Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Yangshuo to Beijing

Our trip back to Guilin was not as easy as anticipated. The driver we hired was young and had good reflexes, which meant he was not a safe driver by our standards, but he was okay by Chinese taxi driver standards. When we reached a toll booth, he got behind a truck and went through without paying, even though the toll gate came down and hit the top of the van. After a relative easy drive, we hit a big traffic jam which it turns out, was caused by another toll booth. Automatic toll booths have not hit China. So the back up caused the cars, buses, vans, trucks and various hybrid vehicles in between, to form 3 lines out of the two lane approach to the toll booths. Again the driver got behind a truck and refused to change lanes even though they were moving faster. Why? So he could run the toll again without paying. Each time he saved 5 Yuan or $.75.

But we made it back to our Guilin hotel safely after a 2 hour drive that could have been done in 75 minutes without the traffic jam. When we got out of the car, a Chinese couple who just got married was standing outside having wedding pictures taken. These weddings are very elaborate affairs and we run into them at various hotels.

We sought refuge again on the balcony of the club floor with a glass of wine. Then we found a pizza place to eat outside, avoiding the smokers inside and the pizza we ordered “crispy”, was almost so. Another wonderful foot message helped us get a good night sleep before an early morning trip to the airport and a flight back to Beijing.

When we arrived in Beijing the air pollution was the worst I have ever experienced.
We check into the Beijing Raffles Hotel and encounter very tight security due to the hotel hosting several Prime Ministers and Heads of State from among 16 Asian and 27 European nations, arriving for the 7th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). As I have mentioned before, this hotel is where most foreign dignitaries house themselves.

We plan to spend two nights in Beijing before flying home. Judith has business to discuss with her colleague Professor Xiao. We have dinner with her and her husband Professor Lin in a newly developed commercial area just south of Tiananmen Square. The restaurant is crowded. Professor Lin has gone ahead previously to secure us a table and we find him waiting for us to arrive. As we enjoy an excellent Chinese dinner, I notice that the tourist agencies have put this restaurant of their list, because I see the guides with their colored flags leading western tourists to their tables.

At the South end of Tian An Men Square (called the Gate of Heavenly Peace) are two large towers, the Qian Men and Shenyang Men towers. In ancient times, there were walls built completely around Tiananmen Square to protect the Forbidden City which sits at the North end of the Square. The Qian Men and the Shenyang Men towers formed the entrance.

Travelers arriving underneath the City Walls who could prove their rights through use of written permissions were allowed to enter the first gate, the
QianMen. The QianMen, named after a barbican, used an arrow shooting platform against attackers at the Gate. This is a photo of Professors Xiao, Levy, and Lin with the QianMen tower in the background.
Beyond the QianMen tower lay a short road known as a "neck" over which stood the massive tower currently known as the Shenyang Men tower. The Shenyang, was and is, the tallest among all of the gates of Beijing.

And across the busy Dashian Street is the newly developed QianMen commercial area where our restaurant was located. Its development is similar to the Wangfujing commercial area with a pedestrian mall, complete with a tram.

The next day we make plans to see the Olympic stadium and the Emperor’s Summer place. However, we find that to get into the Olympic stadium one must have a couple of the 12,000 tickets sold daily (can you image?) and we didn’t have any. So we had our taxi driver take us to the stadium so we could see it. So I stand in this parking lot and take this photo. I had a UV filter on my lens and I enhanced these photos to remove some of the smog. But even so these were the best that could be offered. Like I said, a lot of air pollution.

In the foreground is the swimming stadium and behind it, the Bird’s Nest.

The Summer Palace was a long and rich history and for things to experience in Beijing, this is a must.

The Summer Palace, northwest of central Beijing, is said to be the best preserved imperial garden in the world, and the largest of its kind still in existence in modern China. During the hot Beijing summers, the Imperial Family preferred the beautiful gardens and airy pavilions of the Summer Palace to the walled-in Forbidden City. Dowager Empress Ci'xi took up permanent residence here for a time, giving rise to some wonderful tales of extravagance and excess. Although only a short drive (15 km) from central Beijing it seems like another world.

The Chinese call it Yihe Yuan (Garden of Restful Peace), and the landscaped gardens, temples and pavilions were designed to achieve harmony with nature, to soothe and please the eye. The park spreads across the low hills, including Longevity Hill, around Kunming Lake, and was divided into three main zones (administration, living, and relaxation). The buildings and courtyards wander beside the lake, along the waterways and climb the low slopes of the hillside. The arched bridges, promenades, decorated ‘corridors’ and breezeways all lead visitors through ever-changing views and scenery. UNESCO added this 300 hectare site to the World Heritage List in 1998.

Many of the buildings have been meticulously restored, (have you ever heard of anything that wasn’t always meticulously restored?) and maintenance and restoration activities are ongoing. The current projects are due for completion in 2010.
In 1860, during the Opium Wars, the Anglo-French forces ransacked the place, burning many of the buildings, destroying the gardens and plundering its treasures. However, some 20 years later the notorious arch-survivor, Dowager Empress Ci’xi, spent a colossal amount of money on restoration and reconstruction of the ‘new’ Summer Palace, using funds diverted from the Imperial Navy, courtesy of her brother-in-law once he was put in charge of the navy. Unfortunately the Chinese navy suffered as a result in their engagements with the Japanese fleets during the Sino-Japanese war.

Ci’xi’s time in residence only added to the extravagant tales about her – there’s the courtyard where she walled up most of the exits to ensure that the reigning Emperor did not interfere with her iron grip on the government of the day; the banqueting halls where she required well over a hundred dishes to be prepared for any meal, just in case she wanted one of them, her beloved theatre, displays and reminders of the way most of her opponents died sudden and sometimes mysterious deaths. She is believed to have accumulated an incredible fortune in gold, antiques and jewels. Other historians claim that she was an astute politician in an impossible position, providing conservative rule during challenging times, but she was certainly a strong and remarkable woman who inspired many stories, histories, novels and films.

By the end of the 1800's, tensions between the Chinese and foreigners exploded in the Boxer Rebellion. Eight nations joined to defeat the Boxers, and because Ci’xi had supported them, the Summer Palace was ransacked yet again, in 1900. The Imperial Family returned three years later, after signing a humiliating treaty (giving up Hong Kong among other things), the Summer Palace and gardens were once more on the path to restoration.

When the last Emperor was expelled from the Forbidden City and the Imperial Gardens in 1924, the entire complex was declared a public park.
One of the excesses of Ci’xi was to build the Marble Boat. The boat was built with the idea that "Water can carry a boat, and it can capsize a boat," meaning that the Qing empire would never be toppled. It was named the Boat for Pure Banquets. Empress Dowager Ci'xi used to sample tea and enjoy the hazy scene over the lake in rainy days on the Boat, when it is raining, water flows through the mouths of dragon heads on the body of the boat and pours into the lake, creating a pleasant sound and a mysterious atmosphere.

The thing I liked best was the Long Corridor. It is nearly ½ mile long fronting the lake and contains many art objects.

And here is a shot of the Bridge with 17 Arches which connects to one of the lake’s islands.

Thus, we ended our 10th trip together to China.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

...except Yangshuo is better.

There are buses to take people back to Guilin after departing the boats, but we decide to stay for a full day and hire a taxi for the trip back.

Once established in our hotel in Yangshuo, we book tickets and a driver to take us to the impressive Liu Sanjie Water show. It runs nightly during the high season. Set to the music from the movie of the same name (which in turn was based on an old Chinese story), it features a cast of 500 wearing traditional Zhuang, Miao and Yao dress with fantastic displays of colors and lighting effects.

There are two shows nightly and we just miss out on the early show (capacity 2500) for the medium priced tickets. So we arrive at the amphitheater, get our tickets and proceed to the one of two gates and line up with hundreds of others, waiting for the early show to finish.

Let me explain about how Chinese act in public. If you are a foreign guest to an important Chinese person or agency, you are treated with the utmost courtesy and respect. Nothing is ever done to cause embarrassment to you even though in ignorance, you are guilty of some social fax paus. Nothing is done in a hurry and patience is the rule. In public, however, it’s every man or woman for themselves. You can be pushed, poked, stepped on, or jostled. Don’t ever expect anyone to wait patiently behind you waiting their turn to be next at a bathroom stall for instance. If you blink twice, the person behind you will slip in front of you. And don’t expect a vocal expression of your dismay or disapproval to have the slightest effect. There is no such thing as social guilt on their part. It’s the Chinese way. They drive the same way. Just keep your elbows out and our eyes open. Another place to hold your position is getting off a plane.

So, as we stand in line, people move to the side around us so that the crowd forms a funnel shape to the entrance. And when the gate open, with people on both sides, and front and back, your only option is to move forward just like everyone else. I have the advantage of being big and I am not weak, so protecting Judith as best I can, it’s “game on”. My biggest accomplishment at the gate entrance was to deftly move my hips sideways to slip pass a beefy Chinese man, like a linebacker blitzing the quarterback or a fullback scoring at the goal line with a tremendous second effort.

Here’s the thing. The show didn’t start for another 30 minutes and we had reserved seats. We would have been better off sitting down outside the gate and have a drink. Then, after the crowd pushed inside, we could have just strolled in. But I have never shied away from contact sports and at my age, experiencing a testosterone surge felt good. I kinda enjoyed it.

Liu Sanjie is a story that originates from the Zhuang minority people. The Zhuang are the largest minority group in China. The story is about a legend of a woman called Liu Sanjie, which means "third sister". The legend tells the tale of Liu Sanjie who had a beautiful voice at very early age. Her voice was so beautiful it even could raise the dead. It became such a famous story that in 1960 a movie was released. The story in the movie as in the legend and the movie is about a local gangster: The gangster falls in love with Liu Sanjie and wished to make her his concubine. The boyfriend and his friends in the village free her and the couple escapes turning themselves in a pair of larks. Here is what we see before the show opens.
The director of the show is the same person that directed the Beijing Olympics. This is one of the opening scenes.
I found this YouTube video. It is rather long but it is also spectacular.

Surprisingly the crowd filed out in a humane fashion.

The main street in Yangshuo is called appropriately West Street. Shops and restaurants here cater to the Western tourists. It was nice to enjoy a pizza although the Chinese, being unfamiliar with bread, will serve it to you with the crust slightly doughy. And good luck trying to get across the idea of “crispy”. The same with bacon.

The next morning I woke before the sun arrived, so when it appeared, I grabbed my camera. The river is in the foreground.
The options open for us to spend the day were, bicycling, caving, or rafting. We chose the short rafting trip option. We chose well. Geri, who accompanied us here, chose the bicycle ride and she enjoyed it also. We previously visited a huge cave near Kunming and we believed nothing could top it around Yangshuo.

Guilin is described as the most beautiful in china, except Yangshuo is better. Yangshuo has a population about 300,000, making up of different ethnic groups such as Han, Zhuang, Yao, Hui, and Miao. The weather in Yangshuo is subtropical, with sufficient rainfall, sunlight, and heat around the whole year. On average each year the temperature is 19 centigrade, the amount of sunlight is 1,465 hours, the rainfall is 1,640mm. There are about 300 days per year without frost. In general, the weather is neither too hot in summer nor too cold in winter. Yangshuo has a long history of 1400 years in which the people there have created their own culture.

The raft trip down the Yulong River, tributary of the Li River, was idyllic and the scenery gorgeous with some exceptions.
Beautiful karst formations were all around us.
Karst terrain is characterized by limestone peaks rising sharply at odd angles, looking like canine teeth rising from a green plain. Karst topography is characterized by many caverns and sinkholes that form by the dissolution of limestone or other carbonate rocks. Rain mixes with the calcium carbonate in the limestone to form a weak carbolic acid which causes most of the erosion. There are many other karst formations in the world, but those in China are unique. Here are the reasons. First, you need hard, compact carbonate rock. In Guilin/Yangshuo, it's Devonian limestone. Secondly, you need strong uplift, in this case provided by the collision of India with Asia to form the Himalayas. Third, you need a Monsoon climate of high moisture during the warmest season. Finally, the area must not have been scoured by glaciers, which this region wasn't.

The exceptions to the pleasure during the trip were as follows:

1. Our boatman’s pole wasn’t long enough so he relied on the very slow current to carry us down stream much of the time.
2. The boatman tried to stop at the various vendors along the way to buy souvenirs or food or photos. We kept saying “NO”.
3. They sell are water pumps which to use to suck up river water, that was used to spray your friends as they pass along side. There were some monster water fights between rafts at times, accompanied by a lot of whooping and yelling. The young people were having fun which was nice to see, but then again, it’s not an idyllic journey. I hate to mention this because it does sound a little curmudgeony.
4. There were 4 small dams along the way which required debarkation, lifting the raft out of the water, pushing along the dam until the front is pointed down and the rear is up. Then you re-embark and you are pushed forward at an angle that is like getting off a camel when the camel drops his front legs to his knees. Actually, it is fun, but you are not guaranteed you will stay dry and your footwear and pants are at risk.

So at one of these dams I put my $280 Nikon Coolpix camera into my belt case to keep it safe. But in the process of helping the boatman push the raft across the dam, the camera gets pushed out of its case and falls on the dam. But I didn’t realize it until about 70 yards downstream when I reach for it to take a photo. As we start back upstream with the boatman poling like crazy, a young woman gestures from another raft that the camera is back at the dam. When we get there, instead of being given the camera by the woman that picked it up, where upon I express my gratitude, I find I must buy the camera back, starting at 200 Yuan ($28) and the bargaining starts. Finally, I pull out a 100 Yuan bill which seems that it will satisfy. But then the boatman has to act as the middle man by passing the 100 Yuan to him, then he receives the camera.
Needless to say, I was greatly relieved, not only to get my camera back, but also the photos contained within. (I would have paid more if I had to, but at least I have developed a bit of bargaining skills). At first I was angry about all this, but it was another instance of dealing with a different culture.

So here is what I recovered.

This is what it looks like sliding down the dam.
We meet our driver who takes us around to take more pictures. This is Moon Mountain.
We hire a driver to take us back to Guilin. In itself, another interesting journey.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Rollin’ On the River

Our long anticipated day arrives. We leave the hotel at 8 AM on a small bus, filled with 6 other couples staying at the hotel and we drive about an hour to reach a very big terminal which serves as a ticket office, the omni-present souvenir shops, and about 25 flat bottom boats lined up on their docks on the Li River, each of which carry over 150 passengers. We get herded into rows of benches each separated by a table (for lunch later on). I leave as soon as possible, making my way to the open upper deck where I spend most of the trip. The weather is ideal except for some haze which helps to give the scenery an ethereal enchantment.

The trip is 4 hours long. I enjoyed every minute and took many excellent photos, making very difficult to apply an editing eye for this post. The boats start to peal off from their docks and end up in an evenly spaced line which soon spreads out.

All kinds of smaller boats were seen and a variety of other river sights, including water buffalo.
Here are some of the best.

This picture is featured on the 20 Yuan note of Chinese currency.
We dock at our destination, Yangshuo, and check into a 3-star hotel, just 100 yards away for a one night stay.

Monday, November 3, 2008

On the Eve of Something Special

Tis the day before thee most important day in recent times and Judith and I take a walk around the neighborhood. I am feeling so alive and thankful to live in such a wonderful place.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Magical Rice Fields and Karsts of Guilin

Probably the area where must foreign tourists come to in China is Guilin. Our flight from Beijing took about 3 ½ hours as Guilin is in the far South of the country in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region which boarders the Gulf of Tonkin.

I have asked what the difference is between an Autonomous Region and a Province and after some hesitation the answer seems to be that the autonomous regions have a lot of minorities, as the tribal people are called in China. But apparently, they have the same privileges and standing within the central government with the same layers of local government.

The Guilin airport is far away from the city and we have a female taxi driver who takes us, less aggressively than usual to our hotel, the Guilin Sheridan situated along the banks of the Li River. We stay on a club floor which entitles us to free drinks and canap├ęs starting at five. But the really nice thing is that there is a huge outdoor balcony where we can sit and enjoy a glass of wine watching dusk shroud the river and the karst hills that we came to see.
But first we sign up to see the Longji rice terraces and the villages of the Zhuang and Yao minority people.

One thing I notice about the Minorities in China, so that they have kept their cultures intact and have learned to appeal to tourists with their traditional costumes and their arts and crafts. After traveling for over an hour in our van, we turn of the main road down into a river valley, where our guide stops and pays an entry fee so we can continue. We drive about half way up the mountain, park, and then hike up a long trail of steps while the air gets thinner and the legs increasingly remind you that you are a flatlander.

The Yao women are known for their long hair which can be up to 2 yards long when they release it from their unique way of piling it on their heads.
As it is October, the terraces are not in their full glory so I will add a photo from the web that show them in the early summer when they are filled with water.
The terraces were created hundreds of years ago and according to our guide the tribes were driven from their more desirable flat land into the mountains.

In the photo below the final destination can be seen at the top of the hill near the lone tree.
Once at the top, I was coaxed to have my photo taken with these women. I bargained hard and got two for the price of one (about $1.30).
As it turns out, rice is not the only thing grown in the terraces. A lot of peppers, corn, and rice could be found drying in the sun.

Naturally, we were tired at the end of day, longing for a drink out on the balcony of the Sheridan, which didn’t disappoint. We also found a nice place to get some foot massages for a mere $12.

The next day, we are boating down the Li River from Guilin to Shenyang, the primary mission.