Out of China

Out of China

Our son,  Aaron,  joined us for a couple of weeks. He just finished two years teaching english in Korea, then completed a 12-day trek in Mongolia before meeting up with us for some family travel time before taking off to Kathmandu for a trek to Mt. Everest base-camp.

Well, after 2 years of only Korean food, I guess it tastes good.

Well, after 2 years of only Korean food, I guess it tastes good.

After Beijing, we flew to Xi’an to see The Terracotta Warriors, dated from the 3rd century B.C. They were buried to protect the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang in the after-life. The site included, but was not limited to, over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses.

Terracotta Army

Terracotta Army

The army faced East and was ready for battle

The army faced East and was ready for battle

The figures are life-sized. They vary in height, uniform and hairstyle in accordance with rank.

The figures are life-sized. They vary in height, uniform and hairstyle in accordance with rank.

Xi’an city is a fast-moving metropolis; a morass of muscling masses, walking, biking, running, riding and driving. It was easy to get lost in as many parts of the city as there were no distinctive features or landmarks. In a couple of areas I saw so many cellphone stores I wondered if every Xi’anese own 5 cellphones each.

Riding on the ancient city walls of Xi'an

Riding on the ancient city walls of Xi’an

Scenic JiuZhaigao N.P.

Scenic JiuZhaigao N.P.

Our next stop was JiuZhaigao National Park. At the north end of Sichuan Province, its scenic grandeur reminded me of some of our own treasured national parks like Yosemite. JiuZhaigao’s landscape is made up of high-altitude karsts shaped by glacial, hydrological and tectonic activity. It was jam-packed with thousands of tourists who were relegated to the boardwalks that run through the parks instead of natural hiking trails. The admission fees were about $36 per person per day and we speculate it may rank among the highest in the world.

JiuZhaigao had some of the most unique waterfalls

JiuZhaigao had some of the most unique waterfalls

It's lakes were multi-colored

It’s lakes were multi-colored

It’s difficult to see a country as large and vast as China in just  3 1/2 weeks. We covered a lot of ground, saw a lot wonderful sights and met so many friendly people, yet it still feels like we just scratched the surface.  We owe a special thanks to our friend, Thomas, born and raised in Chengdu, for helping us sift through the many choices of where to go and for putting together an outstanding itinerary. He asked us what we wanted to see and do in China and we told him that we enjoy learning about history and culture combined with opportunities to spend time actively enjoying the outdoors. That’s exactly what we got….and lots more! Thomas was our virtual tour guide instructing us on where to go and how much time to spend in each locale. He even gave us written trail instructions for Mt. Emei which encompasses a vast area and is the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains in China at over 10,000 feet.

On Mount Emei summit above a floor of clouds

On Mount Emei summit above a floor of clouds

The amazing 48 meter-tall multi-dimensional golden Samantabhadra Buddha on the summit

The amazing 48 meter-tall multi-dimensional golden Samantabhadra Buddha on the summit

25 Km from Mt. Emei was the Giant Buddha at Leshan.

At 71 meters tall, it was completed in 803 AD

At 71 meters tall, it was completed in 803 AD

When we finally got to Chengdu, we met Thomas’ parents who literally gave us the VIP treatment. We sat in the VIP section of a dinner show featuring the famous Sichuan hot-pot dish, a juggler, a magician, dancers, a martial arts exhibition, a contortionist, and a traditional Chinese Mask-Changing act. They took us to see the Panda Research Center where we got special access to have our pictures taken with -and even pet- a panda, we toured some of the area’s natural and cultural sights and met some of their good friends. We were wined and dined to near exhaustion. They all made us feel so special and so welcome.

Singers with panda

Momma panda and cub

Momma panda and cub

It’s extremely difficult to document your travels when the government has blocked access to your website login–along with various other subversive websites such as The New York Times. So special thanks are in order to my good friend, Bruce, who was gracious enough to volunteer the tedious task of posting from home in the US.

Mao

I thought of the phrase, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. In this case, it was free speech. So thanks to the Peoples Republic of China for reminding me that even with all it’s faults and problems, the U.S.A. continues to stand as an international beacon for freedom.

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Beijing

Beijing

Some of our expectations of China were immediately swept away. I anticipated hordes of people massed throughout the city with bustling sidewalks and traffic jams. No doubt, there are a lot of people and we’ve seen and been among lots of traffic but the crowds seem to be spread out (or focused at tourist sights) and the traffic, though heavy, moves along. As do the people. There’s a flow to the city that is not frenetic or edgy as you can find in NYC or Cairo. Perhaps this is one result of over 2000 years of the influence of Confucianism. The streets are  laid out in a grid running east/west and north/south and they’re named as such to make location identification and transit easier. For a city of 22 million people there’s a nice vibe.
Confucius
Confucius
Cindy was anticipating dress to be more traditional but many people here are in western style clothes, women in high heels and young hipsters with fashionable haircuts not shorn for wall-street jobs. She also expected streets to be dirty, but in fact, the streets are kept very clean.
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There’s a ritual that happens outside restaurants before dinner time that involves the staff to line up and be addressed by their managers,  I presume to be given a pep talk. It can also involve ‘team building’ exercises. This group lined up to give each other massages, then they turned around and reciprocated. After the massages they did a song and dance to some recorded music.
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They had a great time.
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To be sure, it was a jolt going from an english-speaking country to one with great phonetic and alphabetically differences. However, I grew up hearing Chinese spoken and acoustically it makes more sense to me than hearing Turkish–consonants and syllables connected together to make words and sentences. As I try to learn some Chinese words, I’ve found that easier than Turkish, too. The written language, however, looks extremely daunting; perhaps even more difficult than identifying enantiomers in organic chemistry. And perhaps I might change my mind after I’ve learned phrases that require tonal inflection. I am having fun learning Chinese, though.
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Tiananmen Gate. The south entrance to the Forbidden City.
The sights are big, literally and figuratively. Tiananmen Square is the largest public square in the world, and just north of it is the Forbidden City, the largest (former) Imperial complex in the world.
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The Forbidden City
One evening we went to see an acrobatics show. There were excellent tumblers, contortionists and acrobats. The finale of the show featured a 15-foot steel-cage ball that had up to 5 motorcyclists zooming simultaneously through.
The most memorable moments remain those of human interaction.  While we were on our way to tour some of the most famous hutongs (alleyways), we found ourselves alongside a young man who was taking pictures of the same sights as us. A conversation ensued, and we ended up spending the entire afternoon with Ming, a film-maker who was visiting and touring from the south. We were there to see the same things so we toured together and had a wonderful time exchanging thoughts and ideas and discussing some of the cultural differences of our countries. These are the kind of experiences that are so incredibly rich and yet you can’t buy them in a tour.
The hutongs are where it’s at in Beijing. They have been disappearing as the government has expanded roads into and around the city, though, some have been rebuilt and some are being preserved, but that is where the everyday life of everyday people of Beijing happens.
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Life in the hutong
We took a bike tour of Beijing. Our tour guide, Fiona, would occasionally look back to check on us while not looking at what was happening in front of her. But she confidently and effortlessly made her way forward through the steady flow of traffic and pedestrians. It lasted three hours but I could have spent the entire day biking through the city.
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In front of The Imperial Gate (a partial reconstruction)
I took this next picture while riding in the narrowest hutong….though, not sure why. Some of the doors in the hutong rolled up instead of opening in/out.
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South Africa- First, second and third world all rolled into one

South Africa- First, second and third world all rolled into one

One guide book warned us that almost everyone leaves Cape Town thinking there was more to see and do that they had missed. That was true for us, too, and it could have been said about South Africa as a whole. For sure, one of the things that made it special was that Cindy and I had received so many dinner invitations from friend’s of friends we had met before arriving, as well as from folks we met while here too, that we just felt so welcome.

Fynbos

South Africa was the second country we visited that was not on our original list and we stayed a day shy of 6 weeks. (Jordan was the first, lasting 4 days). Since leaving Boston we hadn’t seen more than 30 minutes of rain for the first 3 1/2 months of being on the road. There was a bit of irony as we’d come to South Africa to avoid the monsoons east of Tanzania expecting a bit of rain and mild winter temperatures requiring the purchase of a fleece and some rain gear. We started off our visit with unseasonably hot and dry weather that lasted for about 2 weeks and ended with record breaking rains in Cape Town. Still, hiking in a t-shirt in the winter isn’t cause to complain. The weather did little to change our itinerary and the old adage from home that “if you don’t like the weather, just wait because it will change”, applies even more so because the weather fronts around here move faster than you can say, “Nor’easter”.

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Perhaps it’s a low standard, but as travelers or tourists we never really felt like we were getting hustled as we had encountered so many times in other countries. The only exception being the panhandlers in Cape Town; even then, they were a minor annoyance.

Flowers of the fynbos

Flowers of the fynbos

The dollar goes a long way around here and for the most part, things are pretty inexpensive. Food is really inexpensive. You can get a pretty good meal at a restaurant for about $20-$22….a couple! We’ve had a couple of great dinners for about $30-$35 that would have cost double or even triple that back home.

In back of the Heyl-Hutchinson dam on top of Table Mountain

In back of the Heyl-Hutchinson dam on top of Table Mountain

Driving in SA is nuts! Drivers can be very aggressive. The have no qualms about tailgating and most disturbing is a general disregard for pedestrians, which is even more crazy since it’s not unusual for pedestrians to be walking on dark highways at night….and dressed in dark clothes. One time, while driving on a highway, we saw a person driving a donkey with its cart on the exit ramp going the wrong way.

post sign

There are some other odd things about South Africa worth mentioning. Barbed wired fencing is commonly used on the trails around Cape Town to prevent people from taking shortcuts through the fynbos. It’s seems very weird since there are many places you could easily take a wrong step and fall off a cliff, but try to make a short cut a trail and you’re hiking commando-style.

Keepa you hands off!

Keepa you hands off!

High crime rates drove many people out of post-apartheid South Africa. Everyone has alarm systems (some that warn of an ‘armed response’ and live in high-walled, gated and fortified houses. And a consistent theme we’d heard about from everyone was the extensive government corruption and lack of accountability. Still, this is a beautiful and amazing country to visit.

Looking south from Constantia Nek

Looking south from Constantia Nek

Over the past 2 weeks we did a lot more than I was able to post. Cindy and I were both having issues with our iPads and had to bring them to the iStore (SA’s Apple stores) to have the operating systems reinstalled. I had loaded too many pictures and they had taken some of the memory needed for the OS, thereby corrupting it. I wish I had a better prognosis for my camera as the shmutz in the lens housing is still floating around creating some spots. So I broke down, bit the proverbial ‘bullet’, and bought another camera.

Gotta go! We’re off to China!

Hiking Table Mountain

Hiking Table Mountain

We had hoped to hike Table on a clear day but it was not to be…at least, not all day. Looking at the local forecast for the week was not too promising so we debated a bit in the morning before deciding to do a couple of museums but then changed our minds when we went downtown and saw the skies were clear, including the top of the mountain. However, as we’d read about and would later experience, the only predictable aspect of Table Mountain’s weather is its unpredictability and rapid changes.

The hike begins. The two funicular stations showing at the base and the summit

The hike begins. The two funicular stations showing at the base and the summit

We took the Platteklip trail up which starts by going under the funicular for a few hundred yards and then heads east on a pretty flat plain until it turns south and quite vertical through the gorge of the same name until finally reaching the top. Though, not as steep or difficult as some hikes we’d done before, Cindy was feeling a bit out of shape and her knees and hips began talking. The trail was busy with lots of hikers. Our plan was to hike up and take the funicular down, though, we ran into several who were doing the opposite choosing to put more effort into ‘breaking’ action vs muscling their way up.

Clouds roll in as we climb Platteclip gorge

Clouds roll in as we climb Platteklip gorge

About two-thirds of the way up and well into the gorge, the clouds started to float through and looking up we could see the notorious “Tablecloth” of clouds had come home on top of the mountain. We would not have the great views we’d hoped for. Sure enough, we got to the top and we were in a pea-soup of clouds.

In the 'tablecloth' of Table Mountain

In the ‘tablecloth’ of Table Mountain

While waiting on line for the funicular, the passing clouds cleared for several seconds and a bunch of people rushed to see the fleeting view.

The clouds clear for a view and......then it's gone!

The clouds clear for a view and……then it’s gone!

It was a great hike, though, and perhaps I’ll attempt it again…..if we’re still here and the weather clears, of course.

Sadly, the day after the hike, we happened to pick up a newspaper to learn that a 19-year-old lost his life in a fall from the summit that same day. I couldn’t help but think about the list on top of Mt. Washington of those that suffered the same fate as that young man.