Photos from the Wall

We were on a bus seventy kilometers outside of Beijing when we caught our first glimpse of the Great Wall of China, firmly perched on a tall ridge in the distance. We were visiting the wall at Mutianyu, a bit more rugged and less popular than Badaling, where most tourists go. We hopped on the gondola at the base of the hill and were swept up to the top in no time.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GreatWall6.jpg” title=”Loong” caption=”It’s still the longest human-made structure on earth.” position=”center”]

The first thing that strikes you is how big the wall really is – it’s 25 feet tall and seems to go on forever. The section at Mutianyu stretches for 2.5 kilometers through dense forest. It doesn’t sound far, but with the steep hills and 22 watchtowers it takes three or four hours to see everything.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GreatWall7.jpg” title=”Hills” caption=”Stretching up through the hills.” position=”center”]

This portion of the wall was reconstructed over an earlier wall dating back to the sixth century. The solid granite fortifications that make up what you see today were added 300 years ago to keep out the nomadic tribes to the north. Contrary to popular belief, the Great Wall wasn’t built all at once in a continuous line.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SamWall1.jpg” title=”Mongols” caption=”In fact, Ghengis Khan just walked around it and conquered China.” position=”center”]

The section at Mutianyu remains largely intact, unlike some sections that were dismantled for use in other building projects. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s, people were actually encouraged to take bricks from the wall for use in their farms and homes.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SamWall4.jpg” title=”Dadonghai” caption=”So many lives were lost during construction that people called it the ‘longest cemetery on earth’.” position=”center”]

On the day we visited it was practically free of visitors. So we got to take a lot of silly photos like these.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SamWall2.jpg” title=”Wall Jump” caption=”After a dozen tries, we finally got it!” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”SamWall3.jpg” title=”Wall Evil” caption=”Because why not.” position=”center”]

It was SO hot that day that we were really thankful for the little stands selling Tsingtao beer.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SamWall5.jpg” title=”Wall Beer” caption=”As an aside, we STILL can’t pronounce ‘Tsingtao’ properly.” position=”center”]

We also liked Mutianyu because in addition to the gondola ride up you can take a toboggan ride down. In this heat, the less effort the better!

[ptcPhoto filename=”SamWall6.jpg” title=”Toboggan” caption=”The toboggan ride back down.” position=”center”]

At the bottom there’s a string of stalls selling souvenirs, paintings, and “ObaMao” t-shirts.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ObamaWall.jpg” title=”Obama” caption=”Well this makes me uncomfortable.” position=”center”]

And after returning to Beijing we celebrated the Great Wall by finding Great beers.

[ptcPhoto filename=”BeijingBeer.jpg” title=”Cheers” caption=”The perfect ending to a very hot day.” position=”center”]

Gān bēi!

Month Nine

Cool cover image, right? Those are the Longsheng Rice Terraces near Guilin, China – also known as the “Dragon’s Backbone”.

It’s been a fun-filled six weeks since our last trip update. Ishigaki, a tropical island off the south coast of Japan, was very relaxing and a great place to celebrate our one year anniversary. Unfortunately typhoons in the area cost us our scuba diving opportunity (the main reason we had gone there), but it was still a wonderful place to spend a couple weeks.

On our way back to China we made the most of an evening layover in Seoul and had a tasty BBQ dinner (and too much soju – that stuff is dangerous!). Once we got back we went to see the Himalayas from the Chinese side and traveled across the Tibetan Plateau.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Plateau.jpg” title=”Plateau” caption=”The Tibet-Sichuan Highway was VERY bumpy, and freezing cold!” position=”center”]

Another neat sight was the Baishutai Limestone Terraces. They’re in the middle of nowhere, but the tiny villages in the area are unlike anything else we’ve seen.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Baishutai.jpg” title=”Baishutai” caption=”A rarity in China: We were the only people there.” position=”center”]

We also found that Southwestern China is home to many of the “World’s Biggest” things, including the world’s largest Buddha, prayer wheel, Mao statue, and, of course, giant pandas!

[ptcPhoto filename=”LegoPanda.jpg” title=”Pandas” caption=”We promise that panda isn’t dead.” position=”center”]

In an effort to experience real Chinese culture Eric underwent some painful spa treatments in Chengdu. He was paired with a particularly aggressive masseuse who missed the memo on “soothing massage” and left him with a limp and a bruised face. Then he volunteered for an invasive ear cleaning from a man wielding some sort of medieval torture device. Thankfully he walked away relatively unscathed (and without any signs of infection).

[ptcPhoto filename=”EarCleaning.jpg” title=”Don’t move…” caption=”What was he thinking?” position=”center”]

As for Sam, she’s been working diligently on writing website posts with the hope that one day we’ll actually be up to date (or at least within a month of the things we’re talking about). We’ve also been spending a lot of time trying to figure out our upcoming travel schedule. Let’s just say we’re getting further and further away from our original plan…

We’re off to Hong Kong soon and have lots of surprises in store. Stay tuned!

Snapshot Sunday: The World’s Largest Buddha?

[ptcPhoto filename=”LeshanBuddha640.jpg” title=”Buddha” caption=”The Grand Buddha in Leshan, Sichuan – China” position=”center”]

At 71 meters (233 feet) tall, many contend that Leshan’s Grand Maitreya Buddha is the world’s largest. He was built in the eighth century to control the confluence of two rivers that were taking many ships and lives. And it worked – after his construction the river became much more manageable.

A miracle? Not so much. The massive amount of rock removed from the river for construction changed the currents and made passage easier.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

Beijing

With Fuji behind us it was time for Jelmini, Eric and I to venture further west into China. We landed down in Beijing and experienced a bit of culture shock skipping from Tokyo’s orderly, clean streets to Beijing’s noise and air pollution.

One of the first things you do when visiting Beijing is develop a daily habit of checking the Air Quality Index (AQI) in the same way you’d check the weather anywhere else. The US Embassy hosts a webpage showing current conditions and also has a handy table explaining the potential health risks of each AQI level – from 0-50 (no health risks), all the way up to 301-500. During most of our visit the AQI hovered in the “unhealthy” range, but it’s not uncommon for the city to issue air quality alerts telling people to stay inside and limit physical activity.

[ptcPhoto filename=”pollution.jpg” title=”Smog” caption=”Smog over the Forbidden City in Beijing.” position=”center”]

As an aside, problems associated with air pollution aren’t limited to Beijing. A couple of weeks ago city officials in the northern city of Harbin had to shut down schools and cancel flights due to a giant smog cloud that limited visibility and posed significant health risks. A large amount of Chinese pollution comes from the manufacture of products bound for the United States and other western countries whose population rely on inexpensive imports – something I’ll try to remember when we go home and furnish a new apartment.

Anyways, getting back to our visit.

Our first stop was the Forbidden City, an imperial palace built in the fifteenth century and occupied by the last emperor of China. There is a definite police presence in the Forbidden City, including many plain-clothes officers. We saw a small skirmish that resulted in people being forcibly removed.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FCSkirmish.jpg” title=”Papers” caption=”Not sure what happened, but it caused quite a ruckus.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”OutsideFC.jpg” title=”Forbidden City” caption=”The entrance to the Forbidden City.” position=”center”]

The walled city is just HUGE and it’s home to many artifacts including pottery dating back thousands of years. If you want to see the whole collection, though, you’ll have to visit Taiwan too. Most of the treasures stored in the Forbidden City were moved there for “safe keeping” during the Chinese Civil War and remain at the National Palace Museum in Taipei to this day.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FC2.jpg” title=”City” caption=”The City is China’s most popular single site tourist attraction.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FC3.jpg” title=”City” caption=”It was home to dynastic clans for 500 years.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FC4.jpg” title=”More City” caption=”The gray skies made for some bleak photos.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FCLion.jpg” title=”Lion” caption=”This guardian lion represents the emperor’s supremacy over the world.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FCElephant.jpg” title=”Elephant” caption=”Bowing to the emperor in an anatomically impossible fashion.” position=”center”]

Just across from the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square, site of the 1989 protests which ended with the declaration of martial law and the deaths of an untold number of civilians. Just recently a new tragedy took place there when a vehicle careened through barricades and caught fire (another event where Chinese officials were quick to impede foreign reporters). All was calm on the day we were there, with children playing and tour groups visiting Mao’s mausoleum.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TS1.jpg” title=”Belly” caption=”In hot weather Chinese men show their bellies. It reminds me of the ‘I’m too sexy for my shirt’ song.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”TSClose.jpg” title=”Model” caption=”‘I’m a model, you know what I mean? And I do my little turn on the catwalk…'” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”TSChild.jpg” title=”Child” caption=”Playing in the Square” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”TS2.jpg” title=”Square” caption=”In the event of an assembly the Square could hold a million people.” position=”center”]

After the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, no visit to Beijing would be complete without a Peking Duck dinner. Da Dong is a popular upscale restaurant where you’ll see chefs roasting the ducks in wood-fired ovens.

[ptcPhoto filename=”DuckRoast.jpg” title=”Roasting” caption=”They’re VERY good at what they do.” position=”center”]

Once it’s been roasted to perfection, the duck will be carved up tableside and served with various trimmings including garlic, hoisin sauce, cantaloupe, cucumber, Chinese pickles, and a stack of paper-thin pancakes for wrapping everything up into wonderful little parcels. They also give you sugar so you can dip the skin into it and make a sort of duck skin candy. It’s delicious, but I think the duck is better all on its own.

[ptcPhoto filename=”DuckTrimmings.jpg” title=”Accompaniments” caption=”Everything you need for ducky delight.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”Duck.jpg” title=”Da Dong Duck” caption=”We should have ordered two.” position=”center”]

After a short tutorial on how to make the wraps they left us to devour everything on the table.

[ptcPhoto filename=”DuckTutorial.jpg” title=”Tutorial” caption=”Learning the proper procedure.” position=”center”]

This might have been our most expensive meal in all of China, but the crispy skin and unctuous dark duck meat were worth a splurge. SO good.

Next up: A Great Wall!

Kyoto: The Gion Festival and Other Highlights

Of all the cities we’ve visited so far, Kyoto probably ranks in my top five owing to its oodles of history, culture, cuisine, and its regular juxtapositions of antiquated and modern, formal and familiar. The city somehow feels small and inviting even if it’s quite large. There’s something new to explore around every corner, and a week here would be the bare minimum to get through the major sights.

We stayed near Kyoto Station, a good home base and an ideal place for shopping and restaurants. The station’s food courts are full of displays that are so realistic they border on disconcerting.

For example, can you tell which of these photos shows the real meal, and which one is fake?

[ptcPhoto filename=”FoodDisplay1.jpg” title=”Food Display” caption=”One of these was delicious…” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FoodDisplay2.jpg” title=”Food Display” caption=”…and one of them was plastic.” position=”center”]

Outside the station is Kyoto Tower, the city’s highest building and a modern anomaly among the many ancient temples and shrines of Kyoto.

[ptcPhoto filename=”KyotoTower.jpg” title=”Kyoto Tower” caption=”Kyoto Tower at night” position=”center”]

If you watch Anthony Bourdain’s travel shows as much as we do, you may have noticed that he sometimes “happens” to be in town for a major festival or holiday – as though the producers and writers didn’t plan it that way (you aren’t fooling anyone with that, Tony!). But we really did just happen to be in Kyoto for Gion Matsuri, an annual festival that emerged in the ninth century as a purification ritual to appease the gods and persuade them to stop meting out fires, floods and earthquakes.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GionMatsuri.jpg” title=”GionMatsuri” caption=”Crowds at Gion Matsuri” position=”center”]

Today celebrations last for the entire month of July and include art performances, the opening of traditional Japanese homes to the public, food, crafts, and parades with huge, elaborate floats.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Geisha.jpg” title=”Geisha” caption=”Geisha performing at the festival” position=”center”]

If you get the chance, it’s a great time to experience some of the city’s cultural ambiance – even if being there during that time means that the streets are crowded and prices are somewhat inflated. Everyone dresses up, and the whole city comes alive with celebration.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SummerKimonos.jpg” title=”Yukata” caption=”Dressed up in yukata, summer kimonos” position=”center”]

Even arcade-goers dress for the occasion.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GionArcade.jpg” title=”Gion Arcade” caption=”Don’t let the formal dress fool you, they’re still packing.” position=”center”]

The rest of Kyoto’s sights are so splendid that, well, I’ll just show you photos instead of boring you with too many details.

[ptcPhoto filename=”BambooForest1.jpg” title=”Bamboo Forest” caption=”Strolling through the Bamboo Forest” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”BambooForest2.jpg” title=”Bamboo Forest” caption=”Did you know that bamboo is the tallest grass in the world?” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”BambooForestShrine.jpg” title=”Bamboo Forest Shrine” caption=”Prayers at a nearby shrine” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”FushimiInari1.jpg” title=”FushimiInari” caption=”Fushimi Inari-taisha, a Shinto shrine near Kyoto ” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FushimiInari2.jpg” title=”FushimiInari” caption=”The first tori gates were built here in the 8th century.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”SilverPavilion1.jpg” title=”SilverPavilion” caption=”The Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) Zen temple” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”SilverPavilion2.jpg” title=”SilverPavilion” caption=”Plans to cover it in silver foil fell through, but the name stuck.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”GoldenPavilion.jpg” title=”GoldenPavilion” caption=”The Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), also a Zen temple.” position=”center”]

Oh, yeah – don’t forget about Nara, Japan’s ancient capital. It’s an easy day trip from Kyoto, but we’d recommend staying for a few days to see everything in this great little town.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Todaiji1.jpg” title=”Todai-ji” caption=”Todai-ji Buddhist Temple – the world’s largest wooden structure up until 1998.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”NaraBuddha.jpg” title=”GoldenPavilion” caption=”It’s home to Japan’s biggest Buddha.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”NaraDeer.jpg” title=”Nara Deer” caption=”Nara’s wild deer aren’t afraid to head-butt you for biscuits.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”NaraLanterns.jpg” title=”Nara Lanterns” caption=”Lanterns at a Nara shrine.” position=”center”]

Thus concludes our visit to Kyoto and Nara. Not to be missed if you visit Japan!