Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Final China Post

(There are two new posts. This one finishes China adventures. The one before this has a virtual Third Reich tour of Berlin.)

(And for accomapnying pictures of the China posts, see my China slideshow here: )

Day 5:
After breakfast at the hotel, we loaded into our giant van and met our guide, Peter, who would be taking us to the Ming Tombs, a jade factory, and the Great Wall. During the 1 ½ hour drive, Peter gave us a quick rundown of China’s history. He probably skipped a lot, but it was more information than I could retain. We went through the list of emperors and bunch of Chinese inventions. Peter insists that the Chinese invented pretty much everything. Except 0. Marco Polo brought a group of Europeans over to China during the 12th century, and that’s when the Chinese started using 0 and other geometry. Everything else, though, is Chinese. He was a history teacher for much of his life, so he’s read a decent amount and was a great tour guide. He took us through the Ming Tombs, the burial place for all emperors from the Ming Dynasty. There were a series of archways leading to a main temple building. At the top is a large column, with the name of the emperor buried, but it does not mark the location of the tomb itself. The entrance to every emperor’s tomb was hidden. The only people who knew the location were the construction workers, and most of those were killed. For one emperor’s tomb, 30,000 workers were killed. Current researchers have found the tombs of many emperors, but some are still hidden. And even if found, they don’t always want to open them, since once exposed to oxygen, many ancient artifacts crumble. So, we didn’t see inside any tombs, but the archways and temples around them are worth the trip. There are dozens of dynastic tombs in the foothills of the mountains near Beijing.

Next up was the jade factory, where they gave us a short tour of the various types of jade. Hard jade is typically used for jewelry, but soft jade is needed to do some of the amazingly intricate sculptures. Jade naturally comes in green, white, black, red, pink, yellow, and pretty much every shade in between. Some of the most valuable pieces were one piece of jade that had several colors and was sculpted to use those colors aesthetically. For instance, they had some white and dark green jade pieces that were sculpted so that white Chinese monks and the moon stood out in the foreground, but dark green mountains and trees hovered in the background. Very cool. Then they gave us plenty of time to buy things from their massive store. Chad and I got a fabulous dark green boat.

And last on the list for the day was the Great Wall. Peter filled us in on more fascinating things that I can’t remember anymore on the way to the wall. Traffic was fairly heavy because it was the last day deliver trucks and 18 wheelers could be in Beijing before the August Olympics. (Bear in mind this was July 1.) So every single company, store, and shop was having its last delivery made, and we were in the middle of it all. Luckily, we got through alright, and made our way to the wall. This thing is absolutely huge. And it’s built on the top of a mountain range. So imaging hiking up to the top of a mountain and then putting a brick down on the highest point. That’s where you’d build the wall. At first, the wall was only 3 meters high, but as the dynasties added to and added to, most of the wall reached 8 meters. Bear in mind that construction began in the 6th century BC… BC! It’s not one continuous wall because it branches off a couple times like streams alongside a river. Including all its veins, the wall is 6,700 km (4,160 miles) long in total. I had two main questions: 1) Aren’t the freaking mountains enough protection? Those things were steep! 2) If it took such a long time to building, was it really a necessity? If you had pressing enemies, wouldn’t they have barge in somewhere between the 6th and 4th century BC? And if you didn’t have pressing enemies, why even bother? These may never be answered. Anyway, the wall is phenomenally impressive. We went to a section that has been restored so that the walkway from one guard tower to another is smooth, but I was surprised at what a steep incline the walkway reaches sometimes. Occasionally we were walking at a 30 degree incline, and once it got steeper, there were dozens and dozens of steps all the way up to the next guard tower. We did make it up to the hero’s point, though, so I guess that means we’re pretty great people.

We did a little bargain shopping the town by the Great Wall, and then we were so tuckered out that we just went back to the hotel for dinner.

Day 6:
Since the van worked out so well the day before, we just asked the driver if he could take us around Beijing the next day, and he agreed. So the next morning we had him drop us off at the Hutongs, which are alleyways filled with houses and shops. In that same area is a ceramics factory/shop, where we got a brief tour and, of course, were given plenty of time to shop. Chad and I actually found a beautiful painting there, which we will have to post of picture of when we get back to Nashville. After shopping, we wandered around the alleyways of the Hutong. Literally, there’s a tiny doorway into a long, winding alley that has entrances on either side, and that’s someone’s front door to their home. We did see a couple leather couches, but many of the homes were more like shanties than anything else. When you’ve spent so many days in the heights of Chinese architecture and history, the Hutongs are a glaring reminder of people’s less-than-imperial daily lives in China.

And with these images fresh in our minds, we set off to the lively city of Hong Kong.

Day 7:
Since Whitney and Patti would be leaving that afternoon, we decided to stay around the hotel for the morning, and if there ever was a hotel to just hang out at, the InterConinental would be it. After a ridiculously huge breakfast buffet with everything down to organic honey dripping off the honeycomb onto your bread, we walked around the harbor. The hotel sits right on Victoria Harbor, facing the shore of Hong Kong Island. The previous night we’d seen the lights of hundreds of buildings, but these weren’t normal lights. Giant walls of neon changed color, flashed, and moved right/left/up/down/diagonal/in a circle or just, you know, displayed the moving letters of the company name. Multiply that by like 30 buildings on the edge of the harbor. It’s one crazy light show at night. So now we were out during the day, and we could finally see just how tall those buildings were. Many of them looked between 80 and 100 stories tall, and they just stretched on forever down both sides of the habor. Miles of 80 to 100 story buildings. We headed up to the hotel pool for a better view. The InterContinental has a three-tier hot tub that looks like it pours into the harbor. We got some silly pictures out there, if you haven’t seen the Picasa slideshow already. (See post below.)

And when it came for 1/3 of our group to leave, the remaining 4 went down the street to yet another luxurious hotel way out of mine and Chad’s price range. Chad had asked a friend from Hong Kong (who is now Vandy Law student) for the name of a good tailor, so me, Chad, Rod, and Curtis roamed the streets of Hong Kong to find him. They got measured for suits/slacks/shirts. It really is amazing. You walk into a tailor store, which is the size of our living room in Nashville, they quickly find out what material your looking for in a suit (warm, cool, in the middle), you pick out a fabric color, they measure you 40 diferent ways up down and all around, then they tell you to come back the next day. You come back like 18 ours later, you try on your half-made suit, they not some adjustments, and they tell you to come back in a few hours. You come back like 6 or 7 hours later, you try on the suit, it fits great, and they bag it up for you. They say if you ever want another suit, just email them, they have your measurements, and they can ship it right to you. AND it’s cheaper than buying a suit at Men’s Warehouse. I know! Crazy. So that’s exactly what Chad did, and now he has a snazzy hand-tailored suit from Hong Kong. Pretty cool. We celebrated with high tea at the Peninsula Hotel (since Hong Kong still has remnants of the British influence). For dinner and desert, Chad and I met the friend from Hong Kong who had recommended the tailor – Veronica. We ate at a Japanese restaurant, where she ordered beef tongue and chicken skin and other actually quite delicious things for us. Then we met one of her college friends (they both went to college in the States) for a very American-esque dessert. In fact, many things in Hong Kong felt somewhat familiar. For one thing, most people spoke very good English.

Day 8:
Curtis and Rod left the next morning, leaving Chad and I by ourselves in Hong Kong. We decided to find a tailor for me. Their tailor only did women’s suits, and their pattern book was from a number of years ago, so we decided to wander around some of the main shopping areas. After a few stop ins at random tailors, we found one that had been in business for three generations. What really caught our eye was that no one was standing outside, handing out pamphlets. We’ve decided this is the key to finding a tailor in Hong Kong. If they’re handing our pamphlets, do not go. If they’re waiting patiently in the shop, do go. This guy was very helpful, did dresses all the time, and was very willing to let me go through catalogues of patterns and clothes. Having clothes made to your specification could definitely be a terribly addicting habit. We asked him to make a traditional Chinese dress, with a few tweaks here and there, and he said to come back in 5 hours, he’d be ready for the first fitting. So we walked around a bit, had some delicious Japanese noodle bowls for lunch, and came back for another fitting. The tailor said he’d have it done the next day. Amazing!

Day 9:
On the recommendation of Veronica and her friend, we went to the Flower, Bird, and Fish streets, and they sell exactly what they say. The Flower street is really five or six streets, some running East-West others North-South, with indoor stalls/stores selling orchids, bamboo, palm trees, and a dozen other exotic plants. The Bird street is much smaller and has outdoor stalls selling exotic birds that squawk when you walk by them. The Fish street is not very exciting because it’s a bunch of fish tanks, although some have really Huge goldfish or little topical fish. Still, you’d never see anything like the Flower, Bird, and Fish streets in US, at least not in the parts of the US where we’ve lived. We spent the rest of the day really just wandering the city because our flight didn’t leave until 11:30 pm.

Hong Kong is an amazing place. I don’t know that I could live there because it’s so crowded, but it’s fun in a way too. For one, there are double-decker pedestrian sidewalks. The typical ground-level sidewalks are packed with people moving every which direction all the time, so downtown Hong Kong has a layer of sidewalks that are on the equivalent of the second story, and there are pedestrian bridges that connect blocks of second story sidewalks. For two, there are masseuses and tailors everywhere. Tailors we’ve talked about, but the masseuses should not be overlooked. Chad and I just randomly stopped into a masseuse and had a fabulous massage for half the price in the US. Plus they gave us ear candles, which are little rolled up pieces of paper they stick in your ear and light on fire. Some how the heat pulls the wax out of your ear, and believe me, there’s way more wax in there than you would Ever imagine. It’s scary, but you can hear so well afterward! They can do a belly button candle too, but there are just some things I NEVER want to imagine, let alone know about. Ick. For three, there subway systems are fantastic. They connect everywhere, the maps on the inside show the whole system and have little lighted dots to show you where you are, and the connecting trains are time perfectly. For four, they have the best Japanese bowls of noodles everywhere. Except maybe in Japan. I should try real Japanese ones first. For five, the US Dollar is really strong there, so like everything’s half off. Chad and I made it in plenty of time for our 11:30 pm flight to London, then on to Berlin. And in the upcoming segments, I will finally fill you in on the highlights of our time in Berlin.

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