Friday, October 29, 2010

Tandem Bike + Giant Wall = Pretty Awesome.

From the night we arrived in Xi'an, it was tough not to keep getting drawn back to the amazing wall. It surrounds what was the entire city, and is now the city's urban center. At night, it is lined with lights and when walking around town, it is a constant and illuminated backdrop to the city's character. During the day, its surrounding parks are filled with groups performing various Chinese operas to largely older crowds, and you would see people riding bikes along the wall. As soon as I learned we could ride bikes on the wall, and around the entire wall seeing the whole city, I was determined to do it. What made it even more quirky and cute was that you could rent tandem bikes! I'd never tried a tandem bike but have always found them to be cute and absolutely ridiculous so of course, once we made it to the wall, that's was the sweet ride for us! :D

We had the mid-day heat and air pollution to keep us company during our little adventure which further enhanced with the fact that our magical bicycle weighed a cool 3 metric tons, had oil as viscous as molasses, and poorly inflated tires. To put yourself in the moment, imagine you are peddling a rusty Harley Fat-Boy in hundred degree heat with a sack full of dust on your head. In other words, it was pretty fantastic! We didn't let the complications keep us from our destiny, so we peddled on, stopping every so often to down another few bottles of water, (which we seemed to be sweating out faster than we could drink it), catch our breath, and take in the views.

There was so much to see. We were riding around the perfect symbol of the China of today. This immense and ancient wall riding between sky scrapers and temples, was the old and the new. The poor and the rich. We smelled the various food vendors' mind blurring and delicious smells. We listened to the sounds of the opera singers and musicians as one group faded into another on our ride, and all the while were huffing and puffing for air as we neared heat exhaustion and our lungs burned from the particulates in the air. It kind of summed up what is so great, and what is so difficult about the China we experienced.

All-in-all it was not an easy ride, but it was incredibly fulfilling. There was so much to take in that it took a little while to just let the sensations we had absorbed sink in. We didn't really do much that night, (did I mention we were kind of exhausted?). More savory foods, a bunch of water, and a lot of reflection back to both the recent book donation, and the experience of riding our first, and perhaps last, tandem bicycle on the wall in Xi'an. This was the last thing in our to-do list for Xi'an, and it was a nice way to end our time there. The next day we just relaxed and took in the every-day version of Xi'an. We had a nice last meal with Tom, and the following morning, caught our ride to the Xi'an airport to head back towards Beijing for the final stop on our trip.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Library Project

This trip to China was really built around three things. Seeing as much of the amazing cultural sites and people as we could was of course one of those things. We wanted to spend time and catch up with old friends, and we wanted to help set up a library in one of the rural communities. Over the years, we have donated time/effort/money to our friend Tom's NGO The Libary Project, I designed that logo actually ;) But we both had always wanted to get more hands on at some point. During our travels in Laos, we got our first taste of delivering books and school supplies, those wonderous little springboards of learning and curiosity, to the kids in villages, so to say we were excited for this day was an understatement.

It was a pleasant drive with two Library Project employees, their driver, and two high school students who, like us, were volunteering for the book donation. Our little van wound along the countryside over the small mountains on a clear warm day. After a few hours of driving we got close to the village. Once there, there were a few interesting sites that surprised me. One was a little glimpse of growing up in the Midwest! Almost every home was drying corn cobs outside their houses. In general I was a bit surprised to see how common corn was in China. They tend to just eat it steamed on the cob, enjoying the sweet naturally grassy flavors, but this corn was being dried to feed the household's animals, it was a little thing, but something about it was really comforting and charming. I liked the village already! It was a fairly barren and dusty place with occasional gaps in terrain and buildings treating you with nice vistas of the surrounding hilly countryside. It was a cute rural community and our first real chance to see something other than city life in China. It did make me wish we had more time than we did so we could have spent more time in more rural locations.

Tom's amazing team helped organize even the smallest detail so in the end, we were tasked with manual labor and documenting the occasion which was great fun! We snapped photos non-stop and ended up with thousands of strong images that will be used by the project in promotional and archival endeavors.

There were two libraries to be set up that day and Kerry and I were split into the two teams. Kerry was to go to a smaller school with only four students and I was assigned to the larger school. Kerry's donation initially had a delivery hiccup, but they were able to get things sorted and have a successful setup so quickly that she and her team came back and joined us to set up the larger school's book donation. After setting up shelves, toys, and globes, we stamped all of the books and Tom's team taught the teachers and school leaders how to manage and maintain the collection. Once the prep was done, the kids were allowed to come and start digging in! In an instant, it was a flurry of excitement! It is truly a fantastic thing to see, kids born in an impoverished community getting an opportunity to exercise their curiosity and thirst for knowledge. Their energy was excited, playful, and definitely contagious!

Around noon, a majority of the kids wandered off in different directions towards their homes for a mid-day meal, but there was a painful part of that moment too, for not all of the children were leaving. Not every family can afford to feed their children more than once or twice a day, so while their friends all ran home to fill their bellies, they were stuck at the school to sit and wait until classes would start again. Trying to keep the blue moment from marking the day for the kids, we began to play some games with them. It was a successful diversion and soon everyone was fully engaged and the lunch time breezed by, but it was a sobering moment of reality for me.

The afternoon was spent playing games with the younger of the 100 school children, helping the kids with the books, and answering the inevitable collection of questions from the teachers that Kerry and I had become used to answering as we traveled the country. "How much money do you make?", "Where are you from?", "Do you like Chinese food?", "How much did your tattoo cost?". It was comical and pretty much identical each time, haha! It was a little exposure to the differences in our societal mores for sure.

The day was capped with a nice ceremony where the school had speeches and performances for us, the principal signed the presentation documentation, and we mounted a little sign on one of the book shelves. It was a little hard to leave, for us and the kids. They had so much fun, and got so attached, especially to the two high-school girls who volunteered. There were a tears shed by the kids, but in the end everyone was really happy with the successful day.

We had been super curious to try yangrou paomo, a mutton based soup that Xi'an is famous for and the team was very kind and took us to a tiny local shop that served it. It was clear the shop wasn't used to Western visitor. There was a charming moment when even the cooks in the kitchen came out and nervously asked if they could take a picture with me. We could tell the yangrou paomo was really meant more for a cooler time of year, but it was a hearty and happy bowl of yum. The mutton was tender and flavorful in a richly seasoned, slightly oily broth which was then filled out with a crumbled flat bread that had the effect of dumplings. There was a nice and flavorful chili paste and pickled garlic cloves as condiments which added a little zing and acid to cut the hearty delicious soup. After we finished our meal, we traveled back to the office, shared contact information, hugs, and our goodbyes with the team and volunteers who had shared the special day with us.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Fascinating Terracotta Warriors

We awoke early to meet with our driver for the day. She and her husband were regular drivers for The Library Project. We had the wife of the duo that day and she was a hoot. She didn't speak a lick of English, and our Mandarin was really poor to horribly poor, but that didn't stop her from talking for about 30 minutes solid to us... we just kept smiling and nodding. Once we arrived at the site of the famed Terracotta Army on the grounds of the absolutely massive mausoleum of the first Qin Emperor we found a wonderful English speaking guide who worked for the museum there. She was extremely knowledgeable, friendly, patient, and only cost us 100rmb which given the service was a bargain. Without her guidance, I'm not sure we would have gotten nearly as much out of the visit. The active archeological site is broken up into four main buildings. Three are buildings built around the massive pits where the warriors are being uncovered and the fourth is a museum. It is difficult to try and describe with a few words how massive some of this stuff is...

The first and largest pit, which is a hanger-like structure is a dwarfing open 16,000sq. meters, (that's over 52,000sq. feet)! The warriors are arranged by rank, and are all hand-crafted and truly unique, and not just in the "oh, one eyebrow is slightly different from the next because of hand imperfections", they are all different shapes and sizes, ranks. Some brave, some hungry, some tall, some short, and all shattered into thousands of fragments that archeologists pour countless hours gluing carefully back into their original form.

With some of the newer excavation, they have found ways of preserving what is really fantastic coloring of each figure. We all see the images and imagine that they were always that gray-ish hue, but actually they were all artistically painted in vibrant colors that with new technology we are all finally able to appreciate. Only a few parts have been treated with this new technique, and hopefully any new additional digging will net some even more spectacular works. Another surprising thing was that there were several other things other than warriors buried in the various pits including very intricate bronze chariots detailed to the point of having articulating parasols, rare birds, and other curious-at-the-time animals.

The site was found by accident, as most of these things usually are, by a group of farmers digging a well. One of those farmers, Yang Junpeng, is still living and the museum employs him which I thought was really cool! We got a picture of him signing the really nice little book we purchased there.

Once we got back into Xi'an, we met back up with Tom and took in the bizarrely white "fog" that surrounds the city from his high-rise in the corner of the city. I say "fog" because there was a very curious moment which made us a bit careful about calling it what it was, pollution from the massive coal burning operations. The government has done a fantastic job portraying the city as fogy, and the population, not having been exposed to actual fog was none-the-wiser. When we were describing San Francisco as cool from the fog, we got confused expressions from the people we were talking to, and had to recover by explaining that our fog in San Francisco, is "cool" fog... not like their "warm" fog... It was a little strange, but in the end, we didn't want to offend anyone. We were cautioned by our friend Tom that many people in China tend to take negative discussions about the country, even if they had no hand or control over it, very personally... but let me say, that "fog" is brutal on the body. Each and every day, we would go to bed with burning eyes, lungs that ached, and would wake up with sore throats. Tom goes to the doctor regularly just to see if he is sick because the regular symptoms are the same as having a rough chest cold so he can't be too sure! Crazy but true!

There was a great treat when walking back through town was to go through a local park. The park was full of apparatus for exercise and stretching, populated by many middle-aged and elderly folks keeping fit. It made me wonder if our culture here in America would ever adopt having jungle gym equipment built for adults in the parks in stead of all of the things being meant for young children... There were also several ping-pong tables set up outside which really got my attention. I watched for a few minutes when one really friendly fellow walked over and chatted us up practicing his English. Sensing my interest, he asked if I'd be willing to play a little. Tom and Kerry were both tired and I think not really very interested in getting their clocks cleaned on the tables, but even if I was doomed to failure, I couldn't pass up the rare opportunity, so I agreed. One nice guy let me borrow his paddle and spot at a table and while I certainly didn't take every point, (we broke even), there was one specific set up and slam that got a lot of smiles and head shakes from the old timers which really made me happy. It was great fun to play outside, and if I hadn't been so zonked from spending all day at the terracotta grounds, I would have played all day!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Remnants of the silk road.

Xi'an rests at starting point for the northern stretch of the silk road. Thanks to that, it has long had a rich influence from the cultures and peoples from the other pieces of the long fabled trade route. There is a wonderful Muslim district in the heart of the city where there is a vast mosque. I found it most fascinating for its architecture which was decidedly Chinese, but every once in a while you'd be reminded where you were with either arabic lettering written on a sign, or you'd pass by a caretaker wearing Muslim garb.

After the mosque, we wondered the streets and alleyways. The sights, sounds, and smells were all very different from what we had seen in China at that point. Things seemed a little more put together. Lots of orderly stalls, and the smells were from great flat breads being baked in clay ovens and roasting lamb.

Even the markets were catering to a different crowd. There were head-scarves being sold with the clothing, and the spices and vegetables were all just a little more Central Asian. It was a really funny thing to cross one street, and immediately be greeted with the modern Han Xi'an world. The Muslim district really was a tiny little self contained world tucked away. It was a great place to explore, and the memory of our little taste of that area lingered pleasantly for quite some time.

Later in that afternoon our friend Tom got a call from another Tom. This new Tom, Tom Honeycutt was another ex-pat working in education and taking some time off to travel around China as well as make a trip back to the US to see if he could still manage his way around the States after having spent so much time in China.

That evening provided some great opportunity to get to know each other and have some great food while sharing some beers. One fantastic small world moment was at the end of the night while we were sharing traveling tales, Tom Honeycutt asked what I did for a living and I mentioned that I made video games. He then followed up by asking if I made things like that game Chocolatier from PlayFirst. After I picked up my jaw from the dirty floor, I replied that not only was it like Chocolatier, I had worked on that game. He then asked if I knew a guy named Jack Murphy, and I do! In fact, he and I have worked at the last two companies together. I sit just a few desks away from him. Well, it turns out, Tom Honeycutt and Jack go back a long long way and have been great friends since first grade. So out of the billions and billions of folks I could have run into and made friends with in China, it happened to be with a childhood friend of a colleague and buddy. Definitely a small world moment, and I can't tell you how much fun it was to come back and watch the reaction on Jack's face as I relayed the news of our run-in. :)