Sunday, April 30, 2017

Kyoto

Forty-five years. Yup. K was 20 when last in Kyoto. How fun to see it and dear Nihon again.  She recognized nothing!

We had only two short days, but we made the most of it.
Starting at the Fushimi Inari shrine, photogenic home to thousands of tori (gates).


A certain photogenic couple
 People travel from all over the world to see the cherry blossoms in Kyoto.  Advance weather reports indicated that we might miss them, but our normal state of incredible good fortune kicked in, and it turned out that we hit them at full bloom--gorgeous! 

The weather was perfect, the blossoms were at their peak, and some started falling as pink snow--magical!

The Philosopher's Walk is especially favored for cherry blossom viewing

some philosophers
















Pink snow!
At the top of K's list to visit was Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion, near which she had lived so many years ago.  It was lovely



pink snow on moss

We traveled by bus and subway

Everything is well-thought out. Trains are "mildly air conditioned"
So much good food 
tempura
A good meal was necessary for these samurai-to-be.



Ta da!



crossed swords
Samurai duds

They passed--well, got a certificate
After all that, one needs ice cream. B took us to a famous sundae place. Here's one costing $200
Or perhaps you'd prefer:
K noted the same brands of cigarettes as long. long ago--hard to forget about Hope and Peace

We visited the Nishiki Market:
eel



cherry blossoms to go

We also attended Miyako Odori, an annual geisha dance performance held each April in Kyoto for the past 143 years. We were not allowed to take photos; this photo is from Japan Talk website.
It was spectacular.  We were very glad that we chose to rent audio guides though, or we wouldn't have had a clue what was happening.

Later we happened to see these geisha trainees ("maiko") walking down the street. We only knew they were trainees thanks to the performance guide which had explained the difference in clothing = longer sleeves and obi and higher soles on the shoes.

coming
and going
Ah, Kyoto
and this is a common sight as well:
Pachinko parlor!

Time to say bye, Kyoto

We would both love to return to see more of Japan someday.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

China!

Only time for two spots in this vast country:  Xi'an and it's terracotta warriors, and Beijing.
We were on our own in Xi'an, and met up with B and S in Beijing.

Xi'an is the start/end of the Silk Road. The old city is surrounded by 13 km/8 miles of intact, restored city walls, which we looked forward to exploring.

Our first excursion though, a stroll through the atmospheric Muslim Quarter to the Drum Tower, built in 1380 in the early Ming Dynasty.

video
We happened to hit one of the regular performances inside the tower.
As did these kids, on a field trip.
Here is the view from the Drum tower of the similar, nearby Bell Tower:


















The bell, cast in 711 weighs 6500 kg (7 tons).
We saw few foreigners in Xi'an. Curiously, in our hotel, the staff wearing suits and working the front desk and lobby area, were also seen clearing dishes in the restaurant and changing sheets in the rooms. Perhaps a residual policy:  everyone does their part for the whole? How different from the US and most other countries we know, where must do the s _ _ t work before hopefully--less hopefully than previously--one rises to management.  What about ten years from now, the youth, are we looking at a different mindset? More slowly, with the internet so controlled, one suspects.

Back to the neighborhood:













The one mosque looks nothing like any other mosque we've seen.  We couldn't get very close without paying a fee but it definitely had a more Chinese pagoda feel.  It dates from the early Ming Dynasty.
Had a fabulous bowl of lunch noodles, thanks to this kind chef, who showed us the drill:














In the evening the back streets filled with mahjong games, and the local park with table tennis players and people strolling.
There is no Google or Facebook in China, which no doubt helps maintain the popularity of some of the old-time amusements.

I found China--Xi'an anyway--to be more affluent, and people more stylish than I had imagined. People are friendly but there is NO English (for example no English menus in any of the restaurants), so that presents certain challenges to non-Chinese speaking travelers.

The next day, the main attraction:  the Terracotta Army of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, created to protect him in the afterlife.  Astoundingly old, from 210 BCE, and amazingly well preserved. It was more phenomenal than we expected, imagining the work that went into it--each figure is different.









By the car park--bear skin anyone?



















In our hotel lobby, no idea why:
Xi'an street--loved this

On to exploration of the restored city walls, dating from the 14th century.  Magnificent! They are 12 meters (almost 40 feet) high, 15 meters/50 feet wide at the top, and run 13.7 km/8 1/2 miles in a square around the city. There are various watchtowers and four gates. The modern day impediment to  breaching the wall is 4+ lanes of traffic with no crosswalk. We walked 1/4 of the way around, from one gate to another. 

Well, here's a crosswalk but they are ignored. 
One of the gates, and the door to enter:
A deep moat goes all the way around:

Views from on top of the wall:


A sign on the wall top--oh dear:

A respectful relic:

One sight from the wall was the Guangren Temple, apparently the only Buddhist temple in Xian and one of the oldest in China. It is well preserved.  I was surprised to see Tibetan prayer flags.

Later, searching for a dinner spot took us into many places, hoping for an English menu or an obvious veg or fish option. Many places.  Finally a kind lady saw us peering in to her restaurant and opened the door to beckon us in with a smile.  Displayed were vegetables and seafood as well as meat, so we decided to give it a go. She cheerfully helped us navigate the unfamiliar territory, and we had a very nice shared hotpot type meal with incredibly cheap beer. Lovely, helpful ladies! Manager on left, server on right--both were so kind.

There were few foreigners in Xian and, in some locals, understandably, we noted fear in their eyes when they saw us coming = "Yikes--I don't know how to communicate with them!" We could relate! Others, like these ladies, were not fazed. 

We had one more day so mastered the metro (not hard--well signed, with good maps) to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda (Dayanta).  It has an extensive series of fountains in front, which are programmed to music--the largest such display in Asia apparently. The cherry blossoms were in bloom--great timing!


We had the impression we were being followed.  There was a man in a memorable jacket (with an incomprehensible English phrase on it) in our metro car both ways, and a young woman in a black and white dress who crossed the street near us, twice, as we walked from the Giant Goose to a nearby lake.  Maybe, maybe not.  

We were just strolling.  The lake turned out to be inside a kind of large amusement complex.  The weather was iffy, and it looked like a lot of walking inside, and we decided not to enter.  We did catch the backside of a drum performance:
Outside the place, T says it's his gated community:

Also seen in the area:

 Nice park near the pagoda.  T and some guys.
Slam dunk your rubbish.
It's a park for relics.
The pagoda again.  And this time we got to see a musical fountain show!

Also on the plaza with the fountains:
at least there's a building code in the area

We left that night for Beijing on the overnight train.  We had splurged on a private compartment, quite pricey.  But we have our own loo :-)

and comfy chair.  The train matron explains that the "window" is closed and if we find it too cold in the night we could open it.  We were confused by this until realizing she meant "vent" as opposed to window.

The train was not super modern but the tracks were very smooth. We love overnight train travel and stopped to count how many countries we've done this in...8 -10! US, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Azerbaijan, Malaysia, Thailand, Canada (K) and Kenya (K).

We arrived in Beijing, and after a lengthy taxi ride made it to our hotel in the courtyards area (good choice--interesting residential neighborhoods and not far from the main sights.).  B and S arrived by air from the US at about the same time and, ditto re taxi ride, made it too--yay

First stop, the most amazing Starbucks ever
Suitably fueled, we made our way to the Forbidden City
outside



panoramic view

ceiling detail




Elsewhere in Tiananmen Square
Power to the people


Plotting a course

Ah, to Peking duck of course


 We were most pleasantly surprised (as is everyone in the know to whom we've talked since) to find blue skies in Beijing. No apparent pollution, for all three days we were there. A few stars at night even.  More than one person in Penang speculated that it was so because factories had been ordered to close for some days before a big meeting or event. We never learned what event that might have been.

From  the hill of Jingshan Park, a view of the Forbidden City below gives some idea how expansive it is.
Sunset over Beijing, from Jingshan Park
Seen in our neighborhood:
And at our charming hotel:

Next day, off to the Great Wall at Mutianyu! We hired a car to take us there, then hopped this bad boy to go up, up, up to the wall

We were much more awestruck by the wall than we had anticipated.  Although it is not a continuous structure and never really kept any marauding hordes out, it is extremely impressive given it's size and the dramatically mountainous terrain.


There are watchtowers:
Here is a view from one

We reached the cable car stop, glad we had avoided much of the crowds by taking the ski lift up.

Lots of steps!






Made it!





Back in Beijing, we went searching for a hot pot dinner.  There was considerable competition to be found in a row of restaurants. These ladies, in the angel ? wings, beckoned customers from above

A restaurant was chosen
Cigarettes are widely sold, sans cancer warnings, but smoking is not as prevalent as we might have thought.
Of course we could have gone here for dinner
Already time for a snack?
Next day, before leaving China, we had time for a walk to a shopping area next to the river. 

Off to Japan!