26 February 2009

Shanghai

The train from Xi'an to Shanghai is 16 hours long. 16. Hours. Long. That is a very long time. On top of that our train was delayed out of Xi'an for a reason completely unknown to me. When we finally boarded it was to our shock, surprise, and mild horror that we realized we were not in the same compartment. We asked the train guy (what's the word?) if we could be together but said positively no. So into her compartment went Lauren and into mine went I...trepidatiously. My bad feeling upon entering the compartment was soon confirmed by my new bunk mates.

I have never in my life heard such snoring.

The both of them! It was completely outrageous and I’m still not even sure the sounds they were making were human! I slept not all during the night and was sorrier than ever that my mp3 player had given up the ghost on me the day before we left for China. A few times when it was at its worst I banged the metal ash tray against the metal water carafe. That would stop the snoring for a few blessed seconds. One of the guys woke up enough to start yelling at me (in Chinese) and I yelled back for all I was worth in some pretty foul Chinglish (foul because of the words not the lack of ability). I had no idea how to say ‘snore’ in Chinese and really wish I had (it’s dahan btw). At one point I actually pulled out my little camera and turned it to film so I record the horrific noises they were making to show Lauren. I sadly lost the recording and have not even the words to describe what it was like. The best I could do would be to say that it was what I imagine the inhuman growls of sinus blocked netherworld dwellers sound like. We finally arrived in Shanghai though and my erstwhile bunkmates were relegated to amusing anecdote glory while we concentrated on this newest, and last, city of our tour.

Shanghai was fantastic. It was so completely modern and immense in a way that was barely comprehensible. If we thought that Beijing was roughly the size of three New York Cities then Shanghai was easily ten. Our hostel was very nice. The Shanghai City Central hostel is the largest hostel in Shanghai and while the private rooms were utilitarian, they were clean, the television had the channel that played our favorite Bruce Lee soap opera, internet was free, the restaurant/social area were nice, and there was a free shuttle service each morning to a few different sights in the city. On that first day we found the metro close to our hostel and headed to the large pedestrian shopping area. It was warmer in Shanghai than had been Xi’an but still was chilly by the time we finally arrived in the pedestrian area. It was still chilly enough though that I was regretting my bare arms and was taking some good-natured ribbing from the girls at the bubble tea stand where Lauren and I stopped for zhenzhu nai cha.







The pedestrian area was so large that it was flanked by two different metro stations and had a little mini train running back and forth. I was thrilled to discover that it even had a Costa, which is my second favorite coffee chain. Naturally we have none f this British chain in the United States so usually I only get to enjoy their macchiatos while in Belgrade. I do wish they would set up shop here though; maybe give Starbucks a run for their money. But I digress…



We managed on that first night to find one of the pearl markets. There are pearls everywhere in China but I’d been holding out until Shanghai knowing that these would be the best deals. One of the few good things Frommer’s did was to list this market under its section on shopping. And ironically, the construction going on in the building made it easier to find as the fa├žade was covered in a drop cloth with big ads for each store inside. We got to the right level and were confronted with booth upon booth and store upon store with pearls. I was a little overwhelmed at first, especially as the bling that accompanied many of the pearls was a bit intimidating. I walked around a bit ignoring the various hawkers until I saw, all the way in the back of one of the stores, trays and trays of color. Color!! That was exactly what I wanted in my pearls. I wasn’t really caring for shape or size or even matching (especially since I wasn’t planning on spending enough money to insist on matching); but I wanted color. People who know me know that I am not a fan of pearls…I kind of think they’re boring. However a few years ago I discovered why. The American pearl market sucks. I have no idea who decides these things or how often the research is done, but apparently American buyers are only interested in the whites, greys, pinks, and blacks; although I have seen a bit of brown sneaking in. This color limitation is such a sad thing because pearls come in all colors of the rainbow and even a few in between! Reds, oranges, yellows, golds, silvers, purples, blues, greens, coppers, and colors that look like oil slicks (you know, the pretty multi-colored effect, not the sad killing the environment part). I’d been pretty much left along by the sales staff, which is a bit of a miracle in this country, until I started really examining some of the trays. I struck up a conversation with one of the sales girls (in Chinese, thank you) and after a few minutes asked how much X strand of pearls cost. She looked at them, looked at me, looked at them again and said, “For you, $4.00.” Ok, I thought, let’s shop.







In the end, between Lauren’s and my purchases I felt kind of like a pirate with booty. We had, I think, 5 bracelets, 2 double strand necklaces, and maybe 20 single strand necklaces. And not a one of them was white, ivory, pink, grey, or black.

20 February 2009

Wierd and Wonderful: Mannequins in All Their Glory

As Andrea mentioned in Yesterday's Post, we saw some interesting mannequin's when we were in Xi'an. For a couple of years now, I have been VERY entertained by mannequins that I see when I'm travelling. After reading the post from yesterday, I am really happy that I've documented so many of the wierd and funny ones in my photos. First, check these out from my trip to South America in 2006:

The happiest mannequin on Earth

Creeeeeeepy.....!

This guy is just too cool for school

Giving Wonder Woman a run for her money

Then, there were these from China:
Loved her coat! Also thought she looked like she came from Whoville...

This guy? Really excited about his new Hollister hoodie. Chinese consumerism at its best.

Great hair (Harbin)

Feel like you walked into 1987 yet? (Harbin)


I call these "Tim Burton Mannequins" because they really remind me of his style of animation. We saw these in a Subway tunnel-mall in Shanghai. They are by far, the strangest mannequins I have ever seen in my life.

I hope you've enjoyed these. Have any of you made a habit of capturing things that are drastically different abroad than when you're at home? I'm sure that there are lots, mannequins just happen to be my favorite. :) If you have pictures, feel free to share.

19 February 2009

Xi'an - Around the town

Xi'an was, in general, just a very cool town. Really I think it was my favorite place we visited. It was a really complex mixture of modern (the coolest looking Starbucks ever) and ancient that all seemed to blend together and work. I got the hugest kick out of the wedding parlours. Actually, the ones in Harbin had better dresses but i found one in Xi'an that is possibly the greatest dress ever on the face of the earth.



Right?!

Lauren and I also got a laugh over the mannequins.





The epicenter of Xi'an is still completely surrounded by a wall to which there are four entrances, one for each direction. Lauren and I only walked from the South to the West gate and back but it apparently takes about 8 hours to walk all the way around. The wall is in pretty decent repair.









Being on top of the wall also gives you a really good view of the city and the variety of scenery it offers.













Xi'an also has a pretty decent museum. Our super trusty lied like hell Frommer's guide book said this museum was not to be missed or something to that effect. I'm not a huge museum fan (so living in DC is kind of wasted on me) but Lauren wanted to go so off we went. First we tried to walk there because it looked pretty simple. Then, after we got out of the city wall, we remembered that Frommer sucks and all the maps were WRONG. So we hailed a cab. We got to the museum and there was a huge line in front of the ticket booth so we joined everyone else in the queue. And we waited. Then we waited some more. We consulted to guide book, maybe we were too early and it wasn't open? No, it opens at 10, But it's 10:30. Maybe Frommer lied again? No, there's a sign on the museum that says 10 and people are coming out. We were confused. Finally, around 11, the blasted ticket office opened and we could only suppose that they had been having their "we've been working for half an hour and need a break" break. Took us forever still to get to the top of the queue because naturally there were only two windows open. When we finally did and handed over our passports (because we had to show id), apparently it was the white people get in free day. Made us less annoyed about having to wait so long.

There were actually some interesting exhibitions although I was surprised and disappointed that their bronze collection was so small. There were a couple nice Warring States pieces though.



Some gold dragons (not Warring States) and a pile of gold coins that we agreed were fake. No way the Chinese government was displaying real gold instead of fake coins to replace the ones they'd already melted down. I wouldn't put that past any government.







My absolute favorite display was the gold cast of a unicorn's hoof. Yup. A unicorn's hoof. It's like a 9 year old's fantasy come true.



There was also this. I don't know what it was but it was eerie as hell. My pictures of this are crap but I blame that on museum lighting and an unstable camera that blurs without a flash.







Best part about the museum was, despite how big it looked, it was really small and only had a handful of exhibitions. My favorite museums are the ones that take less than an hour to view.

13 February 2009

Mosi-oa-Tunya: The Smoke Which Thunders

As many of you know, and many more of you don't, I was in Zambia in December. I wrote my first blog from Zambia while I was there, and then completely fell off the map! Sorry about that... It was Christmas, and then New Year's, and then where did all of January and half of February go? It's now nearly Valentine's Day and I haven't written a blog in months, as Andrea writes blog after blog of our adventures in China. Even though she has been also using some of my snaps (and giving me credit - Hi Moglie!), I have been sadly delinquent in my blogging duties. Thank goodness for Andrea who has been keeping our blog alive while I've been concentrating on doing a whole lot of nothing instead. Anyway, I digress. I'm going to let my first post in 2 months be about Zambia nestled along the Zambezi River, but completely landlocked in Southern Africa with Zimbabwe and Mozambique to the South, Malawi and Tanzania to the East, DR Congo to the North, and Angola to the West. Zambia is a very peaceful country despite some of the strife that we find in the news lately about its neighbors (Zimbabwe anyone?), and it was a FANTASTIC introduction to Africa, its culture, food, and people.

I spent a lot of my time there travelling between the capital city and several of the regions there. The most difficult of the trips by far was the one from Lusaka (the Capital) to Livingstone. We were on the road for about eight hours, leaving Lusaka early in the morning, and heading to the home of Victoria Falls, and Zambia's crown jewel of tourism. In the local language (there are 72 of them, so please don't ask me to specify which one), the name is Mosi-oa-Tunya: The Smoke which Thunders. When I say it that way, I hear a BIG voice in my head like a movie announcer...THE SMOKE WHICH THUNDERS! Being that Vic Falls is one of the largest waterfalls in the world, it just seems more appropriate that way.
So the trip to Livingstone was LOOOOOONG. Like, really long. But at least my team and I were in a minibus, and there were no problems with flat tires, although that certainly would have been a possibility given the state of the roads. The scenery along the way was magnificent, with green, lush rolling hills, and dark, red earth against a soft, blue sky. The contrast in colors was striking. The road most of the way was decent, with not many potholes. But as we were about 100km outside of our destination, the quality of the road changed. The story goes that the road was originally built from donor funds (as is just about everything), and it used to be wonderfully paved and flat. As the years go by, there were no additional donor funds to maintain the road. With heavy rains every year and no restrictions on the weight of the trucks allowed to travel the roads, potholes form; and I mean BIG potholes:
Add that to having no lines, and everyone driving on the wrong side of the road-- scratch that-- everyone driving all over the road and it makes for a very scary driving situation. Thankfully, our driver was Zambian and quite skilled in navigating the potholes in the road without problems, and we covered the last 100km in about 4 hours.

The Falls are aptly named as 'The Smoke which Thunders' since you can see the falls from miles and miles away, even though all you're actually seeing is the mist rising through the air. This was my first glimpse of it:

When we got into Livingstone, we drove into the area near the entrance of the falls. There seemed to be some trees that were "slightly" larger and a different species than all the others. I asked about them, and found out they're not trees at all! In fact, they were actually radio antennae!

I took quite a few pictures of the falls, but I must apologize in advance for the poor quality of my pictures here. I discovered that with the increased moisture in the air, I had a hard time getting well-focused shots. This was the entrance to the falls, and I think that if you didn't know it was there, you just might almost miss it!

After you pay the inflated "foreigner price" of $10USD (not payable in local currency!!!!) they take down your passport information and let you in. The pathways are all made of small, slippery stones that are constantly wet from the moisture. I was terrified that I would slip and fall at any moment. As you can see, there were lots of rails for me to steady myself in case I felt I would fall. All the fear I had of falling on these pathways went out of my head when I saw my first glimpse of the falls themselves:

Gorgeous, isn't it? When it's at full capacity just after the rainy season, Vic Falls is the largest waterfall in the world. I must be careful when I say that though, because it is by far NOT the tallest. That titles belongs to Angel Falls in Venezuela, and Victoria here doesn't even make the top 10 of the world's tallest. But these falls are the BIGgest in that they are the widest with a width of 1 mile and a height of 360ft, they form the largest sheet of falling water on the planet. The whole of the falls is viewable straight on, and at the end of the rainy season, all the rocks you see in this picture are covered with massive amounts of gushing water from the runoff of all the other rivers in Zambia/Zimbabwe.

Here are a few more pictures that I took while I was walking around the falls trying not to slip:

The slipperiest bridge in the world....

Bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe

11 February 2009

Great Mosque

It seems odd to be talking about a mosque in China, doesn't it? I mean heck, we couldn't find Catholic churches where we went (although I expect that was more only because no one knew where they were); but a mosque? No problem! Well I did mention that there is a Muslim quarter in Xi'an.

Built in the Tang dynasty (685-762), the Great Mosque remains both a working mosque and a popular tourist attraction in the heart of the Muslim quarter hutong. Unlike most mosques in Middle Eastern or Arab countries, the Great Mosque of Xi'an is completely Chinese in its construction and architectural style, except for some Arabic lettering and decorations, for the mosque has neither domes nor traditional-style minarets.





Half the fun of the mosque was finding the blasted thing!! It is buried so deeply in the twisting allies of the hutong that it took us several passes through the quarter to find it. Occasionally there would be a teasing blue sign saying Great Mosque with an arrow pointing in one direction or another; but the signs were so small and high up that they were hard to spot. When we finally did find it I was amazed that we'd missed it as the entrance sits in an opening in the blood bath market we'd already walked through a couple times at that point.











My camera died while we were here (pout!) but Lauren got some good pictures. All the black and whites are hers.