The Year of China Travels Part 3: Xi’an

And so we continue in our account of our holiday break traveling. Xi’an was a short stop in our journey; in fact, the shortest of all. Xi’an is the capital of the Shaanxi province and used to be imperial capital of China for a short period of time. It’s a walled city (at least some of it is; seemingly most of the interesting stuff and city amenities are within the walls) and the wall itself is worth seeing. It’s very well preserved, and it’s high and rather massive. However, the reason why we went to Xi’an was because it is the sight of the famous Terracotta Army, yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site and well, something people travel the world to come see. We found out during our visit that it is still an active archaeological site.

There is no high-speed train between Chengdu and Xi’an, so we had to fly – it’s a one hour flight, but hey, why not avoid flying when you can? This time, however, we couldn’t. Luckily the flight was rather uneventful and I think we both managed to sleep through a good portion of it.

This is something that I think we have mentioned before, but we will again. When you live in Shanghai, you get spoiled. You also make the sometimes involuntary mistake of thinking that every other city in China will be similar. This mistake happens more often when you’re thinking of province capitals. Cause you know, they’re supposed to be important and whatnot.

Xi’an is not like Shanghai. Xi’an is not like Beijing. Xi’an is not like Chengdu. Xi’an is like what I imagine the majority of Chinese cities look like. There are no flashy buildings or tree-lined streets. There are some tall buildings under construction. The streets are dirty. The buildings look dirty and run down on the outside. You see more widespread poverty. You also see more of the Chinese Muslim minority. There is not as much security as in Shanghai and Beijing. There are warnings about which are the real cabs and which are “knockoff” cabs (yes, apparently this is also a thing).

We got there on a day that really did not help the case. It was gray and overcast, not to mention super polluted. So everything was covered in this ominous cloud of smoke. Needless to say, my on-again, off-again sinus infection came back…with a vengeance. I messaged Carrie, the TA in my student teaching classroom, asking her if she could send me a picture of whatever cold/flu medicine I could get on an average Chinese pharmacy. My pharmacy trip went better than I expected. I showed the clerk the picture. She came back with Chinese Tylenol. Yes, it was labeled Tylenol, with English in the box (and Chinese characters of course). That helped a little bit but it didn’t prepare me for the next day, our sightseeing day.

Air quality index read above 400 – between 300 and 500 it’s considered hazardous. Really, you SHOULD NOT be outside. But the only reason why we went to Xi’an was to see the clay warriors, so I put on my mask, made Cameron stop at a 7-11 to buy one (made of fabric and with not much of a filter), and off we went to try to get to this site.

We asked at our hotel for directions, since it’s outside of Xi’an proper. There is a bus, but directions were not very clearly explained, which meant walking for about half an hour not finding any of the references we were giving. Walking. Outside. In the super polluted air. Needless to say, I was not very happy, and after a while, we returned to the hotel to see if we could get better directions.

There is indeed a bus from the Xi’an city walls that takes you to the Terracotta Warriors site. We were given wrong directions in the beginning. We got there, bought a ticket, and off we went. Remember, this is the off-season for Chinese tourism. Even then there was a sizeable amount of people on the bus. And on site. Yet another place I don’t even want to imagine during Chinese New Year.

So what’s the big deal about these statues?

Apparently I have been living under a rock because I had not heard of these until I moved to China (shame on me, so-called history buff! Maybe not so much on ancient East Asian history). The thing is this Chinese emperor had a whole standing army built for his tomb, so they could protect him in the afterlife. This tomb was only discovered in the 1970s.

I kind of expected to go on the wilderness and…I don’t know what I expected, honestly. So these warriors are found in three different pits, and so around them 3 different buildings have been built. So it’s not exactly small, but not something you need to account for a million hours to do. The buses back to town run pretty frequently, so if you’re there in public transport you can leave whenever. Given the bad air quality we kind of wanted to get out of there ASAP, so we were pretty focused the entire time and avoided the crowds as much as possible.

It is quite impressive to see all these statues in line and how well they’ve been preserved. Archaeologists are still piecing together some of them. Would I personally go back to see it again? Maybe not. I find it hard to justify a trip to a place to see just one thing (unless that thing are adorable pandas, of course! Just kidding). I know there are other sights around Xi’an that are supposed to be cool, but I personally think that this is one of those sights that appeals to some people and not to others. I’m in the latter group. I think Cameron found it cooler. Maybe I just need to go on a time when it’s less polluted and I’m not concerned with my lungs bursting into flames. Sadly, since Xi’an is in northern China, I am not holding my breath.

Here are some pictures of this sight (not too many, wouldn’t want to spoil it for you folks!), always by the trusty Cameron with our awesome Nikon.

You know what? I’m going to take back some of what I said. The day we were there, I was rather focused on staying away from the pollution and getting indoors as soon as possible. I’m glad we took pictures! I knew then it was impressive. When you look at the pictures after being there, it’s still really impressive. Just don’t go on a super polluted day, and don’t count on Xi’an being super exciting. Go in the springtime, it’s supposed to be nice.

We are now back on the grind but we will do our best to complete our winter break chronicles as soon as possible. If you want more “live action”, follow us on Instagram: @comicbooktravel and @analinmcgregor.

Until next time!

A

The Year of China Travels Part 2: Chengdu

Last post of 2015! Not sure it will go live while we are still clocking in 2015, but at least I have started.

Update: Didn’t make it. 😦 – it’s January 4.

A lot has happened in the past few months. I will make a more “life updates” oriented post after this. For now, I will focus on the reason why I know a lot of you read us: to travel vicariously through our tales and through Cameron’s amazing camera pictures. If you are into traveling, get a good camera. Just do it. It does the job for you. Luckily, most smartphones have great cameras these days, but eventually you kind of outgrow them and the lenses are never powerful enough.

Winter break started about 10 days ago for us. We never start traveling the very same day we are done with school. It’s too stressful to wrap up everything you usually have to do, make sure you’ve packed the day before, and get yourself to the airport on time and stress free. It just doesn’t happen. We decided to take that afternoon and evening to pack in peace, and relax at home.

If you’re thinking about traveling in China, winter/Christmas break is a fantastic time to do it. Since it’s not a Chinese holiday, there will not be hordes of people everywhere you go, and that includes transport, accomodation, and attractions. I wouldn’t say prices are rock-bottom cheap but they’re not inflated as in the weeks prior to Chinese New Year, for example, or insanely expensive as during Chinese New Year itself. Yes, it will be cold, but you’ll get to see some cool stuff without a million people competing for selfie space around you. Think about it!

Our first stop was Chengdu. The capital of Sichuan province has been known over time to be a place of abundance. It’s also an area where the land is pretty fertile, so it hasn’t suffered as other parts of China have over time when it comes to food. Sichuan is also known for their delicious and super spicy food. Last but not least, Sichuan is the place the giant panda calls home. Food and pandas alone are reason enough to make your way to Chengdu. But there is a lot more you can do around. We might have to go back at some point.

Chengdu is one of the largest cities in China and while the city itself is nothing extraordinary, we quite enjoyed it. It’s kind of designed as a spider web, with an actual core or center and everything else spreading out from there. Traffic can be quite bad, however, taxis are plentiful and pretty cheap. There are two Metro lines, but we didn’t try them out. In general, people were helpful and we enjoyed the exploring we did in town. We did see a fair amount of expats (I believe a lot of multinationals have operations in Chengdu), which was interesting. I remember reading in one of my Chinese history books that people from the south of China are prettier. It’s true. The further south you go, people are better looking. Their face features are different.

I spent most of the time rather sick (I’ve pretty much had an ongoing sinus infection since October, and have run out of our cold/cough medication stash twice. Over the counter medication is hard to find in China, and even then, their versions of things do not work as well), but for the most part I was able to do everything I wanted. Chengduu was cold-ish but not unbearable, and pollution was nothing we aren’t used to in Shanghai.

All right, let’s talk about pandas!

The giant panda is considered a national treasure in China, and they take their preservation efforts very seriously. There are two reserves in Chengdu: one in the city, which is also a breeding center, and one outside the city where you can volunteer and help. We went to the closer one – very affordable, clean, and generally orderly. When you see pandas outside of China, you normally find one or two (my previous experience seeing a giant panda was at the National Zoo in Washington DC, where they have two). Here, you can find some extended panda families, with bears that are related living in close proximity. The cubs stay with their moms for a few years, so that also helps to keep the population high and the cuteness factor off the hook. They’ve also done a great job at documenting the life history of each panda, including where they’ve been born, if they’re related to other pandas in the reserve, etc. For the most part, they are in areas that resemble their natural habitat. We managed to catch a few cool moments, like panda brothers playing, cubs climbing a tree (they can climb FAST!!!!!), and later pandas napping on trees. Cuteness overload. How could anyone possibly want to hurt those adorable creatures? Look. At. Their. Faces. I want to hug them.

After Chengdu we took a short trip to Xi’an in Shaanxi province. More on that on the next post!

With pandalicious love,

Ana

 

We took hundreds of pictures of these cuties. We can’t put them all here. But look at those furries!!! Aren’t they adorable??

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Snacking on bamboo.
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Dem babies. Ha! Furry balls!!!!
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Momma and her cubs. Probably one of my favorite images.
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“I’m cooler than all of you” – Giant Panda. Yes you are, panda. Yes you are.
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This is exactly what having siblings is like.
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Playful bros.
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Pandas are excellent climbers!
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This peacock was roaming the reserve grounds. Not sure if it is a permanent resident or not. Or what the pandas think of him.
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Bahhhh.
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Cuteness overload.
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Adorable!!
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This is a red panda. We have seen them before in zoos, but it’s nice to know that it’s not only about the giant pandas. However, red pandas are more closely related to foxes (can you tell?) than bears. Isn’t that interesting?
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What does the fox-bear say? Red pandas are more closely related to foxes (can you tell?) than bears. But they are still called pandas.

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Fun Activities: the Shanghai Rolex Masters

Shanghai, the big city it is, has the advantage of attracting very cool events. From sports to some of the biggest acts in the performing arts (classical, pop or otherwise), there is usually rumor of someone coming and quite a few events happening. Among the sporting events that occur in Shanghai every year there is the Shanghai Masters (men’s tennis). Pretty much the biggest names in tennis play this tournament, considered one of the last big ones of the year. It also has a pretty impressive prize for the winner (about 4 million dollars – wow!)

Since we don’t know what will be next for us in terms of living situations, if it’s an experience we have the chance to live in Shanghai and it’s a big enough deal, we’ll go (provided we can afford it – some we simply can’t). I’ve been interested in tennis since about age 6 or 7 (the glorious years of Monica Seles and Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and Steffi Graff), so, while we knew that on opening day we were not going to see anyone big (I was quite bummed when I found out that Victor Estrella – Dominican, and ranked in the 60s worldwide – was playing on Monday. I would have brought my Dominican flag along), we still thought going to a big tournament would be a fun experience. And it was.

You basically get a ticket for the day and you can go watch as many games as you want. We watched two or so – it was a school night, give us a break. The tennis complex is very nice – but wayyyyy out there! Probably a good hour and a half from our home, with two cab rides and a train ride with a transfer. A bit much. Schedule is posted outside and you can decide which games you want to watch. I was surprised to see so many small children – there always seem to be a lot of small children everywhere in China; I sometimes don’t understand the talk about this country having a population problem. However, I have to say it was all civilized and no one was being gross or distracting with their cell phones or selfie sticks.

It was a beautiful, sunny fall day in Shanghai, perfect for sitting outside and watching the game. It was a bit sunny at first, which made our jackets unnecessary, but quite enjoyable. By the end of the day, air quality wasn’t very good, so the sunset was quite taking. You can see it, along with some court pictures, below.


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The Year of China Travels Part 1: Qingdao

Hi all!!!! We’re back!!!!! This is Ana transmitting from my desk because I have a prep period. Haha!

The life of a teaching couple is tiring!!!! We’re both out of the house early, we work in opposite sides of Shanghai, we are at school for long hours, well, that’s the job! Understandably, by the time we get home it’s workouts, dinner, relax, sleep. But in a way, we spend more time together because we don’t see each other as much during the day since I’m working so late.

This year we are focusing our travels inside China. China is a very big country and we do not expect to see all of it in the break periods we have, but we do want to see some of it. For our first holiday this year, we headed northeast to see Qingdao, capital of the Shangdong province and former German concession. As a result of the latter, Qingdao is the beer capital of China sort of – it is home to the Tsingtao brewery, probably the best known Chinese beer overseas. Tsingtao has been a-brewin’ away since 1903 – pretty impressive!

Our goals for this trip were simple and not ambitious at all: we wanted to rest and relax, see the Tsingtao brewery, and be by the water – oh yes, Qingdao is by the ocean so there are a few beaches! This is where the sailing competitions for the 2008 Olympics took place, so there is a marina, and a place to take sailing lessons, rent boats and so forth.

Chinese behavior on the beach is rather interesting: they definitely don’t go to the beach the way we do. Most people had their clothes on – not a lot of swimsuits, and definitely no bikinis -although I would say Chinese women are a bit more modest in their clothing choices. People mostly sit and hang out – no kiosks or waterfront restaurants/bars, you just sit on a rental chair and that’s it. There were some people in the water but not many. We were surprised at how clean the beach was. Maybe because it was a national holiday? It was also not crowded at all despite it being a nice day. It was still interesting.

Here are some phone snaps from the trip. Enjoy!

With love, breweries, and boardwalks,

The Gregors

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Phuket – 2015 (1st Post)

About a week ago now, Ana and I headed off for Phuket (well, actually I left from Malaysia…but a post about that later) to meet up with our good friends Justin and Travis. The trip was just over a week, but what a great week it was!

First off you should know however, that at this time of year, Thailand is unbearably hot. I mean ridiculous, life-hatingly hot.  At one point, my phone said it felt like 117°F. Too hot for the beach, too hot for anything but sitting poolside…and enjoying a nice, cool beverage.

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So relaxing by the pool…who doesn’t enjoy that?

Despite the heat, however, we also managed to do a bit of sight-seeing!

We made our way to Phuket town, an older, less attractive city and far less touristy and wandered for a while, managing to stumble upon a school for upcoming monks!

That day we also managed to go up to Raya Hill and caught a pretty sweet view of Phuket town, the bay as well as a monkeys which totally surprised us!

 

Next post about Thailand will be up soon! Enjoy!

Spring Break/Anniversary 2014: Thailand (long overdue!)

Hi all!
Analin again.

This is also an overdue post, but one worth sharing because a) Thailand is a beautiful, fun country, and b) We are totally keeping up with our goal of being in a different country (or place new to both of us) for our wedding anniversary (March 31).

Spring break is not really a holiday in China. They do have a holiday around which our school builds spring break which is how we get a week out of it. This past school year, the school flew all the staff to Thailand for a regional school conference – free plane ticket for Cameron, ca-ching! – so we were in Bangkok for a few days. While Cameron was at the conference, I stayed in the hotel and worked. This is the view from our room window:

I did go sightseeing one day – I visited the Imperial Palace with some other teachers that played hookie from the conference. Sadly, I don’t think I have any pictures because Cam lost the memory card where most of the Thailand pics were. Boo hoo. I can say though, this palace is beautiful. Very ornate with beautiful statues, gardens, and a lot of gold panels! A big portion of this palace is coated in real gold. One of the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen in my life. Google it.

After the conference was over, we had about a week left on holiday, so Cam did some research and found us a place to go after a recommendation from a travel blogger. From Bangkok we had to first fly to a city called Trat. There is not a whole lot to see and/or do in Trat, it’s a takeoff point to take boats to smaller islands in the Gulf of Thailand and you can also take buses to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia (it’s a 5 hour bus ride). Here is a picture of the tiny plane we took, and the Trat landing area:

We spent the night in Trat before taking a boat the next day to Ko Kut, which is a tiny island off the Gulf Coast of Thailaind. This is the place where we stayed in Trat:

This is the entrance. If there is one thing I loved about Thailand is that there are flowers, and flower crowns, everywhere.

Look who it is!

We took off from Trat and this is what it looked like even before getting to the island:

Good omen, right?

Our time in Ko Kut was just a week of relaxing, eating delicious Thai food, reading, snorkeling (this was awesome! We saw clams and sea urchins and giant clams and fish of every color. We bought water shoes so we could walk through the rocks and seaweeds, which made it easier.

Here are some of the pictures we took with my phone. Beautiful sunsets!

The place we stayed at had about 20 bungalows scattered around a bit of a hill, right by the ocean.
The owner had re-opened about 7 months before. The hotel holds only about 30 people, and while there were other couples there while we were, we never really ran into anyone except at breakfast time. 
It was so great to celebrate our 2 year anniversary in a place this beautiful. Where should we go next spring? 
Until next time, Analin

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