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China Adventure

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BC: The initial troubles with Dad's visa and passport seemed an ill omen for our China trip. As we look back on it, all unfolded quite smoothly. We opted to go it alone because Keong knew a little Mandarin. Thankfully, he actually knew quite a lot. Keong was indispensable with taxis, tickets and making sure we didn't order snake or worse in restaurants. No doubt, our travels would have lacked travails had we booked a tour. Yet despite the frustrations we sometimes encountered, I wouldn't change a bit (except maybe flying in lieu of the epic 27-hr train ride). We experienced a more authentic version of China with more time to explore and engage people. I am thrilled to have seen the Tam family house. With the encroaching development, it seems unlikely that the house, or even the village will remain much longer. Even more wonderful was experiencing the country with Dad and Keong. Seeing China through the eyes of someone who'd left nearly 50 years ago provided context and valuable insight to its astounding metamorphosis.

FC: China 2012

1: Our first full day in Beijing feels like August in NJ: hazy, hot and humid. The Forbidden City is our first stop. The palace is initially peaceful, but is soon teeming with Chinese tour groups touting bull horns. Zoe struggles with the heat and attracts the attention of many groups. | Outside the Gate of Supreme Harmony

2: Intricate stone and marble carvings mark the main paths. The ornate wooden pavilions have borne witness to centuries of royal ceremonies dating from the 1400s.

3: The imperial palace occupied the exact center of ancient Beijing. 24 emperors ruled from within these walls.

4: Laborers dragged this 200 ton stone slab to Beijing from west of the city. The 17-meter piece was rolled over logs in summer and pulled atop an ice road in winter. Engraved with dragons, the symbol of celestial power, only the Emperor's palaquin was allowed to pass over this carving; the bearers used the steps on either side. | Vats stored water to fight fires. While many palace structures were made of brick, the pavilions were built of wood. Fires were common with candles and incense burning. Marks from when raiders scraped the gilding from the vats are still visible.

5: Revived by the air-conditioned gift shop and a popsicle, Zoe rallies to enjoy the outer courtyard, where the royal family lived. | Tiananmen Square occupies an enormous area--one imagines it filled with 100,000 people. The obvious presence of soldiers reminds us of its sad history. | The royal family would enjoy the breeze from the top of this stone mountain.

6: Dad hires a taxi to take us north of Beijing to see the Mutianyu portion of the Great Wall. We are awed by its vast, seemingly unending expanses. A chairlift carries us to the top. Despite the heat, Dad hikes the rough steep steps along the 1.4 mile section. Zoe and I opt for the very touristy, but super fun toboggan ride down.

7: Mutianyu has recently been restored. At the path's end, sections of overgrown and crumbling granite wall extend for miles.

8: Zoe enjoys a cool break in the one of the watchtower's windows. | After an arduous climb, Keong rests in view of a cluster of three guard houses and a watchtower. | On the trip back, we drive by the Olympic Village to see the Bird's Nest and Water Cube. While the buildings are impressive, somehow they don't compare with China's ancient wonders.

9: Vendors cook and serve breakfast street-side. We sample dumplings, wonton soup and fried dough. It's inexpensive, hot and delicious. We learn to bring our own napkins and water. One night, we indulge in a 10-course Peking Duck dinner followed by a crazy, adventurous trip back to the hotel complete with bus, thunderstorm and lots of walking.

10: School children march in their uniforms. Middle schoolers attend from 8 am-9 pm with breaks to eat lunch and dinner with their families. | Morning street life outside our Beijing hotel is so chaotic that crossing the street safely is a challenge. Cyclists carry impossible loads.

11: Our final day in Beijing brings cool air and clear skies. Our Great Wall taxi driver takes us to the Summer Palace. Construction started in 1750 and housed the celestials during Beijing's sweltering summer months. | Kunming Lake is the central feature of the palace. The lake covers three-quarters of the 2.9 square kilometer park.

12: This single un-carved piece is known as a scholar stone. They served as points for refection in imperial gardens. | The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity was used to host political functions.

13: Seventeen Arches Bridge connects the residential and recreational areas of the palace. | Festive Dragon boats glide across the Kunming Lake.

14: Longevity Hill (visible in the background) was formed using dirt excavated while making Kunming Lake. | Zoe stands in front of the scholar stone. | Frog carving on a railing.

15: Yellow, seen on these roof tiles, was reserved for the emperor. | A line of boats used to clean algae from the water passes in front of Longevity Hill.

16: Zoe and her Grandpa pose near some paddle boats alongside Kunming Lake. | This marble boat served as a pavilion and ironically was paid for using money that was meant to fund the navy. | An elderly scholar scribes Zoe's name in ornate ancient characters.

17: The corridor stretches over 700 meters and is the longest in the world. There are over 14,000 paintings on the beams, ceilings. Its 4 pavilions represent the seasons. | The Long Corridor was built to shield the Emperor's mother from the elements during her daily walk.

18: Leaving Beijing proves a challenge as it takes nearly 40 minutes to find a cabbie who'll drive us to the train station. The station is chaotic and heaving with people carrying luggage, equipment and food. Everyone is channeled through an obstacle course so their belongings can be scanned. The towering departure board lists destinations in characters. | After a few moments of panic, we realize the train numbers are standard arabic. Bathed in sweat,we fight our way to the departure track to find full seats and barely space to stand. We are the only foreigners in the vast room; everyone stares at Zoe. She bears it all amazingly well. When our train is called, we have difficulty finding the right car and cabin (later we learn to read our tickets properly). Our cabin is cozy and clean in stark contrast to the bathrooms which lack any paper or soap. Dad and Keong settle on the bottom bunks, and we take the top. After a comfortable night, we arrive in Xian the next morning.

19: Despite its tourist nature and some rain, Xian is my favorite city. Its grid layout and underground walkways make it easy to navigate. Our hotel is equipped with a kitchenette and lounge area and is blocks away from the best shopping and restaurants. We use the first afternoon to explore the city wall from the south gate.

20: Dad and Keong opt for the tram, while Zoe and I have blast riding a tandem bike. A father and son challenge us to race. We win!

21: Xian is one the of great ancient capitals of China. The city wall was initially built during the Tang Dynasty and later expanded. It's China's best preserved wall. The 12-meter tall structure stretches 13 kilometers and is accessible only through its 4 gates. Despite being in a city of 8 million, we feel strangely alone as we ride above the city.

22: Each morning, we buy breakfast from the street vendors across from our hotel. We find a good Cantonese restaurant, yummy noodle shops and eat lots of dumplings. Shopping in the market hones our bargaining skills. On night two, we score front row seats to a wonderful Tang Dynasty show and our luck continues as we quickly nab a cab after the show despite pouring rain.

23: Built during the Ming Dynasty, the Bell Tower marks the exact city center and warned against attacks.

24: Views from the Bell Tower | Even in this tourist town, Zoe's blond locks attract a lot of attention. At the Bell tower, Dad treats Zoe to a Xian princess photo session and a woman pays extra so that Zoe can be photographed with her. At Pit 1, an entire group takes turns posing with her in front of the warriors.

26: The terracotta soldiers are Xian's most impressive attraction. We engage an English speaking tour guide and a driver for the day. Enroute to the soldiers, we stop to tour silk and terracotta factories. Despite their clear commercial nature, they offer fascinating insight to silk harvesting and China's labor market. In 1974, farmers drilling a well discover the terracotta warriors. China's first emperor, Qin, had commissioned the soldiers to guard him in the afterlife. A cruel but brilliant man, he unified China by standardizing language and thought. Work on his tomb began after he ascended the throne at 13 and continued after his death at 49. Some 700,000 people reputedly labored on his funerary. The underground complex mimicked the palace of the time. Scholars recorded that Qin's mausoleum contained 100 rivers of mercury. It remains sealed today as very high mercury levels have been measured. Researchers want to be certain they can preserve what they find before opening it. All of his barren concubines, servants and many rare animals were also entombed with him.

27: A woman hand knots a silk rug. | It takes 4 hours to fashion a single a lion dog from clay. | Dad stands next to a jade soldier. | Tractors are not unusual on the highway.

28: Two bronze chariots were discovered in 1980. Nearly 2,000 silver and gold pieces weighing 15 pounds adorned the chariots. Their scale is 1/2 life size. | While the horses were intact, the chariots were smashed into over 16,000 pieces. Workers spent 9 years restoring chariot 1(on the left).

29: Dad and Zoe ham it up in a life-sized replica of the Chariot 1

30: The soldiers were configured as a real army. The most common soldiers were infantry and archers. So far nearly 150 chariots, each with 4 horses and approximately 150 cavalry horses have been found. The soldiers' bodies, arms and heads were made in assembly line fashion and their faces customized with additional clay, making each soldier unique. | The soldiers carried authentic weapons. Scientist found chrome swords, a technology not otherwise available until modern times.

31: Pit 3 contains the fewest soldiers. Known as the command pit, it houses the most generals. | Time, tomb robbers and earthquakes have taken their toll on the soldiers. Most must undergo painstaking restoration efforts.

32: The original pit holds 6,000 soldiers and horses standing in formation between rammed earth columns atop tiled floors. Wooden slats covered by woven mats and dirt form the roof. | Only 1,000 of the soldiers and horses have been unearthed and restored. Work continues at night.

33: The fascinating collection at Shaanxi's History Museum provides a welcome diversion from the rain on our last day in Xian. | Artifacts from the museum include gold coins and a 2-part inscribed metal jaguar that ensured the authenticity of important scrolls.

34: Catching a taxi from our Xian hotel to the train station proves nearly as difficult as before, but we've allowed plenty of time. We find a driver by offering him an exorbitant fee for the short ride. It's rush hour, pouring and the 3-mile drive takes over 30 minutes. The cab crawls through the Muslim district offering a glimpses of roasted meats, hanging spices and cafes. Women wear head scarves. Unfortunately, the drop-off point is a kilometer from the station entrance and it's still pouring. A young man kindly shares his umbrella with Dad. Our shoes and socks are saturated. Once again, we are herded cattle-like through the scanner. Inside the terminal it's so crowded we are forced into a queue and can't move until its time to board the train. The 27-hr train journey is less comfortable than the previous one as it's a local and stops frequently throughout the night. This train is equipped with food trolley and dining car, but only squat toilets. We are headed to Guilin. This city is known for its distinctive limestone formations, called karsts, often depicted in Chinese paintings. The train arrives near midnight. We've traveled 1,000 km south into humid warm weather. Our hotel is cheap, but clean and stylish.

35: Scenes from Guilin's morning street life along the Li River. Along the river walk, groups of women practice dancing.

36: Elephant Trunk Hill provides lots of themed photo opportunities.

37: At Solitary Beauty Peak, the entrance fee is based on height rather than age-- so Zoe is an "adult".

38: Dad powers through the steep, muggy air to the top of Solitary Beauty Peak. | Bai san flags flutter at the Buddist temple. The breeze at the peak feels awesome.

39: Later, we take a van to Yangshuo, about 35 km south of Guilin. Life for the locals revolves around the Li River. We see people fishing, harvesting snails, swimming, bathing and washing clothes in the shadow of the haunting scenery.

40: The Li River cruise showcases the area's gorgeous scenery. Scores of simple rafts navigate the river.

41: Yangshuo is a compact walking town. At night we wander through the brightly lit street markets. | One night, some boys use sling shots to knock birds from a tree. Whether for food or fun- it's surreal.

42: The Reed Flute Cave stuns us with its size and grandeur. We adopt a leisurely pace since we can't understand the guide, but we miss learning about the geology.

43: Zoe and I spend the last morning in Yangshou cycling around the city. In the park, we watch retirees play traditional instruments and see Yao women. They belong to an ancient group who never cut their hair and wear it wound tightly atop their heads. Later, Zoe befriends some women hunting for snails and takes an unexpected dip on the slippery rocks.

44: Back in Guilin, we catch our final train to Guangzhou. This time, there is no line. Zoe passes through the scanner ahead of me, then I hand the man our tickets. As Zoe moves out of view, the ticket inspector begins talking excitedly and waves me away. I try to explain that my daughter has gone through and I must pass to be with her. Keong interprets and is told we are in the wrong line. As the minutes tick by, I start to panic imagining Zoe on the other side having no idea why we aren't following her. Finally, he lets me through and a uniformed woman escorts us both back out. She collects Dad and Keong, then leads us to a special 1st class line with its own scanner, air-conditioned waiting area and clean bathrooms. After announcing the train, passengers are escorted to the correct track. It's such a different experience; too bad we didn't realize it earlier! Our train is scheduled to arrive at 5am in Guangzhou. This too is a local and we have a restless night. The conductor awakes us abruptly by throwing open the door and turning on the cabin light. Dazed we gather our belongings. As we disembark, another train is unloading passengers. With so | many people lugging their belongings down the steep stairs, we decide to wait until the crowd thins. While waiting, we realize that we've left the notebook computer on the top bunk. Fortunately, the train is still taking on passengers so I rush aboard to grab it. Whew, once it has been successfully recovered, we make our way outside. After some confusion, Dad and Keong loate the bus station and we catch the cushy tour bus to Zhongshan. The south is ultra-modern with a nearly surreal infrastructure. The numerous, enormous canals are lined with containerships. Industrial farms replace the family plot. The wide roads seem to anticipate the traffic that will one day fill them. Entire city blocks of communist-era housing lie in rubble, being cleared for modern housing. Zhongshan is near the ancestral village and the Tam family home. It's Dad's birthday, so it seems fitting to return nearly 75 years after he left. Nearly 50 have passed since Keong left. Even though we are in Canton, Keong finds few people who speak the language. It's the moon festival and we enjoy a delicious dim sum lunch.

45: Keong is able to find a driver who knows the area well. After a short drive, we pull into a small development. Some men sitting before a restaurant assure us we are in the right place. The road is too narrow to accommodate the taxi, so we walk. Keong excitedly recognizes the temple, and moments later meets a couple from the old days. They take us to the house.

46: The family house has 2 parts: the 3-story main living area and a separate one-level kitchen with hay-fire stove. At the end of the courtyard garden stand 2 sheds for garden tools and animals. Under early communist rule, the Tam's were forced to let others live in the sheds and their land was confiscated.

47: Details from the windows, doors and outside wall of the house.

48: These circular paintings decorate the ceiling in each front living area. | The layout of each floor is the same: a corridor on the left; a living area in front and a sleeping area in the rear on the right. The 8 children, their parents and 2 spouses lived together. | Electricity has been added to the house, but not indoor plumbing. No one has lived here for at least a decade.

49: Ornate Ceramic tiles on Ground Floor | Behind the red door with gilded flecks stands a platform bed. A few hooks for clothes hang on the wall. The corridor on the left leads to the stairs. | Chalk Characters

50: The soffits and wood work on the main floor are lavishly adorned with painted panels.

51: The altar occupies the rear of the top floor and looks out onto the open patio. The patio overlooks the courtyard and probably at one time the surrounding fields.

52: The rest of our time in mainland China, we spend our last RMB at the open air mall near our hotel. The shops are western with fixed pricing, but offer steep discounts from the marked prices. The south feels more prosperous. The government is investing in infrastructure: the mall area is under renovation, tree-lined walkways are being built alongside the canal. At dinner we sit near the local Ferrari Club. | Our time in mainland China has passed so quickly. We could have spent at least an extra day in each place we visited. Zoe has been an intrepid traveler and both Dad and Keong have handled the heat and walking without complaint.

53: The next morning we take an hour-long ferry to Hong Kong. Upon arrival, the differences are quickly apparent. The cars drive on the opposite side of the road, a holdover from British rule. Prices are much higher and (thankfully) sanitation and safety standards more western. Families are allowed multiple children. The food is delicious and made with better ingredients.

55: We fight the Moon Festival crowds to ride the historic tram up Victoria Peak. The 360 views are spectacular.

56: Hong Kong's mass transportation is easy to navigate. We travel by bus, tram, subway and ferry. Fares for children and seniors are half price. On day 2, we take a ferry to the nearby Lamma island. Despite its proximity to Hong Kong, its sparsely populated with nice beaches and no cars.

57: Dad has fond memories of eating at a floating restaurant while visiting Hong Kong in the 70s. We locate Jumbo's, accessible only by boat. At this unusual venue, we enjoy a delicious dim sum lunch.

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