Dave Sohigian

11Apr/091

Beijing Day 6: The Great Wall

The Great Wall is certainly the most famous tourist attraction in Asia and it is a short drive from Beijing, so I knew we needed to see it during my stay here. Robert arranged a car to take us to the site and we went with a family that Robert knows from work. Roger, Tina and their daughter Samantha have been in China for about 6 months but Tina and Samantha had yet to see the Great Wall. We piled into the car (with Samantha on her parents' laps) and headed out to the country.

Right after getting in the car I realized I had forgotten to put my battery in my camera! Fortunately Robert had brought two cameras (a pocket digital and a digital SLR), so we were covered. We climbed up into the mountains and after an hour and 45 minutes we arrived at Mutianyu, a section of the wall that is particularly well-preserved (and also restored in many parts). There were several options for getting up to the wall. The first was a enclosed tram which took you to the top. The second was an open tram. And the last choice (the one we took) was hiking up to the Wall. The first thing you learn about the Great Wall is that it is a well-established tourist trap, and that means "running the gauntlet" of stalls with tourist paraphernalia.

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The second thing you discover about the Great Wall is that it is perched at the peak of the mountain chain, and that means a very steep hike to get up to the wall.

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And the third thing that you learn is that the wall is, well, big. Great big, in fact. The only way to get a sense of it is to hike down it's length for a bit, which was our plan after we managed to get to the wall. After climbing what seemed like 1000's of steep stairs, we got our first glimpse of the Great Wall through the mist:

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As you can see it was a particularly hazy day. I was not sure if it was just humidity or smoke from the coal plants or some combination, but it actually added quite a bit to the power of the Wall to see it appear magically from the mist

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There are parts of the wall that are ridiculously steep, including places with steps that were 2 feet tall and 5 inches deep. The watchtowers were placed on a very regular basis in this section of the wall and we hiked through at least 6 of the towers. Eventually we found our way to the entrance of the aerial tram which was crowded with people. Many folks just take the tram to the top, hike for a couple hundred yards and then turn back. We decided to hike back to our original entrance although our legs were getting tired by now.

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Then it was back into the car for a fast drive back into Beijing. I asked the driver to drop  me off at the subway station as we got closer to town: I had decided to take one last shot at getting some silk for Meta's dresses. I had found out about two high-end silk shops right near the center of town and since it was only 4PM I thought it was worth a try. The first shop had a large selection and very good quality (I had a sample I was using for reference). The silk I was looking for was known as "charmeuse" and needed to be fairly heavy-weight. In addition Meta had given me some color ideas to choose from (mauve, seafoam, rust and turquoise). I found the two stores and went back and forth between them comparing products:

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The color choices were fairly random, but the prices were consistent (and fairly high). There is not the option of bargaining much in these sorts of shops, so I knew it was going to cost to get the right stuff. But the reason I was trying to buy this silk was not just about price: it is impossible to find heavy charmeuse in the US, especially pre-dyed fabric. Here are some of the colors I had to choose from:

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It is a bit of a fool's errand to send me shopping for fabrics, but I did my best. In the end I picked up two 5 meter lengths, one of mauve and one of rust. Or at least they looked like mauve and rust to me, but like I said, fool's errand. Now the hard part will be finding seamstress back home that can handle dress-making with pure silk.

I made my way home, happy with the fact that I had managed to get the silk. I took the subway and then picked up Robert's second bike near the station. The ride home was crowded with rush-hour bike traffic (even on a Saturday) and I noticed several tricycles carrying large loads. It is pretty amazing just how big a load some of these guys (and gals) can carry on their bikes:

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Okay, Really amazing:

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After seeing The Great Wall, Tienanmen Square and The Forbidden City I was starting to realize that the Chinese do big things quite well. I am considering using the phrase "China Big" instead of "Texas Big" from now on, but I think it will lose something in the translation.

That was pretty much it for my last full day in China. Tomorrow I will head to the airport and head out by Noon. I will arrive back in San Francisco at 8:30 AM or so. Crossing the date line in this direction allows you to perform a time traveling trick of arriving before you leave.

A full slideshow of the day's pictures:

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11Apr/091

Beijing Day 5

Today was a mellow day, mainly making up for lost sleep and jet lag (just in time to head back home). I did head out in the afternoon to go shopping with Robert. I was mainly looking for stuff for the kids and we headed to a local indoor market that did not cater to tourists. The market had hundreds of stalls, with all sorts of specialties. Want shoes? Got 'em:

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Girl's dresses? Yep, with big dolls for models:

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Tape? How much do you need?

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I spent close to three hours in the place (Robert gave up on me after an hour and I shopped on my own after that). I did find quite a few choice items, all for great "local" prices. The kids should be happy with the spoils. The only thing I couldn't find was the silk that Meta had requested for her Eurythmy dresses.

After shopping on my own, I went back to Robert's place and then we headed out for an evening with Vivian. First we looked for silk shops to purchase the material for Meta's dress (Vivian has a background in fashion) but they were all closed, so no luck there. Then we went to a well-known ex-pat pizza restaurant known as "The Tree". It was packed with foreigners and we ordered two very tasty pizzas. The beer menu at the place was ridiculous with a wide range of Belgian beers including Chimay, Abbey doubles and tripels, Framboise, Kriek and even, yes, Delirium Nocturnum. I had a Framboise and Robert did as well after he tasted mine.

Tomorrow is my last full day in China and we will be headed to Great Wall of China!

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9Apr/091

Beijing Day 4

After a (fairly) late night at the Laoshe Teahouse, I slept in (after waking for a couple hours at 3 AM) and took it easy in the morning. Robert and I had lunch with a couple of his friends here. The food (vegetarian) was delicious. After lunch we headed down to Lama Temple, a working Buddhist Temple that is open to tourists. We took the subway (we have only taken two trips by taxi since I arrived) on several of the shiny new lines installed before the Beijing Olympics. The trains are equipped with a cool dynamic map that shows which stop you are headed towards with colored lights (red is stops you have passed, blue is stops along your destination path)
(click on photos to see enlarged version)

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Once we got to the Lama Temple we met up with Robert's friend, Vivian, who is a native Beijinger. Vivian speaks fluent English as well as Japanese and is learning French
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We looked around the temple, which struck me as very different than Buddhist temples in Thailand. The temples in Thailand are ridiculously ornate, every surface covered with pictures and bas-relief. The Lama Temple was more subdued, although the Buddha statues were all gold:
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There was one structure that held a giant turtle statue with a pillar on his back. I am not the significance of the statue, but it was interesting because it was crammed into the structure, making it difficult to even get a clear shot of it:

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Perhaps it represents turtles all the way down.

The temple has a unique history, having been created as a home for court eunuchs in the early 1700's. Eventually it was converted to a prince's home. Later it became a "lamasery" devoted to Tibetan Buddhist Monks. The structure was protected by the Prime Minister during the Cultural Revolution, and that is why it survives today. It was reopened as a monastery in 1981, and is one of the most important Tibetan monasteries in the world.

After the Lama temple we took a bus to a shopping area which I think is called Hou Hai. The shops surround a large lake and it is very tranquil (by Beijing standards). It's the same place where Robert went ice skating in the Winter. On our way to Hou Hai we noticed a man flying a kite, which, according to Vivian, was on over 800 meters of string! I zoomed in as far as possible with my camera (10x) and you can see just how small the kite still appears:

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We wandered around the lake for at least an hour or more.

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We also stopped into a Starbucks for a break (where can't you find a Starbuck's anymore?).

This is for my daughter, Anna. As we walked along a side street we saw a little bunny in a cage. Vivian and Robert went to say hello:

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Then it was back on the subway to pick up our bikes for a speedy night-time ride through Beijing (no photos or video of that, I did not want to crash)!

Tomorrow (Friday) will be devoted to shopping for gifts and Saturday is a trip to the Great Wall of China. Here are the rest of the pictures from today:

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8Apr/091

Beijing Day 3

Today was not nearly as touristy as yesterday. In the morning I made my way around Beijing on my own while Robert headed to work for the morning. I took a bus from in front of Robert's place and just got off when the area looked interesting. I did a little shopping (found a couple gifts for my Son, Caleb) and then realized that the bus I had taken did not run in the other direction. Although I actually quite enjoy making my way around a new city, even when I don't know the language, I remembered that I did not even know how to describe Robert's place to a taxi driver. Normally I would have gotten a native to write down my address for use in taxis, but I was being lazy and had decided not to bother.

I went down a side-street and found a place to buy live seafood. The choices included turtle, eel and several different species of fish:

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I am not sure why, but I saw a couple reminders of Oregon while out on the town. The first was this worker wearing an Oregon shirt:

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And the second was found in a high-end bike shop, which featured several Bike Friday's (made in Eugene, OR) in their showroom:

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Given the number of cheap folding bikes you can buy in China, it was really surprising to see a US made bike. Especially at a price of over $1500 US!

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Eventually I traced the bus line back for about 1 mile until I found the line running in the other direction, so I made it home without difficulty.

Later in the afternoon we headed out to buy a new electric bike for Robert. This is his old bike:
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And this is the new one:
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Once he purchased the bike, we went for a ride around town together on the two bikes. Riding a bike (even an electric one) in Beijing is quite different than riding in the States. Cars, bikes, peds, carts, strollers, and whatever else all crowd together on the right side of the street. Horns honk, people weave and it all seems very casual. The good news is that they move rather slow and even though they can be unpredictable there is enough time to react. That said, it is not for the faint of heart and I warned Robert about trying to get my Mom up on one of the bikes when she visits: not sure if that would be wise.

We stopped by one of Robert's favorite shopping places: Top Electronics City. It's a huge mall purely for electronics. From complete computer systems to any part you can imagine, they have what seem like miles of stalls selling it all. Some example of what you can purchase there:

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On the ride back home we heard the clattering noise coming from the car lanes and turned around to see a tow truck pulling a pickup with a flat tire. The tire was disintegrating further (almost down to the bare metal) as it drove along. The thing was clattering along as it was being pulled. The hilarious thing was that they had someone in the driver's seat of the pickup being towed!

The evening was eventful as well. After a brief rest at home we headed out again by bike to catch the subway. The subway was crowded with people who move very smoothly as they transfer between trains:

Our destination was the Lao Tse Teahouse, a popular local restaurant with a variety show. The entire program is in Chinese and although there were translations for some of the acts, it was entertaining just to see the traditional chinese performance arts. The performances included shadow puppets, kung fu, comedy, Peking opera and a magic show. The highlight of the evening was when the magician picked Robert's friend, Eric, to go on stage. Eric looks like the typical American and seemed willing enough. They had him help in tying up a woman for the act, and I suspect they picked him to poke a little fun at the "LaoWai", or foreigner. They got a surprise when they asked him whether the ropes were tight (in Chinese) and he responded in Chinese (I am not sure what he said). Eric, despite his appearance, is fluent in Chinese after studying it for over 10 years. His response got a round of applause from the audience.

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Some photos of the other acts:

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A quick video of the shadow puppets:

The show was entertaining and gave a great taste of Chinese culture. Eric translated and explained several of the acts which gave it more meaning.

Here is a slideshow with all the photos I took on Day 3:

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7Apr/094

Day 2 in Beijing: Forbidden City

(click on any of the picture in this post to expand to a larger view)

Read this sentence about the Forbidden City:

"Construction began in 1406, lasted 15 years, and required more than a million workers."

(from the wikipedia listing)

So what can  15 Million Man Years accomplish? Something pretty big, that's for sure.

Waking up this morning was not a problem, but getting back to sleep (at 3 AM) was difficult. I took Leo, Robert's dog, out for a walk at 8 AM and discovered that the elevators in his place go to -1 an -2:

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By 10 AM we were ready to head out for the day. We started with an "American Breakfast" at a new restaurant near his home. The last time I had a breakfast with that name was in Thailand, and it was pretty miserable. But this was much more pleasant. I particularly liked the small bowl of corn flakes with the tiny spoon. My daughter, Anna, would have loved it.

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We took the subway to the Forbidden City, which lies in the heart of Beijing. The trains are fast and clean, although can be crowded at rush hour.

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First stop: Tiananmen Square, famous as the site of the 1989 protests and subsequent massacre. The Square is large, flat, and for the most part, featureless. It is meant as a massive gathering place for government ceremonies, much like Red Square in Russia. It lies just south of the Forbidden City. We took the obligatory tourist picture in front of the flagpole (you can see the entrance to the Forbidden City in the background).

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Making our way to the Forbidden City, we passed through the outer wall via the Tiananmen Gate. The massive doors have rivet on them. Touching the rivets supposedly gives good luck, but I am not sure how many you are supposed to touch. I tried just a couple:

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The scale of the Forbidden City is just enormous. It reminded me of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, but MUCH bigger (and less ornate). The scale was similar to the ruins of Karnak - almost too big to really comprehend.

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As we made our way towards the inner gate, we decided we should have a guide to show us around the rest of the monument. We found "Sunny", a local student who sidelines by giving tours of various tourist sites. She spoke English very well (and French too, from what she said) and knew the Forbidden City history in great detail.

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More doors, more structure, more plazas. The palace seems to go on forever, with different ceremonial areas and structures at every turn. There are many interesting details, such as the lion  handles on these enormous copper bowls.

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The bowls themselves were used to store water for fire-fighting. Since much of the structure is made of wood, there was constant concern about fires.

Inside of most of the main structures were throne rooms, used by the Emperor and other dignataries to manage affairs of state.

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This enormous lion guarded the entrance to the concubines section of the palace.

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The Emperors were attended by a vast number of concubines, up to 1000 of them in some cases. The size of the palace is mainly required to accommodate the concubines, their servants and the many government officials that lived there as well.

There are many artifacts held in the museums around the palace. Some are truly exquisite:

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Before I left, Meta and I wondered what the major historical religion in China was, whether Buddhist or something else. According to what I have now read, much of the structure and artifacts in the Forbidden City are focused around "Taoism". You can read about it here:

I like the first two lines of the Tao Te Ching, the major text of Taoism:

"The Way that can be described is not the true Way."
"The Name that can be named is not the constant Name."

Here's one other cool fact about China. Up until the early 1900's they had a system of examinations that (theoretically) allowed anyone who passed to be granted lucrative jobs with the government (more on it here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_examination). It's an interesting cultural bias that suggests that all people should be judged on merit rather than family ties or other measures.

We made our way further into the inner portion of the city, and some of the spaces became smaller and (relatively) more intimate:

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Many of the parts of the Forbidden City have been repainted and restored in recent years (particularly leading up to the Beijing Olympics). Evidence of the continuing work was still visible, such as these ceiling paintings, some of which are bright and colorful, and others faded with time:

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Another amazing feature of the Forbidden City is all the carved stone. Much of it is weathered with time, and many people touching it as they walk by, but some has been protected and retains it's original detail.

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One particularly amazing example was this stairway, carved from a single block of stone:

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After the Forbidden City we made the trip back to Robert's place via subway (cost: $0.30). On Tuesdays and Thursdays he has someone who comes in to make dinner, so we relaxed to a nice meal and watched a movie (Watchmen, very disappointing). Then it was off to bed for the night. Tomorrow will be a slower day, just making our way around the city.

If you made it this far you are probably Meta or my Mom. If you are dying to see more, you can see a complete slideshow of all the photos I took yesterday below.

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6Apr/090

First Photos from my Beijing Trip

I arrived in Beijing today at 2PM on Monday, totally jet-lagged but still excited. In a funny coincidence there was a contingent of students from Sacramento Waldorf School also on the plane. I knew a couple of them and we chatted during the flight. They were clearly very excited about the trip and many had never been overseas.

Robert met me at the airport and we took the train to the subway to get back to his place. Also a quick dinner and then it will be off to bed! A 33 hour day can be wearing on a guy.

Below is a slideshow of a few of my experiences on the short first day. It includes pics of the SWS kids getting off the plane in Beijing, video of Robert and I heading to town from the airport and then walking around in Beijing on our way to dinner. More to follow.

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3Apr/090

Off to China on Sunday

I am headed to Beijing on Sunday (arrive on Monday 4/6). I will spend the week there with my Brother, Robert. I will be posting photos and stories to this blog as time allows.

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3Apr/090

Never-Before-Published Photos: The Day MLK Died – LIFE

LIFE Presents: Never-Before-Published Photos From Memphis, April 4, 1968
On April 4, 1968, LIFE photographer Henry Groskinsky and writer Mike Silva, on assignment in Alabama, learned that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. They raced to the scene and there, incredibly, had unfettered access to the hotel grounds, Dr. King's room, and the surrounding area. For reasons that have been lost in the intervening years, the photographs taken that night and the next day were never published. Until now.

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2Apr/090

Latest PowerPoint Feature on Slideshare.net

My latest PowerPoint presentation on Generations is currently the top featured item on Slideshare.net:

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2Apr/090

Apture lets bloggers build better links

Way cool plugin that allows you to easily add context to blog posts.

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