Saturday, June 16, 2007

sorry it took so long.....

There seemed to be a conspiracy on the part of every hotel and computer between Shanghai and Maitland to prevent me from posting in the last week of the trip.

We arrived in Ottawa yesterday after our 19th and final flight of the trip. In the last week we were counting things down... our last overnight train trip (24 hours, hard sleeper from Shanghai to Guangzhou), our last bus ride (4 1/2 hours from Guangzhou to "Kowloon" "somewhere in the middle of the city, blocks from the nearest subway...."), our last foriegn border crossing (into the USA for a simple 3 hour transit -- over an hour of which was waiting for customs and wondering if we would make the connection--Nicky said Switzerland was just as bad-- it REALLY ticked me off after countless other border crossings to watch them fingerprint the passengers and take their photographs), our last trip to the Spaghetti House chain in Hong Kong (favourite of the younger set, this one happened twice in as many days on our return to Hong Kong-- and we considered a final kick at the can in the airport..) Then the firsts.... Our first Tim Horton's--(in the Airport in Toronto--sadly a badly set up one that had a constant line around the corner which made us and every other returning Canadian plus the entire ground crew of the airport wait for ages for their fix). Our first look at the house (sadly still full of our crap). Our first trip to Montanas (for lunch yesterday).....

Just to fill in the last week. We arrived in Shanghai and took the Maglev train into town from the airport. It is the fastest I ever think I will travel on the ground. The speed you are travelling is displayed at either end of each compartment and it hits a top speed of 430 km/hr which is sustained for about 4 minutes of the 8 minute trip. As you slow down you think you are crawling along after the speed section. You look up to find you are going at 180 km/hr. It is a fun ride if you ever go to Shanghai.

We did the Bund in our overnight trip to Shanghai before taking the train south. The Bund is a concrete boardwalk along the riverfront. The buildings lining the Shanghai side of the river are all protected old buildings from the early part of the 1900's. On the other side they are building a skyline which will soon rival Hong Kong. They are building 5 skyscrapers at once and I don't think the others are all that old. It is turning out to be quite nice because the architechture on the set of skyscrapers is interesting. It is a really nice walk with the juxtaposition of the old and new sections on the two sides of the river. We went to a restaurant and hung around the area until dark to see it all lit up. It was worth doing to see the lights but I can't stand that much humanity crammed into the same place I am in so we left quickly.

In Guangzhou we didn't do much of anything. I found a book in a drawer in the hotel room (it was a dorm room) and pretended I was Jane on vacation for the day. The kids fought over the Nintendo DS and read books too. Alan was our only restless member and he took himself off a couple of times to do things no one else had much interest in. We all felt we had been there before and done all the good stuff.

In Hong Kong we went to the Ten Thousand Buddhas temple,which was the only thing we hadn't done last time which appealed to us. It is a really bizarre place. You walk up the hillside and the path is lined with these life size cartoonish plastic gold Buddha statues. There are a couple of hundred different ones and it makes you wonder who made them. Are they produced in factories and if so, where are the rest of the runs? Where is the market for life size plastic cartoon Buddhas? If they are the only copies, it makes you wonder at the effort that went into making the set.

We are home now and back to our boring lives for a while. I am really glad we went and I won't wait as long before I travel again this time.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Goodbye to Japan....

We spent the last couple of days in Japan doing Museums and Temples. On Thursday we went to the Kyoto International Museum of Manga. Which was, of course, Jacob's choice. He loved it. Alan seemed to quite get into it too. Heather was OK for several hours. The Manga Museum per se didn't do all that much for me. One thing they had, besides pretty much every Manga book ever published in Japan lining the walls, were black and white drawings by what must have been almost every professional cartoonist in Japan. They were in groups on all the walls as you went through the halls. Each one was a single female and the variety was amazing. There were all kinds of different drawing styles and the subjects ranged from kimonos to the booby outfits you often see in those kind of comics. We were all totally impressed with was the special exhibit on plastic figurines. When you see one plastic figurine, you often think they are tacky and stupid. When you see a whole room full of them displayed well, you realize they are a legitimate (sp?) art form. They had all kinds from the nature ones you see in science museums to cartoon ones. They had a nice set of Alice In Wonderland figures for instance. Many came from a museum devoted to plastic figurines and I would like to see their collection sometime. On Friday we went to the Kyoto National Museum which was very good. They had a room or two of each thing -- sculpture, ceramics, brass, textiles, etc. It was just enough to be interesting but not overwhelming. They apparently constantly rotate the collection so you would rarely see the same thing twice. It must be a lot of work for the curators but good for the audience. We didn't make it through all of the World Heritage Sites but we went to quite a few temples. I wondered aloud why one was on the list since it seemed similar to a lot of others and Heather said "Look Mum, I know from experience, you are templed out when they all start to look the same." We are back in Shanghai tonight and have to remember not to eat salad or ice and also you are not allowed to flush the toilet paper down..... DON"T ASK!

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Continuing in Kyoto

Yesterday we went on a walk with a famous guide called Johnny Hillwalker who is an old Japanese man in his 70's who takes foriegners on walks to show them another side of Kyoto. Alan had found a pamphlet of his at the airport and the kids were really keen. He charges $20 per head (kids free) and had close to 30 people on the walk. It is probably a nice income for him. He is a very calm and fairly well organized person. He has been doing the walk for 12 years three times a week, 9 months a year, so he has had a lot of time to get it down pat. It was a bit long at 5 hours but I think on the whole it was a good experience. I think the kids got quite a lot out of it too.

We also managed to knock off another two world heritage sites yesterday but I fear many of the 12 we have left in Kyoto will not be seen by me in this lifetime. Jacob has his heart set on the Museum of Manga and I think everyone wants to go to the National Museum. We made an aborted attempt to go to this and several other closed places on Monday.

We had to move out of our first Kyoto hotel after two days because the room had been rented. We moved to this hotel for three nights, but we are having to go back to the first place tonight for our last two nights. There is someone else booked into the room we have here for tonight. We have decided to just stay in Kyoto for the whole week instead of trying to rush round it and any other city. There is plenty to see here anyway.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

World Heritage Fun

We are desperately trying to make it through the World Heritage Sites of Kyoto. Actually I think we are going to give ourselves permission to miss a few. Yesterday we took a train journey to Nara for the day where there are another 8 and only managed to make it to two. The kids are really feeling like vacationing in Japan, so we are letting them. We went to two WH sites yesterday in Nara one was a big bronze Buddha at the Todai-ji Temple (this time it was the building that was the largest wooden structure in the world not the Buddha itself, he is only the largest in Japan at a mere 16meters). The other was the second largest (by a few centimeters) pagoda in Japan at the Kofukuji temple.

The main hit of the day was the deer they have wandering around town. There are apparently over a thousand deer wandering around the huge park there. There are people all over who sell some sort of deer pancakes to feed them. We bought a couple of rounds of pancakes ($1.50 for about 8 wafers) for the kids to feed the deer, then Heather invested heavily on her own behalf. It was a nice sunny day and there is lots of shade in the park (thank goodness because we accidently tried to take the sunscreen in our carryon to Japan and got it and the Crayola kid scissors confiscated--things find their way to the bottom of the bags--we thought we had taken all the contraband out...I actually got written up onto some sort of list because of trying to carry the scissors on).

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Gotta love Japan

It is SO nice to be back in a country where you can actually RINSE YOUR TOOTHBRUSH UNDER THE TAP without fear of dire consequence. Yeah!! ... and where you can order icy drinks and salads with impunity... I had just been making a list in my journal of things I would be glad of when we got back to Canada. Heather noted this morning that Japan covers almost everything on my list which was funny because I had been thinking the same thing.

We went to both the Silver and Gold Pagodas as well as doing the Philosopher's Walk. This last was Jacob's choice and he tried to discuss philosophy along the way. The walk was a nice stroll beside a small canal. Apparently a philosophy professor used to walk there frequently. Now it is an actual destination. At one point we were sitting down for a rest and a group of AT LEAST 500 people marched by at a real clip.

The gold and silver pavillions were both very beautiful world heritage sites. They are only two of the 17 world heritage sites here in Kyoto so we had better get our skates on if we are going to see the rest in the week we are here.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Origato: Greetings From Japan

Well, I guess it has been a while since I posted. We obviously put Japan back on the menu and we flew this morning to Osaka and took a train to Kyoto. We will be in Japan for one week and fly back to Shanghai next Saturday (the 9th) and head down on the 10th toward Hong Kong and our flight home leaving on the night of the 14th of June. We will touch down in Ottawa on June 15th for anyone who cares.

Jacob recovered somewhat by the next day and we managed to spend the afternoon at the Forbidden City. He was not 100% and it was still hot, so we took it a bit slow. Thank goodness lots is closed for renovation (more olympic prep I am sure--China HAS to win the prize for biggest countrywide effort toward impressing olympic visitors) or we would never had made it round. As it was we didn't go to everything that was open. I don't know how long it would actually take to get through the whole thing if it was all up and running.

The last day in Beijing was spent going to the Great Wall. We went to a section that was about 73 km out of the city (2 1/2 hours each way in that part of China). The pollution finally kicked in and I developed bronchitis and asthma the day before. My lungs were not treating me very well although the air was much better at the actual wall. There was no VISIBLE industry that you could see from that section of the wall. It was the first time in days we had been for that long in a car without going through a heavily industrialized section.

In deference to the condition of my lungs and the children's thrill seeking natures, we decided to take the cableway up, toboggan ride down option. The "cableway" was a sort of rickety chair lift but the toboggan ride was 1570 meters of German engineered stainless steel runway snaking back down the hill. They are quick to mention the bona fides of any European technologies to appease the tourist angst I think. The chair lift was a bit much for poor Alan who hasn't had the skiing experience of the rest of us, coupled with a hefty fear of heights. You could hear him yelping as it started up. He was not happy till he reached terra firma at the top. The children and I, on the other hand, were so enamored with the toboggan run that we took a second crack at it. In the morning, the woman had insisted that there was no children's tickets for the package (even though there was a children's price on her window. When we returned for our second trip, all of a sudden there were children's prices so it only cost $16 for the second trip. It would have been closer to $25 if she had stuck to her full price guns. I think she may have been hoping to squeeze a third out of me.

I was really glad we took the second trip because you have virtually total control of the speed of your sled on the way down. Unfortunately this meant the little old lady in front of me could go down at a - you guessed it -little old lady pace. I caught up to her and had to follow her down. On our second trip there were not very many people, and none ahead of us for quite a while. I let Heather go first since she has the most daredevil nature. She was giving it the whole way down and barely touched the brake. Jacob went next and chose a much faster pace than his first run too. I went as fast as I wanted and could feel the wind the whole way down. If we hadn't run out of time, I may have actually considered the third run.

I realize that I haven't actually mentioned the wall itself --oops. The wall was really impressive. They have restored about a 2 km section and it rolls up and down hills. It is as picturesque as all get out. It is just like all the pictures. I think they were mostly taken in this section. There is an unrestored bit at the end that has trees growing out of the top, so it is nice to see the contrast between how it had all probably become and the restored part. The kids were suitably impressed and Heather even bought the t-shirt (at least she got her parents to). She is getting really good at bargaining with the vendors. She has to get the most out of her tourist dollar since they only get $10 a week and she seems to have an insatiable appetite for gee gaws. She really beats them down a lot. I am not sure many adults would do any better. She bargained the lady down to $3 and came back saying that was it. I figured what the heck and only gave her $2 and told her to tell the lady THAT was it, so she got it for $2. I am sure at that price it won't last long in the washing machine.

The same evening we took an overnight train to Shanghai. We couldn't get a hard sleeper. It was my worst trip to the train station yet. It took me lining up at 6 different places before I at least got a train that was at a decent time. The ones they tried to put me on I knew from the internet got in at about 6 in the morning. The kids really don't like arriving on an overnight train before about 8 o'clock when they would be waking up normally. We took the soft sleeper option. Swish. The four of us had our own compartment with a door. We also had our own light switch which was great. In the hard sleepers you have to wait for 10 o'clock when they turn off all the lights. Another thing they had was our own electrical outlet so we could plug in things for charging overnight. The last (the piece de resistance in my opinion) thing was that one of the toilets in our car was a western toilet. Unfortunately it was locked by the morning but at least it was there. Did I mention that I think they have to clean the washrooms before their shift ends so they do it when they feel like it and lock them for the rest of the journey. Sometimes by the end of the trip it is difficult to find any that are not locked up for cars and cars.

In Shanghai we booked the tickets to come to Japan on our first day then wandered around and had dinner at Pizza Hut. We went for a walk on the main shopping pedestrian mall and ogled the fancy neon. I am pretty sure no one does neon any better than the Chinese at their best. The second day it was pouring rain so we just joined the rest of the tourists at the Shanghai Museum. Very good collection. Jacob said "I love museums" soon after we got there. I asked for it in writing....

Monday, May 28, 2007

Beijing -- getting ready for the olympics

On our way out of Datong, we whipped round to see the nine dragon screen. It is supposed to be the China's largest and oldest ceramic wall. It was made 600 years ago and I am sure the glaze chipped off and they painted it. If you look, there is a lot of turquoise background colour running down several dragons. In one instance there is a tile which has no business even having that colour on it that has huge streaks. There is no way any artisan that could produce such a beautiful work would make such huge errors in glazing and actually use the tiles in the finished project. My guess is that the glaze was looking worn and someone (a sloppy painter) decided to "fix" it. Too bad, I hope someone can restore it sometime.

We took a pretty decadent trip to the screen. We walked out of the hotel and into a taxi (who ripped us off by driving the long way round) and gave us a $1.50 ride. On the way home we took another taxi and only paid $1. I think it is ridiculous how little the taxis are being paid. Granted gas seems to be the equivalent of 50cents/litre, but I don't know how they can make anything with depreciation costs factored in. I would never think of jumping in a taxi at home to visit Parliament Hill for 15 minutes. It would cost 10 times as much at least anyway.

We took the train to Beijing during the day because the overnight train arrived at 5 in the morning again and we were pretty sure the kids couldn't handle that twice on the trot. Speaking of trot, Jacob is sick. He has stuff coming and going at once if you catch the euphemism. I am glad we are (a) in a big city (Beijing) and (b) almost ready to come home. This is only the second time one of them has been sick (thank goodness). It has been months since Heather got sick in India along with my sister Nicky and her sons, Sam and Jay. Perversely it didn't seem that bad to me then because (a) Surya speaks the lingo and (b) there was some wierd sort of "safety in numbers" thing going on in my head which is, I know, completely illogical, but there you go. We have postponed our trip to the Great Wall until the day after tomorrow and hopefully he will be recovered enough to visit the Forbidden City tomorrow. We got to the gates today but he didn't feel well. He actually started throwing up on the way home.

We have been in Beijing for 2 days and have not managed to accomplish much sightseeing. Yesterday we only managed to buy more junk than I think we will be able to carry (again) and find out that the proposed trips to first Japan and then Mongolia were not possible because in both cases the transport only goes once or twice a week and they are full up anyway. We were trying for a boat to Japan and a train to Ulanbator. We checked about flights to Japan and the price was just too exhorbitant for a week stay. We have decided to jump in and out of Hong Kong to fulfil our visa requirements and visit another few places in the south of China before we head home on the 14th of June. For those of you that don't already know, we have cut the last two months off the trip. There were two reasons: financial and burnout. Now that the end is in sight though, we are all thinking we will miss the travelling and seeing all the new and interesting stuff. All the time.

I went to a place today called the Lama Temple. It has another entry in the worlds biggest Buddha sweepstakes. This one is 18m high and carved from a single sandalwood tree. Now THAT was a huge tree. This Buddha apparently made it into the Guinness book of world records in 1990. It is at least our 6th worlds biggest Buddha so far on our trip...

We are staying in a fabulous 300 year old hotel. Apparently it was a family compound and converted to a hotel 50 years ago. It is two stories high and mostly beautiful wood construction. It has a central courtyard inside and two rings of rooms round it. There is a huge skylight covering the whole courtyard. It was taken over by the hostel Heather had picked from their posters (they say "c u in Beijing" with a cutesy happy face with a chinese hat...aimed at the younger set and hitting squarely on her mark). We were really lucky to have been put in the overflow hostel. It is much nicer than the real one.

Beijing is under HEAVY renovation (as are a lot of places we have been in China) to put on a good show for the Olympics. They are apparently evicting all the stores we went to yesterday so they can be demolished and rebuilt in time for next summer. There is a huge picture of what the area will look like on the billboards which are being used to close the streets off. All the ends of the streets leading into the area are being bricked up and they seem to just build the brick walls one block further out each time and knock the buildings down.

China will be impressive for the olympics but they will have to do something about the pollution. I think the main thing people will notice is the air quality. They have 16 of the worlds 20 most polluted cities right now and the countryside is almost worse. On the way to the Hanging Monastery the other day I counted 29 smokestacks at one time in front of the bus. Scary. After spending a few weeks in China it makes me wonder if there is any hope of Kyoto succeeding even if it is ratified. I think China will pick up any slack and carry on the warming for us.