Saturday, December 27, 2008

Playing tourist at last

I met my family just fine six days ago, and since then, it's been a whirlwind of sightseeing, funny stories, and just good times. It was so unreal to see them walking out of the arrivals gate at the Beijing airport.  We arranged our travels through a Chinese tour guide, who is well-meaning, but didn't realize that we did not speak Chinese, so always sent the itinerary in Chinese.  He also is very Chinese in that he'll do exactly what you want, but not be particularly rational about things.  For instance, he had us in a 10 hour layover each way in the Kunming airport so that we could spend 2 days in Lijiang (both in Yunan province).  We opted for 4 days in Kunming instead.

Day 1:  Beijing.  We left early in the morning for the Mutianyu section of the great wall.  It was cold up there, and very windy, but the scenery was wonderful.  I'll never cease to be amazed by looking in the distance to see the wall snaking along some distant seemingly unreachable ridge.  You hear that it's built upon the mountain ridges, but it's hard to grasp until you actually see it.  On our return to the city, we stopped for a bit at the olympic park, where there were endless Christmas trees lining the main road, and a little christmas house decked out with a sleigh, decorations, and several santas, one of which was playing a saxophone.  (More is better, right).  We then went to the central hutong area near the lakes and wandered around for the remainder of the afternoon, catching another glimpse of Beijing life.  And of course, sampling the street food.

Day 2:  Forbidden City day.  We first headed to my favorite Jingshan park to see the dancing, clapping, games, and other elderly Chinese people activities.  It's so cool to see all the retired people hanging out with their friends and doing active things outside instead of sitting around the house.  Also enjoyed the spectacular view from the pavilion at the top of the hill.  The forbidden city is something I've kind of been avoiding in my time here.  I mean, it's just a bunch of buildings, and all the contents were moved to Taiwan when the Japanese invaded, so what's to see.  It was actually pretty cool.  I wouldn't have been really sad to not see it, but the sheer scale and the sheer absurdity of having it all for one person were pretty amazing.  2000 concubines, and 75,000 eunochs.  1 emperor.  

Day 3:  Transit, to Kunming.  Up at 4:30 to catch a flight to Kunming, Yunan.  My dad, grandma, and aunt went to Shanghai to visit relatives, while my siblings and my mom went to Yunan. The flight was relatively painless, and we arrived around 1:30.  We walked around town to a shopping district and some really really old pagodas.  The streets are a lot narrower and there seem to be a lot more people here than in Beijing.  Or maybe it's just warmer.  We found a Wal-mart, which was very amusing.  Very much like any other Chinese supermarket, but fancier than Wal-marts at home.  Funny, working at Wal-mart is probably a pretty stable and well-paid job here.  For dinner, we went to a cute hot pot place which had a little pot for each person.  I love hot pot.  

Day 4:  Western Hills, and area to the west of Kunming on the shore of a lake.  We started by exploring two beautiful temples that were filled with lush vegitation (I get the feeling that it rains a lot here in the summer).  The hills were breathtaking and there were many sheer cliffs and lovely Chinese architecture tucked into them.  There were a lot of tacky souvenir items on the way up, which makes me wonder who in the world buys such useless junk?  It's like the people say "Oh look, tourists, I bet they want some of this random stuff!"  On returning from the hills, we went shopping a bit, but didn't end up buying anything.  Dinner was at a fast food dumpling restaurant, where it took me 10 minutes to decipher the menu before we ended up with two bowls of noodles, and an enormous plate of 饺子 (Chinese stuffed dumplings).

Day 5:  Stone forest is an area 70 km from Kunming.  It used to be a lakebed, and the large concentrations of Ca in the water led to strangely shaped CaCO3 (limestone) deposits on the lake floor.  As a result, there are stone pillars over 100 feet high and gorgeous rock formations dotting this valley.  There is a lot of vegitation growing in the stone canyons and on the stones themselves, and it felt like there should be dinosaurs around.  Or monkeys.  It was pretty breathtaking.  The trails wandered in and out of the countless rock formations and I felt like a little bug walking through a junk yard.  Some places were flooded with Chinese tourists, but some of the more remote places were still and tranquil.  Unfortunately, Amanda got Staph food poisoning and was really sick on the way home and all the rest of the night.  

Day 6:  Amanda was still sick, so she stayed in the hotel with mom, while Eric and I wandered Kunming a little more.  We walked through a cute little park/lake area with more seagulls that I have ever seen in one place.  There were stands selling "seagull bread" and many adorable children running around with bright looks in their eyes, and seagull chow in their fists.  It was kind of like San Marco pigeons, but with seagulls.  We also went to the biggest active temple in the city, and apparently Saturdays at 11 is a big Buddhist service time.  There were hundreds of people burning incense and candles; you could barely walk through.  The candle holders had gallons of wax dripping down every hour, and the clouds of smoke from the incense was huge.  We got some incense and felt a little sacreligous lighting it, but it was fun anyway.  There was a monk speaking and then chanting/singing in a haunting voice.  It ended with a monk-led procession of several hundred people around the entire complex.  A pretty amazing experience.  The pond had a lot of cute little turtles too.  For lunch, we stopped at the chain restaurant "The Brothers Jiang," which serves the Yunan speciality, "Over the Bridge Noodles."  We were confused, but you have to buy your ticket for your food at the entrance and then hand it to the waiter to him to bring your food.  Kind of like an amusement park.  Wheeeee.  We got a decent-sized bowl of cold noodles and then an enormous bowl of over the bridge noodles.  I love noodles too.

We came back to the hotel around 3 and caught a taxi to the airport, where we waited for about 4 hours for our delayed flight to take off.  For some reason, the airport needed to announce everything about three times in both languages and had to start each announcement with "Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention" or the Chinese equivalent.  We decided that they could cut down on their speaking by at least 75%.  We arrived safely in Guilin, Guangxi province.  It you've ever seen Chinese paintings with eerie finger-like rock hills pointing out of a green, riverine landscape, it's probably Guilin.  

 It's kind of funny how I end up leading everyone around and handling all of the logistics because I'm the one who can speak Chinese.  Eric says it's like I'm the mom.  It's kind of stressful having to deal with all of the stuff going on, especially since I'm not fluent, but we've gotten by pretty well so far.

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