Monday, June 28, 2010

Adventure in Chengdu

This weekend we ventured off to Western China, the gateway to Tibet, Chengdu.  It's in the Sichuan province, which you may know from its fame as a type of Chinese cuisine - very, very spicy, and not like any Chinese food in the U.S.  I really wanted to try to get to Tibet while we were here, but this is as far West as we got.  My interest in Chengdu started within a few weeks of arriving in Shanghai when I learned that it was the home of one of the largest Giant Panda research and breeding facilities in the world. 

So, for my last weekend in China, that's what we did.

I think Nick has mentioned the wild drivers here in Shanghai.  Well, they are nothing compared to the crazies in Chengdu.  Traffic is awful, despite the relatively small size of the city (only 3 million); people straddle lanes, turn left into oncoming traffic and pass in the emergency lane.  We had one taxi driver who almost killed us and several bikers and pedestrians on the 10 km trip to the panda facility.  Anyway, we were happy to get to the airport on Sunday in one piece.

Our trip started out with a trip to Lashan and the Giant Buddha there.  Because there was very little in English at the Oriental Buddha Theme Park, yes, that's right, it's called the Oriental Buddha Theme Park, we don't know much about it except that it was carved into a mountainside during the Tang dynasty (some 1400 years ago), and it was very, very cool.  They also had smaller carvings of different types of Buddhas around the park.

Notice that the eyebrows are the same on Nick and Buddha

My favorite Buddha - the jolly, fat one.  Kinda like santa without the white hair and beard.

We hiked all the way down and all the way back up through steps and caves along the mountain.

To give you a sense of the scale, that's his big toe.

We spent about 3 hours hiking around the park, up and down hundreds of steps and were sweating like crazy.  The humidity was about 100 percent and it was about 85 degrees.

After a good shower and dinner, we explored Chengdu and found a charming area on Jingli Lu (street).

Yes, that's fish on a stick and no, we didn't partake.

Day two in Chengdu, was the day for the Giant Panda Research and Breeding Center.  After the harrowing taxi ride, we made it.  It was pouring rain, but we didn't let that slow us down and apparently the pandas didn't mind, either.

Cutest little guys!

And, I got to experience one of the coolest things ever:

For a donation to the research center, you could hold a panda cub!  This is ya-ya and he is about 18 months old. He was just precious, sitting on my lap enjoying bamboo dipped in honey.  I could've sat there all day, but the keepers made me get up after a few minutes.

Giant pandas are called "living fossils" because there is evidence that they may have been around as long as 8,000-9,000 years ago when they were much more fierce creatures.  Today, there are only about 1,600 pandas in the wild (about 275 in research bases and zoos).  Their homeland gets smaller and smaller each year.  The earthquake in 2008 devestated much of their habitat, too.  Thanks to the important work of research facilities and zoos, they can hopefully keep this amazing and gentle animal out of extinction.

We also saw a few red pandas; they're cute, too.  We didn't see as many because many of them were expectant mothers and they closed off their habitats.

This was the first trip within China that Nick and I took without the help of a guide or dedicated driver, and Chengdu isn't for the faint of heart.  It's not like getting around in Shanghai or Beijing.  We were pretty proud of ourselves for getting around so well without help and with my limited Mandarin.  I think we only saw about 10 Westerners all weekend and they were all at the panda center, and the Chinese don't speak much English there since it's not a huge tourism center.

It's been an amazing eight months, but I am happy to be coming home this week.  Nick follows soon.  Not sure how many more updates that we'll have, but I hope to revisit the site soon to detail our experience in Vietnam.  Still no big movement there, so please keep Nate in your prayers.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

An (almost) international incident

Just thought I would share a little story with you about how I was involved in a international incident last week - you may have seen a brief posting on FaceBook about it. However, since no punches were thrown, it is unlikely (at this point) that you will see me on "Locked up Abroad". I still have 4 and a half weeks before I come home, so there is still time.

Nick and I were taking a little walk to buy DVDs because other than "Glee", there is crap for TV here (and you know how I like my TV!) - anyway, it was a nice night and I needed to be home by 8 for a conference call.  We were standing on a street corner, waiting for the light to turn, when we saw a confrontation between a young Chinese couple. They were riding a bike together, but she got off and he was yelling at her. He grabbed her wrist and wouldn’t let go of her. I started yelling at him to stop (in English, my gut went to English and not Mandarin in this instance). But then he pushed her very hard (almost a hit), and I couldn’t stand back. The next thing I knew, I went and got in between the two of them and told her to walk away.  It was truly one of those out of body experiences where I don't even remember making a conscious decision to run over there - it just happened.

He was still holding on to her at this point, and then grabbed my wrist too. Nick stepped in (he had at least 40 lbs on the guy), too and that’s when he finally let go of her. He told us she was his wife, which I think he thought gave him license to treat her badly. I looked her in the eye and said, “you do not deserve to be treated like this.” She may not of understood my words, but I could see that she understood the meaning. He biked away and left her there. I think part of my courage stemmed from the fact that I probably could've taken this guy down by myself, but Nick could've knocked him cold in one punch.

Of course, had we flagged down a police car, nothing would have happened - and there aren't shelters for battered women here. Unfortunately, men can treat their wives terribly here and it’s accepted. I may have to go all vigilante now to get these poor women to stand up for themselves and stop being treated poorly. And, Nick has learned that it is incredibly shameful to get divorced, which I am sure is keeping more women with abusive men. Between that and the rampant bulimia of the women here, it’s all I can do to keep my mouth shut. Maybe I won’t…

And, then I learned from an American friend how she is constantly criticized by the Chinese women in her office.  Mind you, she is a beautiful, beautiful woman and in very good shape.  They have told her that her pores are too big, that she looked like she has gained weight, that her shoulders were too broad, and that she looks tired.  Yesterday was the topper - they told her that her hands were too big.  They tell her this right to her face, and even though my friend has protested this rude behavior, they continue to pick.  I can only imagine what they'd say about me.  Of course, if they would tell me that my rear end was quite large, I would say, "yes and it is very strong to kick you in yours."

Yeah, it's about time to come home. 

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Shanghai at Night, World Expo and Great Wall, round 2

Having John and Kerri here gave us the chance to do things we haven't done yet (much like when my dad was in town).  And, since this is my last few weeks in China, we have to get everything on our list checked off.

First stop was the Shanghai Financial Center, which has the tallest observation deck in the world.  It was a really clear night (shocking since we're usually covered in an overcast haze of pollution), so we decided to go up.  My acrophobia tendencies made me wonder if this was such a good idea, but when else am I going to get to be up in the highest building?

Actually, it wasn't so bad, and the views were incredible. 

Then we hit the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, formerly known as the World's Fair, I think they are held every ten years.  Shanghai has been making a huge deal out of this event ever since we arrived seven months ago.  Everywhere you turn in the city there are signs promoting the Expo and it's motto of "Better city, better life." which is quite the hypecritical statement as they displaced thousands of people from their homes in order to clear enough space in the city to house all of the pavillions, but that's another story.

We decided we would probably never go to the Expo otherwise, so now was the time.

In front of the China pavillion

Kerri and I were celebrities standing in line for the New Zealand pavillion.  Some folks from Western China wanted their pictures with us.  Paparazzi alert!  This darling old man and I had our picture taken at least five times by people in that group.  He was having a blast and so were we!

Don't get me started on what was actually in the Estonia pavillion.  I am not allowed to publicly discuss my political opinions...  Gorgeous on the outside though.  Actually, most buildings were much cooler on the outside than the inside.  I think most countries could use some help from some professional marketers.

It was nice to have a choice between squatting AND a toilet at the Expo!

In the Lithuanian pavillion, I showed up a bunch of Chinese men by sinking a free throw.  They were dumbfounded and no one except Nick cheered for me.

Next stop - Beijing.  No trip to China is complete until you see the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.  And, while we were in the former Peking, we also had to try some Peking Duck.  The restaurant we went to was really, really cool - very authentic.  It was in the hutongs, which are some of the older residences that are quickly disappearing. 

Nick and John both ate duck feet!

We ordered the full-on Peking Duck dinner which included duck meat and many internal organs.  I'm not much of a meat-eater to begin with, so I had a beer and cucumbers...

The bros share a beer at the top of the Great Wall

Next stop - the Great Wall!.  We decided to do a different section of the wall than we went to when my dad was in town.  It was fairly far out, but worth the ride.  Unlike the day we went with my dad and the horrible dust storm, we had great weather.  It was a good thing because despite going up in a cable car most of the way, the hike up was pretty steep.  This section, in Simatai, is much more rustic.  It has not been renovated like other sections of the wall, but it was still incredibly cool.

On our way down, we heard some commotion.  Being the Mrs. Kravitz that I am, I peered over the wall to check it out.  People were going down a zip line across a lake.  Again, despite my toe-curling fear of heights, I decided it was something I had to do.  So, Nick and I bravely lept of the platform and flew across the lake.  It was a blast and probably one of the coolest things I've ever done.  We are the small dot in the middle of the photo.  We have video on John's camera and I'll upload it as soon as I get it.  You'll hear a lot of screaming and it's not all from me.

photo by Kerri LeRoy

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Showing Shanghai

We've had a great time showing John and Kerri around Shanghai so far - and much more on the docket.  They've both adapted to life in China very well, and are now pros at dodging spit on the sidewalk and using chopsticks.

Of course, we were all surprised to see the overt signage on this clinic (more of my obsession with signs).  Don't touch the doorknobs.

Yesterday, I took them to one of my favorite shopping haunts, an outdoor antique market.  I wheeled and dealed with John and Kerri and we scored some great deals.

On Sunday, we ventured over to our favorite place for brunch and then a great little artist area on Taikang Lu (also seen on The Amazing Race).  We also ventured into a wet market and saw a lot of people sleeping in their vegetable stalls, including a cute cat.  I love my kitties, but I don't want them laying in my lettuce.

I also tried to get a photo of a butcher cutting meat while smoking, but he dodged my camera before I could get the shot.
It was a nice day, so there was a lot of laundry being hung to dry.
And, apparently okra makes you sleepy.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Back in the saddle (or plane seat) again

After a grueling 24-hour trip to Shanghai (5 hour delay in Chicago), I am back for my last 7-week stint in China.  Even before I left U.S. soil in Chicago, I felt like I was back in the People's Republic.  I was waiting in line to get my airline ticket stamped with Visa credentials when a man very loudly burped behind me.  I knew when I heard it, he was Chinese, but I did have to confirm so that I wasn't stereotyping too much.  Oh - and yes, he was Chinese.

We have a lot planned over the next seven weeks to ensure we leave no stone unturned here or somewhere else in Asia (I am really hoping for a trip to Chendu which is the home of one of the largest Panda reserves in the world and to Tibet). 

But, we have big fun on the way from Utah.  Nick's fantastic brother John, and our awesome sister-in-law Kerri will be on their way to Shanghai in about three hours.  We'll have a week to show them all of the Shanghai sights and we will head back to Beijing for a few days, too.

We always have a blast when we're traveling with them, so I have high expectations for some good stories to report.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ohayoo Japan!

We had a fun, fun, fun weekend in Japan!  I haven't been there in (ahem) 17 years, and Nick's never been.  I was surprised at how quickly my language skills came back, except that sometimes some Mandarin would cross my mind and I'd thank someone in Chinese instead.

It's cherry blossom season in Japan - truly a beautiful sight.  We flew into Osaka (Tokyo flights were all full and we heard the Osaka/Kyoto was a really nice area from friends).  We spent a day there and walked around a bit, hitting Osaka Castle and the gorgeous cherry trees in full bloom all around.

These are plots that the Japanese have laid out marking their spots under the cherry trees.  They come and picnic there.  We even saw several drinking at 10am!

We hit the smallest bar ever for an Asahi beer while waiting for our dinner.  Literally the place couldn't have been bigger than 4ftx8ft.  It was great.  Then, we decided experience one of the things that many Japanese do every night - play Pachinko.  I remember when I studied in Japan walking past the Pachinko parlors hearing the sound of the metal beads pouring out of the machines and loud music, but I was never brave enough to go inside.  Now was our chance.  We found the Dragon Fortune and headed inside.  We put 1000 yen (about US$10) in the machine and had to have the gaming "helper" come show us how to do it.  I'm pretty sure that his help would've been prohibited in Vegas.  Anyway, I tried my hand at it for a while, not knowing what I was doing except turning a knob.  Then Nick played and struck gold.  He was mesmorized by the flashing lights, deafening music and the Japanese video saying "Got Fever".  Three crates of metal balls later, our "helper" was motioning Nick to stop.  I thought maybe he wanted to immediately check him into Gambler's Anonymous, but instead, it was closing time (yay!  That's the first time we've closed a place down in a while).  Nick had earned more than 4,000 balls, which translated to about US$40.  Most people traded in their balls for cigarettes, but we opted for a box of lemon drops and cash.

Nick with his Asahi.  Notice that his knees are almost as tall as the bar.

Nick in the zone.

Happening downtown Osaka.

On Saturday, we headed to Kyoto by train via Nara, one of Japan's first capitals.  A friend recommended Nara, and we're so glad that we made the impromptu stop there.  From what we saw of the city, it was lovely.  There was a series of parks with temples and shrines connected by trails and deer who roam freely, asking for treats.

Beware of the deer!  We didn't see any violence among the deer.

Kyoto was lovely as well.  We wish we had more time there.  The Golden Pavillion was pretty spectacular and it was nice to be surrounded by some green for a change.  We're in a sea of concrete and metal in Shanghai.

In Osaka, we saw a Dairy Queen that had been converted into a pet store.  Glad it wasn't vice versa.

Glad to know this building had a map of refuge, if needed.

The Fushimi Inari Shrine was incredibly cool.  The trailways were lined by thousands of torii gates (the traditional Japanese gate that is used at Shinto shrines.  It was dark while we were there and they light up the gates so that you can walk through. 

We had a great time and the Japanese people were very warm and friendly.  We were sad to go, and I had to change my brain back to Chinese mode.  It was easy to do because before we even left for the airport, there were some Chinese cutting in line for the airport bus. 

Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter Mass en Francais in China

Yes, you read that right.  Although I haven't been the best Catholic church-goer while I've lived in Shanghai, I wasn't about to miss Easter mass this morning.  So, I carefully mapped out one of the three Catholic churches here in the city (and a spot for brunch, too).  The Chinese are not allowed to worship at any church, and that law was enacted under Mao's rule, but there are still a few Christian churches of various denominatiors around for the expats.  The churches were all built before his reign.

Anyway, I found a Church fairly close by our apartment that had 10:30 mass in English.  Perfect.  So, we drove up, and followed some of the Westerners who knew where they were going.  We walked in about 10:15 and Mass had already started...and it was in French.  So, we sat in an open pew and enjoyed the beautiful sound of the romantic language being delivered by the priest - and the music was beautiful.  Not what we expected, but certainly a very nice experience.    Apparently, like many other churches, they changed their schedule for Easter weekend.  Oops.

Also, this weekend is Tomb Sweeping weekend in China.  It's a three-day weekend where families go to the gravesites of their ancestors and clean their headstones and leave offerings so that they have money and gifts in their afterlife.  Just thought it was ironic that it is the same weekend this year as Easter, when Jesus' tomb was empty.

Happy Easter!

Some pics from the weekend.

Just outside our apartment building the birch trees are wrapped with lights and have snowflake lights hanging from them.  They did this before New Year's and they're still up.

The Bund is a riverwalk area alongside the Huangpu river that separates the two sections of Shanghai - Puxi and Pudong.  It is the site for many colonial style buildings which were built around the turn of the 20th century by European architects.  It's been closed for the last year or so, so that they could renovate it for the World Expo which starts in May.  It was a nice day out, as you can see from the crowds.  We usually don't feel like we live in a city of 18+million, but everyone seemed to be out yesterday.

A famous view of Shanghai and the Pearl Tower.  This is the tower I went up with dad when he was in town.

Pic of the week.  More fun with signage.  Not sure what "stomachology" is and am pretty sure that I don't want to be sick enough to find out, though my nasty illness earlier this week probably qualified for seeing a doc at this health center.