China Trip--Chapter 2: Xi`an to Chongqing
Posted on Jun 27, 2013 by
April 22: Were we excited to arrive at the Xi’an Garden Hotel! It was a welcome relief for all of us. Lovely gardens and a beautiful lobby welcomed us. The buffet breakfast was wonderful with many western and familiar foods.
We experienced Tai Chi with a Master and found it something that would be interesting to do. It was a bit cold and drippy so we postponed our schedule tour of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. We spent a couple of hours at the Shannxi History Museum. There we saw a number of the Terra Cotta soldiers from the site we would visit the next day.
In the evening, we enjoyed a Mongolian Hot Pot Dinner, which is something like an old fashioned beef fondue except we each had our own pot over sterno in which to cook vegetables and meat.
April 23: We started this day in Xi’an at a lacquer furniture factory. What beautiful and expensive items. I saw a magnificent cherry wood dining set with 10 chairs that would look wonderful in our dining room. They lowered the price to “only” $8500, including shipping. Ron didn’t cotton to the idea. Imagine that!
We drove out about 30 miles to the archeological site of the Terra Cotta Army. The site was discovered in 1974 when four farmers digging a water well uncovered a head of one of the soldiers. They had enough sense to take the head to a University archeologist. The unearthed soldiers number 6,000 and horses and chariots make up the rest. There are still more to be unearthed, but the archeologists are waiting to dig them until the technology for saving the painted colors is developed. We met/saw two of the farmers who uncovered the buried treasures, and I secured one of their autographs on a postcard we bought there. We spent three hours and lots of digital space on our cameras before walking about ½ mile to a restaurant for lunch.
From there we went back into the city to an outdoor herbal market. We encountered every manner of strange dried “natural” things, from dried bats to snake skins to deer penises and testicles. This is a wholesale market for the local pharmacies. Despite the cold I’ve been sneezing and wheezing with, I by-passed their remedies.
The evening was delightful. We went to the Shaanxi Grand Opera House where we were beautifully entertained by magnificent dancing and singing, all derived from the Tang Dynasty (the same ones who buried the soldiers to fight the battles for their dead emperor). The show was followed by a dumpling dinner. I had no idea there were so many different kinds of dumplings. Our waitress told us “If it looks like a duck, it is duck; if it looks like cabbage, it is cabbage.” By the time the dessert dumplings arrived, we were so full we could hardly move out of our chairs and waddle to the van to take us back to the hotel.
Lingering images of Xi’an: a beautiful and graceful city; tree lined streets and boulevards; a place to dream, sit a spell, enjoy.
April 24: Our last morning in Xi’an started with a visit to a jade factory. Such beautiful carvings. We learned that there are many colors of jade and many levels of quality. Quality jade starts with a jade rock and the artist creates his/her work of art from there. We bought two small jade balls, each intricately carved with several intricately carved balls within the larger one, all from one rock.
We stopped next at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a Buddhist Temple that is located close to our hotel. The whole area, including our hotel, is a lovely setting and the government is creating a “theme park” (not like our theme parks) to remember the Tang Dynasty. We followed this lovely place with a stop at the Xi’an city wall, a massive wall that looks like the Great Wall but wider and in better shape. It completely surrounds the city center and gives one a wonderful view of the city and nearby countryside.
After lunch we visited a private elementary school in a village outside Xi’an. What a treat! We were greeted by 3 and 4 year olds who came outside onto the playground for their physical activity. We all were charmed by them and they intrigued with us. We danced and played games together. One little charmer ran behind me while I was playing a game with a group and I tripped. In trying not to crush the wee one and creating an international incident, I swerved backwards and fell on my head and bum. It did create a stir and a sore bum for me! The older students emerged shortly after the little ones returned to their classrooms (one group captured Eileen and she went missing from our group for awhile). Again, we were included in their games and we watched several of them perform, boys doing kung fu and girls dancing. We were sad to leave.
We journeyed on to a local farm village by the name of Hu Xian. It is the first farming village to be decollectivized in China and appears to be quite prosperous. Our assigned home for the overnight stay consists of mother, father, and their 23 year old son. Their two elder daughters are married. The house is a two story building with two bedrooms down and three up. We shared the second floor with the Kellys, including a rather basic bathroom. We watched our hostess Ling Ling make “pancakes” from a flour, water, and oil base. They look a bit like a Mexican quesadilla. We were escorted by Jimmy, her son, to the table and ate several vegetable dishes and sections of the baked-on-a griddle pancake. A delicious homemade noodle soup followed. Ling Ling did not sit with us during the meal. We cleaned the table and noticed an unusual dishwasher, one that does not use water. I believe it’s all done with infrared heat.
After dinner, Ling Ling took us to the village park where we danced with the locals and enjoyed their company for an hour so. At 9pm we went back to our house and prepared for bed. Ling Ling brought in a basin of warm water for us to soak our feet. Our beds were covered with really thick and heavy duvets so we were able to stay warm in our very cool rooms. The beds themselves were very hard and looked to consist of a box spring and a pad, no mattress. Ours was still less hard than the one Ling Ling and her husband sleep on.
April 25: We arose to hot tea and a simple but very good breakfast of boiled egg, toast, “pancake”, vegetables and congee, a milk-like substance made from soy but tasting like cream of wheat. All very good. We then proceeded to an artist’s home and studio. She is very famous in China for her “farmers’ art” paintings and several of our traveling companions did buy a few of her paintings.
At 10am we left the village for an hour’s drive to the Xi’an airport. We boarded a full 737 flown by some obscure Chinese airline and landed in Wuhan, a huge city (something on the order of 8 million people). We boarded a bus for a 5 ½ hour ride to Yichang and our first mediocre dinner at a touristy restaurant. We reboarded the bus to make our way to the Victoria Cruises dock just south of the Three Gorges Dam. About ½ hour later—and very dark—we arrived at the appointed spot for boarding our cruise ship and found that the cruise ship missing, a dilemma for our trip director and a huge disappointment for 15 tired and somewhat cranky Americans. After some phone calls, Key learned that our ship could not go through the dam locks the previous day because of heavy fog. The whole locks system was closed. The cruise director didn’t let anyone know…hmmm. So, we returned to Yichang, drove along a beautiful waterfront and were deposited at a bus station where we were met by a bus and driver from the cruise line. A bathroom stop was important to all of us, though Ron was last to enter and before he reappeared the bus station’s lights were turned out, the door was being locked and our bus was closing its door. I figured Ron would not like to be locked in a bus station in the heart of a city he’d never heard of while I was relaxing on board a cruise ship. I alerted our driver and Key, who kept the station open until Ron finally appeared.
An hour later we arrived at the dock of our ship at San Dou Ping Village. We then rode a large funicular down to the water side and boarded the Victoria Star at about 9:00 p.m. The cruise director, Ernie (an American who may be the oldest cruise director on record), met us without an apology and with instructions and information. We received our cabin keys from Key and proceeded to our cabins. All of us are on the 4th and highest deck. All of the rooms have a balcony with two chairs, two twin beds, a bathroom with a tub and shower. What a pleasant surprise. After unpacking, we met others in the bar and kvetched a bit about Ernie, felt better for it and went to bed.
April 26: A very American breakfast buffet with a bit of Chinese vegetables greeted us at 7:30a.m. We found that we are the only American group on board with a large German group and a very large Taiwanese group also on board. All announcements and commentaries are done in English, German and Chinese. At any rate, we boarded our bus with a local guide at 8:30 a.m. and spent the next 4 hours touring the Three Gorges Dam, an amazing and very controversial project. The dam opened its gates just this past October and changed the Yangtze significantly. Basically, the river was raised 175 meters. All the villages along the old Yangtze were destroyed, the people and their buried dead and many historical sites were relocated. The dam has two five-stage locks, one set for north-bound and one for south-bound traffic. The scope of the project and its completion is a bit unsettling!
Upon returning to the ship, we set sail up the river while dining on a lunch that warmed our American taste buds. We slowly cruised through the 40 miles of the first gorge, Xiling Gorge. Cliffs rise straight up from the Yangtze to an amazing height. We did not see many of the once prevalent orange orchards, which now are under water. The farmers are beginning anew. We also attended a lecture by a Chinese doctor on traditional Chinese medicine and we persuaded Ron to make an appointment for the next day to have his right knee treated with acupuncture, suction bulbs and massage. We also enjoyed a lecture about the Yangtze and the dam project.
The evening gave us a chance to clean up and slightly dress up for the Captain’s welcome reception. Clean, nice, and champaign…what’s not to like on this cruise? A dinner of delicious Chinese cuisine with a hint of western food (mashed potatoes as well as rice) and a delightful show afterwards by the crew showing off costumes from the old dynasties and modern China was a great close to the day.
April 27: We docked during the previous night at Wushan. Up and out at 8:30 after breakfast, we boarded a smaller ferry that took us up the Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze. We had a most awesome float through the Lesser Three Gorges: Dragon-Gate Gorge, Misty Gorge and Emerald Gorge. Words cannot describe the beauty of the mountains, cliffs and clear green waters. We saw “cliff coffins”, the remains of an ancient people who buried their dead somehow in shallow caves up the sides of sheer precipices. No one knows how or why. It was misty, cloudy and a drizzly the entire time but it was a thrilling journey throughout. After reaching an even narrower gorge, we transferred to motorized sampans that took us further up the river. Our two boatmen live up the side of one of these mountains and walk two hours down and then up at the beginning and end of each workday.
We returned to the cruise ship about 1:00 pm and continued our journey up river. We entered the second gorge, Wu Gorge, about 2:30 p.m. It was amazingly beautiful and green with the steep mountains thick with trees. At 4:00 we entered the third and final gorge, Qutang Gorge, which is the shortest but perhaps the most dramatic of the three.
At 5:00pm we met for an hour with Key to discuss “controversial topics.” Our primary discussion revolved around the experiences of China and its people during the Cultural Revolution. In other discussions with Key, we’ve already discussed such topics as religion in China, the one- child policy, the structure of their government and how decisions are made.
Dinner this evening was a delicious mix of Chinese and Western cooking. We are a happy group of campers.
April 28: This morning we ate and departed the ship on the oldest and most decrepit ferry ever. Inside there were wood benches about 6 inches wide and 4 feet long, the “walls” were covered with dark canvas sheets, World War II era life vests were neatly stored on a high shelf well above the reach of anyone under 6 feet tall. It was a great adventure across the river to board a bus to visit with a citizen living in a nearby village who had been relocated. We sat in her living room, above her little grocery store, and discussed what her relocation experience was like, what her current life is like and learned a bit about her new home. We walked a bit through her village, played with toddlers playing in a mah jong game room while their mothers and grandmothers played the tiles.
Fengdu itself is a city of about 750,000 that had once been on the now flooded banks on the other side of the river. Though all building in the new city are less than 10 years old, like many other cities in China, the housing units (mostly large drab apartment buildings) look old and in rusty disrepair.
Another bus and decrepit ferry ride brought us back to our ship and we immediately pulled away from the dock. We spent the afternoon continuing our upstream cruise relaxing, playing bridge and enjoying the therapeutic benefits of either traditional medicine (Ron with another acupuncture treatment and Frank for lung congestion) or with a traditional Chinese massage (Carolyn and Eileen).
We docked about 10:00 pm in Chongqing, with a huge and beautiful harbor not unlike Sydney’s but newer.