Friday, July 29, 2016

Xi'an

This week we had a chance to visit Xi'an (capital city of Shaanxi province in central China). This was our first ride on a bullet train.


We read that Chinese bullet trains go up to 350 KM/hour, but this one only went to a maximum of 307 KM/hour. Even so It got to our destination in 4-1/2 hours. The price of a first class ticket is about the same as flying. But at least on the train, we don't have to be at the station 2 hours ahead of time in order to get through security, so the travel time is about the same. On the train, first class is not the highest. There is also a  business class that costs twice as much as first class - we did not use business class (but it was worth it to go first class).

Our hotel in Xi'an turned out to be pretty good. There was one
tasteful piece of Chinese art on the wall:


Now at first we thought the 3 horizontal paper cutout figures were meant to be like that. But on closer inspection we could see the vertical glue marks where the figures were originally. This is so typical of China - many broken things don't get repaired. Like for instance seat belts in cars - as long as the car still runs why bother fixing a broken seat-belt? And when things are broken beyond being usable, we more often see them abandoned rather than repaired, sometimes replaced with new and sometimes just living without it.

We got into town early enough to explore a bit outside after dinner. Our hotel was just a block away from the Drum Tower which is quite impressive at night:


Of course there is a big fancy Drum Tower and a similarly looking Bell Tower here because Xi'an used to be the capital city of China, many dynasties ago. This part of the city, inside the inner city wall was the imperial capital, something like the forbidden city in Beijing later on. It was not for normal citizens but only for official business related to the imperial court and governance of the empire.

Nowadays of course it is for everyone and is the center of shopping and nightlife in the city. Branching off of the Drum Tower plaza is a long night market street:

The following morning we met our friend Sean who was born in Xi'an and lived there through most of the cultural revolution. When he was young the old City wall was closed, barricaded, off limits. Now it is largely restored and a major tourist site as Xi'an is the oldest walled city in China. This wall is something like 1500 years old. Here are Carole and Sean on top, posing in front of a lookout tower:

Here, from the top of the south gate, we can see the wall on the left, the moat (first line of defense completely surrounding the wall) in the centre, and the modern city on the right.

Inside the city wall the architecture is more traditional Chinese

In the afternoon we went out to see the Terracotta Warriors. These guys are more than 2,000 years old and there are more than 6,000 of them, each one with a unique face. They are guarding the underground tomb of the first emperor of China. It wasn't until 1974 that this buried army was discovered when some farmers were digging a well.

Later in the afternoon, Sean went back to the countryside where his 7 year old son is attending summer camp and we went looking for the Great Mosque of Xi'an. We were told that it may close at 6:00pm so when my attempt to head in the right direction led us into a narrow market street, Carole started to get impatient saying we have to get out of here and find the mosque before its too late.
And then we turned the corner and suddenly we were in the entrance of the mosque:
As you can see by the plan it is a series of courtyards with lovely gardens and buildings:



I love round doorways, I call them Hobbit doors, and there were a couple of them here:

And just outside the mosque we saw this keyhole shaped doorway. It looks sort of Arabic - and that makes sense as it is in the Muslim district.

Once out of the market street leaving the mosque, we found ourselves on another food street:

And good thing too because it was dinner time.

The next day, Sean took us to the Wild Goose Pagoda. On the way he showed us the apartment building he grew up in and the university where his dad taught.  When he lived there, it was all farmers' fields - now the city expands to his old area and beyond. Close to his old neighbourhood is the Wild Goose Pagoda which we visited. The pagoda itself was being restored and hidden behind scaffolding so not worthy of a photo. Here is the front gate:

Similar to the Great Mosque of yesterday (and similar to most Chinese temples actually) this was another series of courtyards and gardens. Some nice rock gardens included. Here we are rubbing the statue for good luck:

Now there is a famous 16 century Chinese novel that we had been made aware of, it is titled "Journey to the West" in Chinese. There is a popular English translation of this story titled "Monkey". There was a 2008 movie staring Jet Li and Jackie Chan ("The Forbidden Kingdom") that is loosely based on this story and recently there have 2 animated movies named "Monkey King" that are also based on this story. Well in the back of the Wild Goose Pagoda is the school of Master Xuanzang and the description looked to us to be a lot like "Journey to the West":

We asked Sean and sure enough, this monk is indeed the one in "Journey to the West".

After the pagoda visit, we were going to visit a park but it was not the kind of park we imagined, so we went to the Provincial Museum. I am usually not that keen on museums, but this museum was air-conditioned and it was 38 degrees outside, so in we went. It was actually somewhat interesting, but it was also crowded with hundreds of other people escaping the heat and the air-conditioning could barely keep up. So eventually we made our way back to our hotel.

After a cool down and dinner we went out the west city gate and walked along the park walk bordering the moat. We were not alone. People all over China come out in the evenings to cool off (because their non air-conditioned apartments are still hot when it cools off outside). A popular evening activity is plaza dancing. Plazas, town squares, and any suitable flat open surface soon become full of people line dancing to music from portable public address systems. Usually its just dancing, but sometimes it is a bit fancier with long dragon tails:
We even found this troupe dancing in front of the city wall with flags and umbrellas, and a live band (including huge Chinese drums).  Carole was entranced and moved in close for several shots: 
And that's pretty much the end of our trip to Xi'an. We had one more little adventure though leaving town. We took the subway to the train station and Carole's ticket got eaten by the automated gate so she had to wait for the train station guard to open up the ticket checker to retrieve her ticket so she could exit. She was surprised at how friendly and patient everyone seemed to be.  

After that it was just a few more hours of bullet train, more subway, slow train to Yanqing (during which I had time to write this blog entry), and finally taxi home.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Canada visit leads to bike repairs

As many of you know, Carole and I made a little trip back to Canada last month. We took care of dentist visits etc and then, while Carole was leading a Come Alive workshop on Gabriola Island, I went to Kitimat to visit family.

One day we went "drifting" down the river. This is floating down the river on a boat with no motor, putting down anchor at spots for fishing, then drifting on further down until we get to the beaching spot where we have a car ready to take us back to the truck and trailer so we can drive back to pick up the boat - it involves a lot of driving.


Here we are, Donny, Mitch and Jacob getting ready for fishing while I take a break from rowing to take a picture. The rowing isn't hard work, its just enough to keep us pointed in the right direction and away from log jams. We spent about 4 hours on the water. There were fish jumping all around us and nibbling at our bait - but we didn't catch any. We all got nice sunburns though.

After all the driving back and forth to get the boat back home we had a family barbecue.  After dinner the kids wore us out jumping on the trampoline. Here's Kathy taking her turn after I was worn out:


And then it was time to head back to Namaimo so Carole and I could pack to return to China. So how does this Canada visit lead to bike repairs? Well,  I stumbled upon a blog about a father and son going around the world on motorcycles  and the review they did on the tires that took them 25,000 km all the way through Europe and Asia http://earth-roamers.blogspot.hk/2015/11/avon-trailrider-after-25000-km.html. So, remembering that my rear tire is almost worn out, I checked the online sources to see if I could get the Avon Trailrider tyre in China - apparently not. So I picked one up in Canada to bring back with our luggage:


One last thing, at the Vancouver airport, while browsing the souvenir shops waiting for our plane, I picked up a little package of Canadian flag stickers - the reason to be revealed a bit later. Here they are (well most of them as I have already peeled off a couple):


And here are 2 shots from our airplane windows. The first is out the window of the small plane from Nanaimo as it is preparing to land in Vancouver. The second is the big plane as it is preparing to land in the Beijing smog. What a contrast:


Arriving in Beijing we were delayed an extra hour retrieving the tire from the lost luggage office. I don't know why it went to the lost luggage office as it was never really lost, but that's where we finally found it.

Then, arriving back home in Jackson Hole, I found that  my bike was leaking oil from the front forks and would not start because the battery was dead. I asked around if anyone had jumper cables, no one did, not even the professional drivers. Strange! I don't know what people do here when they break down - you are not allowed to buy fuel in a portable container - not even in a container approved for fuel, and no one carries jumper cables. In the end I bought a new $25 battery and had it delivered to our house. That allowed me to drive to the motorcycle repair shop to get the tire and the fork seals replaced. Here I go:


It was about 7:00 in the evening when I got to the repair shop in town. I had a note all prepared which asked them to change the tire and replace the fork seals and notify me when it is ready to pickup. I expected at least 2 days because they'd have to order the fork seals. The guy didn't want to leave it till tomorrow though he started removing the rear wheel right away. I pointed again at the note saying there are 2 jobs and to notify me when done. He seemed to insist he start on it right away. I didn't want to walk away while he was in the middle of it, so I watched and waited:


I guess they don't have a tire machine so one of the guys jumped on a scooter that was half taken apart, put the wheel and tire on his lap and drove off. He returned 15 minutes later with the new tire on my wheel. Finally we got it worked out that they didn't have the fork seals in stock so it would take a couple of more days before the bike was ready. So it seemed like they were now letting me leave without the bike.

Meanwhile, while we were away in Canada, my luggage rack and panniers had arrived. The story is that I had ordered the set more than a month ago and they arrived defective, the panniers did not fit the brackets properly - so I sent them back for repair/replacement. I was excited to install and test them, but alas, only one side had been fixed, the other side still did not fit. Rather than fight with the vendor and send it back again, this time I took it to a welding shop in town. They cut it, beat it with a hammer, tested the fit, then welded it back up perfectly, all for $20.


I like the face shield:


And how about the human vice. I can't imagine why they don't have a bench vice to hold on to parts, or even a clamp to clamp it to their welding table. But here they are, 2 guys holding the part with pliers while the third guy grinds and shapes it - all without safety glasses of course.


And finally, once the bike is back from the repair shop, I fit the pannier rack and mounted the panniers. These are a popular Chinese knockoff of the type of pannier BMW uses on their bikes. They are pretty solid actually, I like them.


Of course people usually put stickers all over these panniers to show where they have been. And that is why I picked up the Canadian flag stickers at the airport in Vancouver. here they are:



You can see that I had to pull back the rain cover to take this picture. Although the rain has let up today, the last 3 days have been the heaviest rain in norther China in 60 years causing some devastating floods. In Beijing city alone, 25 people died from drowning and many more from other flood related causes. Here is a taste: http://shanghaiist.com/2016/07/20/north_china_floods.php.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Riding the great wall

As you know, last year we visited the Great Wall of China at Badaling (http://china.blog.leuze.ca/2015/08/over-wall-macgyver.html). Well that is a very well restored impressive section of the wall but it is jam packed with tourists. Since there were originally 10,000 miles of great wall, I thought there must be some more sections of wall nearby that we can see which are not major tourist destinations. A quick check on my favourite map source: http://www.openstreetmap.org/ showed me a few possible sites nearby, so off we went exploring.

I actually made 2 trips to this section of the Great Wall, first  my own, then returned another day with Carole. Here I include photos of both trips. When I went alone it was a clear day. When Carole and I went together was a heavy pollution day, and the photos are hazy.

So here we are almost to the wall. You can see in the twisty mountain road leading here. In the background, invisible through the smog is a big lake and on the other side of the lake is Jackson Hole where we live.
At some point we get off the small mountain road and turn onto an even smaller, single lane road which ends up in a small village:

























And these 2 pieces of pipe are at the end of the one lane paved road


























After that it becomes a one lane dirt road:
which soon ends up close to the wall. I actually went off the road onto a little trail where I could drive right up onto the wall:


And here we are back on the hazy pollution day where you can see the what's left of the Great Wall zig-zagging along the hills in the distance and below is the twisty paved road to get there.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Driving (a motorcycle) in China

I've had an idea of a theme of another blog post, but haven't gotten around to it. Now though, I have a new topic to talk about. Since now I have a motorcycle to get around on, I'll talk about driving in China.

Some background: Before coming to China one of the things I researched was "driving in China" and I found this video:

 I could hardly believe it when I saw this video the first time. Then after about 6 months of living in China, I looked at this video again and it all seemed quite normal - what I'm used to seeing every day. I could hardly believe that what was so shocking to me at first now seemed "normal"

The next shocker for me was when I was studying for my Chinese Driver license and discovered that they have virtually the same traffic laws here as in N. America and Europe - you just don't see anyone following the laws. So after being used to this type of driving for so long, we are now shocked by different behaviours

For instance, one day, while out for a walk we saw something so unbelievable we both commented on it. Yes it is true, we both saw it - the car used his turn signal before making a turn. But the most unbelievable thing we have seen here was last week, in a taxi. The drivers mobile phone rang, he pulled over to the side of the road and came to a complete stop before answering the phone.

So, here are my new wheels:



Its a 600cc Benelli. This is one of only 6 or 7 Chinese models of motorcycle that are bigger than 250 CC. In fact at least 98% of the motorbikes on the road in China are less than 150 cc. I know Benelli sounds more Italian than Chinese - well it is long standing Italian motorcycle company (since 1911) that was recently purchased by a Chinese company. So now they are manufactured in China, mostly for export but there is a version for the domestic Chinese market as well - which means it can be registered to be legally driven in China.

Now of course most motorcycle owners in China don't seem to worry about "legally registering" their bikes. They just drive around with no license plates. But if anything happens that involves the police, unregistered motorcycles are confiscated - never to be returned, plus possible fines, jail, lawsuits, and who knows what else. So I got a legally registered bike.

Carole and I went into Beijing Wednesday last week to check it out and then make the deal. Here we are exchanging a wad of cash for a booklet and a key:



Then, back home in Jackson Hole we leaned that motorcycles aren't allowed except for property owners. This is just one example of motorcycle discrimination in China. There are many places motorbikes are not allowed at all. In fact many cities (like Shanghai, Shenzhen, etc) don't allow bikes at all, also many expressways don't allow bikes (and those that do limit the top speed to 80 km/hour while cars are limited to 130 km/h). So, as with most rules in China, there is a way to make individual adjustments, so I got a pass to allow my bike into the compound where we live:



Then I went back to Beijing on the weekend to bring it home. That was a mistake as it was the May 1 (labour day) weekend and the expressways were bumper to bumper traffic jams. So I did a bit of weaving through traffic and finally made it home in twice the time it should take. Here we are:



But only one helmet. I made 2 trips in to Yanqing looking for a helmet store and only found it the next day on trip #3. Now we have 2 so Carole can come along for a ride:



But maybe we can use even more safety gear than a helmet. Now it It turns out the (previous) owner of the bike is selling it because he is returning to Germany (He actually lives about 30 KM from Cousin Ingrid). He was  back in Germany at the time he placed the add which is why I am exchanging cash with his wife above. Anyway his wife told him I don't have any biking gear here so he offered to bring some back for me from Germany since there it is much cheaper (and more reliable quality). So I picked out some gear on the website link he gave me and now I have more safety equipment than I have ever used before. This is a suit that is not only waterproof and has skid protection but also knee pads, elbow and shoulder pads and even can be installed with hip pads and back board if I wished. I'll sell the bike when we leave but I'll keep the suit to bring back to Canada:



All those trips to town looking for a helmet burned more fuel than I expected and I forgot to check the gas gauge. So the next time in town I ran out of gas. Big mistake. Another symptom of the motorcycle discrimination here is that one cannot buy fuel in a gas can to bring back to your empty motorcycle. No way at all. I knew we have to show paper work here in order to buy gas but I never imagined that, even with my legal paperwork, I would not be allowed to buy fuel if the motorbike is not with me. Finally the taxi driver who took me to the gas station and waited for me had a solution - he would take me back to the bike and then rope tow me back here to the gas station. That of course is completely illegal (but as with anything illegal it only matters if you have an accident or something). Here we are untying the rope after the tow to the gas station:



So, did you get a good look at the video linked at the beginning of this blog entry? Now imagine sitting on a motorcycle being towed behind a taxi.