Sunday, June 8, 2008

China Trip: Repulse Bay

Off to the airport for our flight to Xi'an (Shi-an). We land and meet our guide, Ming. We had an interesting ride from the airport, passing a lot of burial mounds which have not been opened up yet. Xi'an was the starting point of the Silk Road. Driving though the usual rush hour traffic we arrive at our hotel the Xian Le Garden Hotel.

The next morning we go off to see the City Wall. The rectangular City Wall is nearly 8 miles long, and so thick that two-way chariot traffic could travel the roadway on top. We climbed up lots of steps into the Drum Tower. Steps seem to be the norm everywhere you go in China, but it was worth the climb. The Drum Tower dates from 1370. Drums were beaten to signal the night curfew and, in the morning, the opening of the city gates. The view up the length of the wall and over the City, even on this dull morning, was superb. There is a moat, and Ming remembers swimming in the moat as a boy, though it is dry now.

Next stop is the Jade carving factory. We saw people carving the Jade which has to be carved with water dripping onto it. The Jade carving that were here for sale were excellent.

We were now off to what is one of the highlights of our tour. With so many highlights, it is difficult to pick out one or two, but this one is something special, the terracotta army. We went into a "Circle-vision" cinema and watched and very good film on how the terracotta army came to be here. It was very colourful and well done.

The exhibition is awe-inspiring. The packed ranks of life size warriors, each of them bearing the distinctive features of the men they were modelled on, standing with their horses under the sweeping roof of a protective exhibition hall. The warriors of the Qin Army stand in battle formation, infantryman and archers, officers and their horses guard the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. At the rear of the main hall there are ranks of figures that are only partly excavated, the heads and torsos half out of the earth. You can see where the heavy wooden heams used to support the roof and how the beams have collapsed, burying the terracotta army. An arched structure resembling an aircraft hangar has been built to protect the dig from the weather. Walkways permit tourists a bird's eye view of the site. We walked right around the site marveling at this special place.

Terracotta Army

We went inside three pits. We saw work going on, still uncovering more of the army and artifacts. It was incredible to see the archaeologists working with fine brushes, clearing away the dirt. The one thing that I couldn't get out of my mind was that this amazing find is over a mile from the Emperor's tomb. What, one wonders, lies between the terracotta army and the tomb. And what will they find when the tomb is eventually excavated. Qin Shi Huang was a pretty evil and cruel emperor, and Ming told us that the Chinese, being very superstitious, are frightened of opening up the tomb as they are concerned about releasing any evil spirits that is in there.

On the way back to the hotel Ming told us "The Chinese have a saying: When leaves die they fall to their roots, Chinese people like to go back to where they were born to be buried". Patti told us, "Brides, in the old days, were given pomegranates and wished as many children as seeds. Today, the bride is give a peach"!!

Waking up the next morning, the weather is still gloomy. Our first stop is the Little Wild Goose Pagoda. As we entered the garden there was a man with a sword doing his Tai Chi. This Pagoda has 13 floors at the moment. When it was built at the beginning of the 8th century it had 15 tiers, but the top tumbled down during an earthquake in the Ming era. Ming told us that all pagodas have tiers with uneven numbers. The pagoda was built to honour the Buddhist monk Xuan Zang, who first brought the Buddhist scriptures from India to China, and to house the 1,335 volumes of translations that he spent virtually the rest of his life producing.

We found a couple of large bells that, if you felt so inclined, for 20 yuan, you could strike. Some of us had a go. The bigger one was huge, but was also a huge disappointment and didn't make much noise at all, though the smaller one was better. Better still, hanging in another building just across the way, was a monstrous drum, which, for 5 yuan, you could strike "six times for good luck". I gave it six good whacks, and the effect was tremendous; the whole atmosphere shook!!

We then went on to Ban Po Neolithic village. This was an incredible discovery from six thousand years ago, when a village, evidently thriving, occupied this farmland. Traces of habitation came to light in the 1950's when workmen were digging the foundations for a factory. A museum and a viewing hall cover the area today. From a series of walkways you look down on the outlines of houses, ovens, storage areas and graves. There were some clay jars in which they used to bury their children. This exhibition was well presented and the signs were in English as well as Chinese; it does help!

After lunch we drove to the airport for our flight to Guilin. When we landed at Guilin we met our guide Wang. It looks a beautiful area with fantastically-shaped limestone hills. We are stopping at the Gui Shan Hotel.

In the evening we went and saw the cormoront fisherman. We boarded a big boat and chugged down the River Lei with a cormoront fisherman on his raft just out from the boat. At the front of the raft there is a lantern whose light attracts the fish.

The water was quite shallow and perfectly clear. The cormoronts caught lots of quite big fish. There is a piece of string tied around their necks which allows the cormoronts to swallow the small fish but not the big ones. The birds are ordered off the fisherman's raft and in they go swimming round. When they catch a fish they are ordered to board the raft which they do quite happily. The fisherman then gently squeezes the bird's neck - like squeezing a toothpaste tube - and out pops the fish into the basket. The birds only work at night as the light attracts the fish then; they sleep and rest up during the day. Training these cormorants is a highly skilled job and the art is handed down from father to son. A trained cormorant is worth a lot of money.

Wang collected us from the hotel the next morning. He told us that Westerners used to be called Long Noses by the local people. They now call us hello's they will say I saw 10 hello's today because everyone calls out"Hello" to us all the time.

We boarded the boat for our Lijian River Cruise which took us through spectacular scenery for about four hours. The strange shaped hills were misty as, we were told, they usually are. The geological history of Guilin goes back several hundred million years. The area was under the sea when an upheaval raised it. Later is was again flooded, then lifted again in further cataclysmic events. The alternation of sea water and air through the millennia created limstone formations, vulnerable to erosion into pinnacles and mounds and peaks that captivate the imagination.

Strange Shaped Hills

We saw some cormorants sleeping on their rafts that were tied up beside some rickety looking houses. There were a lot of buffalo, obviously feeding on the river weed; they were wading into the river and putting their heads right under the water to graze on the weed.

We passed young boys who called out to us to throw money for them to dive for. We saw women washing clothes and people bathing in the river. Boys came alongside in their raft-like boats, with carvings, trying to sell them.

As we left the boat we were given love balls which are balls of silk with tassels on. This is what was on the side of the love ball box, I quote....."Throwing a ball made of silk. is a folk traditional entertainment activity. It has a long history with thousand years. The colourful and beautiful ball is an authenticating object that zhueng nationality girls to express their sincere love and a symbol of lucky. The hearts of the girl the person she is in love with will be linked by the ball lightly - they will be the happiest persons." I think that all means - that love balls are good luck to lovers.

The next morning we flew to Guangzhou (Canton). We met our guide Mr. Yang. We then visited the Chen Family Temple. The wooden carvings on the top of the temple were very ornate here. We watched a fascinating demonstration with a pottery jug; when you put hot water into the jug the pattern, which was a dragon, changed from black to red.

Our hotel in Canton is the White Swan Hotel. The hotel overlooks the busy Pearl River. After an overnight stay at this 5 star hotel we left for the railway station to catch a train to Hong Kong.

On the train the loos get locked one hour before we reach Hong Kong! We arrived in Hong Kong (Kowloon Station). The platform is very crowded. We are taken to our hotel The Hong Kong Hotel on Kowloom. Kowloom means nine dragons, Kowloon has eight peaks (and the Chinese have it that there is a dragon on every hilltop), and the ninth was named after the boy emperor Ping, who, because of his regal status, also qualified as a dragon.

We went out to explore Hong Kong, which means "Fragrant Harbour." The territory extends well beyond Hong Kong Island and includes the Kowloon Peninsula, the New Territories and 235 outlying islands scattered across more than 1,130 square miles in the South China Sea. Hong Kong's most valuable asset is its deep water harbour which buzzes with luxury liners, container ships, sampans, pleasure yachts and ferries.

The following morning we went on our Hong Kong Island Tour. Our first stop was up to the peak. The Peak Tram climbs the 272 metres up to the Victoria Peak in about eight minutes. Once we reached the top of Victoria Peak the panoramic view of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the surrounding islands is terrific. There is an interesting fountain here, jets of water fly up into the air, squirting randomly out of several dozen holes in a flat base. You never knew just where the water was coming, or when, or how many jets there were going to be at any one time.

We drove to Repulse Bay. The beach here is one of Hong Kong's most picturesque. Hong Kong is full of skyscrapers and one of the high rise buildings had a big hole in the middle of it. That, said our guide, is to let the dragon through. The Chinese are a very superstitious nation and they believe that the dragon, living on the hill, must have a way down to the water to drink, so that is why there is a big hole in the middle of this sky scraper.

Next on to Stanley market. Great fun and just what one would expect of this famous market in Hong Kong. We went on a sampan ride to see the boat people of the fishing village of Aberdeen. We cruised out and around the boat people. There are fewer boat people now than there used to be, another ten years and there won't be any boat people left in Hong Kong. We saw squid hanging up to dry. The people live on the boats and are actually working fisherman, who go out and fish the South China Sea.

Finally we went to the jewelery factory where craftsmen fashion works of art from gold and gems. In the evening we took an evening tour. The tour starts with an exciting ascent on the bullet lift to Hong Kong's famous Revolving 66 Restaurant, located on the 62nd floor of one of the tallest buildings in Hong Kong. The revolving dining room is perched at 700ft above sea level offering an unobstructed 360 degrees panoramic view of the whole city and harbour of Hong Kong after sunset. We were amused to see at one point there was some scaffolding up outside; we all cringed at the thought of working so high up. It took about an hour and a quarter for the restaurant to do a complete revolution.

After dinner we went to the Open air Night Market in Temple Street in Kowloon. We passed lots of stalls selling everything under the sun. We saw lots of men and women who were telling peoples fortunes. We saw artists performing and playing music and singing.

We then got on to a ferry for a Harbour Cruise. We cruised on a large Chinese junk where the drinks were all free. That sounded fine, and it was true, but queueing to get a drink took so long it wasn't worth the bother. We cruised right up to the airport runway, and watched the big jets taking off and landing. It looked a bit hairy, just as though they were using the harbour-side street as a runway. There is a new airport under construction and due to open next year, but it somehow won't be the same though.

We really enjoyed our holdiay in China, it is one of the best holidays we have ever had!

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