Spring festival in Nikko

After riding the Maglev train at a speed of 431 km/hr (268 mph for you Americans) we reached the Shanghai airport in a record 8 minutes and then we were off to the Tokyo Narita Airport.

The trip was uneventful as was the entry into Gabe’s birthplace (we had hoped for maybe even a smile or chuckle when the customs agent saw “Japan” as his place of birth. But atlas in true Japanese style he hardly looked our way). We settled into a dormitory hostel for one night in Tokyo, ate a delicious meal of udon (because it was the only word the waitress understood) and headed to Nikko in the early morning.
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Nikko is a town at the entrance of Nikko National Park home to some of Japan’s most lavish shrines and temples. It sits 140km north of Tokyo and the train ride there was spectacular. Side note, we luckily secured a JR Rail Pass which we had FedEx’d to our hotel in shanghai. For a flat fee we were able to book any JR Rail train at no cost. The only catch is that you have to purchase the pass “exchange” outside of Japan and present the “exchange” at a JR booking station. The weather was chilly and brisk when we arrived. As we walked around we heard music and drumming and saw large wooden carts being pulled by men dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos (kimonos are worn by men and women) and the most painful looking wooden thonged shoes. In the carts sat young boys and girls also in traditional dress playing musical instruments. We learned it was the spring festival called Yayoi-Sai.

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We walked to the top of the hill in Nikko and visited the renowned shrines and temples.

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That night we ate in a Buddhist monastery that was known for their delicious vegetarian cuisine and beautiful gardens. We were the only people in the restaurant and served by the most beautiful woman dressed in gorgeous kimono.
Our meal

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It was the perfect beginning to our Japan adventure.

China odyssey part five: goodbye Shanghai

Shanghai was a breath of fresh air. I know that sounds funny coming off a boat cruise to a city known for its smog but we were itching for bright lights and big city and Shanghai did not disappoint. We started off at the Bund in what looked like the British district. Impressive cement buildings lined the street overlooking the Huangpu river.

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Look familiar?
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Before heading to the Shanghai Museum, we made a stop at the Silk Museum (side note: in China when they say museum, they really mean government run store where you might also see how the wares, jewelry, etc are made). It was fascinating to see how they extract the silk worm from the cocoon (boiling it) and then how they stretch the cocoons to make duvets!? Yes, duvet inserts! Apparently silk duvets have been the rage in China for thousands of years, the emperors swore by them. In summer they keep you cool and winter they keep you warm. Along with the duvets, we browsed hundreds of gorgeous silk duvet covers and sheets in every color and pattern you could imagine. The sales women (they were all women) were very convincing, but Gabe and I luckily left empty handed.
Layers of silk to make a duvet

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The Shanghai Museum is actually a real museum that showcased 4 floors of ancient Chinese artifacts. Each room seemed to house an older piece of history than the next. There were ancient coins, hanging calligraphy scrolls and pottery dating back to 6000 BC!

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Pillow, looks comfy!
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The next day we visited the near by city of Suzhou, the Venice of the East. We took a small boat tour through the canals. The highlight there was a calligraphy lesson from a master in a beautiful private tea house set in an old garden. It was the perfect calm setting to learn this meticulous ancient tradition. After we had practiced enough, the master drew a saying for each of us. Ours says “peace, love and prosperity”.

That night we went back to the hotel before dinner, very unusual for us. We dressed in our finest and attended our farewell dinner. It was a beautiful upscale restaurant where reflected on the past 2 weeks and bid our new friends farewell.

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Our calligraphy, looks a little different
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China odyssey part four: It’s a dam good dam!

The next day we boarded the President Cruise for a 3 day river cruise down the Yangtze River. Due to low water levels we had to unexpectedly drive 3 hours in pouring rain (go figure, low water levels but torrential rains) to the second port. I heard the roads were treacherous and the driving crazy, I luckily slept the whole time.

The Yangtze River has a lot of controversial history because of the Three Gorges Dam. The Yangtze is the longest river in China and the 3rd longest in the world. It drains a large percentage of China’s land and it is home to 1/3 of China’s population. The river is also home to The Three Gorges Dam, the worlds largest power station in terms of installed energy. The dam was fully completed and functioning in 2012 and now produces energy for 10% of China. The Chinese government regards this project as an engineering, social and economic success however the dam flooded and destroyed many archaeological and cultural sites, displaced 1.3 million residents and ruined agriculture along the river.

The 3 days spent on the river showered us with beautiful landscapes, towering mountains and stunning vistas. However speaking to local guides and vendors whose livelihoods were taken from them was very sobering. The river communities now rely solely on tourism since their farms were wiped out. The government built replacement housing for the displaced residents, either higher up or on the opposite side of the river. When we passed these new communities, they looked modern but desolate. It turns out that only grandparents and young children stay there, anyone between the ages of 18-45 go to the cities to look for work. Most of them choose not to return but send back money. These people make up many of the unregistered residents in large cities like Beijing and Shanghai

The last day our boat passed through the Three Gorges Dam via the locks. These staircase locks act as an escalator for the ship to pass through the dam. It takes 4 hours for one boat to pass. We entered the locks at midnight, Gabe and I woke up to see cement an arms length away and went back to bed. Our other tour mates went to the ship’s observatory deck and had an amazing experience.

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View from our room

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Ancient wooden pagoda

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Mahjong table at the top of the temple!

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A very impressive bridge
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Men pulling boats, an ancient minority tradition. These men used to be farmers before the Three Gorges Dam
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The locks “staircase”
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The Three Gorges Dam
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China odyssey part three: Guilin, rock ‘n roll

We arrived late to Guilin and were treated to a history and song from our local guide. Guilin sits on the Li River and means “forest of Sweet Osmanthus” (Osmanthus are sweet smelling trees that line many of the streets in Guilin). As we drove about an hour from the airport to downtown Guilin we past monstrous limestone formations jutting out of the earth! It was incredible. Apartment complexes and shopping centers were nestled in between these huge, porous-looking rock mountains. Because Guilin has been listed as one of 4 cities where the protection of historical and cultural heritage (and natural scenery) is treated as a priority, there has been great effort to preserve these natural wonders. The government has provided lighting, as we drove by it looked like we were on the set of Jurassic park.

The next day we boarded a day river cruise to enjoy the spectacular sights along the Li River. The weather was not in our favor so far and it was rainy and cold. The boat had three levels, a pew like seating area in the first level, a dining seating area on the second level and an open observatory on the third level. The ride was around 3 hours and we enjoyed scenic views (mainly from inside!). As soon as we boarded the boat a waitress took our lunch order, we found this a little strange except we later learned that the captain and crew purchase the exact number of fish, shrimps, etc ordered from a local fisherman along the way. Talk about farm (river) to table!

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Guilin is also known as the city of lights. As the sunset we saw the downtown canals transform into Disneyland like exhibits. After dinner a few of us grabbed a night boat tour through the downtown canals. It was magical. Dramatic lighting transformed the Osmanthus and banyan trees into green and purple paintings, bridges along the way were lit to enhance their already stunning architecture and performances by minority groups were full on productions. It felt a little like riding through ‘It’s a Small World’, except better and somewhat more authentic.

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Standing with Boston

Just a side note, we have been following the tragic and horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon. From our understanding all our friends and family are safe, our hearts and thoughts are with those affected by this terrible act.

China odyssey part two: An army of clay

The next day we spent in Xi’an (pronounced shee-ann) known for it’s 2,000 year old life size terra cotta warriors. We first visited a workshop were we saw terra cotta warrior being handmade. It was interesting to see each piece being fabricated, especially the attention to detail given to each removable head.

The actual terra cotta warriors were out of this world. Preparing for the afterlife was a huge preoccupation for every emperor. Some began preparations for their tomb as a young boy and some emperors had slaves and servants buried with them to serve them in the afterlife (also known as human sacrifice!) Emperor Qin Shi Huang took preparations to a whole new level. He had his entire army recreated in terra cotta models (including distinctive faces on each soldier). Every different ranking officer was depicted, footmen, archers, generals, and cavalry and positioned in perfect military formation in his tomb when he was buried in 209 BC. The tomb was subsequently raided, burned and destroyed then covered for centuries. The remains were discovered in 1974 by local farmers and an entire industry was created around restoring and preserving these ancient artifacts.

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That afternoon we walked around the old city. Every ancient city in China had been surrounded by a wall and moat. Many modern day cities tore down the old walls to allow for expansion, Xi’an is one of the few cities where the wall has remained intact. The people of Xi’an take a lot of pride in restoring the wall. Within the Old City of Xi’an there is a very old Muslim population (dating back to the 7th century) however after centuries of cohabitation with the Chinese they look, dress and sound the same. The only difference is that the Muslim community has held strong to their faith. We ventured through a very crowded side street packed full of stores and vendors until we came to the mosque. With signs for Halal food on every door it didn’t feel like China.

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The wall at night
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China odyssey part one: Beijing to Peking

After an easy flight via Hong Kong (where we shipped a few gifts and souvenirs home, don’t worry mom and dad the package will most likely arrive after we have found our own apartment), we landed in Beijing. The China part of our trip was our splurge. The daunting task of figuring out where to go and how to get there seem too large a task. We booked through a travel agent (which turned out to be a Canadian agency) and after a 40 minute cab ride from the airport to our gorgeous Intercontinental hotel, I hand washed most of our clothes and went to bed. We were excited to meet our tour mates. We gathered in the lobby after a delicious eastern/western breakfast buffet and met our traveling partners for the next 14 days. In case we missed Toronto, all of the guests on our tour were Canadian mostly from Toronto (and almost everyone had some sort of Canadian flag paraphernalia on them!). Aside from the difference in our passports (Gabe is traveling on his American passport) there was one other difference, a very big age gap. We knew that there wouldn’t be many other 30 year olds traveling in Asia for 2 months, let alone on a tour group, so we were prepared to be spring chickens. Also interesting was that out of the 10 people on the tour 9 held Canadian passports, yet only 2 were actually born in Canada. We met our tour guide, Jessica, and introductions were made. Everyone seemed very nice and excited to be in China.

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Beijing is HUGE! It makes NYC look small and Toronto look like a village. With a population of 17 million registered residents (the actual total is around 18 million due to floaters from the Yangtze River area- wait for next blog on that) the city boasts 6,500 square miles of government buildings, apartment buildings, office buildings, temples and gardens. Our first stop was Tiananman Square, which looked a little different without thousands of Chinese soldiers marching through. Even though it was a clear, brisk (a little chilly) day, the square was less crowded then I expected. We learned a lot about the relationship the government has to the Chinese people and that Chairman Mao is regarded as a god. It was reiterated and reiterated. After Tiananman square we walked through the forbidden city. This palace was built by the third emperor of the Ming dynasty as his winter palace from 1406-1420. The palace and structures surrounding were gorgeous. After crossing a moat and entering one of the 3 gates (we entered through the largest gate, reserved only for the emperor), we were transported back 700 years. The city remains exactly as it was built. There were buildings for governance, entertaining and sleeping. Sleeping was an interesting issue for the emperor, his empress had the largest dwelling while his 14 concubines lived in smaller houses behind. There was a lot of feuding among the concubines as well as trickery, every concubine tried to elevate her son to the highest position possible and nothing was higher than emperor. It seemed like you always had to watch your back!

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Two statues of lions flank the front of most imperial buildings, the one on the right is gently playing with a cub and the one on the left is standing on a ball. One is male and one female, here’s the trick to remember which is which. Female on the right because women are always right, male on the left because men are left behind. We heard this at every palace we went to, most of our tour guides were women.

Our guide, Jessica’s mother became very ill and she had to leave us after the first day. Such an amazing first day ended on a bit of a sad note as we wished Jessica farewell and her mother a speedy (hopefully) recovery. Because of the one child policy and the respect and support that all Chinese show to their parents (most modern Chinese still live with their parents even after marriage) Jessica has no siblings to share the responsibility of care taking. Luckily we met Fang, our new guide. The first thing you notice about Fang is her amazing smile, which didn’t leave her face the entire trip!

The next day we woke to a freezing grey day. We piled on all the layers we could find and sat in 3 hours of traffic to go 55 km to the Great Wall. Unbeknownst to us it was a 3 day holiday throughout China, Grave Sweeping. On this holiday one offers gifts to the deceased. Paper cars, houses and other earthly goods along with fruit and wine are burned at ancestor’s graves. Worshiping and paying respect to ones ancestors is a large part of Chinese culture. Unfortunately, the grave sites were on the way to the Great Wall and we experienced insane Beijing traffic. We finally arrived at the Great Wall in the pouring rain. It was still magnificent and even more daunting. The wall seemed to stretch for miles and miles and after purchasing a paper thin raincoat Gabe and I trekked as far on the wall as our 1.5 hour time limit would let us. As we stood on different lookouts, we understood why this wall served to protect from so many intruders.

Our tour!

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During the 3 days in Beijing we explored Hutong, the old city where we were treated to a tour in a carriage on the back of a bike, we walked through the summer palace built in 1750 as a birthday gift from the emperor to his mother and we discovered the temple of the heavens which the emperor visited once a year to pray for a good harvest for his people.

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We ate every meal (except for breakfast) with our tour mates and we were beginning to form relationships. It was an excellent start to the next leg of our Asia experience!