"To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield"
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1833

"live deep and suck out all the marrow of life"
- Henry David Thoreau, 1845

"Some guys, they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up,
And go racin' in the streets."
- Bruce Springsteen, 1977

"...to the heart, there's no time for you to waste.
You won't find your precious answers now
by staying in one place."
- Frank Turner, 2009

"The best things in life aren't things.
They're living and breathing."
- Michael Franti , 2011

"I owned every second that this world could give,
I saw so many places, the things that I did"
- Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, 2014

All written content and photos by Rob Fulfer unless otherwise indicated.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Holy moly! We're in China!! 圣钼!我们是在中国!

Today we embarked on what we feel is our most ambitious trip so far.  We are off to the other side of the world for a 10-day visit to China!!  Following is a day-by-day, place-by-place account of what turned out to be an amazing journey from start to finish.  

Wednesday, August 28 - Nashville to Seattle:   Since we have to head west to get to The Far East, we flew out today on a non-stop Southwest Airlines flight to Seattle where we would spend the night before boarding the big plane to Beijing, China.  We had the afternoon to enjoy the Jet City and did so very much with a visit to Pritty Boys Pizza for lunch which was delicious, Emerald City Brewing for a few tasty afternoon libations and the grand finale: a evening boat ride and  houseboat tour of Lake Union.
Our vessel for the evening was the lovely restored, Mary Adda. a 1928 all-wooden yacht that was given up for dead in a Seattle boatyard up until a few years ago when our captain, Kevin, brought her back from the grave.  I have to thank groupon.com for helping me find this jewel in The Emerald City...and at a great discount, of course.  (EDITOR'S NOTE:  This was also sort of a recon mission to check out the boat because five friends and I plan to hire Kevin and his boat to take us to the Titans-Seahawks game in early October from our rental house on Vashon Island.  That little adventure will be included in an upcoming beer blog entry.)

We couldn't have asked for better weather in the always-tricky Northwest for our evening cruise.  We hit it off with our captain, Kevin, and his first-mate and friend, Laura, so well that they invited us to dinner with them afterwards to a great little restaurant nearby called Cicchetti, a great little Mediterranean restaurant.

Made famous in the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie, "Sleepless in Seattle" this beautiful floating lake house is just one of dozens of private homes that surround Lake Union.

Thursday, August 29 - Friday, August 30 - Seattle to Beijing - We boarded our Hainan Airlines flight around 2 PM on Thursday and would fly all night to arrive in Beijing on late Friday afternoon.  Kinda trippy, and the really weird thing with this flight was we never flew in darkness.  Despite that odd date-line fact, we were able to get some sleep, the food served was pretty good and our coach seats weren't bad for the 12-hour flight. After an "interesting" car-ride transfer from the Beijing airport to downtown (evidently you can use the emergency lane in China for passing), we arrived at the nice Dong Fang Hotel where we checked in and just basically crashed for the rest of the evening.
Our first glimpse of China was dazzling with the crinkled mountains in the northeast of the country in shimmering green.

Saturday, August 31 - A Day in Beijing -  After a good night's sleep and a hearty complimentary breakfast that included "breakfast bowels" (i.e. sausage).  We were somehow able to get on Facebook (we read that we would not be able to in China) and a picture of the sausage tray with it's interesting "description" on my timeline brought howls of laughter and pangs of disgust from several folks back home. Yep, this was going to be a fun and interesting trip. After breakfast and with a free day in Beijing before our official tour of China started, we were picked up for a day-tour of the city with three stops that weren't on the list of places we would visit with our main tour: the Giant Panda Garden at the Bejing Zoo, the Summer Palace and the Lama Temple.  All three places, plus lunch across from the famous "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium were great.  Our guide, Jason (bet that's not his real name since he's a native), was excellent and easy to understand.

This great zoomed-in shot was taken by Ashlee of two of the Beijing Zoo's most popular residents, giant pandas, noshing on some morning bamboo.

The Summer Palace (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is right in the heart of Beijing, but you would never know there was a giant city surrounding this beautiful and peaceful oasis.  In this shot is part of the huge, man-made Hunming Lake and the soaring Buddhist pagoda temple on  Longevity Hill.  As we where leaving the Summer Palace Ashlee experienced the first of several times while we were traveling in China the phenomena of us as Caucasians being sought after by rural Chinese people to have their picture taken with us.  According to our guide, this was probably the fist time these folks had ever visited Beijing and the first time they had ever seen a "big nose" (that's what they call any foreigner) in person.

Lunch time across from The Bird's Nest (i.e. The Beijing National Stadium)!! The pride and positive affect of the 2008 Summer Olympics is still very evident in Beijing.  While driving around town we also got a glimpse of The Water Cube  (National Aquatic Center) where Michael Phelps did all his gold-medal damage.

The Lama Temple is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Beijing  that is not only a tourist attraction, but also an active religious site for practicing Buddhists.  This beautiful and serene sanctuary boasts a Guinness World Record with the largest wooden Buddha (85+ feet tall) carved from a single piece of sandalwood (no pictures allowed out of respect).
After our wonderful day tour, we were dropped off back at the hotel in time for a little rest up and then we met the rest of our tour group and our guide, Michael, in the lobby and then walked to dinner together.  This is the first multi-day tour we have ever taken and we probably just got  really spoiled.  Our entire group was wonderfully nice and interesting, and our guide, Michael, and our drivers throughout the trip were top-notch.  It's going to be hard for any future tour to live up to this one.  Here's a quick run-down of the great people we traveled with.  I mention these folks because they were equally as enjoyable as the country of China and each of them enriched the experience for us in so many ways:

Michael - our guide - his real name is Huang Hai Tao and he couldn't have been nicer, more helpful, more patient and honest about our trip, his country and the overall experience.

Bob - a very successful businessman from Toronto
Kevin - Bob's son, and a charismatic and funny guy
Richard - an always-smiling, globe-hopping Brit who most recently worked on oil rigs in Russia and was heading to North (yes, North) Korea for his next adventure after this.  EDITOR'S NOTE:  He made it out fine and enjoyed the trip.  Whew!
Olly - a young, friendly Aussie businessman who was squeezing a visit to China in between international business meetings
Katharina - a young college graduate from Austria who had never left Europe and was now continuing her studies in China after this trip
Joe - a witty and intelligent Brit who loves adventure and hasn't met a dark, dingy alley yet he won't explore
Natalie - a young British medical student with Indian heritage and a bubbly personality
Usha - Natalie's mom, a recent widow and a warm, sincere and classy lady

Thanks to all these new friends for making our entire trip even better than expected!

Sunday, September 1 - Beijing to The Great Wall of China - Our "official" tour with G Adventures started off with a bang as the ten of us loaded up in a small tour bus and headed for The Great Wall of China, the first place on the agenda to visit.  BUCKET LIST GO BOOM!  Wow!  What an amazing thing to see in person.  Pictures will NEVER do it justice and we feel privileged and fortunate to have seen and experienced at least a small part of it in our lifetime.
Our guides for the next 10 days in China.  They were excellent and we hope to use them again.

The Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall is about an hour from Beijing and one of the best preserved portions of this modern wonder of the world.   As the picture above shows, we couldn't have asked for better weather for our visit.

Up and down, up and down.  One of the truly amazing things about this section of The Great Wall besides it's sheer enormity is that fact that it was built along the spines of many jagged mountains.  Our visit turned into quite a workout as we were able to explore for more than an hour up and down the endless stairways.
We took an aerial tram to the top of The Great Wall, but another option to come back down was by toboggan .  What a surreal (and fun) experience to whisk off the mountainside riding a modern plastic sled in a  metal chute while the ancient, silent bricks of the wall loom behind you.
Back in Beijing that evening we wondered through some of the tiny, winding and historic alleys (known as hutongs) near our hotel.  These tiny streets gave us a glimpse of how most of China truly lives their lives in humble clean homes, eking out just enough for a meager livelihood, yet with the smiles and laughter of people focused on family and who are basically happy. Not a bad lesson to be learned here.   After dinner, we caught an optional show called "The Legend of Kung Fu" at The Red Theater which turned out to be more of a Broadway-style musical instead of a martial arts demonstration.  Ashlee was the only female in the group to go and was paid off "handsomely" with some great-looking shirtless guys on stage.
Monday, Sept. 2 to Tuesday, Sept. 3 - Beijing to Xi'an - We spent most of today in Beijing visiting some of the most famous (and infamous) parts of the city including Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, The Pearl Market, and The Temple of Heaven.

The gigantic Tiananmen Square is the third-largest public square in the world.  It's a nice place and the picture above obviously reflects a happier time now than the one incident back in 1989 that most people think of in relation to this place...but don't speak of in China...our guide warned us that there are three political "T's" you don't discuss in public in China:  Tibet, Taiwan and the Tiananmen Square Massacre.  Enough said I guess.

Pagodas near and far in The Forbidden City.

"Which purse you want?"  "How many you want?"  "Good prices here!"
Shopping is an intense experience in The Pearl Market where pearls and everything else you can think of are for sale.   We stopped here for a bite of  lunch (the McDonald's we had was delicious!) and tried to browse in some shops but the term "just looking" isn't a concept that the aggressive salespeople here can relate to very well.

We finished our Beijing visit with the exquisite Heavenly Temple, a Taoist temple which sits in a vast park not only packed with visitors but with locals as well, playing cards or Mai Jong, or practicing Tai Chi or some other exercise or just chatting the afternoon away with friends.
After dinner we packed up our suitcases and headed for the incredibly busy train station for an overnight trip to the "small" city of  Xi'an (only five million or so people) nearly 700 miles southwest of Beijing.  Spending the night on a sleeper train was a new experience for us and overall it was pretty enjoyable.  The quarters were tight, but the beds were comfortable, and the toilet was western.  Google "eastern toilet" for more in-depth research on this "sensitive" topic if you want to know more.  It's definitely something you want to know about before you head to The Far East.  Our roommates in our double bunk-bed compartment were the other "North Americans"  in the group, Bob and Kevin from Canada.  We all laughed and giggled like kids well into the night as the train rushed through the darkness toward our next adventure.

Let's eat!!  All our meals together as a group were served family-style at tables with giant lazy-Susans on them.  The big giant Chinese beers were usually cheaper (about $1.50 each) than bottled water.

Tuesday, Sept. 3 - Xi'an to the Terra Cotta Army and Back Again

The wall around the city of Xi'an is impressive and in immaculate shape.  The city is busy and full of students since there are several universities here.  Unfortunately, we encountered the worst smog around this area than anywhere else.  We were expecting more in Beijing which has been suffering from some of the worst air pollution on the planet in the last decade, but it wasn't too bad while we were there.  The smog in Xi'an was somewhat depressing and definitely altered one's view (literally and figuratively) of this obviously impressive city focused on history, culture and art.
Above is a shot of our awesome guide, Michael, giving us an intro to The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, our first stop in his hometown, the ancient walled-city  of Xi'an.  This huge Buddhist temple was built in 652 A.D.

After lunch we loaded up on a tour bus and trekked out to see country's "newest" ancient tourist attraction, the life-sized Terracotta Army that was buried with the first emperor of China dating back to 209 B.C.  Re-discovered back in the 1970's, it has become an incredibly important archaeological site  in China as well as a hugely-popular tourist destination.
Only 6 of the of estimated 8,000 life-sized clay army were found intact.  All others were smashed by a preceding dynasty to insure the first emperor would not return from the afterlife with his army.

one of the intact "survivors"
Jig-saw puzzle masters at work on site.

Coming back to life.  The army is being painstakingly reassembled and the site of them standing in rank and file in their original location under a giant airplane hangar is quite breathtaking.

Xi'an was prettier at night with the smog hidden in the darkness.  The strikingly beautiful Bell Tower Pagoda is the true center of the city as it sits amid a huge traffic circle constantly buzzing with activity.

Weds., Sept. 4 - Xi'an to Hangzhou - This morning we took a short flight (on Hainan Airlines again) due east toward the coast to the larger city of Hangzhou (8 million+).  The city's most distinctive feature is West Lake, a huge half-natural, half man-made body of water the embodies peacefulness and tranquility.  It recently became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We took a private cruise on West Lake with a nice view of the Hangzhou skyline in the distance.
Like most things in China, even the koi pond at West Lake is BIG.

Tea time!  Just outside Hangzhou, we had a great visit at this family tea plantation in the Longjing Valley. Both sides of the steep valley were terraced in tea plants in all directions, including up and down the mountain sides

No tea bags here!

Thursday, Sept, 5 - Hangzhou - Wuzhen - Shanghai - We had about a four-hour drive (with traffic) from Hangzhou to our last destination, Shanghai.  On the way to break up the drive, we stopped in Wuzhen for a couple of hours.  Wuzhen is a "water town" and is known as the "Venice of the East."  Having been to the actual Venice and ranking it as still THE BEST place we have ever visited, I would beg to differ on this comparison.  Nonetheless, it was a charming little town with a ton of cool exhibits and shops and a place we could have easily spent a whole day exploring instead of such a short period of time.
A little rain doesn't matter in a water town like Wuzhen.
Welcome to Shanghai..well, welcome to  a half-hour from it thanks to an incredible amount of traffic.  Note that all those skyscrapers ahead are apartment buildings and they are everywhere even this far out from the city center with tons more being built.   That's what 22 million plus residents gets you I guess.

Friday, Sept, 6 - A day in Shanghai - Look out New York...you've got some real competition here!!  This city is mind-blowing in so many aspects.  Below is a pictorial list of some of the "wow" moments in our brief visit to the incredible city:
A rainy day view of the amazing "new" Pudong skyline in Shanghai on the east bank of the massive Huangpu River.  That's not smog on the right, those are clouds enveloping the soon-to-be tallest building in China (for now, anyway, and second tallest in the world) when it's completed, the Shanghai Tower.  The picture below was taken from the 155th floor of the building next to it that looks like a bottle opener, the Shanghai World Finance Center (SWFC).  The futuristic one to the left is The Oriental Pearl (radio and TV) Tower.  This great view is from The Bund, an expansive river-walk on the west "old" side of Shanghai.
An evening Shanghai view westward from the SWFC Observation Deck, 155 floors up.  The floor of this enclosed observation deck is made of glass to add  to the fun (or horror depending on the person).  The public bathrooms up here have two urinals in the men's room with the same view, and there is one (western) toilet in the ladies room with the same view.

East Nanjing Road is like the Broadway of Shanghai on the old side.  A quick subway ride from here under the river puts you on the "new" side of the city with its massive skyscrapers in a matter of seconds.
This was my favorite jade sculpture  at The Shanghai Museum which boasts and incredible amount of priceless Chinese artwork and heritage pieces dating as far back as...get this...circa 4800 B.C....wow!

Oh, the shopping you can do in Shanghai and at 16 cents to one Chinese Yuan, there are bargains galore!
Our last night in China was a doozy with tickets to an amazing, live acrobatic show followed by goodbye drinks with our group on the 14th floor outdoor bar of The Peninsula Hotel.  Another one of those unforgettable nights.
The very short video below is what 261 miles (431 kmh) looks like on the amazing Maglev Train (that's right, it LEVitates on MAGnets) from downtown to the Shanghai Airport in about 8 minutes.  That's the fastest in the world in commercial service, folks.  Jaw-freaking-dropping to say the least.

Saturday, Sept. 7 - Shanghai - San Francisco - Denver - Nashville - HOME! 

The package flight deal we bought on Orbitz.com was a good deal, but it meant we would be flying a different airline back to the U.S.  That direct flight to San Francisco clocked in at just over 10 hours and was handled quite nicely by China Eastern Airlines.  Just like going over on Hainan Airlines, the food was decent, the coach seats were comfy (and a bit roomier even) and the entertainment system was top notch (tons of movies and TV shows to choose from - so many in fact, neither of us slept coming back which was probably a mistake in terms of some jet lag when we got home).  We had a fairly long layover in San Francisco and couldn't help ourselves not to take a kinda expensive round-trip cab ride downtown to grab a burger in one of our favorite cities in the U.S..  We connected back home on Frontier Airlines with a quick stop in Denver and were home by 11 P.M., exhausted but  happy that we had just completed an amazing journey to an awe-inspiring place with some of the nicest people in and from around the world (literally). And, we would be able sleep in our own bed tonight (and all day tomorrow!!).
Hey, that's The Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.  We're home!  (kind of).

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