Beijing photos: I’m imperial and I know it

Untitled by Darcy Knoll (darcyknoll) on 500px.com
Powerful. Immense. Proud.

Such are the adjectives of the Chinese capital. It’s funny thinking back so many months later about how sore my feet were from walking along so many grand boulevards of Beijing. Funnier still after taking a stroll this afternoon past Ottawa’s Parliament Hill.

Of course, I don’t mean this as a knock against my city, it’s just that each capital seems to do a pretty good job of demonstrating to the world what the country is and what it wants to be.

Click here to see my photos from Beijing.

Oh, and here’s the links to my blog posts from the Chinese capital:

The city formerly known as Peking (pt. 1)

Recapping the Chinese Capital (pt. 2)

Hello lazy beach

We only spent one night in Phuket before taking off on a ferry. It was a tad stressful as we almost missed the boat. However, our taxi arrived just in time and we hustled through Phuket only to arrive late, but with a boat nowhere near ready to depart.

Two points to be mentioned here about Thailand. #1 When I say taxi, don’t say taxi in the yellow car sense. Think pick up truck with a cover over the back (usually). These were our cabs across Thailand.

#2 – and this is an important rule to keep in mind when travelling all of Southeast Asia – Nothing is ever on time. This means both estimated departure and arrival times. If you start late, don’t expect the boat to take an hour like you were told. It will probably take 1.5 or two hours. Plan for this and you will not be disappointed. Just pull out a book and wait and drink that giant water bottle you brought for such an occassion. In Cambodia we had a bus break down for 45 minutes. In Thailand, it was two hours. Je digress.

Our ferry turned around some strikingly beautiful cliffs to reveal even more next to a pleasent, albeit highly touristy town.

Koh Phi Phi is a small island southeast of Phuket in the Andaman Sea. It is too tiny for cars, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of room down the small pedestrian walkways for motorbikes.

We decide after a couple months hovering around the $10-12 range per night to splurge and we rent a nice bungalow beside the beach with AC and hot water.

We would only have AC for a total of two nights over the next three and a half weeks and we wouldn’t enjoy a hot shower again until we left Thailand. I’m hoping to enjoy both comforts together at last when we reach Oz.

Koh Phi Phi is beautiful, but her beauty has been taken advantage of. The island has restaurants and numerous luxury resorts geared to Western tourists. It’s paradise yes, but some authenticity is lost.

With that aside, the people of Koh Phi Phi deserve tremendous respect for essentially rebuilding this island after it was pummelled by the 2004 tsunami. The only reminder of this are photos displayed and a “tsunami evacuation route” sign posted near my hotel.

We had a great time here getting introduced to the lazy beach lifestyle spending our time swimming in clear turquiose water, enjoying fresh fruit juice, and fresher seafood.

Probably the highlight of our visit to Phi Phi was a morning snorkling trip where we saw an assortment of colourful fish and coral along with a few sea turtles. Sara saw a moray eel, but I saw a reef shark quickly swim past me.

I win.

Chengdu: Sara passes the Amazing Race test + Sichuan hotpot fun

Our train arrives at Chengdu station at around noon and we immediately head to the booking office for our depature tickets. We’re hoping to take a sleeper on the 24+ hour train to Guilin on Saturday. No such luck, only “hard seat” with the next sleeper available Monday night.

To hell with the train. We go back to the hostel and start looking at flights. We find one leaving Chengdu Saturday night and returning 1.5 hours later and it’s well within our budget. I purchase it online and Bob’s your Uncle (I say this to Sara all the time, it drives her nuts. See post: My marriage may be over by December).

Cleaned up after long train ride (and hostel with no hot water the day before) and feeling fresh and new. We enjoy a beer and a nice meal at the hostel. I check my email and discover our flight is sold out. Lovely.

I start searching for new flights and it doesn’t look good. Meanwhile, Sara had rushed up to the hostel travel services desk (a great hostel, will post Sara’s review when available). As the woman at the desk scans flights, Sara overhears the people beside her asking about a sleeper train from Chengdu to Guilin. She knows where this is heading.

Our agent discovers our previous flight is indeed available, but only three seats remain. Sara runs to find me hoping the other couple doesn’t discover the flight. We decide to go for it, Sara rushes back, tells the agent, and the flight is settled. All the while, she’s dying because she has to pee. But she got the tickets first. She will be my partner on Amazing Race.

*     *     *

We’re in Sichuan Province and so we’re eager to try the local cuisine. We head off to a Sichuan hotpot restaurant recommended by a helpful agent at our hostel.

We walk up the stairs and see a large room with large round table that seat 10 or 12. Two of these tables are filled with groups of men, pouring each other drinks, eating, laughing. Piles of napkins and empty bottles are strewn about on the floor below.

We stand awkward at the door and a waitress spots us and leads us to a seat at a smaller table to the side looking out on the street below. Our waitress – or rather the only girl in the restaurant who can speak a little English and has been designated to deal with us – asks, “Hot, medium, half?”

“Half”, we say, not quite sure what she’s talking about.

We sit and wait. And wait. The girl returns. Apparently you have to go up to a counter at the back and select your food. We choose bamboo shoots, some sort of Chinese turnip thing that we had before and liked, shrimp dumplings and spicy beef (it is Sichuan after all, we had to go spicy).

We return to our table to find a large metal pot separated in half. One side yellow and the other bright red with all sorts of chilis and peppers bubbling up to the surface. Medium and hot.

We have our food and this bubbling pot and we don’t know what to do next. A waitress sees the clueless Canadians and tells us to wait until a certain spice about the size of a gumball breaks apart then dump everything in.

So this is what we do. After the food has boiled for a bit, we try the spicy meat in the spicy boiling pot. And, yes, it is spicy. As soon as you put it in your mouth you can feel your lips tingle and tickle. Soon enough the whole mouth feels like this. It’s very hot, but not in a jalapeno sense. It’s different and difficult to describe, but so flavourful.

We sweat and feel our sinuses clearing and by the end of the meal, our mouths are almost completely numb. The tingling would last an hour longer.

A satisfying end to our first day in Chengdu. Tomorrow, there will be pandas.

Sara about to eat a bamboo shoot from our Sichuan hotpot. Spicy and delicious.

The Terracotta Army

We arrived in Xi’an the night before in the rain and a grumpy taxi driver drove us to our hostel. Up early the next day, French toast and “maple syrup” and coffee. On our tour bus by 930 a.m.

Our tour guide is a very funny 26-year-old single (she told us) girl who’s name I can’t remember – “Like Lady Gaga,” she said.

We arrive at our location with our group of 16 – mostly Brits, Dutch and a pair from Toronto who annoy the group by showing up late (way to represent).

There are three separate pits at the Terracotta Warriors museum and we toured them in the order of 2, 3 and 1 (a route I’d highly recommend).

Pit 2: Still to be completed, but indication of what’s to come. Behind glass is a kneeling archer, the only statue to actually be found fully intact 2,000 years later.

Pit 2 of the Terracotta Warriors, near Xi'an, China

 

Yet to be assembled. Pit 2 of the Terracotta Warriors, near Xi'an, China

Pit 3: “The headquarters” Statues of generals and headless officers and their horses found here. Less than 100 statues found overall.

Pit 3 of the Terracotta Warriors, near Xi'an, China

Pit 1: Simply astounding. So many unique soldiers, each with different faces, which researchers believe are based on the faces of those who designed them. More than 2,000 statues have been reconstructed and stand at attention. Other areas are covered with tarps where the archaeologists work on them at night.

Pit 1 of the Terracotta Warriors, near Xi'an, China

Afterward, we go to the gift shop and see the guy who actually discovered the warriors in 1976 signing autographs. He was a farmer back then who was looking to dig a well with fellow villagers. What they found instead would be what we were repeatedly told was the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” A claim I find hard to dispute.

We watch an old movie about the history behind the warriors. A quick recap: Emperor Qin unifies China then makes thousands of slaves build giant tomb of soldiers to protect him from the afterlife. While inspecting, he drops dead (years of ingesting mercury for a long life does this). Peasents revolt. Set fire to Terracotta Warriors and other mausoleums.

I think to myself why would they ever destroy such a treasure. But if I was a slave forced to build thousands of individual soldiers, I’d probably want to burn the whole thing down too.

Two more days of wandering through the city in Xi’an, then off to Chengdu on a 16-hour train.

Hotel reviews

Zhengjia Kezhan Courtyard Hotel, Pingyao, China. Not bad all things considered.

In case you haven’t been reading Sara’s blog (which you really should as it’s far more interesting than the long-winded text here), she’s been writing ongoing reviews of the places we’ve been staying at, which she’s also posting on TripAdvisor.

It’s a pretty good way to give back, considering how useful review sites such as TripAdvisor and Hostelworld are to us.

Here’s where we’ve stayed so far and Sara’s reviews (which I totally agree with):

Shanghai: Motel 168, 531 East Jinling Road. Review.

Beijing: Red Lantern House, Review.

Pingyao: Zhengjia Kezhan Courtyard Hotel, Review.

What we leave behind

I really am searching for words.

I’ve been thinking of writing a “rest in peace” type expression on my Facebook wall, but everything I come up with seems like just that, words on Facebook provoking a condolence rather than what I really want to say.

Now this is a bit of a departure from previous posts, but it obviously is all connected. My grandmother passed away Thursday night, which came as a surprise. She was always a force within the family. Feisty, stubborn and tough, yet there was a sweetness deep down like the crabapple jelly I remember her making as a child.

At 87 years, my grandmother has remained an apex of our family, straddling the top alone since my grandfather passed away in 1992. Together, they were the hub of the party. Memories of family get-togethers at their house at the top of the hill. Cousins. Aunts and Uncles. Grandma and Grandpa. Some of the fondest memories of my childhood.

As Sara and I gear up for our big trek, driving across the province for a funeral brings complications. But it’s also a reminder of what remains back home as we head off to see the world. This has always been an awkward conversation between us, usually trailing off because it veers down a dark road we wish not travel.

We are who we are because of those we love and loved us in return. Memories are the spirits that remain with us no matter what, provoking warmth and sadness, but reminding us who we are and where we come from.

Finding the right words to convey my grief for my grandmother is guided by a dichotomy. A balance of the good and the bad – glad to know she’s at peace, but sad over her physical passing. I suppose it’s the mix of the yin and the yang that brings harmony.

She will be missed, but she, like all others, will be with me wherever I go.

Refresh

After dealing with multiple bugs with my previous theme, I’ve decided to throw a grenade at my blog altogether and start fresh.

I do still enjoy the photo focus don’t get me wrong, however, there were times that I felt I didn’t want to be constrained by that format. I have found a new site to post a photo portfolio and I will input most of my old photos here to be linked back.

At the same time, there are a few other details that I hope to share in the upcoming weeks that should explain why I’ve also made some changes along the way. In the meantime, I’ll be seeing what I can do with this theme.

Stay tuned.