around Shanghai for a bit along the Huangpu River and then went to a fancy dinner at the top of the Jin Mao Tower. It is the 4th highest building in the world. It had great views of the city and is right next to the almost completed skyscraper that is in a race with the one in Dubai to be the next tallest. The bar at the center of the 55th floor was amazing. The ceiling goes all the way up the interior of the final 30+ floors to the top of the tower. It is dizzying to look at for too long.

The amazing ceiling in the Jin Mao Tower
I have two more days here in Shanghai. The traffic seems to be much worse here, but the sky is much cleaner than Beijing. I can really feel the European touch in the city's architecture compared to the other Chinese cities I have visited. I am going to take the recently built MagLev Train from the city out to the airport on Friday. It uses magnetic levitation to hover over the train track and it supposed to be super fast.

A traffic jam of barges against the skyline of Shanghai
p.s. There was a festival to celebrate the ancestors while we were in Yahgshuo. All the families were buying live chickens at the market that they cook to celebrate and we could hear the loud firecrackers they were setting off all night.

Choatic Intersection in Shanghai
p.s.s. Our bus driver on the way back to Guilin on our first night seemed especially suicidal. There wasn't a corner too blind for him to attempt to pass slower vehicles.

Biking over a wooden bridge into a small village
p.s.s.s We had a good laugh when we drove by a bank in the morning. All the tellers were exercising in the lobby before they opened. They were shaking their butts at the glass as we went past on the street in Guilin. I think they would have a hard time convincing us lazy-assed Americans to exercise at work in the morning.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

China Trip - Part 2 (Beijing & Xian)

Well, I ate a scorpion. With the stinger still attached!!

Noah eating a Scorpion in Beijing
I bought a skewer with three scorpions on it at an outdoor market in Beijing. There were about 100 stalls lined down the street with every kind of exotic food or animal part displayed. 99% of the customers were Chinese people and the rest were foreigners looking but not really buying. A few of the stalls had insects like scorpions, silkworms, grasshoppers and what looked like cockroaches.

Food Stall with Insects
I thought I was only going to buy the scorpions so I could pretend to eat it for a photo, but I was dared by the group and encouraged by the Chinese people around me who were taking pictures and watching to see if I would like it. After a few moments of staring at it, I finally bit down on it. It actually tasted just like popcorn cooked in oil. It was crunchy, but surprisingly good and it went down easy.

A busy alley off of Wang Fu Jing Street
I am traveling with a small group of four people, Kristin and Kathleen from Chicago, Suzanne from Toronto and myself. Our tour guide, Augusto, is from Peru. He has only been in China a little while and doesn't speak the language, but he is very good. He knows all the best places to eat and fun things to do. After my scorpion episode, we met up with another guide who is friend of Augusto's, Sam from Belgium. He is in Beijing running tours up into Tibet and then over to the Base Camp at Everest. He took us to an ex-pat bar in the city called "The Poachers" that is hidden away down several alleys. The beer was cheap and we had a good time.

Waiting at a busy Beijing intersection
My bicycle ride through Beijing and into the Hutongs where a quarter of the city's population lives the next morning was great. It was a fun way to see the city. The sky was a little clearer and riding kept us cool. I am glad that I tried riding after waiting for a few days and observing how the local bike riders handled riding in this chaotic but fluid traffic. The trick is to ignore the cars and they will avoid you. (Except the buses!) The hardest part was avoiding the pedestrians who ignore the bicyclists.

Ancient Brothel in Beijing Hutongs
The interesting part of the bike tour was the transition from biking down modern busy avenues and turning into narrow alleys and feeling like I was stepping back 100 years. The alleys in the Hutongs are very narrow and the homes are handed down from generation to generation. The people who live there have to deal with very primitive conditions (including having to use the public toilets because they have no bathrooms) but they don't want to move to cheaper apartment buildings with more amenities because their homes in the Hutongs are more valuable. Around every corner there was a little old lady wearing a red arm band. They are the lowest rung of government officials, acting as a sort of neighborhood watch against thieves and the person who neighbors can report their problems too.

Noah in courtyard of Beijing Hutong
We decided to go visit the athletic facilities being built for the Summer Olympics next year. The main Olympic Park was a dirty construction site but it contains the nearly complete Olympic Stadium which looks like a giant steel bird's nest. It was pretty impressive. We could see workers walking all over the top. The swimming facility next to it looks like a collection of blue plastic bubbles in the shape of a square. A giant seven-star hotel complex rising up along side the park will give great views but I doubt anyone but VIPs and millionaires will be staying there during the Games. It is a great contrast with the flimsy-looking barracks filled with bunk beds for the workers built all over the construction site.

2008 Olympic Stadium under Construction
Thursday night we took a night train to Xian. The train station was very busy, but we had a nice sleeper car. We arrived in the morning and visited the Bell and Drum Towers. Xian is the former capital of ancient China and was the starting point for the Silk Road. We wandered down the narrow streets of the Muslim Quarter and had a great lunch of lamb and beef skewers with some kind of fried flat bread. The spices they used were excellent. We visited the Great Mosque in the Quarter which was busy because of the faithful coming for pray on Friday. We also went for a bike ride around Xian on top of the old city walls that encircle it.

Friday Prayers at the Great Mosque
Last night after a delicious dumpling dinner, we went to the Giant Goose Pagoda where they have a light & water show every summer night in the square. The fountains are bigger than three football fields and the place was packed. Augusto and I took our swimsuits and we ran around in the fountains with everybody else during the show getting soaked. There is a group of officers marching around the fountains that Augusto calls the "Water Police" who make sure everyone is following the rules. It is something to get reprimanded for standing on top of a bench by a stern female officer who looks like a supermodel in a hot pink uniform with a skirt and high heeled boots. The male officers wore what looked like white sailor uniforms.

Crowds around the fountains of the Giant Goose Pagoda
Today we went to see the Terracotta Warriors on the outskirts of town. We learned that the Terracotta Warriors were buried outside the tomb of the first Chinese Emperor who united the seven kingdoms into the country of China. He was also the Emperor who started building the Great Wall. His actual tomb is still buried and untouched because of the poisonous levels of mercury in the ground around it. The Warriors were impressive and the farmer who discovered them in the 70's was there signing books. On the drive back to town we ate some white pomegranates that the driver picked fresh for us from the surrounding groves. Very Sweet. Our guide opened them up with a gigantic "Crocodile Dundee" knife she pulled out of the glove compartment.

Inside the giant hanger sheltering the excavation pit
Before coming to the Internet cafe tonight, I went to get a massage at a place called "Big Feet Ancestor" that Augusto recommended. It was a really nice place. After all the walking around, the foot massage was great. The Internet cafes here are harder to find than in Europe but they are very cheap. Only 3 yuan (40 cents) an hour and I didn't notice much effect from the "Great Firewall of China" except that I couldn't access Google News and international sites loaded slower. I can now recognize a Chinese character, a box with two X's in it means the Internet.

Cook in the Muslim Quarter
Tomorrow we fly to Guilin in the south of the country. It is considered to be the most beautiful area of China.

View down main boulevard of Xian towards the North Gate of the City Wall
p.s. I sometimes forget that this is a communist country because it is so capitalistic here. There is the occasional reminder when we are told not to photograph on certain government streets or the police in the green uniforms.

Noah biking on Xian City Wall
p.s.s. I am digging Chinese TV commercials & music videos on the "V" channel. Love songs seem to be the popular choice right now. I have a music video by a Jacky Cheung stuck in my head now. There are allot of commercials telling the residents of the Beijing not to spit on the ground and espousing the virtues of being friendly.

Dumpling Dinner
p.s.s.s. I had the best pork dumpling at a little shop on our bike tour. A new favorite dish is the candied potato wedges. Tastes better than it sounds.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

China Trip - Part 1 (Beijing)

I have now been in Beijing, China for three days. The weather is hot, but not unbearable or as bad as I thought it would be. I had heard about the pollution before I got here, but I still wasn't prepared for the thick haze of smog that fills the city and turns the sun into a dull red disc in the sky. The city is huge and it is filled with countless large apartment buildings and broad avenues packed with cars.

Noah on Tiananmen Square
Monday, my first day, I just spent exploring by myself. The taxis are very cheap here and there are over 90,000 of them in the city, so they are easy to catch. I started on the main boulevard that bisects the city and visited several of the markets. I started at a high-end shopping center where the staff bow to you getting on and off the escalator and then I went to the Beijing Friendship Store where I bought some Green Tea. Over at Silk Street, I had a fun time bargaining for a couple shirts. The first girl, got a high price out of me, but with that experience I was able to get a much better deal later on with the second.

Dragon carving in Forbidden City
Today, we went to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The Square is huge and it is surrounded by gigantic buildings on all sides. The biggest building is Mao's Mausoleum at the center of the square. I wanted to see his preserved body inside, but it was closed as it is getting renovated for next years Olympics. We entered the Forbidden City which sits at the far end of the Square and has large portrait of Mao hanging over the entrance. We had a cool guide who told us all about the imperial city (I am going to have to see "The Last Emperor" when I get back) and took us to a great restaurant for lunch. Afterwards, we visited the Temple of Heaven which was built at what was considered the exact center of the universe for the Chinese.

Noah with view of Tower 20 in the distance.
Yesterday was great. We were able to escape the pollution in Beijing and go out to the Great Wall of China. It is in the hills about 2 hours north of the city. It was nice to see blue sky again and while the sun was still hot, there was a cool breeze blowing over the walls. We hiked all the way up to Tower 20 which is at the highest point of the reconstructed wall that we are allowed to climb. The wall follows the ridge line of the hills so there are allot of steps and hiking up and down from tower to tower. The last section is the steepest, a brutally long staircase and the last 40 steps I had to use my hands to climb but the view was worth it.

Climbing up to Tower 20 on the Great Wall
After the hike back along the Great Wall, Augusto and I rode a sledge down the hill. I sped pretty fast down the metal toboggan run with a hand brake to slow down if I got to close to the guy in front of me. Augusto forgot to slow down on the last turn and hit me pretty hard at the finish line. It didn't hurt but my legs went flying up into the air over my head. After resting up from the long hike we went to see the Chinese Acrobats (amazing!!!) and then to a really fancy restaurant for a Peking Duck Dinner. Lots of tanks filled with fish swimming around.

Restaurant Fish Tanks
I was a little worried about if I would enjoy the food while I was here, but I am loving it. (Everything except the Peking Duck which I didn't dig.) They serve meals in restaurants potluck-style where we can order several different meat or vegetable dishes with rice to share. I am not much of a vegetable guy but I am really enjoying the broccoli served in some kind of butter sauce, the eggplant and the tofu cooked with an orange sauce I think. Some of the dishes are hard to explain. My favorite so far is the spicy chicken with peanut.

Busy Beijing road at night
Tomorrow, I go cycling in the Hutongs, the older traditional neighborhoods in Beijing which show how the booming city used to look before it began modernizing so rapidly. In the late afternoon, we catch a 15 hour overnight train to the ancient Chinese capital, Xian, where the Terra Cotta Warriors were discovered.

Statue outside of Mao's Mausoleum on Tiananmen Square
p.s. The city really comes alive at night. The sidewalks are crowded not just with pedestrians walking around but residents bringing out little chairs and low tables to play cards, Chinese chess and several other domino-looking games I couldn't recognize. It is a huge city, but feels very communal. In the morning, you can see people doing Tai Chi on the sidewalks.

Outside the Acrobat Theater
p.s.s. A lot of doorways here in Beijing have growling lion statues on either side of the entrance. I wonder what it means.

Leo holding the painting I bought
p.s.s.s I learned today that "Mei Guo" is the Chinese name for the United States which translates as "Beautiful Country". I haven't experienced any Anti-Americanism here in China (everyone is very friendly) and I have been surprised to see several men walking around the city wearing U.S. Army jackets. Strange considering how most of the world is pissed with America about Iraq.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Padres Game

The Padres hit well against the Colorado Rockies
I went to the Padres Game last night with a group from work. It was a blowout by the Padres who jumped out to a large lead early in the game with several homeruns to beat the Rockies, 8-0. We had tickets to the roof of the Western Metal Supply Co. building. It is a nice area with a good view of the field and free food and beer. I liked the self-serve nachos.

Noah, Joe, Dave, Kurt, Suzie and Louise on the bleachers atop the Western Metal Supply Co. Building