Friday, August 31, 2012

An army of terracotta warriors!

Nothing can stop me now! All resistance will be crushed! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Well, I have eight of them. Plus a horse. And they don't have weapons. And they're only about 4 inches high. But I'm sure all that can be fixed, what with the wonders of modern technology. What do you mean, that's never going to work...

Right, so, Xi'an. We ventured into smoggy smoggy China a bit after sunset. Took the airport express bus into the city (the airport is actually in a neighboring town.) The old Xi'an city walls (nicely restored) were lit up with colorful lights. Very Christmassy. Or Las Vegassy. Or Disneyish. I guess China can now claim to have invented Disneyland, with the hordes of lifelike statues (never mind that they were hidden for a couple thousand years.) So we got off the bus at the Bell Tower, and within five minutes of map-peering and looking lost, we were accosted by a woman trying to sign us up on a tour. (As it turns out, this was slow and quiet, perhaps due to the late hour: in other cities the touts were out in force and immediately in your face with the brochures and shouted offers.) She said she worked for the airport shuttle company, and that they would give us a free ride to our hotel. So, I agreed and we signed up for a terra cotta warriors tour for the next day. The prices seemed reasonable enough. She wanted cash, of course! It took me awhile to get used to carrying giant wads of cash around all the time. I ended up with the Envelope o'Money, which I took out from my backpack at the end of each day to pay the drivers/tour guides.

So eventually (we could probably have walked there just as quickly if we had known the route) we were delivered to our hotel. Just outside the city wall, it was an even fancier place than the place we stayed at in Beijing (but still no swimming pool). Ah well, we're on vacation, at least the nice hotels make the kids happier. Or so I thought, until we found out that this place charged by the minute for an internet connection! (And there was much gnashing of teeth. Even though youtube is blocked in China. Club Penguin still works.)

The next morning, after another hotel breakfast, the tour guide came by to pick us up. It was just us and an Italian couple in a van. We got to see more of the smog, and more of the construction boom. It was amazing how many highrises we saw being built all around every town or city we visited. Xi'an and Chengdu were also in the process of building subway systems. Happy posters promised how much better life would be when they were done. I can believe it. The subway system in Beijing was really really good, and moved massive massive numbers of people around (and they're still expanding it.)

Our first stop was, of course, the "Terracotta Warrior Factory". They actually make terracotta warriors there, in all different scales. We got to see the ovens. Coal (still glowing)! That impressed the Minecraft players in the family. Naturally we bought some souvenirs. They had all of the usual touristy things besides terracotta-themed items: clothes, jewelry, kites, fans, etc. The lacquered furniture was beautiful. If I had lots of money and a spare palace, it would be just the thing. The guide promised it was cheaper than buying it at the Terra Cotta Warrior museum shop, and it probably was. It was even cheaper than I realized, as I accidentally haggled with the sales people and they offered me discounts. Heh. I'm too used to buying things online these days.

Eventually we reached the TCW site. There was the inevitable tourist village by the gates, and then the inevitable trolley ride to the museum itself.

Overheard in the trolley line (from a Chinese family with kids):

" as soon as we got up the mountain, they wanted to go down again! And then all the way down, they just wanted to shop for souvenirs and buy gifts for their friends!"

"...and we wanted to try some of the local food, but when we went out of the hotel, all we could find was fashionable clothes stores and alcohol/smoke shops!"

...So it's not just us, then! (Although the "Oooo! A (white) foreigner! Take a picture with him!" thing we got at the Forbidden City probably doesn't happen to Chinese tourists.)

The museum wasn't that far away. We could have walked (and did walk on the way back), but tourists/kids just love those little trolley rides. Apparently.

The farmer who discovered the Terracotta Army was there in the museum shop signing copies of the official book. There was also a short intro film about the TCW. In English! Must be confusing for the Chinese audience.

So then the guide released us to go look at the pits. Yep. They're pits. Big rectangular holes in the ground, now with buildings constructed around them. A few of the statues are still in place for display. The dirt is a strange (to us, used to a more reddish clay soil) faded yellow color. Each building seems to have a bunch of photo op platforms and alcoves, where you can pay extra for a specially exciting picture of you as a Terracotta Warrior, or standing in front of them, etc., etc.

The TCW were pretty cool, and the place not too crowded. Once in awhile a big tour group rushed by ("Don't try to yield to them! You'll be yielding forever!" admonished one woman. I didn't like stepping into a crowd, but it's the way people have to walk, or drive, in China. Heh.) But it didn't take too long for the kids to get bored, and hot, and we retired for an ice cream/bathroom break.

Lunch was even cheaper than the tour-group-lunches we had in Beijing. You could tell because there was no meat served. And drinks were not included.

After lunch we headed back to our hotel. There was other stuff to see in old town Xi'an, but we were tired/jet-lagged/intimidated by the traffic and didn't venture far from the hotel. We ate dinner at the hotel, having failed our feeble attempts to find anything appealing outside.

The next morning, we checked out of the hotel to walk back to the airport shuttle stop. The most embarrassing bit was when we had to be helped across the street by a nice old lady. Isn't there something backwards in that? Heh. So, since we couldn't walk for more than ten minutes without an ice cream break, we stopped for ice cream. (The free wi-fi was a lie!) More random people approached us, offering tours and rides. We declined, until...

We found the airport shuttle bus full, and the next one not for another half hour. At which point the nice man offering us a ride to the airport right now seemed like a good deal...

...which it was, by our standards. It cost the same as the bus (I could probably have tried to haggle for a lower price, but it was already about 1/5 as much as it cost us to get to the airport from our house in the U.S.!) and was quick and easy. Although there's all these warnings about hiring non-official taxis and so on, we did it a few times during our stay in China and it was fine each time. No one ever tried to cheat us. (I do speak some Mandarin, which probably helps.) Sure, we were overcharged for things (compared to what a local would pay), but we always agreed on prices beforehand and there was no problem getting where we wanted to go. It was definitely worth it for the convenience. Since there were five of us, we didn't fit well into a standard taxi, and the "gypsy" drivers typically had minivans or at least a bigger sedan.

Onwards to Chengdu!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Are these your children? You have THREE?!"

At least that's what people kept saying to me for the last two weeks, while our family was visiting China. And then they'd all say "I like girls. Boys are naughty!" Heh. Was there some campaign to make people prefer girls, to counteract all that with the disproportionate number of boys to girls surviving? At any rate, if you ask people now, they say that only "old-fashioned people", out in the countryside, might still be biased towards boys.

So yeah! It's been months since I wrote anything. I thought maybe a blog post on "what I did for my vacation" would help me get back into things. Anyway, it's traditional for the start of the school year (on Monday! Argh!)

China. I told them it was crowded, I told them it would be hot in August, I told them that KFCs were weirdly popular, I told them about the squat toilets, I told them about the traffic, I told them it was smoggy, and I told them about carrying around cash and toilet paper... the whole lowering-expectations bit. Eh. We still had lots of moaning, but nothing too serious.

First came the airplane trip. That in itself was a novelty, as it was the longest the kids had ever been on an airplane before. About thirteen and a half hours of being cooped up in a seat, but each passenger had their personal TV and frequent servings of food. (Ok, so the cups of instant noodles were the worst ever, what with the water not being hot enough and the noodles not soaking long enough, but it was otherwise reasonable.) It was cool to basically fly over the north pole, and have sunlight all the way there.

First city: Beijing. We were all dead tired by the time we got off the plane. Marveled at an airport big enough to have its own subway system! Tried out the foreign currency exchange machine (convenient!) and eventually managed to find the airport express train and figured out how to buy tickets. Whee. A pleasant ride, giving us our first ground level view of China. So, city and stuffs. Superficially similar to cities everywhere. Then we hit the regular subway system. Crowds! Crowds, crowds, crowds! But Beijing has a great subway system. The fare machines are nice, as are the easy to understand flat rates (2 Y per trip) and the maps everywhere, especially the ones with the lights that show you your current position on the line and highlights the next stop. Also helpful: English and pinyin everywhere. English announcements. This made it very easy to navigate.

Getting from the subway station to the hotel was trickier, as the hotel wasn't visible from the exit. But it wasn't hard to ask for directions. No shortage of random people on the street, ha ha! Thank the gods we didn't have to cross any streets on our first day there.

Traffic in China: very, very scary. Possibly the scariest thing we encountered there. The drivers are crazy. The cyclists are crazy. Red lights are optional. What "stop before turning right on red"!? Honk and pass at every opportunity! (The most egregious case was when we were riding one of those little golf cart/trolleys that carry people around inside a park, and one trolley driver felt the need to zoom up and overtake the trolley in front, to arrive a full 5 seconds earlier!) Mostly as we were being driven around China, I tried not to look too hard at what our driver was up to. We always put on our seatbelts. (We're Americans! They can't take that as some kind of insult! But it was funny when one driver told me that he had driven extra slowly and carefully as we had kids along, meaning he had probably only passed about 90% of the other vehicles on the road rather than 99%.)

So anyway, we managed to find our hotel in Beijing, albeit by the back door. The kids were impressed at how fancy it was. (I had booked a bunch of fancy-schmancy hotels for our trip, probably wasting more money than necessary: the one time we stayed in a hostel that cost 1/10 as much, it was actually very nice, though my son kept complaining that "this hostel is inferior!" until we figured out the air conditioning.) We were too tired to eat anywhere except the hotel restaurant. Despite being a fancy-schmancy place, the hotel restaurant still sucked (IMNSHO) as hotel restaurants everywhere tend to suck. So much for my ambitions to try the local food. Ah well. Everyone collapsed into bed soon after. Next morning: hotel restaurant breakfast buffet! Now those I like, despite them being ridiculously overpriced. It's easy and everyone can find something to eat, usually. In China, the fancy hotels tend to have "Western", "Chinese", and "Japanese" style foods. So, a gentle introduction to new stuff: weird white fruit in the fruit bowl! The kids declared that it tasted kinda like kiwi fruit. There, that wasn't so bad! And the pear were Asian pears, but they liked them, as well as the usual apples, watermelon, and cantaloupes.

Day 1: TOUR TIME! I ran off to see the concierge after breakfast. She was very nice and was able to book us on an English-speaking tour to leave in the next twenty minutes or so. Well, that was lucky. These were small tours with about 10-12 people. We went to see the "Sacred Way" part of the Ming Tombs. (Probably the most fun part, what with all the stone statues and animals and not having to go through some evil crowded hole in the ground.) Then to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Of course, everyone was still so tired that as soon as we took the cable car up to the wall, there were cries of "can we go back now?" and "I'm tired!", "I'm thirsty!", "I don't want to walk!". So our "hike" along the wall was very short. Went to the next tower section and came back again. First taste of souvenirs. It took me awhile to get a feel for how much things should cost in China, and how to haggle. The first vendor I bought something from gave me a pitying look as I paid way too much. But on the bright side, neither place we visited was crowded at all. Sure, there were people, but we had plenty of space to ourselves.

Shopping trips: yes, there were two shopping trips included in each day's tour. As long as you go with the same company, you go to different ones. It's really not the worst thing in the world. You get to go to a nice air-conditioned building, where they introduce you to jade, silk, pearls, tea, etc. in Chinese culture and history, and then you can buy some stuff if you want. The first day we went to the jade-carving factory and the silk factory. I got some trinkets and a cute vest for my younger daughter, which turned out to be one of her favorite things from the trip, so hooray for tour-shopping stops!

Lunch: the tour-arranged food was pretty "meh", Chinese style cafeteria food, basically, at the jade factory. Rice, a soup, green leafy veggie, some egg dish (I think), a couple of meat+veggie stirfry, nothing too exotic or memorable.

Day 2: TOUR #2! Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan) in one lightning tour. ("I hate tours!" "Not another tour!" "Ugh! Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh." "Mommy, can I buy those earrings?" "Well, maybe, lemme see...maybe on the way back. Oops, too late, the guide just went out the other exit...") We misplaced one member of the tour group (the guide managed to find her eventually) and then another family in the group objected to having to buy extra tickets for the boat ride through the Summer Palace grounds. So we had to walk... our first taste of a really crowded tourist attraction! Partly it's because of the narrow walkways and corridors in the palace that everyone has to go through. Bottlenecks. Not terrible. And we ended up only going on one shopping trip: pearls. (We didn't buy any, but it was neat when they opened up a real oyster and we got to see/touch the tiny pearls it had.) The tour guide took pity on us and skipped the second stop (tea), but made us sign waivers (or at least papers saying what a good guide she was) so she wouldn't get in trouble with management.

Laundry time! This is what I really hate about travel in China. No laundromats. Just as you hire a driver along with a car, you hire a washer along with the washing machine. Or something. But it was something like USD$10 to get a shirt washed! What with our raggle-taggle tourist clothes, we could have bought new outfits for less. Besides, it would be embarrassing to have someone see my holey underwear. So, into the bathtub with our dirty clothes. Bah. (Yeah, I had brought along packets of detergent, having expected this. But I forgot to bring a clothes line! D'oh! I never did find one, so I ended up ripping my all-purpose-wipe/ex-cloth-diaper into a long strip and twisted it up to use a makeshift clothes line.)

Day 3: No tour! I think we all needed some downtime from tours. I don't know what we would have done if we'd gone with one of those 14-day (or whatever) tour packages. Been really miserable, I expect. Wandered around the Wangfujing shopping area of Beijing. Nice bookstore. Useless malls full of clothes. Then for lunch, we went to one of the branches of the famous Peking Duck chain: Quanjude. The waitress talked me into ordering the full banquet. Ha ha ha. We thought the flow of dishes would never end. At least we could sit there and pretend to be emperors or whatever. Yes, this included the duck livers and duck hearts and gizzards (I actually like those) and random things like the "Quanjude Duck Delicacies Nestles". It was pretty expensive, but hey, it's an experience.

In the afternoon (the laundry still isn't quite dry!) we went to wander around the giant flea market at Panjiayuan. It was a bit of a walk, and along the way we passed people on the street with... turtles?! Are they selling turtles? Not tiny little ones, either. These must have been nearly a foot long. WTF? The flea market itself was huge. Bought some random stuff (my older daughter likes wall scrolls and little bags). Got tired of aisles and aisles full of jade bracelets and pretty rocks. Repetitive place. Then there were the people with random statuary, random magazines (in English!), random books (Chinese and English), random cameras (non-digital), random binoculars and telescopes, random chests and furniture, etc.

Day 4: Anime floor of the mall! Whoa! My older daughter is an anime fan, and she found out about this place somehow (the power of Google?) and made me take her there. It was impressive. "Cartoon town" or something. A bunch of little shops (I mean, each one was probably the size of my bedroom or smaller) selling manga, figurines, posters, etc., etc. I guess there's so many malls in Beijing there's bound to be one specializing in anything you want.

Then it was time to check out of the hotel. Made the mistake of dragging everyone and their luggage around the city looking for somewhere to eat lunch. We ended up at a Subway, which has much the same food there as it does in the U.S. And then more misery as we dragged through the streets to Tiananmen Square, mainly just to say we'd been there. Not really that interesting a place. So then it was down into the subway station and off to the airport! We ended up there three hours early, so they rebooked us onto an earlier flight. This was a good thing, as the flight turned out to be about three hours late anyway, and if we had been on our original flight, would have arrived in the next city at about midnight!

To be continued next post: Xi'an...