Monday, October 30, 2006

Xi'an and the Terracotta Warriors.

Our books say Xi'an is a city which melds perfectly the ancient with the modern. Heather and I disagree whether this is accurate. I see what they mean: it is a walled city, the center of which is dominated by a giant 14th Century pagoda-shaped Bell Tower. All roads leading to the Tower are dominated by neon and cutting edge digital imagery. Thus, standing at any corner, you take in 600-odd years of Chinese culture and architecture. (Heather's position: The architectural blending of the old against the new is poorly executed. One example is the top of the castle type city wall outlined by strings of small, tacky lights. It's almost Vegas-like. What they should have done: up-lighting of the wall to capture its immense presence and grandeur).

We signed up for a day long tour to include the Museum of the Terracotta Warriors. In 1974 a peasant farmer drilling a well stumbled upon the buried "eighth wonder of the world," a 2000-year-old army of meticulously sculpted warriors and horses commissioned by order of Qin Shi Huang, who expected the army to protect him in the afterlife. Unless you are President Clinton, you cannot climb down among the warriors, but we snapped these photos from the viewing area. A couple of the warriors looked kind of familiar.

The famous farmer who discovered the warriors was on hand to sign the museum picture book and ease our decision whether to splurge on the 120 Yuan (about $12) to buy it. We succumbed and he duly autographed it. Like other day tours, the guides packaged on other less interesting sights, including a tour of Chiang Kaishek's bathroom at the headquarters from which he was kidnapped in 1936.

Did You Want Your Pig Intestines Stir Fried?

There's lots to be wary of as we make our way through China. Because seat belts are considered to be unnecessary luxuries, and Chinese drivers have a rather fluid understanding of the purpose of lanes, I personally find car travel to be most harrowing. I expect others would argue, however, that, because many of the Chinese menus are written solely in Mandarin or Cantonese, and often lack photographs, the biggest challenge may be to find something savory and recognizable to eat.

Fortunately, many Chinese restaurants have solved this dilemma by providing translations of the items found on their menus. Sometimes, though, a translation can be just too literal. Listed David Letterman-style are the top ten delicacies I culled from menus during our visit:

10. Buck blood with preserved chili.
9. Boiled spicy snakehead.
8. Spicy duck gizzard.
7. Dry fried pork intestines in pot.
6. Marinated beef stomach.
5. Salted chicken feet.
4. Hot and sour duck blood.
3. Spicy frog.
2. Delicious black fungus.

And the #1 delicacy: Stir-fride (sic) shrimp balls with crab ovary!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Pingyao, China.

We took an overnight "soft sleeper”train to this walled city from the Ming Dynasty period. The books describe it as an early financial headquarters—a Wall Street—for all of China. They do not allow cars within the walls, in an effort to reduce pollution, which makes it both quieter and easier to breath. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We enjoyed the architecture, including the interior and courtyard of several stately Imperial Chinese residences. We took it pretty easy, rented bicycles and rode to the Shuanglin Temple. Last night, we took a sleepless “hard sleeper”—likely our last major train ride in China and arrived early this morning in Xi'an, where we are looking forward to seeing the Terracotta Army.

As we've fallen a little bit behind, we've decided to cut out Shanghai and Hanzhou, but we're still planning to cruise either the Yangzi or Li Rivers before making our way to Hong Kong and then departing China for Nepal.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Yungang Caves, near Datong, China.

One of the most interesting sights for me so far was the Yungang Caves. The rulers of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-584 AD) were looking to atone for their earlier persecution of Buddhism and ordered the carving of the intricate, sometimes mammoth, Buddhist statues. One is 17 meters tall!

Alex Needs An Attitude Adjustment.

I must confess that I am struggling a bit in our travel through China, at least since we left Beijing. The accomodations have been great, at least clean and cheap and sometimes interesting. The cuisine is adventurous and generally very good. So I'm eating and sleeping quite well. What I'm struggling with are the occasionally (quite) overcrowded conditions, lack of the kind of modern sanitation we Westerners take as a given and the Chinese' disgusting habit of coughing up vast quantities of phlegm and spitting--on the street, the floor of a bus or restraurant, etc.

On reflection, I'm realizing that what concerns me is not the crowds, sewage smells, garbage in the street or spitting, but my increasingly jaded attitude in the face of these things. In past travels to quasi-third world cultures (Costa Rica, Egypt, Peru, etc.), I felt that I managed to appreciate the differences, in culture as well as hygiene, far better than I seem to be doing on this trip. And this bothers me. Intellectually, I know I didn't fly 15 or so hours just to see a place as gentrified as, say, Irvine. The whole reason we didn't hop aboard some prepackaged tour was because Heather and I are looking to be exposed to the genuine article, revolting smells and all. But while I know this intellectually, I'm having to continually remind myself.

Heather has been a saint throughout; she knows my troubles are brief and will pass. She keeps reminding me that India is less than a month off and, from everything we've heard, is guaranteed to challenge our patience. I guess I better get busy with that attitude adjustment.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Wall, Greatly.

We visited the Great Wall and climbed to the top, which gave me an opportunity to, hopefully, work off some of that Japanese and Chinese beer that I’ve been “tasting” in order to . . . um . . . fully appreciate the culture of these wonderful countries. No organized tour of the Great Wall would be complete without a tour of a Chinese silk factory. (I think the tour company gets a tank of gas or something for bringing us.) Seriously, though, it was interesting to learn how many silkworms are boiled in order to make a single Calvin Klein tie. Heather had her calculator out, ready to do business, but she only ended up with a very pretty pair of silk pajamas. Today we visited the Lama Temple and the Summer Palace. The cab ride there and back caused me to realize how really gigantic Beijing is. As I’m sure everyone knows, the city will host the next Olympics and the town’s all abuzz with renovating and building. Sadly, this means they’re tearing down some of the historic structures.

Tomorrow, we hop a train for Datong. Wish us luck.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Calligraphy & Water Paintings on Sidewalks.

Although the Forbidden City was tremendous with its vast architectural design of palaces, gates, imposing walls and moat, it is the small, everyday scenes of life that always delight and surprise me – like seeing everyone, young and old alike riding their bicycles everywhere; men flying kites and playing board games together; and the art of calligraphy practiced on sidewalks with brushes dipped in water. Alex got his first calligraphy lesson on the sidewalk of Behai Park from this talented artist who could write with both hands at the same time. He taught us how to write our names in Chinese characters and even drew a picture of Alex, which brought laughter from the surrounding crowd of on-lookers.

In keeping with the imperial style of our visit to the Forbidden City, we decided to splurge at the end of the day on a 12 course feast at one of the most elegant restaurants in Beijing called “Fangshan.” This restaurant is known for its Quing-Dynasty décor and Empress Dowager Ci Xi’s favorite 108-course banquet (which contrary to Alex’s entry, did include “crispy duck”). -Heather

Beijing, Baby!

A few years ago, Heather and I traveled to Prague and stayed in a former Communist prison cell—just for grins. The hotel I found for us here in Beijing is even more dungeon-like. We’re actually below street level. But it’s $30 a night and I do like a good bargain. We’ve visited the Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square and are going tomorrow to the Great Wall. I snapped this picture of Heather posing with Chairman Mao at the Gate to the Square. I’ve found the food here especially good, but we haven’t yet tried the Beijing Duck. I’m trying to find an English language cooking class. -Alex

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Totally Irrelevant Statistics - Japan.

1. Total number of times I slammed my head into a low doorway----------------32
2. Total number of times I said "thank you" in Japanese when I meant to say
3. Total number of times I said "hello" in Japanese when I meant to say "thank
4. Total number of people I saw using a Blackberry------------------------0
5. Total number of people I saw using Bluetooth technology----------------0
6. Number of Japanese who asked for my autograph because they thought I was Drew Carey--1
7. Number of times I shaved------------1

Finding Our Inner Buddha.

Definitely the high point of Japan for both of us was our journey to Mt. Koya, where we spent the night in a Koyasan Temple. Like many of the rooms where we slept while in Japan, this was a mat floor with thin futon-like mattresses. Mt. Koya is picturesque: imagine Redwood National Forest littered with thousands of ancient shrines and Buddha statues. The weather was brisk and the autumn change of season was just starting.

Both breakfast and dinner were served in our room. We awoke early and attended a Buddhist prayer session and fire ceremony. Tonight, our last in Japan, we're sleeping in a budget hotel in Osaka. Tomorrow we fly to Beijing. Sayonara.

Stalking Geisha, or How Heather Nearly Earned Her First Restraining Order

Geisha-mania happens every night on a small street in the Gion District of Kyoto. Tourists from around the planet—even Japanese—line up and wait for the opportunity to spot and photograph one of the precious few remaining Geisha. Our book suggests there are only 200 geisha left in town. We waited with the others for one of the ornate young women to emerge on her way to or from dinner. Then, with a gusto that would make even the most aggressive paparazzi proud, tourists move frantically to catch a glimpse and a picture. Heather was right there with them and snapped this shot just before we were both snow-blinded by her white face paint.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Under the Shadow of the Elusive Mt. Fuji.

In a quest to see Mt. Fuji (“Fuji-san”), we spent two nights at the Fujiya Hotel in Hakone. It’s the kind of majestic, old (i.e., expensive) hotel that would ordinarily be completely out of our budget in the context of this trip. Einstein stayed there; Eisenhower stayed there, as well as some famous people whose last names started with other letters of the alphabet. The trick is: the Fujiya has a special “foreigners” rate for a limited number of rooms that is roughly one-third the normal room rate. We grabbed it.
Seeing Fuji-san, however, proved more difficult. Beyond a brief glimpse of his majesty during our ride on the Shinkasen train from Nagoya, we never saw the mountain again. While in Hakone, we toured the Open-Air Museum, where I snapped this picture of Heather next to some woman who’d completely lost her head. As the name suggests, the majority of the museum is comprised of a sprawling, brilliant sculpture garden, including works by Rodin (of course), Miro, Milles, Henry Moore and Picasso.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


I read about the first 45 pages of Clavell’s Shogun before we left California; I wish now I’d gone ahead and finished it because we visited the Toshogu Shrine, which pays homage to the shogun on whom Clavell’s novel was based. It was raining heavily and, by mid-afternoon, my running shoes were soaked so that I felt like I was walking with buckets instead of shoes. I`d spent much time and energy before we left debating whether to bring a pair of bulky waterproof hiking boots. At the last minute I decided against bringing the boots. What are the odds I`ll find a pair of size 13 waterproof shoes here in Asia? Oh well.

We took refuge in a Okonomiyaki-style restaurant where we cooked a beef-vegetable-noodle mixture on a large hot grill built into our table. Heather took this picture on her way to the Tamozawa Imperial Villa after I’d gone back to our hotel for a nap.

Sushi for Breakfast!

Afflicted with lingering jet lag, we visited Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, one of the largest wholesale fish markets in the world, at about 6:30 in the morning. Hundreds of headless, tail-less, flash frozen Ahi tuna are lined up in a building that resembles a hanger and auctioned off to the highest bidder beginning at 3:30 a.m. We stopped off afterwards at a sushi bar to eat the freshest Toro (fatty tuna) I`ve ever tasted. Given the hour, I restrained Heather from ordering a small bottle of saki, and we had Japanese green tea instead.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Touch Down in Tokyo!

Made it! Wow, what a city. On first blush, and at night, it makes LA look like a relic of the past. Very vibrant, very modern. By the way, we HIGHLY recommend Singapore Airlines--there's a reason United and Delta had to file bankruptcy. Special thanks to Mom Craigie for getting us started bright and early Monday morning, and to Meg O'Brien for scoring us the badly needed exit row seats.