Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Xi'an (China)

We headed to Xi'an on the bullet train, hitting 250 miles per hour! Most tourists flock to the capital of Shaanxi province to visit the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (Qin Shi Huang), popularly known as the home of the Terra Cotta Army. In 1974, farmers digging a new well for an orchard broke into one end of a huge subterranean pit housing ancient terra cotta statues. The figures (an estimated 6000!) include infantrymen, charioteers, and high-ranking military officers intended to protect his body or accompany the emperor who unifed China (around 230 BC) into the afterlife. Excavation of the archaeological site continues to this day with only 3 pits, the largest of which fits in an airplane hangar, currently open to visitors.

While we'd heard that there are no 2 faces alike, we were surprised to find that all of them (~2000 to date) had to be painstakingly reconstructed from broken pieces, as time had destroyed the timbers holding up the ceilings of the mausoleum. I guess archeologists must be really good at jigsaw puzzles?!? It was cool to see the steps in marking and piecing together the artifacts. One section had rows of workstations and figures in varying degrees of reassembly. This gave us a real Westworld vibe, especially once we spotted one of the terra cotta horses suspended in a harness contraption... cue the haunting Westworld theme music!

We had hired a guide, which we concluded was, in theory, the right decision (it was very informative). In practice, however, she packed a whole lot of pushy in such a small package. We were mortified as she insisted other people move out of the way so she could take our pictures. We were quick marched  through the actual archaeological pits, forced to visit the terra cotta souvenir factory (bring home your own warrior!) and sit through a jade store sales pitch, before finally managing to extricate ourselves from further offers of her services.

After hitting up the terra cotta army, most tourists bugger off to elsewhere in China. While the mausoleum was interesting, honestly for us, it wouldn't have been worth the detour if that was all to see in Xi'an. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a pleasant place to visit. The 7-story tower overlooks a public space with terraced fountains -  drawing many on a warm weekend - and it amused us to watch an overzealous young cop blowing his whistle at every picture-taking and water-touching offender while the veteran policemen chilled out in the shade. The grounds inside the pagoda walls house the Da Ci'en Temple complex. The buildings house important texts and golden statues of key figures in Buddhism. Offerings of gorgeous floral bouquets and pyramids of fruits line highly decorative altars. Gardens with little winding paths among the trees and trimmed hedges were an oasis from the heat and hordes. Not all on the temple grounds were filled with grace and calm. Nosy Rich espied 3 Buddhist monks in an argument so raucous, he watched to see if it would lead to fisticuffs!

Another worthwhile stop in Xi'an was the Shaanxi History Museum. There is a long queue to get in, but the ticket is free. Traveling has made it clear to us over the years that good curation is an art not fully appreciated by all, and the Shaanxi History Museum's efforts far surpassed any other historic monument we've visited in China. The galleries take you through the various dynasties that ruled over the province throughout history, and its significance in trade and exchange as the terminus for the Silk Road. There is even arguably better context given about the terra cotta army. Clear and intelligible translations in English for us foreigners also abound. The only downside was the wall-to-wall school groups and tour buses constantly jostling you for a closer view, or more likely, obnoxious selfies, but we're learning this is the norm for China.

On the other hand, the crowds - sorry, China has left me all out of synonyms for massive groups of people! - in Xi'an's Muslim Quarter make it an exciting spot for nightlife. The streets are packed with food stalls selling every delicacy and regional specialty. Brightly lit signs, elaborate costumes, and shouting street hawkers try to draw you to their wares. Lamb dumplings, wide biang biang noodles with chillies, and persimmon cakes stuffed with sweet sesame paste were some of the delicious dishes we sampled. As someone who, at this exact moment, has a whole lamb in her freezer back home, I wondered how good can the lamb kebabs in the Muslim Quarter actually be. They are really good. Tender, juicy, spicy with a kind of cumin and chili mix. Each kebab stall has an entire lamb or two hanging right in front with a man butchering as the night goes on and another couple grilling nonstop. You know options are dwindling for this most popular snack when there are clean ribs dangling left and right. Get'em while they're hot!

Our last culinary extravaganza in Xi'an was hot pot. We ordered yin-yang style with the pot divided into a mild broth on one side and traditional Sichuan chillies on the other. Along the wall are cabinet fridges filled with meats, seafood, tofu, and vegetables on skewers, and you grab a tray and go shopping! You cook your own in the rolling boil at the table, and there's a delicious chilli-peanut-garlic sauce to mix for dipping. At the end of the meal, the waiter comes by and counts the skewers to tally your bill, just like Basque pintxos!

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Great Wall at Jinshanling (China)

For an early start, breakfast was pointing to order bits from a busy hole in the wall next to the metro station: a large square of dough hot from the fryer (yes, please!), a Chinese egg sarnie (yes!), steamed pork buns (eh, ok), and sticky rice and dates wrapped in a leaf (hell, yes!).

Started around 200 B.C. and built by the Qin and Han dynasties, the Great Wall has about a half dozen options available for a visit from Beijing. We chose the section at Jinshanling. The nearly 3 hour drive out of the city got us far enough away from almost all the day trippers who crowd closer sections like those at Badaling and Mutaniyu. That's not to say that Jinshanling's amenities were rustic.

Construction was booming. Billboards advertising new properties herald a future where Jinshanling will seem more akin to a chic ski village than remote outpost. One advantage of the gentrification were brand new toilet facilities, especially as there are none whatsoever on the Wall itself. The path up to the Great Wall had a fair incline, which was paved smoothly and with new steps. The cute souvenir shops, colored banners, and piped music lining the path made it feel eerily like we were in line for the big ride at a theme park.

At the top was the gate at Jinshanling, and we were headed to the gate at Simatai West. The section is mostly restored and broken up by a series of watchtowers. The Great Wall follows the ridgeline of the surrounding mountains so maybe priming one to think of rollercoasters beforehand isn't such a bad idea. Some parts were so steeply sloped that the Wall curved like the construction of a bridge, and other parts were graded with hundreds of unevenly sized steps. I was grateful I'd brought my trekking poles and that it wasn't rainier, making the bricks even more slippery. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't ideal. The Wall was shrouded in fog so while the watchtowers and ramparts were very cool, materializing out of thin air, visibility was such that we'd have been useless as lookouts for any Mongol invaders. Our pace was sweaty and grueling since an early map showed almost a dozen watchtowers to pass within the 2.5 hours allotted to get to the east gate and down to the bus parking lot. A little over an hour in, we were surprised to discover there were only 4 more watchtowers to go, rather than the 8 we were expecting... so either we misinterpreted the map (which became an all too common occurrence during our trip in China), grossly miscounted watchtowers on our route, or inadvertently passed through some bewitched portal in the mists of time... You decide.

Hiking gave us a good appetite for dinner back in Beijing. Each of the provinces have their own offices in the capital so we decided to try out the restaurant catering to workers from Sichuan since we wouldn't get a chance to visit. An enormous basin with red chillies, peppercorns, and bay leaves floating arrived at our table. The college kid serving us had to demonstrate skimming out the spicy stuff so we could reach the fillets of freshwater fish below. The other dish we ordered was frog legs stir-fried with piquant, pickled peppers. Both had enough bones to make eating a bit cumbersome, but no question that the flavors were authentic and the good kind of burn.

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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Beijing (China)

Our arrival into Beijing was near midnight, and the taxi driver had some difficulty locating our hostel down one of Beijing's ancient hutongs. The narrow, tree-lined alleyway is a surprising respite from the bustling city, and home to a community center and small police station. Street sweepers were out every morning, and most of the traffic pedaled by on bicycles or drove small electric vehicles.

We eased into Beijing with a morning visit to the Temple of Heaven Park, a vast greenspace in Confucian design, surrounded by a stone wall in the middle of the urban landscape. We were early enough to catch the routines of locals. Elderly folks were very active - playing paddleball like it was a day at the beach; chanting and smacking themselves in unison in a sort of head, shoulders, knees, and toes exercise to get the blood flowing presumably; playing impressive hacky sack with what looks like a giant shuttlecock (a past-time called jianzi); and scrimmaging in actual badminton with the nets strung up between the trees. For the less strenuous but still social, there were choirs singing Peking Opera and amateurs gently swaying in dance routines with colorful scarves. Dotted here and there among the thousands of knotty cypress trees, there were individuals mediating or doing tai chi, birds with beautiful long tails darting from the tall grasses, and echoes of soft music piped in to speakers along the main paths. A variety of outdoor pavilions and pagodas drew the larger numbers of visitors. Crowds also gathered in the rose garden, snapping selfies in the most riotous display of every shade of red and yellow and white blooms I've ever seen.

The hordes were much more daunting at the Forbidden City, the sprawling palace complex that had been off limits to the public for 500 years during the reigns of the Qing and Ming emperors. The flood begins at the Meridian Gate, where all must enter. Wide courtyards, grand staircases, and bridges carved in marble separate what seems like an endless succession of Halls, Gates, and Palaces. Each structure is named for some lofty ideal or trait, like the Hall of Supreme Harmony or Palace of Heavenly Purity. Certainly, the ornately tiled roofs, elaborately painted timbers, and fierce guardian sculptures live up to the exalted names. Unfortunately, many of the interiors were actually empty, closed to access, or at best, furnished but dimly lit and visible via thousands of noses pressed into the plexiglass outside. Some of the smaller buildings deeper into the complex host exhibits of various themes in the collection, but to be honest, the labyrinth had already worn us out to muster much enthusiasm then.

We had no lack of enthusiasm for delving into Beijing's culinary offerings. Peking duck, roasted traditionally over fruit woods, cost a pretty penny but came with fixins for a party - tender baby bok choy with mushrooms, a spicy slaw, garlic and chili eggplant, crunchy lotus root in a pink jelly, and an addictive peanut and red onion salad. The duck itself arrived whole with the cook expertly slicing even portions with thin rinds of glistening, crispy skin, like a master carving a jamon iberico. Washed down with eight treasures tea (an aromatic blend of flowers, dates, nuts, and rock sugar), it was a grand feast.

Wangfujing is a famous pedestrian shopping area, but we were only buying street food. A narrow lane off the main drag is so packed with people and food stalls we felt in danger of being bamboo-skewered ourselves with so many double-fisting. The famous photo opp are the still-twitching scorpions on sticks. We bypassed these. As an entomologist, I've sampled a slew of specimens, and frankly, the scorpions seemed all exoskeleton. Giant soup dumplings, on the other hand, were a fun novelty, slurping the soup out with a straw and then trying to figure out how to eat the deflated result. Rich went with predictable but delicious choices - some kind of tentacles grilled and spicy, and for pudding, deep-fried rice flour sesame balls. I also tried and loved a kebab of unknown fruit, glazed in hardened sugar syrup and sesame seeds. The fruit looked like a rounder strawberry, tasted like cooked rhubarb, and contained hard seeds. Later we found out the fruit is Chinese hawthorn, and the kebab form is a very traditional treat known as tanghulu. Yum!

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kayaking in the Nærøyfjord and Aurlandsfjord (Norway)

The main draw for us coming to Norway was the chance to go kayaking in the fjords. Now we've been on a few kayaking trips - the most memorable included a capsize we still refer to as a "marriage-building experience" - but enough time passes that memories fade, and we think, yes, maybe we should try a kayaking trip again. When we arrived in Norway, the weather report had changed considerably enough for the worse that we seriously debated cancelling this portion of our trip and losing a significant deposit. Despite the ominous forecast, and our poor track record with kayaking trips, we committed to going ahead.

In Gudvangen (about 45 min northeast of Voss), we packed clothes in dry bags; donned wetsuits (again), spray skirts, and jackets; and secured food and gear in holds and in bungees strapped atop the kayaks. Everything we'd need for the 3 day adventure with tour operator Nordic Ventures. It was chilly and raining intermittently when we launched out into the Nærøyfjord, but the sea was relatively calm, and a light tailwind made the paddling surprisingly relaxed. It also helps that the Nærøyfjord is a UNESCO world heritage site. Traffic is restricted to only a handful of small boats and ferries, and the only aircraft we saw were likely rescue helicopters. We stopped for a picnic lunch on a beach just around the corner from where a huge pile of stones marked the burial of Viking of some importance, judging by the size of the mound.

Being on the water ended up being the best case scenario. The rain doesn't matter so much if you're in wetsuits already, and our guide Hamish pointed out about a half dozen smaller waterfalls that only appeared on the cliffs in such abundance. The old faithfuls were truly impressive dropping off such steep cliffs, and it was so much fun to fill our bottles straight from the cascades! One of the falls was so strong you could paddle hard into the rapids developing at the foot before the strength of them pushed you quickly out to sea again.

The middle of our trip was broken up with a day on land. We made camp on a beach one evening near the hamlet of Dyrdal, and the next morning we hiked from sea level all the way to the top of the fjord. Luckily, the weather cleared up for most of it, and the long hours of daylight we're on our side. We climbed 1100 meters (~3600 feet) and back down again in about 10.5 hours! As our guide warned us, Norwegians don't really go in for catwalks or zigzagging. The trail pretty much went straight up. It was also highly technical. The wet created boggy areas of mud, moss, and curiously springy lichen. The higher elevations were strewn with boulders and smaller, uneven rocks of the perfect size and shape for trapping feet or rolling ankles on. Fortunately, the views more than made up for it: thundering waterfalls with bluish rapids, towering mountains with the odd sheep, hay fields swaying with breeze, and tiny wooden cabins in the meadows. Stopping for a breather, tasting the raspberries and blueberries that grow wild along the trail made for a delightful respite. The sun was shining at the summit, and looking down, the boats on the Nærøyfjord far below us were practically microscopic. It was strange that our party had started the hike in shorts and t-shirts, but the changes in elevation had us layered up in fleeces, jackets, and knitted beanies at the top. After a brief nistepakke (Norwegian for "packed lunch," i.e. for me, as much smoked salmon and avocado as I could pile on a sandwich), and snapping photos off the edge until the acrophobia makes you queasy, we bundled up and headed down again... just as the snowflakes started to fall and a rainbow formed over the highlands. Glorious!

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Whitewater rafting in Voss (Norway)

Our foray into the Norwegian wilderness continued in Voss, about an hour on the train northeast of Bergen. Known as the adventure capital of Norway, Voss sits on the shore of the lake Lundarvatnet.

We were booked for a day of whitewater rafting... or canyoning, depending on the water levels. All of that rain we'd been experiencing meant for some truly awesome-power-of-nature-type rushing water. The guide told us the spectacular Tvindefossen (literally "two waterfalls") was the largest he'd seen it in several years. Ergo, we were going rafting.

We stuffed ourselves into thick wetsuits, jackets, and booties, which still didn't quite prepare us for the brisk 8C (~46 F) temperatures. Avoiding the wet was not up for debate, as this tour operator (Voss Active) insisted on a practice run and a swim test for good measure. We had to wade in, assume the legs up position (so your limbs don't get stuck under rocks), deliberately float into a swirling rapids, flip over, and swim across the current to the bank. Easy, right? Well, the cold was still a shock, and maybe I panicked a little with the strength of the current, swallowing more water than necessary, but I made it. Rich, on the other hand, was having so much fun in the rapids that he forgot the swimming part, ending up much further downstream.

The rafts were six or seven people each plus the guide. The Strandaelva river was flowing swiftly with Class 4-4.5 rapids. For the connoisseurs, it was the kind of rafting where there was a real possibility of flipping. We watched as one of our flotilla followed us over a big rapid, and the guide exclaimed, "Whoa, that was really close! If someone would've sneezed, they would've gone under... Probably means we shouldn't have done what we just did." In short, it was awesome!!

One poor sod was blue-tinged and shivering with cold in the van back to base. Luckily, there were hot showers awaiting, a wood fire going, and a hearty lunch of baked Norwegian salmon and potatoes ready for us. Nothing like cold and adrenaline followed by a hot meal to remind you life is good.

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