Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Terracotta Warriors Reproduction Factory, X'ian, China

The Terracotta Warriors Reproduction Factory

First, after passing through the gateway you notice a half a dozen other buses, and then when you drive down to the end, there was another bus that just arrived before us, disgorging passengers.

As we are getting off we have a tour guide specifically for this place waiting.  Just as we finish getting off another two buses had arrived, ready to unload.

We have to wait for the group before us, to see the ovens, and take photos with the headless terra cotta replica soldiers.  Then it’s our turn.

I'm not sure whether it is of much interest to learn that takes 30 days, at 900 degrees, to fire a full-size soldier in an oven before its fully hardened, and will last 2,000 years.  Still, it's the thought that counts.

I'm not sure the fact that they use coal to create that heat helps all the good work they're doing to reduce pollution.
Outside they have a number of full-sized statues, some representing the warriors that we will soon see at the site, and some are without heads so that we can take photos of ourselves as a warrior.

Next, we go inside and get a demonstration of how the soldiers big and small are made, out of the same clay, we're told, like the originals.  Maybe I got my numbers wrong because I think it takes 30 days for the clay to air dry.  Of course, the smaller ones take less time to air dry before they are fired in the kiln

We eventually bought a general, and if what we're told is true it should be still around long after our planet had been destroyed.  Aliens, if they come visiting are going to be very surprised to learn the only people lived on the planet were Chinese soldiers.
Next, we are taken through to the big-ticket items, those ornate and highly polished portable screens, the ones with countryside scenes, flowers, and people that are highly polished and look exquisite.

There are also much larger statues

But you need to be very wealthy if you want one, or a tabletop filled.

You can also buy one of these warriors in jade, though I shudder to think how much that would cost.

There are also big and small tables, ornate cabinets, and other wooden based products that Australian customs love to confiscate because it's wood.  And the prices for these, too, are very expensive.  Nice to have but so many impractically trying to get them home.

Failing to raise any interest there he moves on.  More groups are arriving all the time, so maybe someone has a spare 50,000 to 100,000 yuan to spare.

We get 40 minutes to wander around, but all we're interested in is a turtle and some small figurines for our granddaughters, which turn out to be pandas.  I think you can see the reason why we picked pandas.

At the end of the allowed time, it is a pleasure to get out into the fresh air, slightly tainted by diesel fumes, after inhaling that eye-watering aroma of shellac.

From Beijing to X'ian by bullet train.

Beijing West train station.

Beijing west railway station is about eight kilometers from the Forbidden City, located at East Lianhuachi Road, Fengtai District.  Most trains traveling between south central, southwest, northwest, and south China are boarded here.

This place is huge and there are so many people here, perhaps the other half of Beijing's population that wasn't in the forbidden city.

Getting into the station looked like it was going to be fraught with danger but the tour guide got us into the right queue and then arranged for a separate scanner for the group to help keep us all together

Then we decided to take the VIP service and got to waiting room no 13, the VIP service waiting room which was full to overflowing.  Everyone today was a VIP.  We got the red hat guy to lead us to a special area away from the crowd.

Actually, it was on the other side of the gate, away from the hoards sitting or standing patiently in the waiting room.  It gave us a chance to get something to eat before the long train ride.

The departure is at 4 pm, the train number was G655, and we were told the trains leave on time.  As it is a high-speed train, stops are far and few between, but we're lucky, this time, in that we don't have to count stations to know where to get off.

We're going to the end of the line.

However, it was interesting to note the stops which, in each case, were brief, and you had to be ready to get off in a hurry.

These stops were Shijiazhuang, Zhengzhou East, Luoyang Longmen, Huashan North, and Weinan North.  At night, you could see the lights of these cities from a distance and were like oases in the middle of a desert.  During the day, the most prominent features were high rise apartment blocks and power stations.

A train ride with a difference

G Trains at Wuhan Railway Station

China's high-speed trains, also known as bullet or fast trains, can reach a top speed of 350 km/h (217 mph).

Over 2,800 pairs of bullet trains numbered by G, D or C run daily connecting over 550 cities in China and covering 33 of the country's 34 provinces. Beijing-Shanghai high-speed train link the two megacities 1,318 km (819 mi) away in just 4.5 hours.

By 2019, China keeps the world's largest high-speed rail (HSR) network with a length totaling over 35,000 km (21,750 mi).

To make the five and a half hours go quicker we keep an eye on the speed which hovers between 290 and 305 kph, and sitting there with our camera waiting for the speed to hit 305 which is a rare occurrence, and then, for 306 and then for 307, which happened when we all took a stroll up to the restaurant car to find there had nothing to eat.

I got a strange flavored drink for 20 yuan.

There was a lady manning a trolley that had some food, and fresh, maybe, fruit on it, and she had a sense of humor if not much English.

We didn't but anything but the barrel of caramel popcorn looked good.

The good thing was, after hovering around 298, and 299 kph, it finally hit 300.

We get to the end of the line, and there is an announcement in Chinese that we don't understand and attempts to find out if it is the last station fall on deaf ears, probably more to do with the language barrier than anything else.

Then, suddenly the train conductor, the lady with the red hat, comes and tells us it is, and we have fifteen minutes, so we're now hurrying to get off.

As the group was are scattered up and down the platform, we all come together and we go down the escalator, and, at the bottom, we see the trip-a-deal flags.

X’ian,and the Xi'an North Railway Station

Xi'an North Railway Station is one of the most important transportation hubs of the Chinese high-speed rail network. It is about 8.7 miles (14 km) from Bell Tower (city center) and is located at the intersection of the Weiyang Road and Wenjing Road in Weiyang District.

This time we have a male guide, Sam, who meets us at the end of the platform after we have disembarked.  We have a few hiccups before we head to the bus.  Some of our travelers are not on his list, but with the other group.  Apparently a trip-a-deal mix-up or miscommunication perhaps.

Then it's another long walk with bags to the bus.  Good thing its a nicely air-conditioned newish bus, and there's water, and beer for 10 yuan.  How could you pass up a tsing tao for that price?

Xi’an is a very brightly lit up city at night with wide roads.  It is very welcoming, and a surprise for a city of 10 million out in the middle of China.

As with all hotels, it's about a 50-minute drive from the railway station and we are all tired by the time we get there.

Tomorrow’s program will be up at 6, on the bus 8.40 and off to the soldiers, 2.00 late lunch, then train station to catch the 4.00 train, that will arrive 2 hours later at the next stop.  A not so late night this time.

The Grand Noble Hotel

Outdoor scene

Grand Noble Hotel Xi'an is located in the most prosperous business district within the ancient city wall in the center of Xi'an.

The Grand Noble Hotel, like the Friendship Hotel, had a very flash foyer with tons of polished marble.  It sent out warning signals, but when we got to our room, we found it to be absolutely stunning.  More room, a large bathroom, air conditioning the works.

Only one small problem, as in Beijing the lighting is inadequate.  Other than that it's what I would call a five-star hotel.  This one is definitely better than the Friendship Hotel.

In the center of the city, very close to the bell tower, one of the few ancient buildings left in Xi’an.  It is also in the middle of a larger roundabout and had a guard with a machine gun.

Sadly there was no time for city center sightseeing.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Now we're walking to the Forbidden City, and it seems like we're walking for miles and we're practically exhausted before we get started on the main tour.  I'm not sure if we received a map of the city, but one is certainly needed so that you can navigate the many features, buildings, and walkways.

There are tour groups everywhere in the large courtyard outside the gate, most likely getting a lecture on the last of the Chinese emperors about that time Sun Yat-Sen proclaimed the new China around 1912.  We were no exception, and it was an interesting way to spend the time waiting to get in.  It was a tale of intrigue, interwoven with a 3-year-old emperor, and a scheming concubine who becomes the Emperor's favorite, enough to bear him a son and successor.

Bribery and corruption at its best.

But its history runs something like this:

The Forbidden City is was once the imperial and state residence of the Emperor of China, as well as the center of government, from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, or 1420 to 1924.

It was built from 1406 to 1420 when the Yongle Emperor moved the capital from Nanking to Beijing and consists of about 980 buildings, and 8,886 bays of rooms (not the 9,999 as prescribed in myth) and covers 180 acres.  Over the 14 years, a million workers used whole logs of wood from the jungles of southwestern China, marble from quarries near Beijing, specially made golden bricks from Suzhou

Since 1925 it has been a museum and is the largest number of preserved wooden structures in the world.

The city is surrounded by a wall 7.9 meters high, and a moat that is 6 meters deep and 52 meters wide.  A tower sits at each of the four corners.  Each side has a gate, the north is called the Gate of Divine Might, the south is called the Meridian gate.  East and west are called East Glorious Gate and West Glorious Gate respectively.

But, back in the courtyard, we are ready to go in and follow the tour guide who has switched from her amplified microphone to a whisper device we all wear in our ears.  She talks and we listen.

We all make it through and regroup on the other side. This is where the fun begins because we are about to meet a large percentage of the 80,000, they let for the day.

It seems to me they have all arrived at the same time, although by the time we get to the entrance gate, it is very well organized, bags are scanned, people are scanned, and you're in.  

After crossing one of the seven Golden Water bridges, you begin to get some idea of the size and scope of the City, and in the distance, the first of the buildings, The Gate of Supreme Harmony.  On a hot day, that could be a long and thirsty walk.

From there it is one pagoda after another with buildings that surround the edge of the whole Forbidden City, as does the moat.

By the time we get to the second courtyard, it was time to have ice cream as a refresher.  Others head up to another exhibit, and it's just too many stairs for us.

After this, it's a walkthrough another courtyard, heading up and down some more stairs, we go and see the museum, with priceless relics from past emperors.

There are areas like the outer courtyard, the inner courtyard, yet another courtyard, and the gardens where the concubines walked and spent their leisure time.  It is not far from the emperor's wives living quarters, though there's precious little left of the furniture, other than a settee and two rather priceless so-called Ming dynasty vases.

We get into the bad habit of calling all of the vases Ming dynasties.  Above is one of the inner courtyards there were living quarters, and that tree is over 300 years old.

Out through some more alleyways and through an entrance that led to the area where the concubines lived, very spacious, bright, and filled with trees, plants, and walkways through rocky outcrops.

The whole area was made up of living quarters and waterways, rocks and paths, all very neatly set out, and it looked to be a very good place to live.

This is an example of the living quarters, overlooking the gardens

 And there were several pagodas

From there its a quick exit out the northern entrance, and another longish walk to our bus, which arrives at the meeting point shortly after we do.

That done, the Beijing tour guide has completed her section of our China experience, and we're ready to move onto the next, but not before getting onto the high-speed train and head for X'ian.

And a new tour guide by the name of Sam.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Hutongs, Beijing, China

The brochure says: In the afternoon, take the opportunity to join an optional tour (not included) to see Beijing’s 700-year-old Hutong’s (narrow lanes) area by old fashioned pedicab. You will also visit a local family living in a courtyard style home to experience the local customs including a delicious home-cooked dinner. 

What are Hutongs?

In Beijing Hutongs are formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences, called siheyuan.  Neighborhoods were formed by joining many hutongs together.
These siheyuan are the traditional residences, usually occupied by a single or extended family, signifying wealth, and prosperity.  Over 500 of these still exist.
Many of these hutongs have been demolished, but recently they have become protected places as a means of preserving some Chinese cultural history.  They were first established in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)
Many of these Hutongs had their main buildings and gates built facing south, and lanes connecting them to other hutongs also ran north to south.
Many hutongs, some several hundred years old, in the vicinity of the Bell Tower and Drum Tower and Shichahai Lake are preserved and abound with tourists, many of which tour the quarter in pedicabs.

The optional tour also includes a visit to Shichahai, a historic scenic area consisting of three lakes (Qianhai, meaning Front Sea; Houhai, meaning Back Sea and Xihai, meaning West Sea), surrounding places of historic interest and scenic beauty and remnants of old-style local residences, Hutong and Courtyard.  

First, we had a short walk through the more modern part of Hutong and given some free time for shopping, but we prefer just to meander by the canal.  

There is a lake, and if we had the time, there were boats you could take.

With some time to spare, we take a quick walk down one of the alleyways where on the ground level are small shops, and above, living quarters.

Then we go to the bell and drum towers before walking through some more alleys was to where the rickshaws were waiting.

The Bell tower

And the Drum tower. Both still working today.

The rickshaw ride took us through some more back streets where it was clear renovations were being made so that the area could apply for world heritage listing.  Seeing inside some of the houses shows that they may look dumpy outside but that's not the case inside.

The rickshaw ride ends outside the house where dinner will be served, and is a not so typical hose but does have all the elements of how the Chinese live, the boy's room, the girl's room, the parent's room, the living area, and the North-south feng shui.

Shortly after we arrive, the cricket man, apparently someone quite famous in Beijing arrives and tells us all about crickets

and then grasshoppers, then about cricket racing.  He is animated and clearly enjoys entertaining us westerners.

I'm sorry but the cricket stuff just didn't interest me.  Or the grasshoppers.

As for dinner, it was finally a treat to eat what the typical Chinese family eats, and everything was delicious, and the endless beer was a nice touch.

And the last surprise, the food was cooked by a man.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Tongrentang – Traditional Chinese Medicine, Beijing, China

For our first stop for the morning, we have an appointment with the doctors at the center for traditional Chinese medicine, or T C M, called Tongrentang.

It is one of four remaining TCM institutions in China and had outlets all over the world.

This particular organization was the one who tended to the emperor way back and scored some land to build a facility in Beijing at some point after starting to tend the Emperor and his family in order to bring that medicine to the people.

But a little history first,

In 1669 during the reign of Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (which ran from 1644 to 1911) Tong Ren Tang was established in Beijing by Yue Xianyang, who was a physician in the Qing Imperial Court.

In 1702, the company relocated within Beijing and has been there ever since, operating as a manufacturer and sales outlet.

In 1723, Tong Ren Tang was appointed the sole supplier of herbal medicines to the imperial court by the Yongsheng Emperor and has remained the sole supplier until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

Now they manufacture and sell medicines based on Traditional Chinese Medicine, partly Yin and Yang, partly Zang Fu, which was developed on the basis of Wǔ Xíng philosophy, each zàng is paired with a fǔ, and each zàng-fǔ pair is assigned to one of five elemental qualities, fire, earth, metal, wood and fire, as seen in the chart below:

There was a chart on the wall that accompanied the introduction to Chinese Medicine given by a Professor, or a Doctor, I was not sure which, who told us how everything was linked in groups, as shown above, what ailments were related, and how treatments were formulated.

Then we were assigned our own doctor, ours was a very old Chinese man, who spoke to us through an interpreter.  He held our hands, checked our pulse, looked into our eyes, and looked at our tongue.  It was, to say the least, an interesting examination.

But delving into the history of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the practitioners were able to diagnose patient's conditions simply by asking questions, observing, listening, smelling, and touching (mostly for pulse taking).  Observation is a large part of this examination.

What was the diagnosis?  Heart, liver, apparently the same as everyone else, but he did mention thyroid which is not a common problem, so it looks like there might be a grain of truth to it to his medical wisdom.  The recommendation was for six to nine months supply of pills for the heart, and pills for the liver.

And if I was going to be cynical, like some of the tourists were, they could easily say all of us were arthritis, heart, kidney, and liver problematic, simply because most of us were over the age of  65.

To purchase those for the both of us came in at around $2,000 Australian dollars, which was quite expensive for the whole regime, but when broken down to a per bottle cost, for 30 days supply in a bottle, it was comparable to that of any of the herbal medicines available in Australia

Will they have any effect.  Well, the first thing the doctor said was that we should not stop taking our western medicine.  That doesn't seem to be a plus because back in the 1700s I doubt the Chinese had any form of western medicine available.  If the medicine was supposed to work, as it did for the Emperors, why doesn't it now?

I should only have to take the TCM, and it should cure the ailments the doctor found.

Perhaps the formulas have been changed so that they are supplements, like the herbal remedies back home.  We shall see.

What worries me is that all the pillboxes look the same, and as the writing is in Chinese there's no way of telling if they are or not.  All I have to tell the difference is a number and an order form that matches the number explains the pills in English.  I will have to try and not lose it.

I was glad, in the end, my problems were only related to the Heart and the liver, mostly because of my type of arthritis.  I can't remember now if our wizened doctor had told me he had diagnosed arthritis.

It was one of the more interesting hours I spent in one of the Government-owned institutions.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Great Wall of China, near Beijing, China

The Great Wall of China

After visiting the jade factory we take a scenic drive through the countryside and mountains to reach China’s most renowned monument—the Great Wall. 
We were visiting the less-touristy and more original Juyong Pass, avoiding other sections which are the most accessible and consequently most crowded. 
From a short discussion on the bus while traveling to this destination we learn the Great Wall meanders through China’s northern mountain ranges from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert - the original wall's actual distance was about 21,196 km or 13,170 miles. 
Currently, it is about 8,850 km or 5,500 miles, 6 to 7 meters high, 20 to 23 feet.  The average width is about 6.5 meters or 21.3 feet.  Though originally the wall was started 2,700 years ago, the sections set aside for visitors are between 400 to 600 years old.
And the wall isn't just a wall, it had a host of other fortifications such as overlapping walls, trenches, watchtowers and beacon towers for communications, fortresses, and barracks to accommodate soldiers.

This is in a very scenic area and on the first impression; it is absolutely stunning in concept and in viewing.

As for the idea of walking on it, well, that first view of the mountain climb when getting off the bus, my first question was where the elevator is?  Sorry, there is none.  It's walk on up or stay down the bottom.

Walk it is.  As far as you feel you are able.  There are quite a few who don't make it to the top.  I didn't.  I only made it to the point where the steps narrowed.

But as for the logistics, there's the gradual incline to the starting point, and what will be the end meeting place.  From there, it's a few steps up to the guard station no 7, and a few more to get up to the start of the main climb.  The top of the wall is guard station no 12.

Ok, those first few steps are a good indication of what it’s was going to be like and it's more the awkwardness of the uneven heights of the steps that's the killer, some as high as about 15 inches.  This photo paints an illusion, that it’s easy.  It’s not.

If you make it to the first stage, then it augers well you will get about 100 steps before you both start feeling it in your legs, particularly the knees, and then suffering from the height if you have a problem with heights as the air is thinner.  And if you have a thing with heights, never look down.

This was from where we stopped, about a third of the way up.  The one below, from almost at the bottom.  One we’re looking almost down on the buildings, the other, on the same level.

It requires rest before you come down, and that's when you start to feel it in the knees, our tour guide called it jelly legs, but it's more in the knees down.  Descending should be slow, and it can be more difficult negotiating the odd height steps, and particularly those high ones.  You definitely need to hang onto the rail, even try going backward.

And, no, that rail hasn't been there as long as the wall.

While you are waiting for the guide to return to the meeting place at the appointed time, there should be time to have some jasmine tea.  Highly refreshing after the climb.

Lunch, today, is included, back at the jade factory

It is also a restaurant, and here we are being served Australia Chinese dishes that lean towards Chinese cuisine, but, it's definitely not authentic Chinese food.

I won't say it's disappointing because it tastes delicious, but I think it would have been more important to continue the Chinese experience.  Maybe that will come with the Hutong tour, which will be tonight.

With dinner included this should be the authentic Chinese food.

The Jade Factory, Beijing, China

The first stop is at a Jade Museum to learn the history of jade. In Chinese, jade is pronounced as “Yu” and it has a history in China of at least four thousand years.  On the way there, we are given a story about one of the guide's relatives who had a jade bracelet, and how it has saved her from countless catastrophes.
It is, quite literally 'the' good luck charm.  Chinese gamblers are known to have small pieces of jade in their hands when visiting the casinos, for good luck.  I'm not sure anything could provide a gambler with any sort of luck given how the odds are always slanted towards the house.
At any rate, this is neither the time of the place to debunk a 'well-known fact'.

 On arrival, our guide hands us over to a local guide, read staff member, and she begins with a discussion on jade while we watch a single worker working on an intricate piece, what looks to be a globe within a globe, sorry, there are two workers, and the second is working on a dragon.

At the end of the passage that passes by the workers, and before you enter the main showroom, you are dazzled by the ship and is nothing short of magnificent.

Then it's into a small room just off the main showroom where we are taken through the colors, and the carving process in the various stages, without really being told how the magic happens.
Then it's out into the main showroom where the sales are made, and before dispersing to look at the jade collection, she briefly tells us how to tell real and fake jade, and she does the usual trick of getting one of the tour group to model a piece.

Looks good, let's move on.  To bigger and better examples.

What interested me, other than the small zodiac signs and other smallish pieces on the 'promotion' table, was the jade bangle our tour guide told us about on the bus.  If anyone needs one, it is my other half, with all the medical issues and her sometimes clumsiness, two particular maladies this object is supposed to prevent.
Jade to the Chinese is Diamonds to westerners, and the jade bangle is often handed down to the females of the family from generation to generation, often as an engagement present, to be worn on the left hand, the one closest to the heart.

There are literally thousands of them, but, they have to be specially fitted to your wrist because if it's too large, you might lose it if it slips off and I didn't think it could be too small.  
Nor is it cheap, and needing a larger size, it is reasonably expensive.  But it is jadeite, the more expensive of the types of jade, and it can only appreciate in value, not that we are interested in the monetary value, it's more the good luck aspect.

We could use some of that.

But, just to touch on something that can be the bugbear of traveling overseas, is the subject of happy houses, a better name for toilets, and has become a recurrent theme on this tour.  It's better than blurting out the word toilet and it seems there can be some not so happy houses given that the toilets in China are usually squat rather than sit, even for women.
And apparently, everyone has an unhappy house story, particularly the women, and generally in having to squat over a pit.  Why is this a discussion point, it seems the jade factory had what we have come to call happy, happy houses which have more proper toilets, and a stop here before going on the great wall was recommended, as the 'happy house' at the wall is deemed to be not such a happy house.

Not even this dragon was within my price range.  Thank heaven they had smaller more affordable models.  The object of having a dragon, large or small, is that it should be placed inside the main door to the house so that money can come in.
It also seems that stuffing the dragon's mouth with money is also good luck.  We passed on doing that.

After spending a small fortune, there was a bonus, free Chinese tea. 

            Apparently, we will be coming back, after the Great Wall visit, to have lunch upstairs.