Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Silk Road Trip Day 3 - Beijing to Xian

I'm sitting here in the Beijing West Train Station, with about 2 hours to kill before our train to Xian. We spent the day touring a bit more of some of the major sites here in town, and will spend the night now on the train going southwest. This Internet session will cost a bit more, 5 Yuan (darn near 80 cents) with a 20 Yuan deposit, and they logged my passport in as well. That part was a little strange, but it's probably a security measure or something.

Up at about 6 again, I grabbed a quick shower and then started to pack up my stuff. We were mostly ready by about 7:15, and went down to the lobby restaurant for the breakfast buffet. After a decent meal of eggs, bacon, and fruit, and a couple of cups of good coffee, we went back and linked up with the rest to go to the Temple of Heaven.

When we got there, no sooner had we gotten out of the taxi when we were accosted by good natured touts selling maps and brochures. Deb also had about a dozen tourists come up to take pictures with her. Her height and blond hair just made her the subject of a lot of photos.

The Temple of Heaven was an important place where the Emperor would offer sacrifices for a good harvest. While the architecture and history was impressive, the best part was the people watching. All over the place, people were using the courtyards and other open spaces to do Tai Chi, ballroom dancing, kicking a feathered shuttlecock around, and even writing water calligraphy. It was the place to be for older, retired folks. It was pretty incredible to see the flexibility and balance of some of the old timers out there doing Tai Chi. It's a bit like slow martial arts moves, but apparently you can work up a sweat if you do it right.

In the middle of the complex is a circular temple where, if you place your mouth near one part of the wall, you can whisper and hear it on the other side. It was really interesting, and everywhere around the temple, you could hear these whispers that were a bit freaky. Glad it was daytime. There was also a lady there with some really big hair...it looked at first like it was a hat.

We toured the three main areas of the temple, and upon arriving at the north side, found a long porch crowded with more locals hanging out. This time, there were people performing Chinese Opera, whole choruses with conductors, a harmonica player, and a very old man, who was making up poetry on the spot, with wild gesticulating and eyes bugging and spittle flying. Irene, who speaks Mandarin (and 6 other languages), said, "Basically, he's a rapper!" Whatever he was, he was entertaining.

Once we finished with the temple, we wandered down the street (passing a ferocious dog) until we stopped at a silk factory for a quick lesson on how silk is made. They had everything from the bugs to the cocoons, and all the steps in between. Unbeknownst to me, there are different sizes of cocoons, the bigger ones only found in China, and apparently having "twins." The lady guiding us through the tour described the process thusly...

"First, the two butterflies get married. Then the female butterfly lays eggs. Then the babies hatch and every five days shed their skin until they start to form their own cocoon."

There was more after that, but the thought of a tiny wedding ceremony for these little bugs so the babies could be legitimate was really funny. I do realize, of course, that this is the 21st Century, and it is quite common (even in China, apparently) for silkworms to live in sin. Still, it's a nice thought that a boy silkworm wants to make the girl silkworm into a respectable woman. Of course, I'm sure there are some boy silkworms who say, "Why buy the silk when you can get it for free?" What an archaic, misogynistic attitude. Sheesh.

In any case, as is typical, this was a state store and ended with a demonstration of how silk quilts are made, complete with an opportunity to try to stretch out the silk fibers as part of a team. None of us were offered jobs. And yes, Melody, I did get one...It's going by ship, though, so it will likely be an anniversary rather than birthday gift. It would have cost the price again of the quilt to send it via air or "express."

We at lunch around the corner from the hotel, and Steve and I ventured to find the Catholic Church in town, the South Cathedral. We'd made an attempt on Sunday morning, but were unsuccessful in our quest. Had we found it, we would have been there for a Latin Mass. It's a beautiful cathedral dating back to 1905, but a church has stood on the spot since the 1600s (Ming Dynasty) when Fr. Matteo Ricci founded the church. It's been destroyed or damaged several times by earthquakes, and the previous cathedral was destroyed by a fire. It was an oasis of peace, though, from the chaotic city streets. We spent a few quiet moments inside before heading back to the hotel.

At 3 PM, we all loaded our bags into the van for the trip out to the Summer Palace, where the Emperors would go relax and keep out of the harsh summer heat. It has been there for centuries, but was destroyed during the Anglo-French War in about 1860. Rebuilt, it remains a stunning place. It sits along side a large lake, and has several impressive structures, including a 728 meter long covered walkway with four terraces. The air quality was especially bad today, which is unfortunate, as the place must be spectacular when you can see without a brown haze. One sighting of note, was the souvenir shop girl who's hairstyle was that of Chaka from Land of the Lost (or maybe Tina Turner...they had pretty much the same hair). We wandered the main areas, and took advantage of a 4 Star Toilet (registered and certified by the China Tourism Administration) before heading back to the van for the short trip to the station.

Arriving at the Beijing West Train Station, we had to send our bags through an X-ray machine, and walk under a metal detector. The detector didn't seem to be on, and I couldn't see anyone looking at the bags...so much for security.

There's a nice waiting room with comfortable couches where we are (it's for the soft sleeper class), and a big open hall with a lot of people milling around. From the looks of it, they're not riding soft sleeper. We'll cool our heels for a while until leaving around 9 or so. It's 11 hours, and if you want to know what to expect, check out my blog hero Erik Trinidad's entry from 2004. He has several entries on the China part of his tour, though once past Xian, we're pretty much doing different things. Just don't compare his blog with mine too much.

By the way, so far, I've not been able to upload any pictures, because all the computers so far have not allowed access to USB ports. Probably at some point I'll be able to, but if not, I'll put up a bunch when I get home. I finished filling the first 1GB USB card today.


1 comment:

gregory said...

Awesome! from Sharon and Greg