My Travel Map

My Travel Map

29 July 2009

China: Xian, Shaanxi Province

Xian is another city graced by a full ring of ancient city walls, but that is about as much as it has in common with Pingyao. Xian is a much, much larger city. It was another important city along the old silk road, and it was one of the ancient capitals of China. We spent three days here on our trip, which wasn't nearly enough to take in all that the city and the surrounding area have to offer. Unfortunately, the wet weather came with us here, but it still worked out well. Overall, we had a really good time in Xian.

Songbirds are popular pets in China. People keep the birds caged, but they also take them for walks and to parks to socialize with other people's pet birds.

Xian is well known throughout China for its great food. There is a strong Muslim population in the city, with an entire quarter of the walled portion named after this fact. The Muslim Quarter is a great place to wander, and the central Asian influence on the food is amazing. They thouroughly enjoy their barbequed meats, which are always done out in front of the you can just imagine all the amazing smells you encounter as you wander around. Having such a great love of barbequed meats, the Quarter is also home to a great deal of butchers shops, which are almost all open to the street so that passersby can see all the raw, butchered animals and parts (which I really enjoyed honestly). My favorite meals here were all in the Muslim Quarter. The barbequed leg of lamb was incredible. They use this amazing mix of spices for the bbq'd spicy and so good. Also, late at night vendors with carts come out to make fried meat and vegetable sandwiches, which were literally life-changingly good.

In the mornings, breads and soups are popular. We had a great meal of meatball soup, gelatinous chicken soup, bread, rice, and salad at a tiny little place in the Muslim Quarter. The place was obviously family owned (the Mom ran the show, Dad cooked the soups, and the kids just enjoyed us foreigners stumbling in and loving the food....the family obviously lived upstairs), and despite them speaking no English and my Chinese being absolutely terrible, we managed just fine. The best is that the whole meal came out to $0.80 each! Can't beat that.

A tiny alley lined with market goods. Bargaining is a must in Chinese markets (just not in official, government stores and most official food markets or quick-stops), and I had a great time doing it there.

A normal backstreet scene in Xian.

Xian has two old city towers...the central Bell Tower, seen here, which lies right in the heart of the city, and the Drum Tower, seen below, which lies on the border of the Muslim Quarter. The pedestrian only street that runs north behind the Drum Tower into the Muslim Quarter is lined with amazingly delicious bbq restaurants.

About an hour bus ride from Xian is the Terracotta Army sites. Missy and I were going to skip this to go check out Hua Shan, a holy mountain, instead, but due to the rain, we changed plans.

This site is truly amazing, despite the throngs of tourists. The army is split up over three "pits". The largest is the first (shown in these pics), and I would recommend, should you ever go, doing the pits in reverse. Start with the third and then work back down to the first. This is what we did, and each pit gets more and more impressive this way. I'm not going to give too many details here, if you are interested, just look it up.

There are just row after row of soldiers, horses, and charriots. The army was built by Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, to guard his tomb. It was never supposed to be seen by living people, though since his death, it has been raided by enemy armies and most recently discovered by a peasant in the 1970's and excavated to the state it is in today. I wonder what the Emperor would think if he knew that thousands and thousands of people visit his "secret army" every week?

This is the second pit, which is also huge...though not fully excavated. Also, a lot of the figures here are broken.

The small, but important, third pit.

Each figure's face is different!

Back in Xian, at the Great Mosque, the largest of its kind in China. It was absolutely amazing to see the mix of Arabic and Chinese architectures and written language.

The roofs were tiled in blue...pretty cool. The complex is huge and well worth taking the time to wander and just relax, it is a very peaceful place. Also, the staff is very friendly and welcoming. The old Chinese guy that took our tickets spoke excellent English and French and I believe we also heard him greeting a couple in Spanish!

China: Pingyao, Shanxi Province

Pingyao, it is a small town to the southwest of Beijing, about halfway between Beijing and Xian. It's historical city center is a nearly perfectly preserved Ming Dynasty walled city. Thanks to this, it is very, very popular with Chinese tourists as well as the odd Western one.

As I said, the city center is well preserved, and we can now benefit from the recently repaved streets, which are beautiful. We had quite a bit of rain for the couple days we spent here, and I was very thankful for those paved streets. Many of them used to be dirt, and with the amount of rain we had (quite unusual for the normally dry Shanxi Province), they would have been very, very muddy if they were still in their old form. Anyway, our hostel was the first building here on the left (look for the Hosteling International triangular sign), and like many of the "Western Hostels" here in Pingyao, it is an old Ming-era mansion. Ours was specifically built as a residence for the Emperor when he came on trips to Pingyao (though he never got to stay there unfortunately).

The courtyard at our hostel. It was beautiful, though unfortunately, it wasn't well maintained. We even had an issue with bedbugs in our first room, but fortunately I caught the little buggers before we went to sleep, so neither Missy nor I were bitten. When we moved rooms (across the courtyard), we had no problem.

Pingyao was an important city along the old silk road. Because of it's key location along this important trade route, it sprung up as the financial center during the late Qing era in China (the Qing Dynasty, aka Manchu Dynasty, was from ~1644-1912 AD and came after the Ming Dynasty). The city now has many, many museums and historical sites (other than the city ITSELF which is one big historical site). This is inside the old county capital complex.

Symmetry...always key.

This is the old county prison. The character translates to "prison".

Courtyard at the county seat.

Typical main street in Old Pingyao.

One of the few gates through the old city walls.

Outside the old city walls. A fun thing to do in nice weather is rent a bike and go around the full circumference on top of the wall.

Entrance to the Confucian Temple. The fact that so much here survived the Cultural Revolution is a miracle.

Bridge inside the Confucian Temple.

The little red things hanging everywhere are apparently people's prayers, written down and then hung up in the temple.

Incense offereings.

There was plenty of greenery in the temple grounds, which was nice.

A Christian Church...this was unique, though Christianity is a somewhat popular religion in China.

Pingyao rooftops from the central tower.

Pingyao street in the rain.

This was in the old guard training complex. Since Pingyao was a financial center with plenty of banks and large markets, lots of money, wealthy people, and goods came through here. Thus, body guards and armored carrier services were necessary. This old complex is one of the many museums in town and it is one of the places used to train and house the mercenaries used to protect wealth while in transit between cities. It is an interesting little complex, though I must say the highlight is being able to shoot real bows and arrows in the back courtyard (pictured here) for only 10 yuan for 5 arrows! Fun, even in the rain!

Like I said, lots of rain...I would have loved to see this town with bright blue skies, but oh well. It was still incredible.

Our hostel from the outside at night. I'll say some stuff about the food now. Shanxi is famous throughout China for it's various noodle and sauce dishes. While Missy and I were in Beijing, we ate at a Shanxi noodle joint called the Noodle Loft (Mian Ku), which I would highly, highly recommend. You can get a massive bowl of noodles (all different types, shapes and sizes too) for 12 Yuan (~$1.75) and then help yourself to a plethora of different, and delicious sauces. The food uses a lot of dark vinegar and tomatoes, though the sauces ranged from a very beef-gravy like thing to a very-marinara like tomato sauce. Anyway, the famous noodles are the cat's ear noodles (triangular and somewhat flat) and the very long (several meters) green noodles. In addition, Pingyao is famous for it's beef. Needless to say, while we were here, we sampled a lot of the local style dishes in the smaller cafes and restaurants sprinkled around town. This particular style of Chinese food was one of my favorites!

The city tower by night.

Many of the shops stayed open late. Notice the dry streets too; it was incredible how fast everything dried up after a day and a half of nearly constant rain! This is testament to how dry the area normally is. Overall, I would highly recommend a short stop over in Pingyao. It is a beautiful old city, and though we didn't get the chance thanks to the weather, there are supposedly many beautiful things to see in the countryside around the city. Pingyao is definitely worth about a day or two stopover.

17 July 2009

China: The Great Wall

Missy and I were brought to the Great Wall by one of my Chinese colleagues, Dr. Yan. We went to the Badaling Great Wall, which is by far the most popular and most restored. This section of the wall lies North of Beijing about one hour by bus. There are several other sections in the mountains North of the city which are accessible for a day trip, and of course there are many other sections of wall throughout the North of China itself. We met a guy from the Netherlands who had even seen a remote section in the desert in the far West of the country; that would be quite the different experience from what we had at Badaling. Overall, it was breathtaking and unbelievable to walk around on such a phenomenal feat of engineering.

Go South at Badaling. This section has a longer walk and is much, much less crowded than the North section. We found ourselves alone quite often towards the end of the open area.

Protective statuettes here as well.

There were some very, very steep sections fo the wall...and in the heat, it made for quite a good hike!

I tried to figure out where the rock was quarried from to make the wall, though I was unsuccessful. The walls here at Badaling are over 25 feet high (7.8 m) and 16 feet (5 m) wide!

This familiar Great Wall is part of the more recent, Ming Dynasty Great Wall. There are much, much older sections from various other time periods, dating back to ~200 B.C. when the Chinese simply used packed earth as the first walls.

These are serious mountains...I cannot immagine invading armies coming through these...the vegetation is dense and the mountains are steep. Apparently, those Mongolians were unconcerned by this however.

The much more crowded Northern section..