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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

China: our tour guides

We arranged our trip to China through China Highlights, a travel agency and tour company. We booked a private tour to assist in travel arrangements and ticket purchase, and while this tour was very controlled and offered almost no scheduling flexibility, I was really glad we had used a tour. Not only would the language barrier proved difficult, the total lack of available information would have left us wandering uselessly around, learning nothing. 

In Beijing, our tour guide was Cindy. Cindy has a husband, a two year old boy, and a huge girl crush on me. It was super flattering: Cindy wanted to BE me, which is cute, like I have some fairytale life. I do have it pretty easy (good, reliable job; great church and friends; darling husband; low expenses), but heck, I've had some pretty rough patches, too. I didn't have the happiest childhood, and I had to work my way through college, which were some lean years. But overall, I have had incredible opportunities simply because I live in a country with vast freedoms, and if anything, I've squandered them. Hearing Cindy wish she'd had so many choices in her life made me feel a little ashamed of choosing the easy road so often! 
Cindy was especially surprised that I started out as an art major, then changed to chemistry and went to pharmacy school. She said that some colleges are more relaxed now, but when she went to school, your high school grades determined what narrow choice of major you could select (she could choose from four or five fields in the hospitality industry). That major, declared in high school, could not be changed. She said that this process is still very difficult, if not impossible; even if a college claims that a student may change their major, the school may not have the resources to allow additional classes and support, and the request will be denied. 
Cindy was happily deceived by her government in some aspects - ie, "Beijing is very safe, there is no crime. No need to worry about your door locks" - but other things rankled her. She was annoyed by her limited social media choices (although she refused to look at David's Facebook - available on his Google Fi service - while our driver was in the car with her!) and very bitter that, while she was allowed a second child, it was virtually impossible to do so. She commuted two hours one way on three buses for her fairly low-paying job, and because you have to own and pay taxes on a home for five years to send a child to school in Beijing, her child would have to move away and live with relatives a 20-hour train ride away. I felt sad telling Cindy goodbye - she seemed so wistful and really wanted, well, more freedom.

Our Xi'an guide, Rocky, was an interesting mix of super pro-communism and occasional honesty. Rocky did NOT like you to deviate from his plan, so as a tour guide, he was kind of annoying. Like, we biked around the city wall in the rain, but went to indoor tours in clear skies. My suggestion for swapping days was met with a sudden inability to understand English. When I told him in the Xi'an museum that I was not interested in the prehistoric exhibit, but would like to begin with pre-dynastic China, he was shocked and offended and bluntly told us he'd wait outside. Thank goodness. We needed a break from his dry commentary, and the information in the Xi'an Museum is in English and Chinese. Rocky told proud stories about his country...but he kept letting it slip that he had left Xi'an, his hometown, because he was starving. He was older - over 60, I estimate - and he told us that, when he was a child, there was never enough food so that the children would fight over any noodles they had. He moved back recently so he could retire near home. Rocky's the one who cheerily pointed at seven nuclear reactors, belching toxins, and told us that China used all clean energy, and that was natural gas! 

Our last guide was Chris. He was young and charming and reminded me of my brother Abe a little. He was from Shanghai, and spoke English fluently. Chris gets super high points in my book for the personal touches he added: something we found rare on this trip.
  • He came an hour late after our flight from Xi'an didn't get us into Shanghai until 5 am.
  • He stopped for coffee! 
  • He detoured to take us to our landlady's house in Shanghai, which was very important to us.
He has also spammed me almost daily since then asking for a Trip Advisor review! Which I finally completed! We only spent a few hours with Chris, but he had a sweet personality and was thoughtful.

Overall, I am happy with our choice of tour company, and I enjoyed getting to know our guides. I didn't really get to know, or even interact with, any Chinese people: well, there was Judy, the owner of the shop where I bought pearl earrings for my coworkers. She owned her own shop in Shanghai and we talked business. And then there was our hotel maid, who we actually had to write a note to - IN CHINESE! - to ask her to get someone to fix our broken sink in Beijing. She must have been able to read it because she took care of it! 

But really, our guides were the only Chinese people I truly talked to, so they offered a window into everyday life in an unfamiliar culture. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving!

A little late!

We kicked off Thanksgiving with unequivocally THE WORST race I've ever run: our annual Turkey Trot, in which my hamstring spazzed out immediately and I had to stop and walk in a five mile race. Finished with a nice 36 minute race - you know, slower than I sometimes run five miles for fun.

My hamstring is just a problem racing, pretty much - not that it's perfectly pain free all the time, but it's manageable. It's doing really well when I stretch it a lot (and run at a slower pace!).

We spent Thanksgiving weekend putting up our tree. While I often do decoration themes, this year we're repeating our travel tree, mostly because I brought home several Chinese-language newspapers to use for wrapping paper. Most of the ornaments are ones we picked up on our various trips, and this year we added this cute dragon from China:

And this Chicago flag:

Saturday evening, friends came over to decorate gingerbread houses. I normally make the gingerbread myself, but this year I bought kits - and while it was easier, it was a little boring. I also discovered that the frosting that came with the kit never hardened, so I had to make some royal icing instead. My friend's little girl has been participating in this tradition for four years now!

I also learned a lesson this weekend: don't run down stairs in socks. I fell down our entire flight of stairs, landing stunned. I was alone in the house, and a few minutes later, our landlords rang the bell to check on me! They heard me fall, and then - silence. Once I cleared my head I realized that I had a nasty egg on my elbow, but little else. However, Sunday morning I awoke feeling stiff all over, like I'd been beaten up. It's mildly better now, but man, this elbow is tender.

I expect to be swamped this week, since it's the week after a holiday and doctor's offices were closed for several days, plus one of my techs has jury duty. Not at all my favorite combination: busy plus short-handed. But we'll survive. Anyone else dreading the return to work?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Hamstring and health update

My hamstring:
  • Still tight and painful
  • I've run - slowly - a little on it (3 and 4 miles).
  • I've been gently stretching and doing a little ice with alternating hot water bottle
  • I can't do a deadlift yet
  • My next race is on Thanksgiving (5 miles). Oh, joy. That should go well.
My health:
I decided to go and get sick Friday. So after spending all Saturday throwing up (like, all day, and it's not something I ate because David and I ate the same thing. Just routine germs), I'll be off running a few days this week, anyway. I'm going for the run less, run slower thing. I'm marginally better today, but I was so weak and sick yesterday that the two things I want to think about the least are running and big meals. Thanksgiving sounds like a terrible idea right now.

And now I am off to enjoy a hearty breakfast of Gatorade and one cracker.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

China: it's still communist.

Before visiting China, I had this confused notion that communism had been dialed back so far in China that it was almost more of an appreciated ideology than a practiced form of government. In some ways, especially economically, that is true. But the Chinese people, I discovered, are still very much oppressed in their everyday lives. We have so many freedoms in the United States that we take for granted - freedoms that many Chinese have never even considered available to them. Two particular freedoms stood out to me: freedom to gain access to information and knowledge, and freedom to own property.

The dearth of information available to the Chinese was constantly apparent. Right off the bat, there is the tiny little problem of all Google products being blocked. I had to use BING. The ignominy of it all. Then, of course, Facebook is blocked, too: just in case you run into someone else's opinion and it doesn't match Mao's (that also meant that my Instagram pictures had to wait until we got home!). The most frustrating blocked website, though, was our library site. I couldn't check out an e-book because heaven forbid you access any old non-approved library! A government that won't let you seek out information from non-vetted sources - whether it be from other people, writers and politicians, or whoever edited Wikipedia that morning - has something to hide from its people. This withholding of information was also demonstrated by the complete lack of signage around historical sites. I have been to empty battlefields with more informational plaques than in the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Great Wall, and Tiananmen Square combined.
The effect of this lack of outside written information is that the Chinese struggle to represent information accurately. The accepted propaganda-style writing bleeds into a variety of publications. I was reading a Chinese/English airline magazine during the flight from Beijing to Xi'an, and in an article about Frankfurt, Germany, the over-the-top language and hyperbole was rampant. Frankfurt was blithely called, "The financial capital of Europe" and "The most beautiful city in Europe", and some bit art conference was called, "The largest". The article wrapped with a story of a man in a German grocery store approaching the writer with sparkling eyes, tearfully telling him of how Merkel had just visited China, and the countries were friends, such good friends.
I have grave doubts any such grocery encounter occurred. It's like fact-checking doesn't exist. You don't question what you read, so why verify what you write?
I also noticed that the news is not only saturated with propaganda and the same overly-positive, nothing-bad-happens here style, but it's also obsessed with the United States. The bitter mentions in both the English language newspaper and on the news were constant. I watched a story that lasted about 15 minutes, focusing on blurry footage of Newport News. Clearly, it was supposed to be secret film of a new naval ship being built. After a while covering that, the footage switched to huge, glorious Chinese Navy ships steaming through the seas. All well and good, but the constant comparisons to the US just surprised me. They care about us way more than we care about them!

Everything is gray.

The "nice" apartments. All ugly to me. 
The issue of property ownership fascinated David and I because it relates to David's line of work. He's a property attorney, and much of what he does involves the government taking or obtaining use for land for the purpose of public health and safety, like levees or sewer lines (mostly levees, obviously. It's Louisiana). The endless legal research, negotiations, and payments are what gives him a job: but in China, they just take it. Each city we visited had some example. In Xi'an, Rocky, our guide, told us proudly that the farmers took up too much space in their own homes. So the government moved them all to giant high-rise apartments, farmed all that nice land their houses were taking up, and made all the farmers take buses to the fields every day. Brilliant! We heard similar stories in Shanghai and Beijing, and like I mentioned before, the Communist-Gray high rises were everywhere, stuffed with people whose houses or neighborhoods were demolished for new developments. In Shanghai, this occurred to allow the government to sell the property to a developer who planned a giant tower - not even anything to do with public welfare!

Towers of farmers
Those two issues are what really grabbed my attention, but there were other ways that communism reared its head; all of which combined to make me grateful to live in the U.S.A. It's a privilege.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The great shoe washing of 2016

As August wrapped up, I'd reached that point with my running shoes: the point at which I could no longer allow them in the house. As I left a pair on the front porch, my neighbor called out a warning. "Better not leave those out there! There's a tomcat in this neighborhood that's been spraying everything!"
As if that would make them smell any worse.

I kept waiting for the weather to cool down to attempt washing my shoes, but it really never did until November (and even then, today's high is 77 F). I couldn't keep waiting. Both pairs of every-day shoes were downright vile. So I washed them. I threw them in a short cycle of cold water with extra detergent. I let the washer fill and allowed them to soak for about an hour, then closed the washer lid and started the wash cycle as I headed out the door to work (I didn't want to listen to shoes bang around in the washer).
When I got home, they were a lot cleaner, and almost didn't smell. There's just a hint of stinkiness left. I laid them out in full sun until I saw storm clouds start to move in, then switched them to indoors, stuffed with newspaper.
All clean!

The drying process

Even after 14 hours of drying, they weren't totally dry in the morning. But that's nothing new. At least it was water dampness, and not residual sweat!

Verdict: it worked pretty well, it didn't destroy the shoes, and my husband has stopped backing away from me when I come home from a run.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Ouch. Middendorf's Manchac 10 miler

Hey, guess what you SHOULDN'T do? Run a ten mile race on a hamstring strain!

Or so I found out. I had a late night out on Friday (we were at a wedding, and were driving a neighbor who wanted to stay out SO late!), but I dragged myself out of bed at six and put on my nearly-500-miles Kinvaras. This pair isn't falling apart like my last pair did, which barely made 400 miles, but they're worn where my bunion rubs.
A little sock showing...
My hamstring was strained from Tuesday's speed work with a much taller friend, but I'd been taping it and running with minimal discomfort. On Thursday I did five miles with 3 at potential race pace, and it handled the speed just fine, so I figured the ten mile race would be no big deal. I did tape it, but only used one strip of KT tape instead of two for some reason.
Middendorf's, famous for thin fried catfish
We got to the race with enough time to pick up our bibs, use the bathroom, and do a short warm-up. When the national anthem played, it warmed my heart to hear all the voices around me. Everyone sang! And that was comforting after all the political vitriol I'd heard all week. At the last minute, I decided to re-tie my right shoe, which felt loose. Mistake!

This race is a straight out-and-back, with a bridge right at the beginning and the end. I started out feeling nice and chipper, but very shortly in, the front of my right calf was killing me - super tight and painful. Every step hurt. I knew from experience that I'd tied my shoe too tightly, but I didn't want to stop. However, it kept getting worse. I wondered if spending all night standing in heels was a compounding factor, of if my hurt hamstring was placing more burden on my calves. Finally, at mile four, I stopped and retied my shoe. Curse my careful triple knots and tucked-in loops! I lost 20+ seconds, but the pain was immediately better after that. And I started to enjoy myself. My calf felt better, my hamstring was ok, and some Gatorade at the aid stations perked me up considerably. I wasn't exactly hung-over, but the electrolytes were welcome (plus I hadn't eaten that morning). I was easily holding 6:50 with the exception of stupid shoe-tie mile, but I remembered why it was easy when I turned around: this course always has a really strong tailwind on the way out and headwind on the way back. I struggled in the wind, but then gave up and just enjoyed the run. There was no one to draft off of (small race) and I was certain to be third female; the first two were far ahead and the next girl was a good three minutes behind me. My miles slowed to 7:10, 7:06, 7:04, and then -

Coming down the bridge
 Then my hamstring quit. SNAP! It stopped working! I couldn't use it at all. It was all popping and sharp pain. I stopped, carefully stretched, massaged, and tried jogging - nope. I walked a little, rubbed it some more, and finally was able to cobble together a straight-legged jog to the finish. Misery. My last two miles were in the 7:40 range, and frankly I'm impressed I could manage that. I finished in 1:12, and left too soon to collect my glass mug award.
Near the finish, stride looking normal somehow! 
So that really, really sucked. I turned a mild strain into a much worse one, and delayed recovery a lot. I can't exactly straighten that leg now, and I'm kicking myself for running the race. I did enjoy the catfish breakfast at Middendorf's right after, though. And that brings me to an interesting observation: my stomach was fine after this race. Was it the empty stomach? I didn't eat breakfast and didn't take any gels. Was it correct hydration? Was it the fact that my last two miles were much slower, indicating that I should consider a longer cool down (or really, any cool-down) post-race? I will have to experiment and find out! But not for a few more weeks, thanks to my hamstring foolishness!

Saturday, November 12, 2016


Our day in Shanghai started at 10 am, as our guides graciously agreed to meet us a little later so we could get a smidgen of sleep after our delayed flight. Shanghai showed much more Western influence than the other places we went in China - which makes sense, given its history. Some restaurants had forks, there were both squat toilets and regular toilets in some restrooms, and more people spoke English. While we had a few places to visit, our main goal was to find our landlady's childhood home.
Our landlords are fascinating people: anthropologists who used to teach at Tulane University. While their area of expertise is Mayan astronomy, they have lived all over the world and are both multi-lingual. Our landlady was born in Shanghai while her father worked for the U.S. state department, and during World War II her family was detained in a Japanese concentration camp (years later, one of her students revealed that his father had been a guard in the same camp, and brought his father's old uniform to class, bringing closure to this period in our landlady's life). Armed with her address in the old French concession and a few photographs - some from the 1940s and others from the 1990s, when other neighbors on the street also visited Shanghai and made the pilgrimage - we talked our guide into bringing us to the house.

What a change! While the stucco and unique narrow windows allowed us to recognize the house, it was hidden behind bamboo and high walls, a lonely remnant of the residential area this street used to be. Now, the house is near a busy corner full of high-end stores. Like much of Shanghai, the neighborhood is booming with commercialism.

Also in Shanghai: some sight-seeing and some shopping, including buying some really lovely pearls and silk, two products Shanghai is known for, and both available at incredible prices.

And thus concluded our China trip. It was a whirlwind, with a lot of travel, but worth it: these sights are precious history, and at the rate that China is changing, may not be the same forever. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

China: the travel, the drama

We knew when we decided to visit China that travel would be a challenge. It's such a long flight that initially we'd put Asian travel off - we'd go when we were older, less active, and had more vacation days to spend there. But flights to China were so incredibly inexpensive this year that we decided that 2016 was as good a year as any! It was a last-minute decision, as last minute as you can get when visiting a country that requires a visa, but we got our ducks in a row in time for our trip (I also had to renew my passport: it had nine months before expiration, but China requires a full year).

A week before our trip, our travel agency emailed to say that they'd changed a flight because they were worried about our connection time. This little move wreaked major havoc. When we were boarding our first flight out of New Orleans, we were stopped at the gate. "Those are just paper tickets," said the agent, and we were rushed to the desk to see if the problem could be fixed before the cabin door was closed. It was close, but we made it, rushing down the walkway just in time, the agent waiving us on. Apparently when the flight was changed, it was no longer linked with our payment, so we sort of had reservations, but no tickets. And then this whole processes repeated in Chicago, our first layover. But just for me. The first agents had fixed David's tickets, but not mine, and now there was big trouble, because I technically never had a ticket in New Orleans, so technically I shouldn't be in Chicago now, and the airline wanted to reissue tickets for each flight, starting in New Orleans. By the time we reached Toronto, I went straight to the counter, and surprise! I'd flown across international borders without a ticket! Did I ever actually have a ticket for any of my flights? Who knows. But I made it to China.

Inside China, we had three flights. When we got on the first flight, we asked our guide if the security process was any different than we were used to, and what we should expect. "Oh, it's so easy in China to fly," she assured us. "Much easier than other countries." Yeah, no. First, you go through security to get into the airport, where you are swabbed and your bags x-rayed...unless you're skipped, which is something Chinese security loves to do when lines get long. Then you have to go check in in person, no online pre-checking, and then you head to real security. Here, men and women form separate lines FOR NO REASON AT ALL, because once you are grilled endlessly by security (in one airport, no fewer than eight agents shouted at me to remove my nonexistant laptop from my bag. If you think the TSA is repetitive, try Chinese security!) and pass through the metal detector, everyone, regardless of gender, is patted down by a female officer. Security is arbitrary and inconsistent. Some airports want you to remove your camera from your bag; some don't. Some consider iPads a laptop; others do not. In one airport, my purse was dumped, searched, and re-x-rayed three times while the agent shouted, "glass bottle!" over and over. I had already flown six times with this purse by now, and knew I had no glass bottle. Finally the agent gleefully produced my half-ounce Purell and informed me that glass bottles were not allowed. My protests that it was plastic were futile, and he pitched it. Weird, annoying, but just part of traveling: not a big deal.

What WAS a big deal was our flight from Xi'an to Shanghai. This qualifies as The Worst Airport Experience of My Life. Buckle in, folks. This is going to get long.

We went through the whole check-in/security deal in Xi'an and, when we got to our gate, were concerned to see another flight listed on the board. David used a travel app to ascertain that the flight was delayed, but there was no notification in the airport. Hours passed. Two hours after the flight should have departed, an employee brought huge carts of airplane dinners and left them in the gate. People pounced, but no one asked about the flight because no one was at the gate. Finally, three hours after the flight should have left - so we'd been there five hours - an overhead page announced that the flight was delayed and "please remain at your gate". We called our travel agent, who flatly told us that the flight was delayed and no, no one could help us book another flight and no, no one knew when the flight would actually leave. Apparently just sitting in the gate until the plane is ready is standard practice. Forget getting a hotel to sleep if it's a long delay! By now, I was miserable. Waiting in an airport is never fun, but guess what? The airports in China aren't climate controlled. We had no heat, and as the hour grew later and the airport emptied, the temperature dropped to 40F, and kept dropping. I piled all my clothes on, but I was so cold. I had packed for the daytime forecast! As the hours ticked by, I sought out the airline VIP lounge. An agent there spoke English! But her answer was the same. "We don't know when you will have a flight." Here's where I started devolving into the person I'd be in a disaster: the mean, selfish me. I noticed that the VIP lounge, although frigid, has a sort of ceiling instead of being open to the cavernous airport roof. Thus, it held a little more warmth. I began arguing my way into the VIP lounge. The woman was aghast: I, economy-ticket holder that I was, dared ask a favor for VIP lounge entry?! But I've already been delayed five hours, I argued. But it's the rules! she gasped. Ask your manager, I prodded. But it's the rules! she gasped. Finally I succeeded in bullying my way into the VIP lounge, which had the luxury of cushioned chairs, a little kitchenette with really terrifying food (sushi made with canned vegetables, for example), and charging stations. But still. Freezing. I now had on jeans, a short sleeved shirt, a long sleeved shirt, another long sleeved shirt, a jacket, a thick blazer, a scarf, and socks. I was delirious with exhaustion. Finally, at 2:00 am, a single page announced our flight was boarding at gate G. With that, a mad dash to the plane began. We ended up in the back of the plane, and David sweetly bundled his jacket as a pillow so I could try to sleep.

BUT. Such was not to be. Because who should get on the plane with us, but a party of very drunk, very high Russian tourists! Right behind us "sat" (they were never sitting) two boisterous, rude, loud, abusive, insulting horrors. One stood for the entire flight, his big rear right in another passenger's face. The other roamed the plane. They kept up a very loud conversation the whole time. They entered the galley, rummaged around, and started eating food. They took whole water bottles off the beverage cart. They even slapped the flight attendant's behind. In America, that flight would have landed and they would have been carted off. I couldn't believe what they were getting away with. Finally, oh finally, we landed, in what would turn out to be an 80F airport with no driver waiting for us (it was 5:30 before we got to the hotel) - but before we could deplane, these goons were barging up the aisle, pulling people's luggage out and tossing it, and being general idiots. One of the group, though, was stuck behind us. And since I'd already devolved into a terrible human being who browbeat a stewardess into letting me into the VIP area for no reason, I had no compunction about "accidentally" clobbering the fellow with my bag when I took it out of the overhead compartment (and I made sure my heavy books hit him right in the solar plexus). "Oh, I am sooooooo sorry," I said acidly, looking him right in the eyes.

It was the best moment of the entire trip.

Ten mile race this Saturday

I registered for Middendorf's ten mile race on Saturday, then promptly pulled my hamstring. I was running with a lady who's a lovely 6'2", and trying to match her stride (unintentionally) was a bad idea.
It's not terrible. I iced it, taped it, and have run on it since then, but it's annoying. I plan to try to run a little over 7 minute pace for the race. I want to be under 7 minutes, but since my running fell by the wayside post-marathon, that won't happen.
Hopefully my hamstring will behave, and hopefully the lovely weather (in the 60's!) will continue!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Xi'an, days one and two

We basically just went to Xi'an for the Terra-Cotta Warriors, and they did not disappoint! Nor did the rest of the visit: we had a new guide, Rocky, who was both very pro-communist party and very hurt by them. It was very interesting to talk to him (conversationally. As a guide he was no good at all: memorized script, inflexible, could answer exactly zero questions, and at one point we ditched him). He had grown up in Xi'an but, he admitted, moved away because there was never enough food. His perspective was interesting, and Xi'an was set in a pretty, rural farm area. It's full of history, with more being discovered (or unearthed) every day.
Of course, any good National Geographic subscriber knows about the Terra-Cotta Warriors, ten thousand clay figures set up to guard Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di's tomb. But seeing them in person was almost overwhelming.
It's hard to even comprehend the scope of the site. This is pit #1. There are three active pits.

The museum is actually an active archeological site, with more figures being unearthed and repaired constantly, and it's basically just a bunker built over the dirt. It's a UNESCO heritage site, so it is being carefully preserved. Like everywhere you went, no big deal, bring your gigantic full water bottle in. It's not like you might launch it right into the pit, shattering and drowning priceless artifacts or anything.
The color is still visible on this archer.

He's missing his bow: the statues included real weapons, but they
either rotted if wood or were looted by peasants during later revolts. 

I'm afraid that my photos do this site injustice. It's massive, with three separate pits, and several soldiers in glass so you can get a closer look. One is preserved in nitrogen, which has protected the color: when the warriors were unearthed, they were brightly painted, but exposure to oxygen caused to the color to immediately fade.
Area still under excavation

Repaired and drying warriors behind us

In some areas, workers busily fit broken pieces together or excavate new sections. I wish I could have talked to the workers - the process and history is so interesting to me! I've realized that art plus history always gets my attention, and the Terra-Cotta Warriors fit the bill. These guys were a huge highlight of the trip.

The Xi'an wall

Yay, Communism! Building hideous housing since 1949!

Inside the wall: a temple

It rained, so we bought these snazzy ponchos

Also in Xi'an we biked the top of the city wall. We were happy it was preserved, although after Rocky told us that the Chinese government has built the highway under the city wall to preserve it, we thought he meant a tunnel and were chagrined to see gigantic arches cut into the ancient walls. The Ming dynasty walls have been repaired over the years, and now you can bike around the city, looking in on the old city inside the walls and the new city outside. We enjoyed the historical plaques about the walls that described methods and tools of warfare used to attack or defend the walls: this was one of the very few places that had written information about a site (in any language).
I'm full because I had a beer as big as my torso with lunch. One of the bright sides of a language barrier! 

Later, we visited the Muslim quarter, a loud and bustling area full of street food, trinkets, and people. Pomegranates are a major crop in Xi'an, and we bought freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice. We were too full from another gigantic guide-purchased lunch to eat anything, but street vendors offered skewers of meet sliced right off carcasses dangling in front of the stalls. The next day, we mostly just went to the Xi'an museum, which has many artifacts with labels in both Chinese and English. This was a miserable experience. The museum was packed, and I mean packed, to the point that you could barely move. The crowds were aggressive and almost belligerent, and we couldn't get anywhere near the displays. The museum obviously sold more tickets than the museum could hold! All of our guides everywhere encouraged us to push and shove our way to the front, because that was normal in China, but that's just one of those cultural differences we weren't comfortable with. So we edged through the museum and came out with just one massive bruise from an umbrella jabbing and counted ourselves lucky.

By the way, running in Xi'an was the best: around the outside of the wall but inside the moat was a walking and running path. It was pretty and peaceful, except the people in Xi'an were the most pushy, shove-y people I've ever met. I was laughing while it was raining: people would prefer to battle it out with their umbrellas rather than move one inch to the side and give up ground. Despite the shoving and elbow-jabbing, I enjoyed these runs immensely!

We left Xi'an the afternoon of our second day there. And that is when I had the worst airport experience of my life, so I will take a break from these photo-laden posts to do a post on China travel. It was pretty dramatic.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Beijing, day three: The Summer Palace

The Summer Palace is a beautiful garden and an excellent example of Chinese landscaping. It is also an interesting place historically, because of its association with the Dowager Empress Cixi. The Summer Palace far predates Cixi, but its most recent imperial reconstruction was under her rule, and she famously used finances set aside for the Chinese Navy to refurbish the grounds for her upcoming birthday. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese Navy was obliterated by Japan.

The Long Corridor allows one to walk along the lake on a covered walkway

There are over 1,000 paintings in the Long Corridor

Not ready for a picture


The marble boat that Cixi is said to have built as a nod to the source of funds! 
We took a boat trip across the lake for a good view of The Tower of Buddhist Incense. It was a little smoggy, though.

On the boat

On the Seventeen Arch Bridge (note to self: pollution gives me good hair). 
The bridge is covered with hundreds of lion statues, all unique
Then we went to some goofy hipster section of Beijing. I mean, these hipsters are everywhere: coffee shops, beer halls, ironic old factory equipment, art galleries, bicycles, the whole shebang.

Just - hipsters. 

Hipsters on all continents. 
We had time for a quick hot pot lunch - you pick your soup ingredients and cook it over a hot bowl of broth at the table - and then headed to the airport. This was our first experience flying inside China, and Cindy kept telling us how easy it was. Well. I have a whole post on that for later. But up next, Xi'an and the Terra Cotta Soldiers!