Saturday, January 12, 2019

Silks, The Grand Canal, and the Lingering Garden in Suzhou

After landing safely in Shanghai, we met our next guide, George.  He was pretty good, not quite as good as Fei-Fei, but she was pretty awesome!  I didn't take pictures of our hotel in Suzhou, but it was nice.  It was the Vienna International Hotel for anyone who wants to look it up.  Breakfast was a buffet with a few different choices than in Beijing, but  mostly the same.  I think we got to sleep an extra half hour, but  we had to pack everything up because we were only this one night in Suzhou.

After breakfast and boarding the bus, our first stop was at the silk factory.  Suzhou is a famous area for silk worm farming.  I had never thought of the process of working with silk cocoons, but it was really kind of fascinating.  The silk fabric that we normally think of is just the normal weaving that is used with cotton, etc.  However, the soft, fuzzy "quilts" are a completely different process.  With any work with silk, you first have to soak the cocoons to make them flexible.

Once the silk is pliable, you begin stretching the cocoons, one at a time, over a frame.  The number of cocoons you will use will depend on the weight you want of your quilt - whether you're making a duvet, a coat, or other thick type of item.  They let us participate in making a quilt.

Even after being stretched on the frame like this, the silk still has a lot of give.  You can test it by pulling on it.  If you pull a piece off, it burns and smells like hair.  If it smells like plastic, it probably is.

These quilts are so incredibly soft, putting the single-ply fabrics to shame.  After learning how these were made, we went into the showroom and had the opportunity to purchase some of the silk products.  We took advantage of that opportunity when Chrissy found a beautiful, soft, winter coat. It was just perfect for her, and I couldn't pass it up!  I also found a silk tapestry that I liked, so I got it, too.

After leaving the silk factory, we toured the Lingering Garden.  The best Chinese gardens are multifaceted.  Just when you think you've seen the most breathtaking area possible, you turn the corner, and there's an even better section!  The Lingering Garden was just like that.  I did need help getting up and down some of the rocky paths going up and down through the garden.  And the first part of the garden path was made with pebbles with mosaic designs in various places.

Then was the bonsai garden.

And into this little recessed area

before boarding the bus and heading to the Grand Canal.  Our local guide (pretty much the only one whose name I can't remember) said Suzhou is known as the Venice of China because of the Grand Canal.  The Grand Canal is hailed as the longest and oldest man-made waterway in the world, going from Beijing to Hangzhou.  It links the Yellow River and the Yangtze River,.  The oldest parts were dug as early as the 5th century BC, with the Sui dynasty starting to connect them.  Later dynasties rerouted and added parts until it was connected all the way to Beijing during the Qing dynasty.

It was an interesting ride with some homes in desperate need of repair and some interesting bridges, such as broken bridge (above) and one bridge with beautiful, detailed murals on both sides.

After our boat ride down a section of the Grand Canal, we went to the silk embroidery school.  They had some amazing embroidery works, including two sided pieces where different scenes were on each side of the tapestry or where the same scene was on each side but in different colors.  Based on pricing, I was very glad I purchased at the silk factory.  We weren't allowed to take pictures in the embroidery school, so the pictures I've posted here are from the tapestry/embroidery section of the silk factory. At the embroidery school, we watched the artisans working.  At the silk factory, the workstation was there, but the artisan was not working at that time.

From the embroidery school, we boarded the bus and headed to Wuxi.  As we were on the road, we drove through "Wedding Dress Row".  Being the capital of silk farming, it would only stand to reason that Suzhou would be the wedding dress capital of the world.  Just from what we could see from the windows of the bus and through the rain, these are absolutely gorgeous gowns!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Similarities With Ancient Chinese and Mayans Learned on Our Last Day in Beijing

Our final day in Beijing featured only two stops before heading to the airport for our flight to Shanghai.  After having our normal breakfast buffet and checking out of the hotel in Beijing, we boarded the bus with all of our luggage and headed to the Chinese Herbal Institute.  There was no photography allowed once we left the initial entry, so I have no pictures of the institute.

This is a medical school where they also treat patients.  One of the professors came in and gave us a brief overview lecture about some of the major differences between Western medicine and Chinese medicine, both in diagnosis and treatment.  During that lecture, those who wanted to participate were soaking their feet in herbal waters.  Following the lecture, some of the students came in and did a reflexology treatment on the feet that had been soaked.  Along with the reflexology, those who wanted could speak with a doctor, who would demonstrate the diagnostic differences and would offer treatment options.  I took advantage of speaking with the doctor.  Without going into my medical history, I have some conditions which have been diagnosed, requiring some minimally invasive procedures for the diagnosis, and which Western medicine offers no treatment. 

When the doctor came to me, he looked at my eyes and hands, had me show him my tongue and the inside of my mouth, and asked me a few basic questions, such as my age.  His first diagnosis was my reflux, which could have just been a good guess, given my size.  His next diagnosis was one for which Western doctors needed labs to even initially suspect and an ultrasound to confirm.  It's also one that Western medicine offers no treatment. (Trust me - I've asked multiple physicians in multiple related specialties in multiple locations.)  Because this particular condition is believed to impact my ability to maintain or lose weight and also makes it more difficult to treat some of my other conditions, I have spent considerable amounts of money on multiple "remedies" with little to no empirical support in hopes that something will work.  This doctor diagnosed from a brief, external, fully clothed exam what took Western doctors lab tests to even suspect and an ultrasound to confirm.  It's not a terribly common condition, and until that exam, I was under the impression that I had no visible signs of it. He said that a 6-month period of taking some herbal medicines that would not interfere with my regular medicines and soaking my feet for 10 minutes each night in warm water should cure the condition.  He suggested that I only start when I am going to be home for a while so that I'm more likely to be consistent in treatment.  Therefore, I have only now started.  When the treatment is over I'll let you know if it works.  To put anyone's mind at rest, I will remain under the watchful care of my Western doctors during this period.  We'll see how it goes.

After leaving the Herbal Institute, we headed to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, which were initially on our schedule for day 1, but they were closed that day.  Fei-Fei gave us some information about the history surrounding Tianenmen Square, both before and after Chairman Mao and the formation of the People's Republic of China.  She did, however, tell us that she could not tell us where the 1989 incident occurred, nor could she confirm that an incident even did occur in 1989 or that tanks had ever been on the square other than for parades.  Tiananmen Square is quite sizable, and the walk to the Forbidden City is quite long, so we didn't spend much time exploring the square.  On our way to the Forbidden City, we passed by the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao Zedong and the Monument to the People's Heroes.

Again, the pollution was terrible.  This was virtually right in front of us.  When we got close to the Gate of Heavenly Peace, we stopped and waited for Fei-Fei to get our tickets.  That huge monstrosity in the foreground is security cameras.

The Forbidden city gets its name because it was Forbidden for anyone to enter without the Emperor's permission.  Over the centuries, the Forbidden City housed 24 different emperors, being constructed during the Ming Dynasty.  At the entrance, there is an outer courtyard that is far from the next gate.  In fact, I had to stop the group at least once, and potentially twice because I simply could not keep up and breathe at the same time.  As you keep going, each gate get more ornate...

until you finally reach the inner sanctum

Once inside the the inner palace grounds, the similarities between the ancient Chinese and the Mayans (and probably other ancient civilizations).  Just like the Mayans, the ancient Chinese also cleared all greenery from their palatial grounds.  In the case of the Chinese, the emperors were afraid someone may hide behind a tree to kill them.  I'm not aware of the reasoning by the Mayans.  There is also the carvings on the external pathways of the creatures for protection and other reasons as well as the requirement that certain structures could only be used for one purpose.  Here are some shots of the ceremonial halls of the Forbidden City.

After passing the ceremonial halls, you enter the gates to the living and working quarters.

This consisted primarily of a long corridor with gates on either side leading to various parts of the quarters.  We went into the homes of the concubines, which had a courtyard in the center.  The room in the rear has been converted to a shop, but the areas on either side are preserved, and you can look inside behind glass to see how they were during part of the emperors' rule.

Upon leaving the concubines' quarters, we went to the gardens.  In China, gardens must be in harmony between nature and humanity with three elements: Stone or mountains, water, and flowers or trees.  This was not one of the more memorable gardens we saw on our visit to China, but it did have an abundance of blocking stones in this garden, and there were a few of them spaced individually throughout the grounds.

According to Wikipedia and other sources, there was a lot to the Forbidden City we were not shown, such as a mote and turrets and various other things.  At some point, I may want to return, but I'll need to be able to cover much more ground and breathe better before trying it again.

After leaving the Forbidden City, we went back to the Beijing airport, where Po and his gang (from Kung-Fu Panda) got us safely to Shanghai.  We then caught a bus to our next destination, Suzhou.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Olympic Village and an Unbelievably Phenomenal Show

I've rested now, so I'll finish the second day of our trip.  Wish I could have rested during the trip, but we wouldn't have seen nearly as much as we did!

After the wall, we went to lunch at a restaurant above the Cloissonne Factory.  The lunch was served family style with a variety of choices.  Downstairs, artisans were doing metalwork,

(I couldn't get a good angle for this one.  Look for her hands at the base of the vase in front of her face.)

painting that metalwork,

and painting bottles.

If you pay close attention, you'll notice that he's painting the INSIDE of the bottle, not the outside.  Such detail is amazing when you think it's being painted on the outside.  It's mind blowing to see that they're working on the inside of those tiny bottles.  These bottles were empty.  In the Hutong there was a place that filled the bottles with medicinal scents, such as menthol (like Vick's), eucalyptus, and others.  I feel confident this stop also subsidized the trip, potentially just by providing lunch at no charge, but we weren't given any high-pressure sales pitches here.

After lunch, we headed to Olympic Village.  The various buildings were not open to the public, but they could be seen from the plaza.  Unfortunately, the pollution effects were also very visible.  To show you, this hotel (shaped like the Olympic flame) was across the street from the plaza.  There was no fog.  That haze is all pollution.

You can see it against the Bird's Nest (the national stadium that was built for the Olympics), which is right across that fencing, but it's not as pronounced because there's really nothing of color around it.

After Olympic Village, there was an optional excursion to see a stage show.  This was not the normal Chinese acrobatics show that travels around the US, and several of us decided to pay the $50 per person to see it.  Those who didn't want to go were welcome to find their transportation to the hotel after doing whatever they wanted to do.  The bus took us to the Happy Valley amusement park area where we walked around until time for the show.  They were decorated up for Halloween.

They had an area for people to take selfies with the wisteria.  

Of course, it was all fake blossoms tied to a metal frame.

The show was in a building specifically made for this show, and they perform it three times a day.  They use the space wonderfully, extending the staging to areas beside the stage, where peripheral characters were often set.  Brief descriptions of the story line were broadcast on screens that were on either side of the state (between the main stage and those areas beside the stage).  These descriptions were in multiple languages.  Thankfully, one of them was English.  Therefore, I know this was an old Chinese fairy tale in which the Gold Mask Queen defeated the Blue Mask King and jailed all of the Blue Mask soldiers.  When peace was restored, the Queen planted a special tree and freed the Blue Mask King and soldiers.  When a major flood came, the tree convinced the Queen to sacrifice herself to save the people.  The floods subsided, and the Blue Mask King encouraged all the people to love the Queen, who then became a phoenix and rose above the land.  Here are a few shots and scenes from the show.  The entire thing was amazing, but when the stage split and the waters for the flood started flowing, I had difficulty picking my chin up  from the ground. And after the flood, there was a scene where they were dancing with live, white peahens on their heads!!  (I didn't' get a decent shot of that, though.  Still trying to  learn how to use my phone right.)

After the show, Fei-Fei (our guide) arranged for in-room massages for those of us who wanted them.  It's an experience I have never had before.  She started at my head, massaging even my ears, hitting all the pressure points.  By the time she made it to my neck, I was more relaxed that I can remember ever being.  Thankfully, she started on the right side when she got to parts of the body that had joints.  Where there are joints, this massage became VERY active.  She stressed the joints and dug deeper into the tissues than the deepest deep tissue massage I've had here.  There were a few times that she held my fingers and flicked my arm like I usually do sheets when I'm trying to get them straight on the bed.  I pointed out the scar on my left shoulder, hoping the got the hint that I was concerned about her working it too hard.  She did kind of take it easy on that side.  I only had to stop her when she was stressing the joint through my traps, which is an issue with my physical therapy, too.  At the end, they soaked our feet in a bag of hot water and teas, then finished it up with a very relaxing foot massage.  My shoulder was pain free the rest of that night!  It was the best I had felt in ages.

This was not a good day to be on our own for dinner.  There wasn't time for dinner until after the massage, but we fell asleep before we could even order room service!  I had the best night's sleep with no pain!!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Jade and the Great Wall!

Okay.  We're back off the road from our cross-country US trip, so it's time to get back to writing.  I just couldn't keep up with the writing while traveling.  I've got a LOT of posts to make!  It took me a minute to remember where I was, but we're on day 2 of the China trip.   On this day, we went to the jade factory, the Great Wall, the Cloissonne Factory, a visit to the Olympic Village, and an awesome show called, "The Golden Mask Dynasty."

We got up early again this morning.  After another buffet breakfast (same hotel, same choices), we boarded our dedicated bus shortly before 9:00 a.m. and headed to the jade factory (a quick-ish stop on the way to the wall).  Before we left the bus, we were given "tickets" that we showed when we entered and when we made a purchase.  This was our first "sponsored" stop, the places that subsidized the trip as a marketing tactic.  It appears to be a government-owned factory, though I could be wrong.  It was amazing watching the artisans sculpting the jade . . .  (Notice how this guy is carving layers inside this ball!)

and polishing the jade.

Before going into the showroom, we learned a little about jade and jadeite.  Jade is apparently a soft stone, while jadeite is a hard stone.  In fact, jadeite is strong enough to cut glass.  Jadeite is also believed to have healthy properties, mostly related to the heart, and is worn by many women at all times, including in the bath.  It's worn closest to the heart, so if you have a bracelet (commonly given as a gift by a love interest at or before a wedding), it is worn on your left arm.  Jade is sculpted into various forms, mythological or zodiac creatures, animals, or various shapes, with or without other meaning.  

It was here that we were first introduced to Pixiu.  Pixiu is the child of the dragon.  Pixiu is known for having a huge appetite, but only eats money or things of value.  Pixiu also has a big butt and does not poop.  Instead, Pixiu stores all of the wealth in Pixiu's butt.  If you have Pixiu, it is said that you will accumulate wealth.  You must be careful how Pixiu is placed, though.  The head must be pointed at your door so that the wealth only comes into your home.  If Pixiu's head is pointed toward your neighbor's home, your neighbor will get the wealth!  Pixiu can be male or female depending on which foot is forward.  If the right foot is forward, Pixiu is male because men think they're always right!

Here is a side view of a huge Pixiu with another creature on top in the store.  Mine is green and much smaller with no rider!  My Pixiu sits next to the lucky cat we brought home from Japan.  With both of them, we should be rolling in the dough!  But, alas!  The lucky cat seems to be waving goodbye as quickly as waving hello, and I think Pixiu has pooped!  Money goes out as fast as it comes in! 

They had a sale going on "just for us".  (I'm sure of it!)  Buy 2, get 1 free.  I wanted Pixiu, and Chrissy wanted a green jade frog (in honor of my mom who loved both jade and frogs - Chrissy is a very thoughtful woman in spite of having been raised primarily by me!), so I bought a second lucky talisman so she could have her frog for free.  The piece that was being carved and polished is called the happy family.  It is a sphere of 8 balls inside of each other, all carved from one stone.  All 8 balls are identical to each other and have very intricate designs on them which hold the happy spirits into the family of all 8 balls while the bad spirits just blow through the holes in the stone.  I got one of the little tiny ones, but you can see the intricacy of the carvings on the larger one much better in a picture.

Then, it was on to the Great Wall.  Chrissy and I had visited the Great Wall during our stopover on the way home from Japan a couple of years ago, so I checked with Nexus Holidays to see what section of the wall we would be seeing on this trip.  When they told me we would be seeing the Juyongguan section, I briefly Googled it and found this page that indicated it would be a fairly easy ascent.  I mean, it's the only section that is considered wheelchair friendly and suitable for handicapped travelers.  It's #7 on this list of Great Wall sections.

For those of you who can't (or don't want to) pull that up, here's what it says about the Juyongguan section:  

Juyongguan — one of the greatest Great Wall forts

  • Location: 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Beijing, 1½ hours’ drive.
  • Features: The closest section to Beijing, it is wheelchair-friendly, so suitable for handicapped travelers. It is one of the greatest forts defending ancient Beijing. Genghis Khan once led his troops through Juyong Pass during his conquest of Chinese territory.
I felt quite confident in my ability to go up this section of the wall.  I mean, a couple of years ago, I made it up another section just days after getting out of a CAM walker after blowing out the first of my Achilles tendons and only a few weeks before blowing out the other one!  Yes, I've been down since my shoulder surgery, but I was getting back in shape from being down from both Achilles tendons before I fell and broke my shoulder, and part of my physical therapy has been working on my balance and core strengthening, trying to get me ready for this trip.  I should be able to make this one, right?

Oh, so wrong!  Only the bottom plaza was wheelchair accessible, though they did have handrails on the steps up to the first platform!  On the section we took a couple of years ago, there was a bus that took us from the lower plaza up close to the cable car.  I had to rest a couple of times to get to the cable car, but a motorized wheelchair could have made it up the smoothly paved road.  From the cable car, the path was pretty steep for a motorized wheelchair, but there was a smooth-ish path beside the steps.  The problem with getting onto the actual wall would have been with those 10 or so steps.  Both Chrissy and one of the workers had to help me up and down those steps, but that was child's play compared to the steps this time (pictured above).

(Jan 2017, not this trip)

But here?  They give you a gold-colored medal if you can climb all those steps to reach the top and actually walk along the wall!  There were a few people who made it and one or two that actually climbed both sides while we were there.  There were also a couple of guys who got engaged to each other on the wall.  Me?  I was more likely to get engaged than to make it up to the wall!! (They did both; I did neither!)  Here's how far I made it!

All the way up to the first platform, back down to the overpass over the road, up to the second platform and up the steep section of flat paving.  I gave up before taking the first steps up to the top of the wall.  I had already hit my inhaler a couple of times, was dripping sweat (partially from pain in my back), and had taken several breaks just to get that far.  Until then, I was feeling pretty proud of myself.  I blame the pollution in part, though.  If I go to the wall again, it will definitely not be to this section.  I'd rather go to one of the easier sections to ascend and walk more of the wall itself instead of being exhausted just getting up there!  This was the only really disappointing part of the trip, but it probably wouldn't have been if I hadn't already been to a different section with easier access to the top and more amenities at the bottom.  

Chrissy was awesome.  I sent her on ahead to begin with.  She went up a significant part of the way, and then came back to get me.  I tried to send her on up to do what she wanted, and she said she wanted to do it with me!  Once I dried my tears of happiness, (I told you she's very thoughtful in spite of being raised by me!), she helped me up as far as I made it.  Once I gave up, she took me back to that last platform and started back up.  She didn't make it all the way to the top, but she went about half-way up twice, so I think that counts!  I feel bad that she didn't get a medal for it, though.  There were literally people on their hands and knees, crawling up the steps back to the first platform after trying (successfully or unsuccessfully) to get to the top of the wall!

Well, I've exhausted myself just writing about it.  I'll pick it up from lunch next time!

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Hutong and a Home-Cooked Meal

Our last tour of the first day was a tour of the Hutong, which is an area of town with narrow streets, primarily for only foot traffic, and with traditional buildings. 

There were lots of artisans in the district.  This is candy, hand spun into these shapes.

These little bottles were filled with different scents, such as menthol, which were designed for medicinal purposes.  The menthol bottles smelled like Vick's salve.  They could fill it with other scents for you or paint your name on the bottle if you wanted something different.

The bottles are painted from the inside.  This video was made at a different location, but it is the same way it was being done in this little shop.

The area was beautiful with a lovely canal.

I loved the little brooms they used to sweep the streets.

After walking around the Hutong for a while, we took a rickshaw ride to the residential section.  The drivers raced each other in some sections.  It was definitely the bicycle races!  (Now, hear that song in your head while watching this!)

Once in the residential section, we went to a private home for a home-cooked dinner.  It was getting dark by the time we got there, so there are no good pictures of the homes.  Just like when you have a historical designation in the US, these homes are historically designated, and permission to make changes must be obtained from the government.  In most cases, these homes do not have private bathrooms and cannot install one, but there are public bathrooms scattered throughout the neighborhood.  Dinner was served family style and was absolutely delicious.  For the sake of not posting pix of people who may not want their faces posted on the blog, here is a picture of the remnants.

Our first full day in Beijing was definitely packed!  There was enough opportunity to stop and rest for a minute, though, in most cases.  I only had to stop the group once, and that was on the way back to the bus after dinner.  When we finally got back to the hotel, I was exhausted.  Fell asleep the minute my head hit the pillow!

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Peking Duck Banquet and Temple of Heaven

After we visited the Summer Palace, we went to lunch.  Lunch was supposed to be a Peking Duck banquet.  We were supposedly going to learn the traditional way to eat the dish, and it was supposedly a pretty big deal.  The restaurant was in a traditionally styled building and was marked by a duck out front.  This guy is apparently their mascot. I was pretty hungry after trekking through the summer palace, so I started eating a bit early.  I didn't realize ducks had ears, but this one was fairly tasty as hungry as I was!

The banquet was a disappointment.  Fei-Fei told us about the Chinese custom of balancing diets and how the onions were a hot food, and duck was a cold food because ducks swim in water.  Then, the waitress demonstrated how to prepare the duck.  This was not some big production.  She took a small thin pancake and placed it on the saucer.  Then she took a small piece of duck and dredged it in the sauce before setting it on the pancake.  Then she took a couple of pieces of sliced celery and spring onions and placed them on the pancake and folded it up.  It was very tiny, smaller than a spring roll.  This was demonstrated without fanfare, standing at the side of the table, and so fast you had to be paying attention or you would miss it.  All the while the other dishes were being set on the lazy Susan.  There was about enough duck for everybody to make 2 tiny pancakes, but there was plenty of other food, such as chicken, fish, rice, noodles, and bok choy.  It was good, but as this was an optional activity, I don't think it was worth the cost, and I would pass on if I did it again.  Peking Duck prepared in Beijing tastes just like it does prepared elsewhere in the US, and the amount of duck we got and the blandness of the remainder of the food made this disappointing.

There's a pretty stark contrast between the modern and traditional buildings that is very apparent when they're connected to each other as part of a center!

You cycle riders that put your bikes away in the winter because it's just too cold should take note.  It was a little chilly in the mornings and evenings while we were there.  In fact, the couple from Florida thought it was down right cold at times!  A chill in the air doesn't phase a Chinese bike or scooter rider.  They have these really nifty quilted pads and gloves that attach to the bike.  There were more scooters than motorbikes, but I saw them on both.  It just hangs from the handlebars and breaks the wind from hitting your legs and body.  They also have pockets fitted over the handlebar grips for you to put your hands in while driving.  A scarf around your neck and your helmet or toboggan, and you're good to go!  No need to store your bike for the winter!  They came in many designs, including Hello Kitty, flowers, and various country flags!

After lunch, we headed to the Temple of Heaven.  I would have liked to spend more time there, too, but the only thing we really missed was the echoing wall, so I wouldn't make a special trip to return.  Historically, the Emperor and his special people were the only ones allowed to enter a temple, as the common people weren't expected to pray. This particular temple, as with many others, was only used for the specific deity to be honored at that time.  This one was used during the winter solstice to pray to the heavens for good harvest.  It is made of wood with no nails and is an architectural marvel mainly because of that.

You could not go inside the temple, and there was only one vantage point to look in.  There were columns arranged in inner and outr circular patterns and various things for presentation of the appropriate sacrifices,which would range from animals to jade and grains and other items.

There was no mention of human sacrifice in this temple.  One of the buildings on the grounds currently houses a mini-museum that goes through the multiple steps for the ritual, starting with bathing of the Emperor and ending with fasting of the Emperor.  All of these steps took place in different buildings on the grounds.

Locals hang out in the various places in the park, but they are especially numerous playing cards along the Long Corridor.  As we were walking back through, a man had his pet magpie which would happily hop from person to person.  Anyone who knows me is well aware that, at some point, it had to be my turn!

In the next post, I'll tell you about visiting the Hutong, which tour included a rickshaw ride and a home-cooked meal in a private home.