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Sep. 18th, 2011

China 2011: Day 2 Morning

So as it turned out, I was still too tired to go out last night, so I begged off the whole distant relatives thing. I stayed in and sort of "rested my eyes" while my mom went by herself. She later came back rather disgruntled at the food they had available in Taiwanese restaurants here. Apparently none of the dishes ordered me her tastes. She brought back for me a to-go order of sushi she picked up on the way back.

After a good night's sleep, I woke up sometime around 6 AM again. *shrug*

Might as well take some time to describe the Hotel. Palais de Chine is the name. It's supposed to be a five star. Motif is very dark.. as in dark brown wood, low lighting, and glass/mirror strips everywhere that are decorated with black patterns that my mom thought was rust at first.

No free internet, alas. No LAN connection either that I've found. They charge for wireless access here at something like NT$100 for one hour (exchange rate is something like $1 ~ NT$29, so that's like slightly less than $4). Boo.

The controls for lights are very... confusing. I think I got them worked out now, but it's not very intuitive. Same for the shower tabs. Although the nice thing is there's a tab that allows you to adjust the height of the shower-head, which is good for short people like me. Another amusing bit is the toilet, which is one of those fancy things with a control station next to it with a bunch of options, including washing your butt or, quite literally, blowing hot air up your... :P

Elevators are kinda annoying also. Apparently, if you want to select any of the guest room floors, you have to swipe your room card first. That's kinda odd to me, because what if you wanted to visit someone on another floor? Is that not allowed? Meh.

Breakfast was okay. Nothing to surprising at the buffet tables. I still don't think it's as good as the hotel I had last year in Shanghai. But, well, Shanghai. Which incidentally has about the same number of people in its metropolitan area as the whole island of Taiwan, I'm told. Yeah, no wonder the streets remind me more of Chinatown in the US than of anywhere in China in terms of population density (and cleanliness, and lack of air pollution, etc.)

Another thing I've noticed here, in various stores, and even the airport. A lot of fairly low ceilings here. Especially at the airport on our way out. Even I felt the ceiling was low and my height is puny. I can only think that most foreigners with some height on them would probably be able to smack their heads onto the overhanging lights at that place. It's somewhat interesting.

Also, noticing a lot of Japanese everywhere. It's pretty pervasive, on signs, instructions, reading material, tour groups... hell, every waitress/waiter/service professional gives that impression with the whole service with a bow thing. I guess the whole 50 years of occupation pre-WWII really left a mark.

Sep. 17th, 2011

China 2011: Day 0-1 Afternoon

We left home late Thursday night to catch a 1:00 AM flight. Took BART, and somewhere around the two transfers and whatnot, something ripped my jeans. While this isn't much of an issue on the plane since the whole trip is nighttime, it looked so bad when we arrived in Taipei that I had to change in the airport bathroom. Bleh.

The flight itself was ok. The plane had individual touchscreens at the back of every seat. So unlike the American plane I took last year (forget which airline specifically), there was no sharing screens and you could select whatever you want. The inflight movies available for selection were actually fairly new too. So I got to see X-Men First Class and Super 8 after all without having to pay theater tickets. (I'll review the movies separately.)

After watching the two movies I decided to get some sleep cuz we're supposed to be arriving in Taipei in the morning, meaning it'll be a while before I get to actually sleep. Unfortunately, it was kinda hard to sleep on the flight, and I kept dozing off for awhile and then jerking awake when we hit some patch of turbulence. I think in that respect, the airline I had last year was better. I remember my uncle saying that US airline's pilots are the best cuz their Air Force trained or something. Oh well, I guess the pros and cons all balance out.

We arrived at Taipei at something like 5:30-6ish, just around sunrise. The moment we stepped outside the airport, we were hit by a wave of suffocating humidity. Gah. So glad I did decide to bring along a pair of shorts after all rather than listen to my mom rave about how it'll get so cold. Also, on the bright side, at least it wasn't a wave of suffocating smog and humidity as it would've been on the mainland. In fact, driving to our hotels, I note that most of the buildings tend to be...well...cleaner than the buildings in China. I wonder how much of that is due to the lack of soot, smog, and acid rain? :-P

The tour we schduled with doesn't actually begin until Sunday, so we actually have the first day of arrival free to do whatever. After some thought, we went to the National Palace Museum. I was hoping to get some nice pics to match the stuff from last year. Unfortunately, the darn place does not allow photography at all and in fact made people check in any recording equipment at the door. What the hell? So yeah, I saw some nice pieces. Unfortunately, I doubt I'll remember any of it by the time we leave the island.

We ate lunch at a place next to the museum. The noodles were ok; the thin noodle soop with milkfish was actually good. Taiwanese traditional dim sum, on the other hand tastes...weird...yeah; let's just say it's an acquired taste.

Finally, we came back to the hotel because my feet was hurting and I was starting to fall asleep on my feet. I'll probably take a short nap (not too long that would make it hard to switch around my diurnal cycle) and then I think my mom is planning to get together with some of our distant relatives in Taipei tonight. More later...

Feb. 22nd, 2011

Alternate history

So I was skimming an alternate history site. Among all the masses of alternate Civil War, American Revolution, WWII, etc. I found an interesting fic (in timeline format) proposing an alternate timeline where China rises to become a world superpower: The Chinese Superpower

I thought it was kinda cool.

Also, depending on your tolerance for Ameriwank and ASCII misformating of special characters, there's also ISOT American 2002. ISOT, for those not familiar with the genre, stands for "Island in a Sea of Time", referring to when a city is copy pasted/dropped into an earlier (or alternate, as long as it's lower tech) time period and has to deal with it. Probably pioneered by Eric Flint's 1932 novel.

Nov. 15th, 2010

Summer Palace Long Corridor images

Wow, hey, I never knew wiki had a whole bunch of these with captioning. I was kinda bummed that we didn't have time for me to take photos of all the cool images on the eaves there.

I think the official site of the Summer Palace also lists all the images on the eaves along with captioning. Although the image quality there is smaller than the ones from wiki.

Nov. 5th, 2010

China 2010 Index

Photos are up on Facebook, opened to public (there's no images of me in there anyway and I was careful not to mention names). I've put in captions to the albums and photos as much as I can. Facebook does resize the images that are larger than normal, so if anyone needs a better quality copy of a photo (and assuming I've kept a better quality image), let me know and I'll pass it on by email.

The Index )

Nov. 1st, 2010

Introducing China through its cities

(Note to self: need a cutesy Shanghai Expo icon to match the Beijing Olympics one...)

Usually, when I travel to China, it's to visit relatives and maybe do a bit of shopping on the side. Thus, I usually only see Shanghai overnight, and then only the inside of shops, before I take the train to Nanjing and basically spend most of my time indoors at home. On this trip, however, I traveled with my aunt and uncle, who are very fond of bombarding our tour guides and any fellow tour-goers who are unfortunate enough to fall into conversation with them with millions of questions about the state of...everything. Thus, I am left with a much more detailed and wide perspective of my motherland.

Beijing: )

Shanghai: )

Pingyao: )

Xi'an: )

Day 20 Last Day in Beijing

Well, as the title says, it's our last day! And then it's back to the dreariness of everyday life and work. Boo. :P

This morning we went to the Yonghegong (Llamastry?)...the place with the Tibetian Buddhist stuff from the Qing dynasty. My aunt had fun reading all the placards and taking photos/videos, while the rest of us took a few token pics where the scenery/buildings were cool and otherwise mostly stood around and quietly made fun of Buddhism...ok, maybe that wasn't quite the nice or PC thing to do, but we were a little bored out of our minds.

As a reward for our patience (pffft) though, we did come across a tour group of Shaolin monk students when we were departing the place. They were doing kungfu poses and jumps while taking photos, and of course all the passers-by also tried to take photos of them as well. I managed to capture one of them in midair:

Afterwards, we took the subway to Wangfujing St. and went to the foreign languages bookstore recommended there to us by the concierge. I bought a few CDs that I thought might be interesting since they didn't have a great selection of videos. My aunt and uncle spent three hours deciding on what educational materials to buy the twins to help teach them Chinese. My uncle also bought quite a few English mathematics books from the sciences section as the price was much cheaper than those in America. In the end, they bought so many volumes that they had to ship them all to the US, and we managed to rush everything through over at the Post Office just as the place closed.

After that, it was time for dinner, and since we were right there next to the Wangfujin snack street, I dragged everyone over for a look at that infamous street. There, we saw some very interesting foods, such as sea urchin, sea horse, starfish, snake (skinned and not-skinned), beetles (water and longhorn), scorpions (see below), silk worm larvae (below), centipede (see below), centipede (below), and bee cocoon (below)...

No, I'm not adventurous enough to try any one of those. I did however try out the ostrich meat, which was not too bad. My aunt tried some pot-stickers and 汤包 (alas not authentic). My uncle didn't try anything for fear they weren't hygienic, and the twins were too grossed out to even look at the stands for long. (I did take some pepto-bismol as a precaution when I got back to the hotel, just in case. :P)

In the end, we walked back to the New World Mall near our hotel and everyone else ate at the food court there instead. That place seem to be the favorite of the twins especially, even over the duck shop it seemed. Oh well. :-/

Anyway, tomorrow we get delivered to the airport and then it's an 11 hour journey home. I'll still be on break until next Monday, so hopefully I'll recover from my vacation by then. :P

Oct. 31st, 2010

Introducing our hotels

Well, even though we technically still have one and a half more days to stay in our current hotel, I think I've gotten a good feel of it to be able to give it an overview/analysis. All of our hotels on this trip have been four star hotels (my aunt didn't want to chance what China would consider a three-star, especially in smaller cities like Pingyao, and five-star would have been much more overkill/expensive).

We begin with the Central Hotel (王宝和大酒店) in Shanghai. This one is my favorite, mostly for two reasons - there was free internet, and they surprised me with a (free) yummy cake for my birthday. Now that's service. :) On other things, the place was pretty clean and sanitary; no complaints about the bedding or the bathroom from my end. Breakfast was great and varied. The only downside we could have about it was that we weren't able to get our assigned rooms together next to each other or even on the same floor; and, at first, the room they'd assigned me (and one of the twins) was on a smoking floor so the hallway was rather smoky. We were able to switch on the second day to a non-smoking floor, but it was still not next to the other room we had. Ah well, I guess that could be partially blamed on the Expo for filling up pretty much all the hotels in the city.

Next, in Xi'an, we had the Grand New World Hotel (古都新世界大酒店). It was ok in regards to sanitation and cleanliness, and the sheets were warm enough for the cooling temperatures even without any central heating turned on (that I noticed). We were able to get adjoining rooms, which was good since I we all had various levels or the beginnings of a cold around the time in Xi'an. I also noted that was also the best decorated of our hotels, with nice paintings on the walls. The downside was that people were smoking even on the supposedly non-smoking rooms, and my aunt/uncle had to complain to the management about their other next door neighbor. Also, the air in general was bad in the city, and the hotel didn't seem to be too much better than the outside air. The breakfast was decent but pretty monotonous and got somewhat tiring after a while. Also, internet had to be paid for here - 200 RMB for a week.

In Pingyao, we were housed in what I think was called International Financier's Club (云锦城) or something to that effect. Since it was a recreation of the Ming style building, we couldn't help the stone floors or the stiff beds/chairs. I was glad to see that we had sanitized modern bathrooms, even though there was no tub and only a shower stall with wood or bamboo flooring. There was heating, though, which was good since the weather was the coldest in Pingyao during our vacation. Internet, on the other hand, was free and available, which was a surprise to me. On the downside, breakfast was kind of mediocre; and the old style doors with the locks and padlocks were a pain to work with, especially in the dark.

Finally, in Beijing, we stayed at the Capital Hotel (首都大酒店). Again, sanitation and cleanliness were not a problem here. My aunt thought the beds were a little too hard and had them add a layer on top of their bed; but I honestly couldn't feel the difference. The breakfast is definitely both varied and good, though I still think the Shanghai hotel had the better porridge/congee (I guess southerners just have a better way with rice than northerners :P). What I don't like here is that there aren't many outlets to let me plug all of my various appliances in at the same time (laptop, battery charger, phone charger, etc.) Also, they're charging me pretty steeply for the internet (20 RMB per hour).

In general I did want to not that I could've left out half the things in my ziplock bag of liquids/gels for airport security, as well as a few other items. All of the hotels had shampoo, conditioner, body foam, body lotion, shower cap, slippers, and ethernet cable for broadband. I should've just brought the facial wash/lotion, sunblock, deodorant, and hand sanitizer without needing to burden myself with anything else. Food for thought in any future travels, I guess.

Day 19 Capital Museum

So today we visited the Beijing Capital Museum and managed to stay there until we were kicked out at the end of the business day. Y'see, to my aunt, museums are "serious business". :P

The shape and layout of the museum itself is kinda interesting. It seems to be still a work in progress though, since from the upper floors we could see they were still building something inside the museum that had already been completed on the first two floors or so. There was also a round exhibition hall on the other side of the building from the normal exhibition hall that we couldn't figure out how to get to until we eventually wandered into it by chance.

To start off, we spent about 1.5 hours in the largest exhibit, which was of the history of Beijing on floor 2. I kinda like the setup of the exhibit. The path proceeds from pre-historic times in chronological order all the way to the establishment of the PRC. Along one side of the path are the artifacts on display, of various stuff that have been excavated from around the Beijing area (or replicas and images thereof) of the time period in question. On the other side of the path are listed major events occurring in the rest of the world, including tibits of things related to China that were found or occurred in foreign lands. Occasionally on the artifacts side, there would be a small cranny where you would step in and see a life-size model or a brief movie of some particular time/place/event. Interspersed on the other side, were world maps denoting the major powers in the world during that century.

After that, we took a short lunch break, which just consisted of getting some drinks and cookies at a nearby cafe. We also stopped by the bookstore on the basement floor where the food was. My aunt/uncle bought a children's book version of Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the 36 Strategies for the twins. They were rather cheap, which kinda surprised me. (Of course, the museum admission, sans the special exhibits, was free - so I guess this museum is not looking to be a tourist trap but a serious learning establishment, I guess.

Then came the ceramics exhibit on the fourth floor, where we actually entered through the exit and made our way backwards through time through history. Of course, all the pretty stuff were nearer to the later time periods anyway, and I took some pics of the pretty pieces I saw.

Last on that floor (not counting the round hall we couldn't find the way into yet) was an exhibition about Buddhist statues, which we went through quickly. There were a few pieces there of two figures in...embrace/kissing positions, which made me wonder if they were about the tantric thing. >.>

Eventually, we found our way into the round exhibition hall. The first exhibit we saw there were of bronzes. Nothing too special there. After that, we saw the jades exhibit, which was cool. I tried to take better quality photos there since a lot of the pics I took of jades from the Shanghai museum all came out pretty blurry. It's rather hard to get good focus on the jades for photos since they reflect light so much, which messes with auto-focus.

We had to finish up the jade section because it was near closing time. As it was, we were only able to do a partial glimpse of the exhibition of writing utensils (文房四宝) before we were being shooed out by the museum staff.

We returned the same way we came to the museum - by navigating the subway metro system. It wasn't as hard as my aunt feared, and we were able to get everyone back to the correct exit without any problems. For dinner, the twins insisted on duck again. We tried our luck at the 前门东全聚德 restaurant, but unfortunately there was an hour's wait for service there. In the end, we went back to the other 全聚德 that we'd gone to previously and had peking duck there. The girls were happy and I am of course stuffed. :P

Tomorrow is our last tour day of Beijing before we return home!

Oct. 30th, 2010

Introducing our tour guides

Although our vacation in China isn't wholly over yet, the guided portions of it are. So I thought I'd write a bit about the various tour guides we've had on this journey while they're fresh on my mind, especially since they've been the topic of much discussion among my aunt, uncle, and cousins.

Let's start in order with Shanghai. Although we only had one (and a half if you count the trips from the airport and to the airport) day of guided tour with Kathy, my memories of her were generally ok. She did what a tour guide was supposed to do. Her tour of the French Concession area showed that she knew the area and its history well, and could communicate such just fine with English. Overall, our impressions of her were fair, though not spectacular.

Next was Jessie from Xi'an, who was by far the favorite of the twins and the rest of us. She gave me the impression of a peer much more than Kathy did, though our ages are all about the same, and she could certainly relate to children the best. When the girls joked around about the mistranslations on one of the museums near Yongtai's tomb, Jessie was able to laugh and contribute to the joke. She was also the most loquacious of our guides. On the car trips to/from our tour spots, and even during the tour, she would engage in long and deep conversations with my uncle about every topic under the sun - politics, religion, economy, history, China's place in the world and in the eyes of the people. She wasn't afraid to give her own opinions of everything, and it was very obvious that she loved learning and was a very wide-read scholar as well as well-traveled young lady. She also went above and beyond to accompany us through my aunt's very serious and detailed examinations of every item in a museum even though she must have been walking her feet off much as we had felt the first two Expo days. In fact, even after we left Xi'an, the twins kept comparing the following two tour guides against her and found them wanting. Well, I have to agree...

In Pingyao, our guide was a young man named George. Coming from a much smaller and poorer town, it came as no surprise that his English was not as good as our previous two guides. There were several times where I had to play translator myself between my uncle and our guide. However, he was pretty honest about when he didn't understand something we said. He also put the extra little effort to finding us good restaurants for dinner in the two days we spent there, even though dinner was not included in the tour arrangement we'd originally paid for. My uncle figured that he probably got a kickback from those diners. He was also the only tour guide to actually join us for lunch without a separate receipt (meaning the tour agency paid for his part of lunch too, which is technically against regulations). But since we were happy to find decent (and sanitary!) eateries in such a small town like Pingyao that we really didn't mind the small perks he got out of things. The man did give a general impression of earnestness...

Finally, that brings us to our last tour guide in Beijing, Selena - she who has been the topic of many a dinner conversation. At first impression, she seemed to be very fluent in English and had a pretty impressive resume (lived in Vancouver a few years; lead tours to or in foreign countries). However, the more time we spent on her tours, the more it seemed like...she really isn't suited to her job. Even ignoring the incident at the Forbidden City, and her attempts at talking my aunt to changing her tour program from Mutianyu and Suzhou Street... there are the small things. She would very often lapse into Chinese whenever she wanted to get a point across quickly, despite repeated reminders that we all spoke English as our primary language. She usually addressed only my aunt (half in Chinese), even if it had been my uncle who'd asked the question - as if she expected my aunt to do the translation to the rest of us for her. She hardly spoke a word to the twins and when she spoke to me, it's as if to a high-schooler on a homework assignment rather than an adult vacationing on her own time and money. As well, she would often say that she'd wait for us at such and such a spot for us to be done with taking photos or visiting Such-and-such Hall or climbing a nearby hill to see what was there. She also had a tendency to get picked up in the morning by the driver after we were picked up first, and get dropped off before we were dropped off at our hotel. These are things none of our previous guides had done; they'd always accompanied us no matter where we were dragging them, and saw us from/to our hotel from beginning to end. It just didn't seem quite professional here, since, well, just who's paying for who's time?

I've overheard various other small tour groups with only a few foreigners and an English-speaking tour guide. Most of them act more like Jessie (or Kathy) than like Selena. I guess we just had some bad luck with our last guide. Honestly, I think she'd do better at a desk job arranging schedules than in the field. Other than the last one, I think we had a pretty fair run of guides on the rest of our trip. Anyway, in the end, it's going to be our wallets talking when we do the tipping, and we already know what the math is going to be there.

But, in case anyone else ever thinks about ordering a tour from CTS for Shanghai, Xi'an, Beijing, or with CITS for Pingyao, hopefully this will help you make decisions or know who to request/avoid. :)

Day 18 Olympic Stadium, Summer Garden

My knees and thigh were starting to twinge yesterday evening, but they seemed fine this morning. Clearly, the time I've spent walking daily on this vacation have toughened up my leg/feet muscles such that a 'short' jaunt up the Great Wall is no longer an ordeal. XP

Anyways, this morning we made a stop at the plaza where all the Olympic buildings were. We didn't actually go inside any of them, though they are supposedly open. We did take some photos of the Bird's Nest, the Water Cube, and the... Dragon hotel thing (with the IBM office on the 'head'!).

After that we headed off to the Summer Palace, entering through the eastern gate. We passed a couple of halls, and I think but am not sure we found the courtyard where Dowager Empress Cixi had supposedly imprisoned one of the late Qing emperors (where was our guide?!).

The trip down the Long Corridor was cool. I tried to pick out all the images that I could recognize the stories of, and had fun telling the tales to the twins. Unfortunately, I spent so much time talking that I didn't get to take as many photos of the corridor pics as I wanted to. I did note that there was a huge variation among the quality of the art - some of them look very obviously restore/repainted, while others look like they are still in their original state from the Ming/Qing. Our tour guide said that the whole corridor had been restored recently in '06-ish, but given some of the other inconsistencies that I caught her at, I wasn't sure if her statement was accurate.

(BTW, if anyone can tell me, is the "official" story still that Cixi used money that would have gone to the Qing military to build/restore/expand the Summer Palace, or has that been reduced to a vicious rumor?)

All too soon, we finished the Long Corridor and hand lunch at a place where they supposedly serve authentic Imperial cuisine (or is it just cuisine served in Imperial style?)... Frankly I wasn't too impressed with the place or dishes, but then, I guess I prefer minimalistic aesthetics to a lot of the gaudiness of the Ming/Qing styles.

My aunt had her heart set on visiting the Suzhou Street area toward the north side of the garden. Our tour guide tried to talk us out of that plan on various reasons including that there was nothing much to see and it was too long a walk. In the end, my aunt had her way, and the kids actually enjoyed the climb over the shallow hill over to the Suzhou Street area (they love to climb, period *shrug*). Since we didn't get to visit Guilin/苏杭 on this trip, it was a cool intro for the kids of China's version of Venice. I snapped quite a few photos as well.

After that, we made our way back to the shore where we took a dragon-boat ferry over the artificial Kunming Lake to where we were to exit the park. Hopefully, my photos from the boat/shore will come out ok, since the camera does horrible when shooting against the light, and I have not had too much luck in forcing a flash on the darned thing.

Today is the last of our guided tours in Beijing. Tomorrow and the day after, we'll be completely on our own. My aunt has already decided that tomorrow we'll be going to the Capital Museum (or whatever it's called). We'll probably want to take the subway since it might be easier than to get two cabs to take five people. I don't think it should be harder to navigate than Shanghai's subway...right?

Oct. 29th, 2010

Day 17 Great Wall, Ming Tombs

TGIF in China! Well, I think I've worked off all the duck that I stuffed myself with last night today. :)

Got up early today for the drive to the Great Wall as our guide said that traffic on Fridays were murder in Beijing. My aunt had signed up for the Mitianyu section of the wall as that was said to be the best/most scenic of the three open wall segments. They day was nice and clear, and it was actually quite balmy even up on the wall, so the twins ended up shedding their coat and I ended up shedding both my sweater and my jacket - thus wearing only two layers - by the end of our hike up. Of course, we'd hiked a great amount of the way westwards on the wall, nearly to where the end of the way of the walkable segment...taking pictures all the way of course. We only stopped before the last great incline since we were running out of time (we'd already agreed to skip lunch).

The twins had a great time running up and down the wall like maniacs, when they weren't being pressed into photos. They must have run twice or three times the distance the rest of us had walked, and the rest of us walked 1.5 hours roundtrip. But all in all, I didn't mind the hike, and it was much more fun with the girls there to imbue excitement into every little thing and explore every little cranny in the Wall. ^^

On the way down in the cable cars (to get to the hiking part of the wall in that section, you had to take cable cars up/down), we were rather surprised to see the inscription on the glass informing us that this was the same car as used by Ex-Prez Clinton when he came to China years ago! I know my aunt mentioned that she'd researched that this place had been visited by Clinton, but it was some stroke of luck to land us in the same car! I even got a pic (cuz it didn't happen if there's no proof, ne?):

After the Wall, we drove over to the Ming Tombs. Took a gander around the front hall/museum at the info on Emperor Yong Le of the Ming. Then drove over to the sacred way where the twins did their level best to mount all of the stone animals that they could climb on top of. Needless to say - I got lotsa pictures (which will have to wait for when I get back to the US to upload them all).

The drive back to our hotel took about 2 hours, showing us ample proof of just how bad the traffic was on Fridays in Beijing. By the time we got back, it was dark and the city was lit up with lights strung over the streets. Since those lights weren't there the previous nights, I can only assume the city does a little extra on weekend nights to celebrate not having to go to work in the morning. :P

After the long day (with no lunch), I was pretty starved by the time we got back. We had dinner at a muslim hot pot place (东来顺 - such a typical name). It was better than the hot pot we had in Pingyao - no surprise, it was more expensive too - and we managed to polish off a set hot pot dinner meant for 5 adults. What can I say? The girls LOVE lamb/mutton, which can't be said for many of the Chinese foods we been trying to get them to try on this trip. I liked the soup that was left afterward, so it was all good.

Tomorrow is the summer palace, as well as quick drive-by of the Olympic buildings for some pictures. That's the last day of our arranged tours. The last two days have been left free for us to arrange as we wish. I know I want to do the 王府井 pedestrian street on one of them, both for checking out some of the book/video stores and for the food. Another possibility are the various museums in town. My aunt also mentioned the temple to Confucius and something about Llama/tantric Buddhism... er... we'll see, I guess.

Oct. 28th, 2010

Day 16 Forbidden City, Peking Duck

Beijing must be in a middle of a heat wave or something, cuz the temperatures are getting warmer each day since we've been here. I'd shed my jacket and one outer layer by the end of our tour of the Forbidden City today. Maybe tomorrow will be colder on the Great Wall.

This morning we started by dropping off near Tiananmen Square, near the 正阳门全聚德烤鸭店 that our tour guide and the concierge said was less likely to be crowded and less confusing to navigate to/from the hotel. We dropped by to the store to make a reservation for tonight, then continued on to get some photos of Tiananmen.

However, it seemed that today was not our day, since it seems that the Italian president was visiting, causing most of the square to be cordoned off. I did have some fun taking shots of the security, and I wasn't the only one. There was a pair of military security guys with bright shiny helmets (space helmets!!) who marched by to stand next near Tiananmen, and who quickly got swarmed by tourists taking photos of them. One daring (Chinese!) lady practically snuggled up to one of them, actually pinching on his uniform sleeve. I think that was the last straw for these guys, and since they couldn't start up an international incident by shooting the offending woman, they quickly fled marched away.

The same thing happened when I tried to take a pic of a duo of military police (no shiny helmets this time, but the twins insisted their belt...thingy looked like a lightsaber handle), they took one look at me (or my camera) and marched away. :P

Right... Forbidden City... Um, not much to tell, since it hasn't changed all that much since the last time I'd visited. Well, except for maybe the very obvious new paint jobs on the eaves of some of the main buildings (they didn't do a good job on the blue swatches, IMO). We took some photos of the main halls, and walked through the Clocks Gallery and the Jewelry Gallery (where my aunt was unhappy that they had far less pieces on display than the museums we'd been to in Shanghai/Xi'an).

We had a quick lunch at a fast food place in the Forbidden City. The fare was mediocre, but it was fast food after all. After that, we took a walk through the imperial gardens, where the girls and I had fun chasing after the fat cat that apparently lived therein. ^_^

Then the tour took an odd turn. Our tour guide said that there was a visiting world-famous calligrapher who was at the Forbidden City these few days, who was actually the half-nephew of the last emperor (Puyi). She asked if we wanted to visit and take a look. My aunt said sure and we were taken through this side door which was not being used by any of the mainstream tourists to this small courtyard and a special room where we were introduced to the man and his calligraphy. They were a couple thousand RMB per piece, and the other antiques in the store were on the expensive side too. It quickly became obvious that we were brought there in hopes of buying something and no other purpose. After a few awkward moments, we finally backed out of the place after making a token donation of 100 RMB.

At that point, the tour guide said it was time for us to leave. But we (and everyone else) couldn't leave since half the Imperial Gardens got cordoned off while we'd been in that shop. Apparently the Italian president wanted to take a short tour through the gardens too. I joked with the twins that we were trapped in the garden just like the concubines of old. However, I was able to take a few more shots of the security. XD

In retrospect, the incident with that calligrapher guy was strange since my aunt had specified with the tour agency when setting up this expedition that she did not want to do any commercial/merchant side trips at all in her tours. Indeed, in the one day we had with our tour guide in Shanghai, the two-three days with our guide in Pingyao, and the week with our guide in Xi'an, none of them had brought us specifically to commercial places, and indeed rushed us past the stores that were on the path of our main attractions to get to said attractions. My uncle thought the whole deal was kind of fishy and wondered if it might have been some kind of scam to begin with. Hrm.

Anyway, on the brighter side, we did indeed have dinner at the Quanjude duck shop. Yes, their Peking duck was yummy, and I left the place stuffed. ^_^ Unfortunately, I think I gained weight overall on this trip to China, which I might somehow need to find a way to work off. :-/

Oct. 27th, 2010

Day 15 Tiantan, Museum, Beihai, Kungfu

On the first day of our tour in Beijing, we started out with the 天坛/Prayer Hall for Harvests in all its touristy glory. (Personally, though, I have to admit that I am slightly biased toward Han/Tang era building styles than I am the Ming/Qing styles.

Qing style vs. Tang style

Afterwards, we went to the Museum of Ancient Architecture (a place where it appears that is almost unheard of by tourists given how empty it was :-/) and looked at pics of the other cool buildings that we weren't able to see on this trip. It also had cool stuff such as a model layout of the city of Beijing in the Qing Dynasty (similar to the one of Chang'an we saw at the Tang Paradise), which was awesome. And yes, Beijing was larger than Chang'an was, though it didn't have Chang'an's perfectly grid-like streets. Also somewhat annoying were the lights on the map, which interferes with the auto-focus function of digital cameras. It's one place where an old style film-based camera would have been better, I guess.

Lunch was eaten at another vegetarian Buddhist place. This place was better than the one we had in Xi'an though. The dish with several types of mushrooms in it was good. The faux-fish soup dish also had 'jellyfish' in it made out of vermicelli, which was cool.

After lunch, we went to Beihai Park (actually, just the Jade Islet part of it). The twins of course wanted to climb anything that went up, so we found ourselves hiking all the way to the top where the pagoda hat thingy was (couldn't actually go up that pagoda thing cuz it required separate tickets). Explained several pics on the eaves of the corridor to the girls. Also visited the Pavilion of Ancient Works on the islet, where houses the writings of Wangxizhi (actually, just the rubbings of the original tablets that were there are displayed nowadays).

Finally, the last item of the evening was a kungfu show that we'd actually added at the last minute (this morning, in fact). It was a combo of martial arts, dancing, and some acrobatics. I thought it was ok; definitely touristy though.

We came back to go anywhere fancy for dinner, so we just ate at the food court of the New World mall nearby our hotel.

Tomorrow is the Forbidden City, and hopefully we'll be able to make the duck place that cashew suggested in the evening. Would it be ok to reserve at that place in the morning? Or do they need to reserve even further ahead than that?

Oct. 26th, 2010

Day 14 Taiyuan - Beijing

Back to civilization! Ahem. That is, we have arrived in Beijing, after a 3 hour train ride from Taiyuan. (Have to say, traveling by air is much more convenient than train, and the airports have much better bathrooms too. :P)

But backing up... this morning, the first place we hit was the Erlang Temple. W00t! *Squee!* Yes, I was able to satisfy my inner fangirl. It's just too bad that practically all the religious sites/shrines/etc do not allow photography, so not much photos of the place. I did donate 2 RMB to the temple, though I didn't make a wish or bow or do the incense thing. Ah well, call me a modern material girl.

After that we dropped by the old county courthouse (衙门) of Pingyao. Looked at the different courts of the olden days. Got squicked by the various ancient torture implements. Laughed at the skit of an old style court in session that was presented twice a day. (Ok, I laughed with the rest of the Chinese speaking audience, then had to explain everything to the others.)

Lunch was quickly eaten at a local shop. That was the time that it started snowing. (I'd checked yesterday and the forecast had said no rain - I guess it was right, since snow isn't rain. -_-) The twins of course have never seen snow, and were excited to witness this miracle.

After lunch, we started on the long drive to Taiyuan and the train station. We still had time to make a small detour to 双林寺, but only stayed about 10 mins since we didn't want to miss the train, and also cuz the place had no photography signs pretty much everywhere.

Then came the long train ride and the arrival in Beijing in the early evening. We were picked up by our guide and driven to the hotel.

The hotel here charges 20 RMB/hr up to 100/day for the internet service, which may or may not be more than what I paid in Xi'an depending on how much time I spend on the net. I guess I'll have to compare at the end of our stay. -_0

Oct. 25th, 2010

Day 13 Pingyao walls & Wang Compound

Started off this morning at the Pingyao city walls, supposedly dating back to Ming Dynasty. While there, we bought gloves from the local vendor cuz it was kinda chilly up there. I was wearing three layers (including a sweater), so it was just the fingers and toes freezing stiff.

Following that was a visit to the local temple to Confucius, one of the oldest of such temples still in existence - it was built originally during Han and then rebuilt during the Jin Dynasty. My uncle joked that the twins will need to make a prayer there for blessings on getting into MIT; I noted that I was glad to be done with the whole school thing (though I guess I could have used some luck/blessing in passing my CCIE lab exam/certification, I guess). While there, my aunt had 'incident' at the toilets, which required us to rush through the rest of that site and then make a stop back to the hotel.

According to our tour guide, Shanxi (山西) province is actually predominantly Daoist, which I found surprising since I'd thought that Daoism wasn't that seriously practiced as a religion anymore in favor of atheism and Buddhism. I did note the signs saying there was a local temple to Erlang Shen though, and of course, being the fangirl that I am, I requested to see it tomorrow morning before we leave for Beijing. Tee.

After lunch, we took a car to the Wang Family Compound, which while was not as famous as the Qiao family, was much larger. We spent pretty much 2.5 hours walking through the place. It was *big*! I agree with the comparison that it was like visiting one of those old castles in England. The place was built like a fortress, except also prettier, and according to the various Chinese tours I overheard, practically all the carvings on the floors, eaves, columns, etc. had some symbolic meaning or other. The compound was built against a mountain, so the top/north wall could overlook everything. There was also a huge crane there, ostensibly in the construction of a new 5-star hotel that will be connected to the compound. I guess we know what Pingyao's (neighboring town's) development plans are. :P

Tomorrow we hit a few more spots nearby before heading back to civilization (Beijing). :)

Oct. 24th, 2010

Day 12 Xi'an - Pingyao & Qiao Compound

Success!! I have gotten the internet in this old style room to work!

Yes, we are in Pingyao. We left Xi'an in the midst of sprinkling rain, and arrived in the early afternoon in Taiyuan also to sprinkling rain. There was a minor moment of panic at the Taiyuan airport when there was no one to meet us, but after a few frantic phone calls, it just turned out that our guide was slightly late.

On the way to the hotel, we dropped by the Qiao Family Compound (乔家大院). Took some photos and froze my toes off. Though there was one humourous moment when my uncle was pulled into a photo by a random Chinese tourist, and then her entire tour group wanted in on the photo; so he ended up taking a picture with about twenty people. It's funny cuz it's usually the girls who are pulled into random photos with Chinese tourists because they're small, cute, sorta-Caucasian, and twins.

Our hotel is actually a reconstructed Ming/Qing era family compound in Pingyao, complete with a giant stone bed built into the wall. Looks clean enough; the heater and free internet makes up for a lot. A little small for three though (since the old style beds won't fit an adult sleeping with head toward the wall, my uncle is reduced to sleeping 'sideways', meaning I get to share my room with both kids instead of just one usually).

Dinner was hot pot at a local restaurant. The food was average (I think their menu items might have been a better choice). We did meet another Caucasian man there with three Asian children. Apparently he's a stock broker from Hong Kong who's originally from NYC. His wife is Japanese and the kids are half-Japanese; they're just done touring Beijing and on their way through to Xi'an. So my aunt & uncle had a conversation with him while the twins had fun clowning around with his kids.

Tomorrow apparently we're going to see another family compound... somewhere. I'd thought we were only going to be here overnight, but apparently we're going to be here for two nights. Oh well. I'll just have to deal. :-/

Note: Here and as well in Xi'an, I couldn't get connected to insanejournal first. But after I left for a few hours, such as for dinner, I was later able to use it just fine. I think the problem is just a routing issue. I am experiencing BGP updates in real time! *geeks out*

However this doesn't explain why I can't get google/gmail here in Pinyao when I could get that just fine in Xi'an...

Oct. 23rd, 2010

Day 11 Afternoon - Qian Ling & Forest of Steles

Last day in Xi'an! This morning we visited the Qian Ling/乾陵 and the tomb of Princess Yongtai.

At Qian Ling, we saw the blank tablet for Wuzetian. At the tomb, we went underground through the tomb of the princess. The girls loved the tomb. Our tour guide said that when she'd come here by herself during off-season when there was no other people/tours around, it was rather spooky to be walking by herself down a black tunnel down to the coffin's resting place.

After a kinda meh lunch, we visited the Bei Lin/碑林 (Forest of Steles), and looked at the stone tablets preserved there. There were calligraphy of some famous past writers, some significant works from the Tang relating to foreign religions of the time like Buddhism in Sanskrit, and some stuff about Nestorian Christianity and its arrival to China. Not much that shows up well in photos though...

Tomorrow we leave for Pingyao (not sure if there's internet there), and then after that is Beijing.

Edit in the evening: We went back to that Old Xi'an shop for dinner. I finally got to try out donkey meat. Tastes kinda like beef tendon actually. Not like chicken. :P

Oct. 22nd, 2010

Day 10 Tang Paradise, City Walls

Woke up with a lot of mucus and a small case of the sniffles. Decided to start taking the Tylenol to head off the cold. The younger of the twins also had a slight fever and had to stay in the hotel with her dad to see if she could recover by tomorrow (since the girls really wanted to see Princess Yongtai's tomb, so much that we'd actually switched from our day of touring Famen Temple to visiting Qian Ling instead). So today's tour just consisted of me, my aunt, and the elder of the twins.

This morning we went to the 大唐芙蓉园 (Tang Paradise), which is a man-made park showcasing the Tang style architecture. There, we caught several shows - a short intro dance, a drum performance, and a lion dance atop a series of raised platforms. Our tour guide was actually very surprised since even though she's lived in the city all her life and had visited the Tang Paradise before, she'd never even known those shows existed.

The coolest thing we saw at the Tang Paradise was a 3D model map of the city during the hey-day of the Tang Dynasty, with labels of where areas such as the Daminggong, etc. were located. I had fun tracing the waterways that were channeled to the city by probably man-made canals, and which created the city moat, flowed down one of the major streets, and also channeled into several man-made lakes in the parks of the original city.

(Caption: View from 'north' side of the original pre-Daminggong palace 'south' toward the rest of the city. The gate with the sign in front is the original Xuanwumen.)

There was also a bunch of cranes caged in one area of the garden. The cage wires played merry havoc with the camera autofocus while I was trying to get a pic of any of the birds flapping. Oh well; we'll see how well they turn out.

Lunch was at a vegetarian Buddhist place. Food was mediocre, I guess, for vegetarian. Had fun rearranging the fruit/desert dish given us into cutesy patterns.

After lunch, we went to the old city wall (just the south gate portion; we weren't about to circumnavigate the inner city). According to our tour guide, most parts of the city wall dates back to the Ming Dynasty, though there are still some parts dating back to Tang. The tourist area, of course, was modern. :P

It's a pity we couldn't go back and see it at night. The light are supposed to be spectacular.

Oct. 21st, 2010

Day 9 Pagodas & Mosques

I guess today's the day to hit the religious targets of the city. In the morning we visited the 大/小雁塔 (Big & Small Wild Goose Pagodas).

The small pagoda is actually also the local park, where we could see the normal Chinese sight of old ladies doing their Taichi routines (or Taichi sword routines!) in the morning. There was also a big bell there that the kids had fun ringing (it took the both of them with some help from their dad to swing the wooden ringer). There was also a shop doing wood carvings out of the natural flow of the wood that was pretty cool.

The big pagoda was much more serious about its religion. Of course, since we were not Buddhists, we didn't bother with the incense thing and there wasn't much we could do aside, especially since photography is not allowed in any of the shrines (sacrilege, I guess).

In the afternoon, we visited the bell and drum towers of the old city, as well as the mosque in the Muslim quarter of the city - originally built there during the Tang, and repaired/rebuilt in the Ming/Qing. I have to say, if we hadn't been told that the place was a Muslim mosque, I'd have thought it was just another typical Chinese temple/garden thing. :P The kids (and I) did have fun with the orange tabby kitten that was owned by one of the groundskeepers there though.

The itchy throat and bad air made a comeback today. But everyone was having those problems today, not just me. Gah.

Oct. 20th, 2010

Day 8 Evening

We were on our own for dinner tonight. At the suggestion of the concierge, we went to a nearby diner called 老西安 (Old Xi'an). Apparently, the traditional old-style cuisine of Xi'an is mule donkey meat (驴肉), cuz that was on most of the menu items. However, we eventually managed to find enough dishes that weren't mule or too spicy, and the food was actually pretty decent.

(In retrospect, we could've ordered one small dish of mule meat just to try it out... but I was outvoted.)

Now I just need to take a pill of Tylenol before I go to bed tonight, just in case the place wasn't as sanitary as it looked. :-/

Day 8 Afternoon - Shaanxi museum

We hit the Shaanxi Museum today and managed to finish a whole hour before the place closes (at 5 PM)! But I still managed to take more photos than I did at the larger Shanghai Museum. 414 photos. Hrm. >.>

The museum showcases all the artifacts (some reproductions) found in the region - which also incidentally showcases much of Chinese history from the neolithic age to Tang, with a little bit of extras after the Tang period. The main focus of the museum seems to be split into the neolithic, Qin, Han, and Tang eras (y'know, the dynasties where Xi'an featured prominently).

We again skipped lunch in order to stay inside the museum for the full day. There was an art gallery which had a cafe on the side, and that's where we sorta had "lunch" via a few cups of hot chocolate and a few packs of cookies/junk food. Hey, they had tea-flavored oreos! :P

IMO, the coolest actual exhibit there is the celadon 'magic' kettle from the five dynasties period - the 青釉提梁倒注提壶. For those following who don't read Chinese, this is a kettle where there is no movable lid (it's all one piece from top to bottom, and the liquid is actually poured in from a hole on the bottom of the kettle. Yet when you right the kettle again, the liquid remains inside, ready to be served from the spout as normal. How does it work? Magic! (Well, physics, but I'm sure you can figure it out with a little thought.)

The other cool item they had, which unfortunately was not on exhibit at the time, was the 公道杯. I bought a replica of it from the curio shop outside the museum though. How this cup works is that if you pour liquid into the cup only halfway, the liquid remains in the cup. However, if you fill the cup the entire way, then all the liquid in the cup will drain away from a hole on the bottom. How does it work? Magic! :P

Overall, had a great time.

Edit to add: Oh, and I also think I finally figured out the thing is with the camera. Once I've formatted the disk where it had saved a photo image, that part of it is good to go for any future photo. But when I get to a part of the disk where I haven't used it before, then the last image before I shut off the camera will have gray blocks. I dunno if this is a problem with the camera's initial formatting for not properly formatting the unused parts of the disk, or if this is some kind of disk issue. But unless I take more than 414 photos in the future, I'm unlikely to see any more of those grey blocks. And then when I get back to the states I might call Canon's support and see if I can get some answers/help.

Oct. 19th, 2010

Day 7 Banpo, Qin Mausoleum, Theatre

Full day today on a guided tour of Xi'an. My throat/lungs actually stopped acting up past this morning. I guess the cough must've been due to the shock of the sudden arrival to this environment, and my system just needed some time to adapt. But just in case, I'm glad I packed a bag of extra strength Halls with me.

It seems we're starting off on the first day in a sort of chronological order. First destination today was to the site of the ancient village of Banpo, which dates back over 6000-7000 years ago to pre-history. Short of seeing the neanderthal caves in Europe or Africa, this is probably the oldest artifacts of human history that I'm likely ever going to see. It's interesting to learn that the society of those days were matriarchal. Since there was no controls over who slept with who, most people only knew who their mothers were, but not the fathers, thus family was defined by the mothers. Pity that patriarchy eventually took over by the Shang/Zhou/etc. :P

Next stop was the Qinshihuang Mausoleum, where they show off all the terra cotta soldiers (and horses and other food animals). It's much bigger than I imagined, and yes, it was impressive. One of the two complete bronze chariots there was actually a replica, with the original having been shipped to the China pavilion at the Shanghai Expo - which I'd already seen. :) The rest were the usual terra cotta soldiers, the clay horses for the cavalry, and the ox/sheep/goat/dog/pig/chicken food animals. Gotta say, that emperor sure knew how to go out with style.

Dinner was arranged at the Xi'an grand theater (or something like that; I didn't get the exact name of the place). It includes first a show of several Tang style dances and musical pieces. The girls weren't too impressed with Chinese classical instruments, but they loved the dances and the dancing girls. One of them was actually the same song/dance performed at the Shaanxi province mini-pavillion at the Expo!

I took several pics and my aunt bought the DVD afterward. It was followed by dinner which was a wide variety of different style dumplings, which Xi'an is apparently known for. Even eating one of each style they served, I got full quickly. And unfortunately, I'm not much of a food connoisseur, so the only difference I can taste out of those dumplings is if they were meat or veggie, sweet or spicy... but it was still cool. ^^;

(I was also impressed with our waitress, who was serving several different tables in different languages. Ours was English, and our neighboring table was French. She had a strong accent, but was still pretty understandable at least in the English.)

In general, pollution aside, Xi'an is a cool place. It might not have the amount of "recent" imperial buildings left over that Beijing does, but as the capital (or practically right next to the capital) from Qin to Tang, and court to 72 emperors, you can't go far (or try to build a factory) in any direction without tripping over an archaeological treasure-house. And you gotta admit, when it comes to 'prettehs' and creature-comforts, the Tang really knew their stuff. :P

Oct. 18th, 2010

Day 6 Shanghai - Xi'an, Hanyangling

Got up at an ungodly hour in the morning to catch the flight to Xi'an. The flight itself was about two hours, though it took a while to actually get out of the airport due to Shanghai's crowded terminals.

Once in Xi'an, we were picked up by our tour guide for a quick lunch at the airport, then drove to the 汉阳陵 (Hanyangling) site which was on the way to the city. This is the mausoleum/grave of the fourth emperor of the Han Dynasty, Han Jingdi. He was the second half of the famous 文景之治 (Wen-Jing reforms) and the father of the infamous Han Wudi. We went through the underground museum which showcased the dig sites and the clay objects found around the burial mound (the actual burial mound of the emperor is not excavated until the archaeologists have decided they've got better technology to best preserve what they excavate...and the government has to give the ok too of course). There was also a very cool movie about the stuff found, though unfortunately no photos were allowed.

After that we were delivered to our hotel. Rooms are nice and most of the amenities are here also. Only downside is that they charge for the internet access here and it seems to be much slower than in Shanghai. insanejournal especially takes a long time to load; livejournal in comparison loads much faster.

Also, I didn't realize how much better the Shanghai air quality was due to the coastal winds. With three to four coal plants in Xi'an, the air here is as bad as I remember Beijing being. I started coughing as soon as we left the airport (at least, I hope that's why I started coughing and it's not cuz I'm catching a cold. :-/).

We'll probably eat at the hotel for dinner since there's nothing that I know of in Shaanxi cuisine that makes me want to suggest going out to find. Also, one of the twins had diarrhea this morning which we think might have been due to the noodle place at the Expo last night (note: do not eat at Jade Cuisine) since the other twin didn't touch her food much last night and didn't have stomach problems this morning. So I think we're going to be much more careful about food here.

On the bright side, it sounds like most of our stay here in Xi'an for the next week will be guided tours. So hopefully that will cut down on the wear and tear on my feet, since the tours are more likely to be saner in their scheduling. :P

Edit to add: Apparently I'm really allergic to the air around here. When I'm in a controlled atmosphere such as the bathroom after a hot bath or the restaurant deep inside the hotel, I'm just fine. But the moment I get near a door or window with a hint of the outside air, I start coughing uncontrollably and my throat itches. Bleh.

Oct. 17th, 2010

Day 5 - Expo, Bday

Last day in Shanghai! We went back to the Expo, this time at a much more leisurely pace.

We took a cab to a west bank entrance at around 11-ish, since the busiest entrance times are in the early morning, and the west bank pavilions (the corporate pavilions) are generally less popular than the east bank ones (the country pavilions).

First we went to the Xi'an case pavilion, which was supposedly a scaled down replica of 大明宫. Hopefully we'll be able to see the real thing next week in Xi'an, assuming they've actually opened it for tourism in early Oct like they were planned to. We ended up waiting outside for quite a bit of time for what turned out to be only a 6 minute movie of some of the sights in Xi'an (some of which we'd be visiting).

After that we decided to take some pics at the Chengdu case pavilion because it was just so darn pretty. The kids wanted to go to the Pavilion of the Future, but my aunt kinda nixed that; or maybe she just didn't hear them. Again, skipped lunch. I'm beginning to notice a trend here...

Afternoon - we pretty much spent the entire time at the Pavilion of Footprints. That's the place where they imported all the really old pieces of history from various museums across the world. There was a piece of the Gate of Ishtar from ancient Babylon (donated from...Iran?), various pieces from Sumer, Greece, Egypt, etc... and of course there's stuff from China itself. There were also a lot of very cool animated stuff/movies/mobiles/etc which unfortunately didn't translate all that well onto photos. I liked the one that was a full room (360 degrees plus two pillars in the room) movie showing historic sights of celebrations through-out the ages (Ancient Egypt, Mayans, Ancient Rome, England, Times Square). Hopefully my aunt got some of that one on film. There was another one of the development of Chinese society done entirely with animated paper-cuttings. That was cute, but unfortunate it was moving too fast to get good photos of, and I don't think my aunt noticed that one.

After the footprints pavilion, we were originally planning on taking the ferry across the river to see the European pavilions. While in line, we saw the amusing side of lines of five PLA/military security acting as the cordon between each group (about a boat's worth of people) in the line. Then, whenever a boat docked and the next group boarded, each line of soldiers would march forward and move the rest of the groups in line forward. Hey, why worry about moving around rope cordons when you can get guys in uniform to do it instead? And this way, the 'cordon' can even watch out for people trying to cut in line! XD

Halfway through the wait in line, though, we decided we were way too tired to make it to the east bank and look at the European pavilions. Oh well. So instead we just grabbed a dinner at a local noodle place and started on our way home.

Of course, as we were on our way to the exit, we ran smack into a parade that was coming down the road. The floats were generally space/robot-themed, so I guess the twins got to see their 'pavilion of the future' after a fashion, after all.

We took one of the special Expo cabs back to the hotel. Due to these cabs actually having to follow the law that other cabs can somewhat ignore, we had to split up into two cabs to avoid too many people per car. The driver I had was particularly chatty, and I had a particularly interesting conversation with him. Apparently, all of these Expo cab drivers are pulled from the five major cab companies in Shanghai. They're chosen based on their experience and record (no accidents, complaints, etc.) so that these are pretty much the best veteran cab drivers available. Thus, they know all the shortcuts and alleyways to get around the jams on the major streets of Shanghai (a situation exacerbated due to today being a weekend and the expo). These drivers themselves get shortchanged, since as an official Expo driver, they can't pick their own customers, and they are forced to drive through the most congested parts of the city to pick up their customers. My driver had started working at 3 and only had 3 customers before me since then (this was at around 8). He's hoping they'll get some extra compensation from their companies after the Expo is over, but doesn't think it's too likely. However, when I asked if he resents the Expo and hopes that it's over, he was rather adamant that the Expo is a great thing for the country and it's a matter of national pride for him to make some small sacrifices in the interim for the good of the country. Food for thought there from the minds/mouths of the average modern Chinese citizen.

Finally, we got back to our hotel, and I got one last surprise on entering my room to find a birthday cake there. At first I was suspicious that my aunt had ordered it from room service. But on interrogating my uncle and the kids (who really suck at keeping any secrets), I determined that it really wasn't her. Also, the fact that the card was addressed to my full legal name makes me think that it might have been the hotel itself that sent it, based on information obtained from my passport. Ah well.

Least I could do is fill out the hotel questionnaire and give 'em high scores, right? The first section of the questionnaire made me break down laughing though. It asks me to rate the following Reception categories on a scale: Doorman, Bellman, Receptionist, Cashier, Telephone Operator, ......and Toilet. *snicker* I'm assuming they meant the thing in the bathroom and not some person performing the function...ok I didn't need that mental image.

Anyway, I have to get up at an ungodly hour of the morning tomorrow for the flight to Xi'an. I guess the cake will make for our breakfast since we'll be gone before the cafeteria opens. :P

Bai bai, Shanghai, you never cease to amaze me. ^^;

Belated edit to add: I'm now curious about what was in the movie at the Cisco pavilion. Colleagues who'd gone told me it wasn't worth seeing. But the lines for that pavilion was over 4 hours, being put into same category as the Japan and Saudi lines. There's gotta be a reason it was so popular.

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