Open Road

The Temple of Heaven and Getting to Xi'an - May 26

We got up, had our amazing buffet breakfast, and headed to the publishers next door the minute the porters had taken all our bags.

It turned out to be a place called The Commercial Press which has been around since 1897 and focuses mostly on textbooks, references, and educational materials. Dad had a friend who always frequents the Shanghai branch of the house, and says that the brings a suitcase just for all the books he finds there. *laughs*

We didn't do quite so much shopping, but we did find some treasures, including a bunch of good calligraphy books for me to use as examples, and several books for learning how to write Chinese for Jet. Dad found a few calligraphy books for himself, as well, so we were pretty happy when we met up with everyone in the lobby.



Jeff!
We were all pretty comfortable with each other by this point, and Jeff was intrigued by Jet's hat, which could be flipped inside out and upsidedown in four different configurations that were best demonstrated. *laughs*

We were all packed up, and with the two different tour groups, we had two different flights for the whole group. So there were some logistics of which people went on which bus. The luggage went in different directions, too, and all the carry-ons went on the bus. Jevons collected all the passports, so that he would take care of them and get them to where they had to be so that he would check us all in to our flights, instead of us checking ourselves in. It was interesting what he was able to do as our guide that I'm not sure could be done in the U.S. in the same way.

We all ended up together at the parking lot outside the park surrounding the Temple of Heaven. It's an enormous park, about 6,670 acres or 2,668 hectares, which ever makes the most sense to you. It's a lot of land, and everyone seems to want to use a little bit of it. It was amazingly full of people doing all kinds of things. The size of the whole park is about three times that of the Forbidden City, so, again, everything is on an enormous scale.

Water Brush CalligraphyHacky Sack with a BirdPictures!Carrrrrds!

One of the things I loved most were the older people playing their equivalent of a hacky sack, but it was feathered with coins or metal disks on the bottom, so that it chimed everytime someone kicked it! It was quite different in some ways, as it provided a relatively stable target.

Of course, right next to them was a young man selling them for ten yuan a piece.

IMG_6898
There was, of course, a walkway, covered and crowded with people. There were the card games, dominoes, and chess all played along the way. There were ladies doing hand knitting and selling the small beaded bags that they made.

Then we heard "The Yellow Rose of Texas" played with a haunting tonality that I'd never heard before. It was these two men, playing together, using a very old Chinese instrument, that I'd never even seen before, much less heard. They were having a blast, too, with various tourists around them, and there was no hat to be seen, they were just doing it for fun!

I loved that, and it was really great when the tune went back to more traditional lines after they'd finished their little set. The whole of the walk was really nice. I did a lot of walking when I was there, and I had my little Pikachu pedometer instead of my usual fitbit. The fitbit requires Internet access in order to convey its data anywhere, as well as requiring a USB connection to charge up. So it was just too much trouble. The Pikachu only needed its battery and my pen to record my steps for the day. *laughs* Yes, the Great Wall was a 20,000 step day... but the park walk was just really comfortable, and I could see how just having it there made it easy for people to get out and do something.

The Front of the Temple

The Temple of Heaven is matched by temples to the Earth, Sun, and Moon all around Beijing. These were the places where the Emperor went to worship, and since he was the Son of Heaven, this was where he did the most public of offerings.

It's built on three platforms of three tiers of marble, making it the lucky nine. Each of the stairways had a gorgeous carving of dragons on them. The Forbidden City is built box-shaped, as a representation of the Earth and the powers of the Earth, but the Temple of Heaven is built round, as everything of heaven is a circle. The blues are all because it's the temple of the Sky/Heaven (those are the same word in written Chinese). There's all kinds of numerology involved in the building, from the four seasons for the four pillars of the first level, the twelve months making twelve pillars on the second level, and the twelve pillars for the twelve hours of day and night for the third. There's nines everywhere, and the whole thing was designed to be feng shui positive in every way possible.

It had to be an auspicious place, because this was where the Emperor made his sacrifices to Heaven in order to pray for a good harvest. The biggest one was on the winter solstice, which included three days of fasting, lots of sacrifices of animals, jade, and gold, and everything hinged on it going well in every detail. Poor Emperors.

Museum
Behind this gate was a museum entirely dedicated to the paraphernalia and artifacts and details of the ceremonies of sacrifice that the various emperors did. There was even a kind of score board for how many ceremonies which emperors did. That was pretty bemusing.

Then there was a more than thirty-step description of everything that the Emperor, his officials, his entourage, and everyone else in the country did during the time of the ceremony. There is even a Hall of Abstinence, where the Emperor would go to fast and sleep at night during the multi-day rite. The interesting thing was that ordinary people weren't allowed to witness any of the ceremony, especially what went on in the Temple/Altar of Heaven itself. It was first constructed in 1420, during that Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle (the guy with the money at his feet?) and expanded upon with the expansion, I suspect, of the ceremonies that became tradition.

Ceiling to the Temple
And so we come to another story about my father's aunt, Lin Hui Yin. Back in the 1930's (back before any architectural school in the US had accepted a woman), way before WW II, she and her husband had gone to the US to study architecture. They came back and began a study of ancient Chinese architecture and how it was structured. She actually went into and up all kinds of temples, palaces, and towers at that time, one of them was the Temple of Heaven.

They got to climb into the roof of the Temple of Heaven in order to figure out the materials and techniques that were used to build it. Afterward, she reflected that she was probably the first woman in China who had ever been allowed to climb on the Roof of Heaven.

She's probably right. *laughs* And what a roof it is, now.

And, yes, Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam War Memorial is also Lin Hui Yin's niece, which makes her the same generation as my dad, so in Chinese tradition, I'd be able to call Maya Lin "Aunt", though she's just about my age. *laughs*

Outside of the Temple is a huge tiled platform, semi-circular on one end for Heaven, and square on the other for Earth, and there were all kinds of things on it, including giant urns, potted roses, and plenty of space for Tai Chi practitioners. Dad asked the guide why there wasn't anyone practicing Tai Chi, and Hawk said that this area got too crowded for them, and they now work out in a particular corner of the enormous park below.

Touch!Roses!Roof TilesIMG_6946

When we were all done looking around the main area, we went back through the park and the walkway. A little old lady was selling the feathered hacky sacks, and Jet really wanted one. I asked Dad to do the bargaining, and he started at two yuan!

The little old lady started to berate him, and in a mild panic, Jet and I started to figure out exactly how much cash we actually had. It ended up being five yuan, and the lady humphed and said that five would be perfect, since that was the price she'd started at. Oops. Sorry, Dad. *laughs* But Jet got his feathered creation for half the price the other guy at the park was asking, so Jet was very pleased with himself.

Lots of Power
On the way back to the Beijing Airport, we saw these, and I was just amazed at the implications of just how much power was running through this city, as this was probably just a small portion of the power. There were also great blocks upon blocks upon blocks of those high rise apartments, and just past the river were small strips of farm land.

Yum!
We arrived around lunch time, and, as promised, we were already checked in and our luggage already tagged and sent on to Xi'an. We had some time, and no planned lunch, so the four of us headed through security and found a two-story food court. At the top was Aijisen Ramen, which had a marketing icon as cute as any I've seen. *laughs*

The food made up for the icon, I'll admit.

And the two-story construction made if fun to spot other people from our group as they wandered about finding their lunches.

Our Lunch!
They had traditional Japanese "Chinese ramen"... which always bemuses me when I think of the origins of the whole thing.

But they had a pretty standard pork ramen and a duck ramen. Both had half a boiled egg and the usual vegetables, pickles, and sides. None of the four of us were super hungry so we ordered three bowls instead of four, and split them among ourselves. The broth was good an tasty, the duck was tender and flavorful, the pickles were great. The noodles were cooked just right, the bok choy was cooked but still crisp, and there were plenty of scallions in the mix. The hard-boiled eggs were seasoned with an extra boil in a soy/ginger/sugar/spice mix, and the pork was perfectly tender. It was a wonderful mid-day snack, and we were happily refreshed for the plane ride.

Jet and John with Friends
It was a relatively small plane, but it was only for a couple of hours. It's about 700 miles, a little less than a trip from Seattle, WA to San Francisco, CA. So it was probably just time enough for one drink service, and then we were down again. I found that I really was grateful for my Kindle for these short flights, and my new Kindle's battery never had to be charged for the entire two week trip!

One of the cool features of the China Air planes was that they had a camera on the nose of the plane, and on take off and on landings, they would show the view from that camera on the cabin monitors. You could see the flag man signaling how far we were to go into the gate slots, or see exactly when the wheels hit the tarmac, or how far below the city was when we were winging around it. It made me wish that we had those cameras on the planes back home.

Grasshopper Bus
Xi'an was opened up to the world long before the rest of China. It was, historically, the capitol of the nation before the Mongolians took over, since the Qin conquest of the whole of the country. It's a city with more than two millennium of history. With the archaeological value of what they have here, it was opened up early for tourists and international visitors.

So the Xi'an airport is fairly old. It's big enough to accommodate those that want to get here, but it's not nearly as sleek and Westernized as the Shanghai airport nor is it as enormous as the Beijing airport. All of its bathrooms had the squat-style toilets, and Jevons said, later, that the Chinese prefer those types of toilets for public restrooms because there's no chance of *touching* anything with your skin. Later on, in Guilin, I was to discover exactly how true that was.

But for that moment, on that day, I was kind of tired of so much that was so strange, and happy to just go with everyone in our brand-new grasshopper bus to our hotel in Xi'an.

Our Xian Guide -- Sherry
Sherry Ho was our guide in Xi'an, and she loved her city and was extremely interested in studying the Terracotta Warriors. The eight people who were going on the Yangzte River Cruise were getting their own guide here, because they had to fit more in before they left for their River, and the twenty-five that were left were going with her.

Xi means West and An means City, and the Xi'an city is sandwiched by the Yellow River to the north, and mountains to the south, which is supposed to be very auspicious. It's also a very flat land, and well south of Beijing, so the weather is more mild and warmer. So this part of the country is known for its farmlands and winter wheat. Because they're known for their wheat, they're also known for their noodles, which in Chinese cuisine, is more broadly defined to include dumplings of all kinds as well as noodles. So we were going to have a noodle feast one of the nights we're here.

Rice
There are about nine million people in the city of Xi'an, so it's considered a "small city". Compared to New York City's eight million, it provides a sort of context for the population densities here.

The city still has its full city wall. One of the administrators for Xi'an felt it was important to fight for their wall because of its historical significance, so now it's one of the very few cities in China that still has its one and a half miles of Wall.

It's also the beginning of the Spice Road. The other end stops in Istanbul. The city contains a very large number of people of Muslim descent, who still practice their religious ways. Many of them look Chinese in every aspect, as the emperors of the days when trade with Arabia and Persia was very important would encourage the traders to take local wives and keep them here.

IMG_7072
Driving through town to our hotel, it really did feel older, a little closer. Everything seemed a little slower and less tightly packed than in Beijing.

We were warned that our hotel wasn't in a great part of town, so we shouldn't walk around the town at night, but daytime was all right. And since we didn't get there until 7 pm, Jevons basically handed us our keycards and shoo'ed us up to our rooms. Dinner would be the buffet at the hotel, and it was nice to just roll up to the room, unpack, and then head down to a dinner spread that we could choose as we pleased.

The other people on the River cruise were there, so it was nice to be able to sit with some of them and talk with them for a little while again.

The dinner buffet contained a few wonderful surprises. One was a sweet soup with white wood ear (a kind of fungus/mushroom) that cooked up utterly transparent. It had the bite of a regular wood ear, which is kind of crisp and chewy, and nearly no taste, and when cooked with lotus seeds in a clear pork broth it was sweet and wonderful. There were chestnuts and bamboo slowly braised with duck. There were five kinds of soups, grilled fresh fish with rice, and a whole noodle station, where John got bright green noodles in a spicy sauce.

Closed...
After dinner, the boys went swimming, and I took a long, hot bath and then finished cleaning myself off under an overhead rain shower. I loved it, and the room was beautifully luxurious.

I loved that John and Jet came back all excited about the fact that their lockers were unlocked with RF bracelets that they could wear into the pool. That was pretty cool. What was funnier yet was that while the pool required bathing caps, it turned out that the boys could use the shower caps included in the room as a substitute for buying real swimming caps! Jevons had given us that idea, and the boys implemented it, though Jet kept losing his cap and had to swim up to retrieve it from the surface.

It was a nice day, a little less intense than the last two, but after 11,118 steps and in anticipation of a 7:30 wake-up call, I was ready to sleep by 10.

Next: Xi'an: Terracotta Warriors and Tang Dynasty Theater
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