Rena and Wade Around the World

Our first Round the World trip from Jan 2006 - July 2006.

My Photo
Location: Regina/Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

The adventures of living and working abroad. From Cayman to Europe, a break year and side adventure travels, this is our story.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Hakuba / Nagano (Japan)

After the "heaviness" of Hiroshima, we kicked back in the Japanese Alps around Hakuba, near Nagano where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held. The scenery was breathtaking, although a tad bid chilly at about 15 degrees Celsius or so.

Here is a picture of the ski jump at Hakuba that was used for the Olympic games. We marveled at how similar the scenery was here to that of the Rockies.

Okay, well similar to the Rockies apart from rice paddies in the forefront!

We stayed in a sleepy little village of about 10,000 people just outside of Hakuba. When I say sleepy I mean that pretty much everything was closed for the season and there wasn't even a single restaurant open. Good thing we had a kitchen at our disposal.

We had no idea that the weather would be as cold as it was and unfortunately did not bring the appropriate clothing. We were surprised to learn that ski season ended only 10 days prior to our visit at the end of May! Wade of course used this to his advantage and accurately aimed a couple of snowballs into the back of my head. Here is a picture of Wade shivering in his windbreaker on a little hike that we did at the top of the ski runs (one gondola and two chairlifts later). I'm glad he didn't have any mitts or a few more snowballs may have been lobed my way.

Back down at the bottom the weather was a little nicer and we enjoyed a walk around the village. We also enjoyed some hot cocoa to warm us up!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Hiroshima (Japan)

In Grade 7 I wrote a speech about the first atomic bomb that was dropped on a place called Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 at 8:15 am. I'm sure most kids like me absolutely dreaded this part of the curriculum that required you not only to face your fear of public speaking in front of your peers but also fain commitment and passion to the topic of your choice. I remember in my innocence thinking how horrible this act really was. However, once I had given my speech and gotten over the horror of having to compete further in a regional competition (I thought I had a plight worse than the victims of Hiroshima) it somehow was neatly filed away in the back of my mind.

That part of my brain was seriously shaken up on May 25, 2006. It is one thing to know of the text book, dullified (a word invented by me) version of horrible acts in history. It is completely another thing to witness the living memorial to the people it directly affected and still affects. The history books do not adequately convey the human experience of this tragedy. Perhaps if I had understood that better in Grade 7 I would have won the regional competition, although God forbid I may have had to go onto the National competition then!

Here is picture of the A Bomb Dome. It was built in 1915 and was a beloved landmark prior to the bomb. Although the subject of much debate, it has now been preserved as a memorial of that fateful day. Everything has been left as it fell. The bomb exploded 600 meters above and 160 meters to the southeast of the Dome. It's shell is one of the few buildings that survived the blast, most were obliterated. It is believed to have partially survived because the blast was almost directly above it. There was not a single survivor from this building.

Here is a look at the Cenotaph for the atomic bomb victims. Framed in the background is the A Bomb Dome and the Pond of Peace. All of this is within Peace Memorial Park. Rumour had it that no grass would grow in Hiroshima for 75 years after the bomb was dropped. Guess that rumour was wrong since its 60th anniversary was last year. It is amazing when you are walking around the city and the many parks to think that this place was the target of an atomic bomb and was reduced to nothingness. The resilience of the people and the city is astonishing.

350,000 victims resulted from a flash second in August 1945. At detonation the temperature at the center was 1 million degrees Celsius resulting in a massive fireball. After 1 second, it had extended 280 meters and surface temperatures reached 5,000 Celsius. Pressure of several hundred atmospheres were created disintegrating buildings and people alike. 30 minutes after the blast, black rain poured from the sky. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum contains pieces of white walls outside of city that have thick black streaks running down them, forever preserved in the plaster.

Most horrifyingly preserved in the museum are shadows permanently etched in sections of walls on display which are the last remains of the carbon from the bodies of the people standing in front of them at the time of the blast. Roof tiles from houses outside the city welded together in twisted sculptures from the searing heat. Little girls and boys metal lunch boxes containing fossilized remains of rice that were never eaten. Keep in mind, this is all that is left as a remnant of the girls and boys. By the end of December 1945 when the immediate affects of radiation started to settle down, 140,000 people had died. The rest of the 350,000 people continued to suffer for many, many years. Some have still not found an end to their pain.

Here is a picture of Hiroshima after the dropping of the bomb. Most buildings within a 2km radius of the hypocenter were crushed instantly. One of the most memorable and heartbreaking stories is that of a girl named Sadako. Sadako suffered from leukemia. She believed that if she folded 1,000 paper cranes from the paper her medicine came in, she would be saved from death. A monument has been built in remembrance of her and for all of the children that were innocent victims of the bomb. Today the paper crane is a symbol of peace around the world. While we were at the Peace Memorial Park we were handed paper cranes by some Japanese children from Osaka that were at the Park as part of a school field trip.

War might be war, but dropping atomic bombs on cities of innocent people is monstrous and inhumane. Worse yet, is just a few days after Hiroshima, another bomb was droped on Nagasaki. There simply is no justification for it. The mayors of Hiroshima have made it their mission to formally protest all nuclear tests going on in the world to this day. Walls of letters of protest that have been written over the last 60 years are contained in the Hiroshima Peace Museum. We read some of them. The latest letter was dated February 24, 2006 and sent to George Bush and Tony Blair. Here is an excerpt from one of the letters:

"With the international community gravely concerned about nuclear proliferation, the US purports to be leading the effort to find a peaceful resolution to the problem of Iran's nuclear program, yet you conduct a subcritical nuclear test, a clear indication that you are developing new nuclear weapons. Such behaviour is intolerable. You have brought the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international agreement regarding nuclear weapons, to the brink of collapse, and, we fear, are provoking a new round of proliferation."

To end this posting on a more positive and hopeful note, here is a picture of a beautiful Hiroshima at night.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Kyoto (Japan)

From Beijing we flew to Narita Airport outside of Tokyo. After recuperating from our 10 hour lay-over in the Hong Kong Airport from 12 am to 10 am in the morning, we hit the road to put our JR Railway passes to good use.

As we discovered there are railways, subways and buses throughout Japan. Doesn't sound bad does it? We'll further elaborate. Railways can be Shinkansens (bullet trains), limited expresses, expresses, JR special rapid or local trains. Shinkansens can also be regular bullet trains or the special "Nozomi" (super express) bullet trains. As we discovered our pass did not cover Nozomi trains, just the regular Shinkansens and all classes beneath. Still not confused? Well, there are also different railway companies. JR is just one of them. To top this all off we haven't even hit the subways yet, which by the way usually run through the same stations that the railways and buses do. Try to find your way among that and a few million people, coupled with lack of English signage and you will start to understand stress.

That all being said, all countries can take a lesson from the Japanese rail system. It is the most efficient travel we have ever seen (once you start to understand it). Trains always leave on time and are incredibly fast. Shinkansens go about 300 km an hour. The faster Nozomi trains can exceed 400 km per hour. Think of getting from Regina to Saskatoon in under an hour!

Anyways...back to Kyoto. With over 2000 temples and shrines we knew we would only scratch the surface in the few days we had.

We arrived after dark and navigated our way from the long distance JR line to our hotel via the underground maze of subway lines. Unfortunately, we arrived only to learn our reservation had been cancelled and we had no where to sleep. Luckily for us the owner of the hotel was good enough to call around and eventually drove us to a nearby "Japanese business hotel" that had an available room. Not the last time a kind person in Japan would help us out. As it turned out this was a stroke of good luck for us. Although no one in the hotel spoke any English we did manage to get an authentic stay in a Japanese room complete with the tatami flooring. Sleeping and sitting on the floor is actually very enjoyable. Plus you can't fall out of bed!

After some tasty Japanese food and a good night sleep it was time to hit the sites. First stop was the Tenryu-ji Temple (The Temple of the Heavenly Dragon). The temple itself is ranked first of the "Five Zen Mountains of Kyoto". Apparently the site has been ravaged by fires 8 times since it was established in 1339. However, the Sogenchi Garden pictured here is the oldest in Japan and has retained its same form since it was designed in the 14th century.

Next stop was a shrine, Fushimi-Inari Taisha. It had orange corridors with Japanese writing and foxes everywhere...some of which seemed to be wearing bibs. It may or may not have been lunch time! Luckily for us this shrine was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake. Apparently, the fox is considered the messenger of the god of cereal grains.

From here we decided to have a look at another Zen Temple. This one is called the Ginkakuji Temple, otherwise known as the Silver Pavilion, because it was meant to be covered with Silver Leaf ... but it never was. We suspect out of pure laziness. Our guide book suggests death of its owner.

Final stop, and the FINAL temple, shrine, pagoda, etc, etc. for a long, long time....

Ryoanji Temple, the highlight of which is a world famous Rock Garden. There are no trees, just 15 irregularly shaped rocks of varying sizes. The rocks are arranged on small white pebbles in five groups in such a manner that visitors can see only 14 of them at once, from whichever angle the garden is viewed. In the legend, when someone attains spiritual enlightenment as a result of deep Zen meditation, he can see the last invisible stone with his mind's eye. It is considered the quintessence of Zen art. Some say the rocks are arranged in such a manner to represent the islands of Japan. It's up to each visitor to find out for himself what the unique garden signifies. For some, I'm not saying who, it signifies a happy Japanese Gardener laughing hysterically at throngs of tourists (each paying US$15) to ponder its meaning.

On the way out we bumped into Mary Poppins, singing in the rain.

And finally, the fascination with Rena continues. Here's one of a group of school kids who asked to have their picture taken with her. In an effort to fit in she decided to flash the peace symbol as everyone here seems to do in photos. Only problem is her hand is twisted the wrong way which has a slightly different meaning in some parts of the world. Silly Canadian.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Subway

I remember Casey, Tanis and Rena all looking in surprised when I told them it was my first subway ride several months ago while we were in Santiago. I think I even took a few pictures. It was a bit nerve-racking buying the tickets in a foreign language, figuring out which line to be on, etc, etc.

Since then we have been on subways in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. All of them have been easy enough to use with their 3 to 6 lines. Here's Beijing, still being contructed.

Hong Kong, also very manageble.

But looking ahead to Tokyo...I am a little unnerved again.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Interesting Facts on China

Interesting Fact #1: China is Big.
Seriously, there are a lot of people in China. 1 out of every 5 people on this planet lives in China. That adds up to 1.3 billion. The largest city in Canada is Toronto with 4.5 million people. In China, there seems to be an endless number of massive cities. I was expecting there to be around 15million in each of Beijing and Shanghai, but who knew about all the others? Datong 2.7 million, Xi’an 6.6 million, Zhengzhou 6.2 million, Luoyang 6.3 million, Kaifeng 4.6 million, Wuhan 8.4 million, Yichang 4 million, Nanchang 4.1 million, Changsha 5.8 million, Yueyang 5.1 million, Hengyang 6.9 million, Huaihua 4.8 million. It just goes on and on and on. There are almost 100 cities with over 1 million people. In Canada there are 5 cities with over 1 million people.

Interesting Fact #2: Chinese people like to spit.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether you are walking through the streets, in a shopping mall, at a restaurant, or locked in a closet, about every 10 seconds you will hear someone hawking up what must be a baseball size cup of phlegm. Then they spit it wherever they happen to be standing. It’s a little unnerving at times, but so far we seem to have avoided being struck by any stray gobs. Knock on wood. I was thinking about it the other day, let’s say the average person hawks up a massive load only once per day (a very conservative estimate based on my observations so far) and that gob is about 5 ml in volume (also fairly conservative I think). With 1.3 billion people that is 6.5 million liters of phlegm being spit onto the ground every single day. The streets of China are no place to wear flip flops.

Interesting Fact #3: Mandarin is hard.
Not really a big surprise. The hardest part is not the sounds, but rather the tone. This is rather inhibiting to newcomers given that the tone of the same word can have vastly different meanings. To give you an appreciation, the word ma can be pronounced 4 different ways depending on whether it is a high tone, rising tone, falling-rising tone or falling tone. Thus it can mean mother, hemp, horse or swear. Could be an interesting conversation if you get mixed up.

The Great Wall of China

No trip to China would be complete without a trip to the Great Wall of China. In an effort to avoid the most visited sections we arranged a transport to Jinshanling in the province of Hebei about 150km north of Beijing. From here we hiked 10km to the Simatai section of the wall.

Rena at the beginning near Jinshanling where parts of the Wall are completely restored and others are still "authentic". Although there were hundreds of tourists there, everyone seemed to stretch out and for much of the day and it felt as though we had the wall to ourselves.

Although, not entirely to ourselves. The two ladies pictured in this unrestored section caught up to us fairly early on. They decided they were going to be our tour guides and followed us for about 5 kms. After a 1/2 hour or so we told them we would prefer to be left alone. From then on they kept their distance but were still on hand to take photos and tell us to watch our step. At the half way point we gave them some money and parted ways.

Here we are at another unrestored section as we say farewell to our "guides". Note that Mongolia is on one side of the wall and China on the other.

The second half of the walk was even better than the first half now that we really had the place to ourselves. Or so we thought. As we parted ways with our first two "friends" we noticed someone new close behind us. Stopping when we stopped, speeding up when we did and occasionally yelling at us to watch our steps or go this way for a short cut.

We weren't thrilled with the idea of another "guide" being thrust upon us but couldn't really get annoyed at someone who is just trying to earn some money. So we did the only thing we could think of...we paid him to go away. Everybody was happy.

Here we are at the end enjoying a cold drink with a great view.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Beijing (China)

Our last train ride in China was a speedy 12 hour train from Xi'an to Beijing. We travelled in comfort on one of the nicest trains in China, although we did have to share a cabin with two strangers. Luckily for us, they didn't snore. Bad luck for them that Wade does. If you think the line ups are bad at airports, check out this picture of the Beijing Train Station and you won't feel so bad.

This is going to be a very long post given that we spent 10 days in Beijing. 10 days was allotted partially because there are so many sites of interest and partially because we needed some downtime to plan the remainder of our travels.

Beijing was remarkably like Saskatchewan temperature wise. Cool spring days of about 16 to 20 degrees celsius, dry weather and VERY windy. Only difference is that instead of country soil whipping around in the city, in Beijing it is sand from the Gobi desert. The Gobi desert is slowly advancing towards Beijing every year and creates enormous sand storms in the city during the springtime.

Unlike Saskatchewan, Beijing must be one of the most confusing cities on earth. The city planners here must have loads of fun thinking about how they can utterly confuse the tourists. Street names change every few blocks, or so it seems, and the maps do not list all of the names. On top of that the maps do not list a lot of the side streets, etc. which makes it very difficult to find the shop or the restaurant that you may be looking for. Our absolute favourite experience however, was wondering around for close to two hours trying to find the subway stop around our hotel. We never did find it, only to discover later that the subway line had not been built yet. It would have been nice if the map had indicated it was a proposed line! Guess they are looking to save on printing costs.

Also fun is the fact that most cab drivers do not seem to know their own city map and if they don't speak English and you don't speak Chinese to give them get kicked out of their cab! Should be interesting to see how this city deals with the tons of tourists that are going to be here for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. That being said, the city is on a massive plan to make the city tourist friendly for 2008. Police officers are taking mandatory English lessons and cab drivers are also being encouraged to learn English. Lucky for us, most people in the city were very friendly. Lots of the children speak English and will often come up to you on the street and ask you if you need help when they see you pondering over a map.

Although Beijing is a very historic city, it is also very modern. Here is a picture of some of the buildings close to Tiananmen Square. Massive, new buildings can be found all over Beijing. Construction can also be found all over Beijing in preparation for the Olympics. This unfortunately meant for us that some of the sites were not open for touring.

If you got through the long dialogue above, you will appreciate the next comment. Here is a picture of Tiananmen Square, although only a small portion of it, given that it is the world's largest public square. This fact makes the next part slightly embarrassing in that Wade and I wandered around the perimeter of the square for a couple of hours not actually being able to locate it! One would think it should be fairly easy to spot. I tell you it's those damn maps!!! After a couple of confusing days...we have thoroughly oriented ourselves with the city.

One of the biggest tourist attractions is the Forbidden City or sometimes referred to as the Purple Forbidden City. At 720,000 m2 it is the world's largest palace complex and remarkably in the best condition. Chinese astrologists believe that God lives in the Purple Palace in the center of the universe and as the Emperor is the son of God, he must rightfully live in the Purple City. As the Emperor's abode was not open to the public, it earned the title as being forbidden.

There are 8,700 rooms in the palace and the city is divided into an inner and outer court. The inner court is where the Emperor lived with his wives, yes wives. Concubines were housed elsewhere. If you can see the doors in the picture you may notice that they have 9 rows of 9 bulbular nails in them. Odd numbers are considered holy and 9 being the highest single digit odd number is of course the most revered. Many Chinese tourists passing through the doorway will stop and touch some of the nails for good fortune.

24 different Emperors lived in this City, prior to the last Emperor being banished from the palace in 1924 due to the Feng Yuxiang coup. From all accounts, the Forbidden City was a harsh place to live for all of those apart from the Emperor. Wives and concubines were buried alive when the Emperor they served died. Enuchs and maid servants were slaves, working day and night. They were bound by countless strange rules, harshly enforced, such as the manner in which they slept. Sleeping on your back was meant to offend the gods. Even the Imperial Doctor had much to fear. If his treatments caused distress to the Emperor by worsening his conditions, he was killed.

The Purple Forbidden City is by no means purple. All of the roofs have yellow glazed ceramic tiles and red wooden structures beneath. Only the Emperor could use the colour yellow and anybody else found using it would be charged with treason. Yellow is important because of the theory of Ying Yang & the 5 Elements, which states that gold, wood, water, fire & soil symbolize 5 directions. Soil is located in the center and represents yellow. As the Emperor's palace is located in the center of the Chinese world, yellow becomes sacred. Here is a picture taken in the Imperial Garden in the inner court. Even a brutal Emperor needs a place of tranquility.

Here is a picture of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the Temple of Heaven Park (a 267 hectare park). The Park was originally a place for the Emperor to come and pray for good harvests and for the forgiveness of sins. This structure is unique in that no nails or cement are used. It also is constructed around the symbolic 9 number. 3 marble terraces, 3 stone steps and a 3 tiered roof, representing mortals, the earth and heaven.

A picture of Wade, visibly stressed in one of the many tea shops in Beijing. Who knew there were so many kinds and qualities of tea. We heard stories from other unsuspecting tourists who were invited to elaborate tea ceremonies and presented with a US $200 bill upon departure. We decided to skip the ceremony and just go to a shop. Even so we were subject to high pressure sales tactics.

Here is a picture taken in one of the corridors of the Lama temple, the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. It was one of the nicest temples we have been to so far in that it was mesmerizing with all its bright colours, active worshippers burning incense and bowing to the many buddhas and monks wandering in and amongst the buildings attending to daily duties. No body seemed too concerned about the nosy tourists wildly snapping pictures. I was enthralled by the chanting of the monks in the background and brought back to reality when I realized it was a CD playing from the nearby gift store. I guess even practicing temples have a commercial side. I now understand why Jesus was so upset by those profiting off what should be a spiritual place.

One afternoon we made our way out to the summer abode of the Emperor, the Summer Palace, which is located 12 kms outside of Beijing. It is 726 acres, of which 3/4's of it is water. The Palace is built around Lake Kunming. It is funny to think that the Emperor only went 12 kms outside of the city to escape the heat of the Forbidden City. Strange enough, it was much cooler. There are 3,000 structures of pavilions, towers and bridges built in an amongst the hills and gardens around the lake. We walked for a few hours on the trails around the East Gate.

A less well known area of Beijing is the Underground City. It was literally a cool experience in that 200 kms of tunnels exist at between 8 and 18 meters beneath the ground surface. Why you ask? Well, because it turns out the Chinese were terrified of the Russians invading or bombing them. I guess their Communist bond was not as tight as appeared from the surface. Or at least not tight enough that the Chinese truly trusted the Russians. All of the tunnels were hand dug over a period of 10 years and contained over 1,000 anti raid chambers. The Underground City was never used, making it a great "make work" project, but was planned to house up to 300,000 people. How they were going to decide who could take shelter and who would have to take refuge in the hills, I do not know. However, I imagine it couldn't hurt to be considered key personnel.

And lastly, a trip to Beijing would not be complete without experiencing some Peking duck. We put our fears of Bird Flu aside and delved into the local cuisine. Tanis, you would have gone quackers for this place. Wade and I ate an entire duck in Chinese pancakes at the restaurant Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant. One could say we were in good company in that George Bush has eaten at this restaurant, but not so sure of that. We really did waddle out of here. Ducky on the other hand did not.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Xi'an (China)

So once again, we avoided taking the train from Chengdu to Xi'an due to unavailability of seats. Given that we are now getting lazy this suited us just fine as we avoided a 17 hour train ride and substituted it for a 1 hour flight. So far our experience has been very good with Air China in comparison with Vietnam Airlines. We read an article in the newspaper the other day that there was a bomb threat on a domestic Vietnam Airlines flight. I'm glad we're not flying with them again!

Xi'an is a city of approximately 6.6 million and the main reason for coming here is to see the 8th wonder in the world, the Army of Terracotta Warriors, which lies about 20 kms outside of the city. Naturally this is also an Unesco World Heritage site.

The mausoleum of Emperor Shihuang of the Qin Dynasty (221 - 207 B.C.) is the largest mausoleum in the world and his tomb can be seen as a mound rising from the earth. It is estimated that 740,000 people worked for a 39 year construction period on the mausoleum (at a time when China's population was only 20 million). According to historical records the tomb was originally 115 meters high, but now due to settlement of the earth is much lower. It is believed to cover 56 square kms. At this point, much is still unknown about the "Underground Palace" as it has yet to be excavated. The tomb is said to be concealed with weapons and booby traps to kill anyone who enters.

It is believed that there are a mass of palace halls underneath the earth that were to serve the Emperor in his next life. Archeologists have found many ruined walls and foundations and multiple burial tombs they believe contain skeletons of the buried alive builders of the mausoleum (as to not disclose its secrets) and the Emperor's many concubines, also buried alive. According to historical records the dome contains astrological constellations made with precious stones and there are imitation rivers, lakes and seas filled with mercury that keep flowing due to mechanical means. Scientists have conducted experiments and have determined that there are very high levels of mercury inside which gives credence to the thought that there are lakes of liquid metal.

Given that the tomb itself has not been excavated and all you can see is a mound of earth from the outside, we did not bother too much with it. Rather we went to see the Terracotta Warriors which have been found about 1.5 kms from the tomb.

The Terracotta Army was discovered in 1974 when some local farmers were digging a well. Since that time, 3 "pits" have been discovered containing terracotta warriors, archers, generals, chariots and horses. The astounding thing is that they are all life size and each warrior is unique. No two are alike. Quite amazing when it is thought that these pits contain 6,000 figures! Here is a picture of Pit 1.

Much of the pits are still unearthed. Of that which has been unearthed, there are thousands of broken pieces. Archaeologists are painstakingly piecing individual figures back together again. Here is a look at some of the figures they have put back together again.

This picture is fairly self explanatory and shows how much work goes into uncovering each figure. Each pit is about 5 meters deep containing a floor of bricks and weight supporting partitions within. Once the warriors were placed in battle formation within a corridor, each corridor was covered with earth and then a timber ceiling. The timber ceiling was then covered with fiber mats.

Here is a look at sections of Pit 2 that are still uncovered and you can see portions of the sagging timber roof.

Also amazing is the fact that each figure holds a bronze weapon. So far 40,000 have been uncovered and removed and separately placed within museums. The interesting part is that the weapons were plated with a chrome-saline oxide coating which has perfectly preserved the sharpness of the weapons. It has also prevented the weapons from corrosion and is the same formula that was reinvented by the Germans in 1937 and the Americans in 1950. Little did they know their invention was hardly novel being 2,200 years old!

Okay, we've rambled enough about this so we'll wrap it up by saying that the terracotta army is just the beginning of what archaeologists still imagine they will find. It is believed that this mausoleum is so great that it may take another 200 years to fully uncover and understand it.

Xi'an itself is a very historical city. It has existed for over 2,000 years and has seen many dynasties rise and fall. At one point the province of Shaanxi was considered the centre of Chinese civilization. The city of Xi'an still maintains its old city walls in the centre of the current modern city. Some sections of the wall are no longer in existence while others have been restored. Originally the walls formed a rectangle with a circumference of 14 kms. There was a gateway on each side and a watchtower at each corner. Here is a picture of a section of the wall by the train station.

Also of historical interest is the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. As their names suggest they once housed a giant bell and a giant drum. These would sound to communicate to the residents where the Emperor was. Musical performances are still held at both towers. Here is a picture of Wade trying out one of the many drums in the tower.

And lastly, here is a look across the square from the Drum Tower to the Bell Tower. Both are similar in shape and size.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Chengdu (China)

After docking in Chongqing, we made our way by bus to the city of Chengdu, about 350 kms away. Chengu was panda-monium...yes our main reason for going there was to finally track down the Giant Panda Bear that eluded us in Hong Kong. A few kilometers outside of the city is the world's largest Giant Panda Bear Eco-Park. It is a 105 hectares and contains about 40 Giant Pandas. There are expansion plans for the park to become 200 hectares and it is a vital research tool into the life and habits of these very solitary animals. The Pandas are researched, observed, bred and protected in this park.

We visited the Park at feeding time, which is around 9:30 a.m. and enjoyed a few hours of watching the bears munch on bamboo, their favourite food. Apparently they eat about 20 kgs a day in order to sustain themselves. That's a lot of food. They are also known to be very picky eaters and will only eat about 20 of China's 300 species of bamboo. We witnessed their pickiness as the workers piled heaps of bamboo next to them and they matter of factly rummaged through picking out what they wanted, sampled and sometimes discarded a branch of bamboo after only one bite in search of another one more to their liking. The bears at this park should count themselves lucky that they have servants dedicated to searching out food to their precise taste preferences! The bears in the wild spend 10 – 16 hours a day searching out food. Then they sleep.

Giant Panda bears have been around for at least 600,000, some say as much as 1 million to 3 million years, and at some point evolved from carnivores to herbivores. Unfortunately they can only absorb about 2% of the nutrients from the bamboo which accounts for why they have to eat so much of it and also why they are so notoriously lazy. Their laziness is actually required in order to conserve as much energy as possible and who can argue with that...sleeping is a fabulous pass time. This fella truly has the Life of Riley and even has a swing to help him relax. I think he's gotten used to the luxuries in this park.

And here are the Three Bears. There are only about 1,000 Giant Pandas left in the world, surprising for an animal that is the only “living fossil” from the Pleistocene period. They are remarkably adaptable and have even developed a pseudo thumb during their evolution in order to help them hold bamboo while they eat it. Their relative the bear can only hold items between its paws and cannot clutch things like the Panda. Scientists have apparently argued for years whether they belong to the bear family, the raccoon family or a separate class distinction of their own. In the wild these bears are very solitary animals and have a very difficult time finding one another, especially since so many of their natural habitats have been destroyed. These three have no problem finding each other and are also not the least bit phased by all of the tourists gawking at them. Life is good for them. If you are interested click on Giant Panda Bear Breeding Research Base to visit the website of this park.

After a fun filled morning of watching Pandas we took in a Sichuan opera, a 200 year old tradition. Opera in the province of Sichuan has a different meaning than that at home. Although it started off with high pitched singing and dramatic acts, it also included gymnastics, comedy routines, puppetry, very complicated hand shadowry and traditional ceremonies such as Changing of the Mask. It was very entertaining and we were actually able to follow along as they placed electronic boards around the sidelines with basic English translations.