Once again, our streak of lucky weather continued, since we woke up to clear sunny skies, a good omen for being able to see some scenery at the top of Mt. Emei, our only destination for the day (photos). Mount Emei is one of the four holy mountains in Chinese Buddhism. The day began with a winding bus ride up the side of the mountain. Kevin had warned us that the roads were very narrow, but I don’t think they were any worse than, say, the Going to the Sun Road in Waterton/Glacier. We told Kevin of the old days of riding rickety shuttle buses up the one-way roads to Sunshine ski resort. When he asked if we didn’t have cable cars in Canada, we had to confess just how many years ago that had been.
While the street noises below us had continued fairly late into the evening, once the shops and stands closed down, the streets became amazingly quiet. Because there was no automobile traffic, the only passersby were on foot. Our bed was the softest so far in China, which may not be saying much, as the standard bed is very firm. Other than the lumpy bed, we’d had in Zhengzhou, though, we had slept just fine so far, and this night was no exception. I’m sure some would find Chinese hotel beds uncomfortable. Certainly, when we’d checked Tripadvisor.com before we’d left many reviewers there had commented on the beds.
After a night on a lumpy bed and mysterious Mandarin phone calls waking us in the night, insult was added to injury when we discovered our toilet no longer flushed (It hadn’t flushed all that well to begin with). We assessed the situation and decided, given that no one in the hotel spoke a word of English, our chances of getting that situation dealt with were slim to none, so resolved to stop trying to flush it before it overflowed and just make the best of it.
During our trip, many of the people we met asked us if we were going to Guilin. Apparently it’s a beautiful spot. But, even though it had been on our original itinerary, we weren’t going to Guilin. Why? Because I had decided that if I only made it to China once in my life, I wanted to see the Shaolin Temple, the legendary home of martial arts in China. So Guilin had fallen victim to this addition to the itinerary. In fact, the past three days of sightseeing had all been set up because of this diversion.
Our guide had told us that many people did their morning exercise in the park across from our hotel in Luoyang, so after we were done breakfast, we wandered across the street to check that out. What we encountered was one of those glimpses into another culture that are all too rare on these trips. People of all ages were busy with all sorts of activities, most of them in large groups. Some were doing traditional dances, others modern dances. Elderly people were practicing Tai Chi, and performing routines with swords and fans. One odd dude was even practicing his bullwhip while drawing on a cigarette. Another group was singing. This was a neat glimpse into the social lives of people who otherwise live their lives in apartments. (photos)
This was a transition/travel day, but we still had one more stop before leaving Xi’an, the ancient city wall. Xi’an has the most completely intact city wall of any city in China. The original wall was 26 Km long and built in 194 B.C. The current structure dates from the Ming Dynasty (1370 A.D.), and its 13.7 kilometres circle the central city, with entry points at the four primary gates facing each of the four directions of the compass.
The main attraction for Day 8 was the Terracotta Warriors, but our first stop on the way was the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. (And, yes, if you’re wondering, there is a Small Wild Goose Pagoda.) The Wild Goose Pagoda is best know as the ultimate destination for the famous monk, Xuanzang, who, concerned with that the Chinese understanding of Buddhist scripture was inaccurate and incomplete, set out to correct this by embarking on a seventeen-year odyssey to India to retrieve scriptures and relics. On his return to China, he settled in Xi’an (then Chang’an) and spent years translating the scripture. Originally built in 652, the pagoda itself was used to house these scriptures and relics (photos). Over the years it has suffered some pillaging and the ravages of earthquakes, so, much like Pisa’s Leaning Tower, it now lists several degrees off-plumb toward the west. (photos)
I hope this doesn’t come across as petty or small-minded. I’m amused by this behaviour, but not in a bitter way. In fact, at certain times, like climbing The Great Wall, it provided some much needed relief and cheer.
So here goes:
Day 7 was a transition day; we were to fly to Xi’an, the home of the Terracotta Warriors.
Most of the tourists at our hotel in Beijing were German tourists, so we hadn’t spent a lot of time visiting with other folks at breakfast. On this last morning, though, we happened to sit with an American professor from North Carolina whose specialty was Chinese history (“only the last 500 years”). He had begun his travels to China back in the early seventies, when he had brought his young family here and had returned many times since with groups of students.
Day 6 was a different take on Beijing to some degree. We concentrated a bit more on the modern landmarks, beginning with two that would be familiar to anyone who was conscious during the 2008 Olympics: The Water Cube, and The Birds Nest (photos). Unfortunately, our tours were limited to an external view of these landmarks.
When we woke up the next day, we realized what a blessing the rain had been. For the first time in our trip, the perpetual haze that enveloped Beijing had been washed from the air, at least for a short time. We soon understood why authorities had worked so hard to “seed” rain clouds in advance of the Beijing Olympics. As long as we were in Beijing we assumed this was a problem unique to that city, but on landing in Xi’an, we soon realized that the air quality there was much worse. Unlike the acrid in-your-face diet of diesel hydrocarbons we had experienced riding rickshaws in India, Chinese smog has a more subtle perniciousness. At the beginning of the day, you can fool yourself into thinking it’s not all that bad, but after a day of immersion, your lungs begin to feel the effects and your eyes turn dry and sore. Almost every driver or taxi driver we encountered exhibited some form of what we came to call “driver’s cough.” The engines (and smokestacks) that drive China’s economy exact their own price on the people, for sure. I would love to say that this is a strictly urban problem, but as I write this installment, I am riding a high-speed train through the countryside – and through the same thick haze.
Originally, Day 4 was to be our day to see The Great Wall, but since the forecast was for rain, we opted to keep our site-seeing to some of the lesser venues within the city.
Our tour began with the National Centre for the Performing Arts a gorgeous glass and titanium egg which is made to appear as if it is floating upon the moat/lake which surrounds it. (photos) In actual fact, the lake is only inches deep. The NCPA rests on the back side of the Great Hall of the People, adjacent to Tienanmen Square on the west. Visitors descend underground to enter the building and walk a long, wide corridor with glass ceilings which dance with the ripples on the “lake” above.
Our first full day in Beijing is a “free” day. The tour company has the good sense to allow a day to acclimatize to time change (10 or 14 hours difference depending on which way you imagine yourself moving around the globe). We slept well for as long as we could, but we were up very early anyway. We took the time to explore some possibilities for the day while we waited for breakfast at 6:30 a.m.