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Monday, April 23, 2012

China, part 1

A few days into the China portion of our trip, our twelve-year old son Ben declares he wants to learn a foreign language.  Not Mandarin, but instead German.  That would really help break down some barriers in a strange land: a blond-haired, blue-eyed pre-teen speaking broken German.  The origin of this desire goes back to a trip Annie and I took to Berlin through WEBN radio back in 2005.

The Dawn Patrol broadcast for an entire week from the German capital in early June.  I came home from there with a couple of soccer jerseys, including one that I discovered was worn by Der Deutscher Fussball Bund, or the German National team.  Shortly after returning to the states, that team started competing in a bi-annual international competition called the Confederations Cup.  Ich Liebe Dich!  I was completely enthralled with their precise, methodical and very effective way of playing. It didn't hurt that they played well, losing to eventual champion Brazil 3-2 in the semifinals.   Before long I had two other DDFB jerseys, including a really sweet long-sleeved personalized goalie jersey with BANGERT on the back.  It is orange with black trim, making it perfect to wear to Bengal games.  The colors showed my support for our NFL team, but at the same time (which unfortunately happened all too often) if things didn't go the Who-Dey way, I could say, (in my european wannabe superiority) hey, I'm a German Soccer fan, and we've won three World Cups.  Oh-for-two in the Super Bowl?  How sad.  And what a stupid name for a championship game!  Why don't you just call your national professional baseball championship something silly like the World Series? 

My devotion to the highly successful German Football program continues to this day and has rubbed off on our children.  Whenever Germany plays an important match, we hang our German flag outside our house in Madeira.  And when the German team emerges with another glorious victory, I blare the German National Anthem over the speakers pointed into our backyard so the neighborhood can share in the glory.  We try to keep the goose-stepping to a minimum, but sometimes that's a struggle.

Annie,  Ben and Marley have embraced the whole thing, especially Ben.  He had a white German jersey that he wore so much he ruined it.  So one of our goals while in Asia was to find him a new German jersey, knowing that we could probably get one for a pretty good price.  That happened in Malaysia not once, but twice.  The first one replaced the white one that got trashed back home, and the second one was one that featured a color that we had never seen incorporated into the usual Red, Yellow and Black color scheme of the Germans:  Green. 

Turns out its their new 2012 road jersey for the 2012 Euro competition that we hope to catch some of during the European portion of our trip.  We got both his new jerseys at great prices at the local market in Penang, and he was excited to have them with him as we headed into China, practicing his German on an app he downloaded on the iPad.  For the next few days we were frequently asked by him:  "Wie Gates est Ihnen?"

Our answer to that throughout our time in China would be "Sehr Gut!"  We decided to go the tour route in China after doing a lot of research and talking to some people we knew who had traveled to China and a few who had even lived there for a while.  It was very comforting to see our guide Peggy waiting for us at the airport in Guilin. 

The main attraction in Guilin is the spectacular scenery, which we got to see our first day there when we took a cruise down the Li River to the city of Yangshuo.  The river slices its way through and around tall rock formations the jut skyward on both sides of the water for almost the entire 63 kilometers.

The ride was a great time, with our guide Peggy occasionally coming up to us and pointing out interesting rock formations that we would be cruising by.   We also made friends with a couple of guys from the States who were on a quick tour of China on a cultural exchange program.

The cruise ended in Yangshuo, which  is a touristy but quaint town.  Kind of like Gatlinburg without the fudge shops and Ripley’s museum and all the cars with Ohio license plates clogging the streets.  We managed to find a restaurant that had options (pizza/pasta) for Marley and enjoyed a quiet dinner.  The next day meant a return trip to Guilin, this time via our van and our guide Peggy, who gave us some good background on her home region during the 90 minute drive.

The Guilin area is home to some interesting rock formations,  including one called Elephant Trunk Hill, which gave us the chance to do an O-H-I-O formation.   
That honestly wasn’t quite as spectacular as the pictures we had seen led us to believe it would be.  What was more spectacular than anticipated was the nearby Reed Flute Cave.  It’s a subterranean series of chambers that were undiscovered until 1959.  The interior is filled with the most amazing stalagtites and stalagmites that we had ever seen.  The complex of underground rooms went on for what seemed like forever, each with its own unique lighting.
That evening, we took in a performance of a very unique musical show that took place on a lake.  An outdoor ampitheater that holds about 2,500 people was near capacity for the show that depicts five different stories of the struggles and triumphs of local farmers and various tribes.  The show was directed by the same group that put on the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games that were held in Beijing in 2008.  Mother Nature deserves some of the credit for the ambience as the setting was spectacular, with rock formations as a backdrop that would be lit up at various times. 

The show also gave us our first taste of the impression we made on the local people.  A group of Chinese women sitting to our right got one look at Marley and Ben and were squealing with delight at the sight of their fair skin.  Several of them had photos taken with them, something that would happen many more times at various locations in China. 

Guilin was a good starting point for us in China in more than one way.  It gave us a good feel for what it was like to have a tour guide.  Peggy was great, taking a strong interest in our needs without being annoying about it.  She did her best to make sure there were food options available for Marley and was fine when we scratched an event or two off the list to avoid being burnt out. 

As much as we have the goal on this trip of getting as local as possible, having a guide in a land as foreign as China is a welcome security blanket.  If anything ever got squirrely, we could just get Peggy’s attention have her handle it. Sure beats having the US Embassy on speed dial.  She also filled us in on the government's one-child policy, which her parents violated by giving her a sister.  Peggy says her parents call her their "secret" child. 

Guilin also gave us our first taste of our status as oddities among the local people.  That would really become more common in Xian and Beijing.  At first, it was a bit off-putting, but once we embraced the process, we had some fun with it, especially in Xian-more on that later.

And our first stop in China made us realize that the man who hockered up a loogie and spit it into the barf bag on our flight into Guilin from Malaysia was just doing what a lot of Chinese men do.  It’s very common to hear the delightful sound of a man going deep to get a little extra and then enthusiastically spitting out a projectile, and usually right on the ground.  Once you realize how often this happens, you start to notice some things on the ground that you really don’t want on the bottom of your shoe.  No wonder we didn’t see anyone wearing flip flops.

Peggy got us safely to the airport the next day, where we said our goodbyes and got on the flight to our next destination of Xian.  Once we got our bags, we headed out the door and saw the beautiful sight of a Chinese man holding a sign bearing our names.  His English name was Kenny, and like Peggy, he was in his mid to late 20s, and very friendly.

He took us straight from the airport to that main attraction on our half-day of checking out life in Xian, the Wild Goose Pagoda.

It's a beautiful ancient building with an interesting history.  But it's location created something of a fascinating juxtaposition.  The local government had invested some money in reviving the surrounding area, bringing in some shops and restaurants, including the first Papa John's we've seen since leaving home in December.
There was also a Subway nearby, which provided a good location for lunch for Marley, who didn't eat the fish or chicken and rice provided on the flight from Guilin.
The next day would be our busiest one in Xian, and probably our most enjoyable for a couple of reasons.  Kenny, our guide, took us to the ancient wall that surrounds Xian.  It's the oldest, most intact city wall in all of China.  We took him up on his suggestion that we rent bikes and ride around the top of the wall, about a ten-mile trek.  As we got to the top of the wall, and Kenny was trying to do his tour-guide thing and give us a history lesson, he kept getting interrupted by passersby. 
Several of them just HAD to get a picture taken with us.  They were all very polite about it, and very thankful after they had gotten one or two snapshots with the fair-skinned people wearing shorts on a cloudy and cool morning.
The locals fascination with us continued once we got on our bikes and started pedaling.  Many would stop and take a quick pic as we rolled by, and their faces would light up when we would smile and say, "Ni Hao!"

The trip around the top of the wall took about an hour and a half, and it was a great family time.  We stopped a few times to catch our breath or take a photo or two before turning the bikes back in, and making our way through our throngs of admirers to get back in the van with Kenny.

The highlight of any visit to Xian is a trip to see the Terra Cotta Warriors.  They are an army of thousands of life-size soldiers built under the orders of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang around 210 B. C.  When things didn't work out so well for him, as would be the pattern for several subsequent Chinese Emporers, invading hordes did their best to destroy the warriors and they weren't heard from for centuries.  

But then in 1974, some farmers digging a well uncovered bits and pieces of the warriors and the daunting process of rebuilding the warriors began and continues to this day.  They are being reassembled in three separate pits.  The most-impressive pit is the first one.  There are an estimated seven thousand of the hand made soldiers in that pit.
It seems to got on forever, and one can only imagine the work it took and is still taking to restore the figures.
Their are several different kinds of soldiers, as well as horses that are pulling chariots.  The work is also going on in two other pits.  It really was an impressive if a bit self-absorbed.  I'm guessing Emperor Qin Shi Huang might have been the Donald Trump of his time.  And the experience set the stage for the most famous landmark in all of China which was next up on our agenda.

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