The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is huge.

It is physically imposing; even the oversize portrait of Mao on the Gate of Heavenly Peace starts to seem understated after a while. It looms large in the tourism world, as we fight the throngs of mostly Chinese tourists to buy entrance tickets. It’s a big deal for us, too, as we enter the final days of our trip. Karen is still nursing her injury from way back in Hong Kong, making her less interested in walking around a seven-million square foot complex. On the other end of the spectrum, I usually have my museum routes planned in advance… yet I have no idea what approach to take here. Chris and Angie probably have the best plan: just start wandering.

Entrance to the Forbidden City was actually, you know, forbidden for five-hundred years, since it was the residence of the emperor. Nowadays, this complex is also known as the Palace Museum; rightfully so, since every building is architecturally interesting, and many of them have full-blown museums inside. No wonder it took a million workers 15 years to build it.


We’re done.

While preparing our final posts from China, I came across this text, hidden away in a folder on my laptop.

May 26, 2012. Today we officially made The Realization. This afternoon at 5:07pm, Karen and I discussed it, and we’re done. We’re done eagerly exploring new cultures and boldly venturing into the unknown.

This afternoon, Chris and Angie, youthful and vigorous as they are, set out on a 4-hour hike along the city wall. Meanwhile, I went on a utilitarian mission: to get cash and buy Tylenol for Karen. It’s Saturday afternoon in Xi’an, and the locals (especially the young people) are out in force, jamming the streets and shops.

On the walk I saw three “Apple Stores” that look like Apple Stores, right down to the blue-shirted employees, yet are not Apple Stores.

Almost every shop for blocks around our hotel sells mobile phones.

On every street there is a girl on a microphone yelling to customers and blasting techno music.

Try to assign meaning to these things? Would one of them make a good blog post? I can’t summon the energy.

As I jumped through the necessary hoops to get a few pain relief pills, I reflected on the fact that every interaction is like that, taking so much effort. Medicine in hand, I walked around the corner (getting stared at intermittently by the youth of China), arrived at the hotel, and threw in the towel.

It was Karen who insisted that we go home this summer for a break, an idea I initially resisted. But once the plane tickets were booked, it was comforting: no matter how crazy things get today, I’m heading home in a month… a couple weeks… now it’s basically here, so how I am supposed to concentrate on the Terracotta Warriors and acetaminophen?!

Tonight as we walked around the Muslim Quarter, we told Chris and Angie of our momentous realization. Chris’ response: “Oh yeah, we could tell. We’ve known since the first day in Hong Kong.” Later over a beer, Angie said, “You have senioritis.” Exactly. We’ve realized that no matter how we do in Mr. Pahachek’s Alegbra II class, we’re graduating next week.

“How will this affect the rest of the trip?” Angie asked. Actually, I am still fully engaged in my role as a photo-snapping tourist. I pushed for this stop in Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors, and I have a long To Do list for Beijing. Hopefully, I can run out the clock without too much more haggling, yelling, staring, acetaminophen-buying, or other culturally-harrowing pursuits.


The Amazing Adventures of Infrastructure Man

Most of the time, he’s a mild-mannered mechanical engineer. But when he travels, he is Infrastructure Man, aka our buddy Chris. As we learned on our Peru trip, he’s got a soft spot for exposed wiring, oddball building materials, and ductwork of any kind.

For Chris, China is paradise. Decades-old pipes here, a half-finished skyscraper there. He keeps falling behind, and we catch him salivating over scenes like this, in Hong Kong.

I have my art museums. Karen has her food markets. Angie has her film archives. If only there were a museum for people like Chris.

We thought we had found one in Hong Kong…

Then Shanghai…

[youtube_sc url=””]

Then Beijing…

[youtube_sc url=””]

Look! Up there! Over there! Infrastructure is everywhere.

And where there is infrastructure, Infrastructure Man can’t be far away.



China has surprised us with its efficiency and modernity. And yet, getting around here is no cakewalk- especially if you need to carry that cake across the street.

[youtube_sc url=””]


Last Stop: Beijing

It is the last city on our nine-month tour of ten countries. It is a place of urban sprawl, history, smog, government control, the Forbidden City, the Olympics. It is Beijing.

First we had to get there, from peaceful Pingyao.

[youtube_sc url=””]

Our explorations began in iconic Tiananmen Square.

[youtube_sc url=””]

With so much going on, perhaps it’s no surprise that we wound up in a restaurant, sampling the local hooch.

[youtube_sc url=”″]


Is it a good thing to read this on a beer bottle: “Official Partner of the China’s Lunar Exploration Program”? Aren’t those exactly the guys who shouldn’t drink excessively (like we were doing)?


Tasty Pinyao

And you thought Phoenix Goose Anti Majorline-Domination Dry Pot Monsters were delicious! Check out these mouth-watering offerings from Pingyao (click to see the larger pix).


Peaceful Pingyao

Enough of skyscrapers and metro stations! We wanted to visit a smaller city in China. Leafing through the guidebook, Chris suggested we head for the ancient, walled city of Pingyao, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is considered to be the best walled city in China. It’s an overnight train ride away from Xi’an, about halfway to our next destination, Beijing.

We enjoyed the intimacy of the walled-in city center, which has a small town feeling. Yet greater Pingyao still boasts a population of half a million people. Hey, that’s small for China.

With its nearly intact wall, the ancient city retains most of the architecture from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties. Dotted with temples, gardens and little museums, it’s great place to wander the pedestrian-only streets. Mostly grey-colored buildings, built of stone or wood, sit low and unimposing. Some are ornately painted, covered in red lanterns. Once inside these buildings, many boast serene courtyards, perfect for resting, sipping tea, and contemplating a bygone era. Just like in Qibao, we could buy a multi-entry ticket to gain access to multiple museums. Places like the Temple of the City God, which creeped us out with its graphic depictions of Hell.

We walked a portion of the wall as well. About four stories high, it’s a fun way to peer down into the life of the locals. The walls themselves are over 600 years old and parts are quite crumbly or even closed. Seventy-two watchtowers line the wall. Surprisingly, we were some of the only people walking the wall. Seems the Chinese tourists prefer to stay on ground level to shop and eat candies.

In a place like Pingyao, you never know when a cultural interaction is going to sneak up on you.

[youtube_sc url=””]

This is a popular tourist attraction, and most of the tourists are Chinese. Every day, tour groups with matching colored hats would follow their umbrella-toting guides into the walled city and right past our guesthouse.

We enjoyed sitting on the stone ledge, sipping beer and watching the crowds pass by. They ooed and aahed at the interesting architecture and snapped photos of the Western tourists. We snapped their photo back and exchanged many nods and smiles of approval.

One brave group of women came over to us to ask questions, using what English they knew. Like most younger Chinese, they were quite fashionably dressed. “You look very nice,” I commented. They giggled with delight that a Westerner would compliment them. I laughed inside, thinking that I looked like a slump in my worn and dusty hiking clothes. They moved on and we continued to enjoy the shenanigans of kids playing ball, dogs begging at food vendors, and people shooting us a hello.


Exiting Xi’an

Besides the time we spent violating the graves of dead Chinese emperors, our visit to Xi’an was mainly about taking it easy.

Chris and Angie rented bikes and took a spin along the top of the city wall.

Meanwhile, Karen was still nursing her injury, which kept her in the hotel room more than she would like. She gave me a simple mission: buy her some ibuprofen at a pharmacy. This turned into a comedy of errors- in other words, it was a completely typical day on the road. I was able to acquire some Tylenol cold medicine, which would have to do for now. It’s amazing how difficult it is on the road to obtain drugs that are common in medicine cabinets at home (try scoring some Dramamine overseas- good luck).

After my marathon pharmacy session, I was spent. And yet, if I hadn’t gone there, I wouldn’t have stumbled upon the employees of the King Restaurant.

[youtube_sc url=””]

How could you be in anything but a good mood after witnessing that?

I remained in a warm glow back at the hostel, as we packed up for the overnight train journey to Pingyao. The four of us gathered in the lobby for a leisurely afternoon- we had hours before we needed to be at nearby Xi’an Station. Absentmindedly, I looked over our train tickets. Wait a minute… I warily consulted the guidebook… and my stomach dropped out. Our train was leaving from Xi’an South Station, which is nowhere near our hostel.

In other words, it was a completely typical day on the road. We hardly break a sweat over snafus like this anymore, and before long, we were in a taxi heading south. The only thing that really changed was our dinner menu.

[youtube_sc url=””]

Happily, our train pulled up to the Train Station at the End of the Universe right on time.

Soon, we were snug in our “beds,” resting up for the next completely typical, completely surprising day on the road.


Terracotta Empire

So it’s 1974, and you’re a Chinese peasant in Xi’an. You and your peasant buddies are digging a well. You churn up some dirt… you notice a shard of terracotta… and you discover an underground vault containing thousands of figures who have stood guard over an emperor’s tomb for over two millennia.

You’ve discovered the Army of Terracotta Warriors: archeological marvel and tourism goldmine. China’s top three tourist attractions (yes, we’ll visit all three) are the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Terracotta Army.

When the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, died in the 3rd Century BC, he was laid to rest in a mausoleum surrounded by a series of large structures. Inside stood intricately-sculpted terracotta soldiers, archers, horses, and chariots. An army to join him in the next world.

They couldn’t defend him in this one. After making off with weapons and other artifacts, looters set fire to the buildings. The wooden rafters caved in, crushing the figures and concealing them from passing eyes for centuries.

There are plenty of all-inclusive tours to see the Army, but we wanted to explore on our own schedule, so we took local bus 306. Step one: make sure you’re actually getting on the 306 bus (fare: 7 yuan/US$1.15). Numerous other buses park in the same area and pretend to be the 306 (fare: a lot more than 7 yuan).

Arriving at the site, you experience the tourist goldmine before the archeological marvel. We paid for our tickets, paid extra for audioguides, and then walked the gauntlet of shops and restaurants.

It was worth it. After watching a cheesy 360-degree movie, we took Lonely Planet’s advice and proceeded in reverse order from the tour groups. Starting in the smaller Pit 3, we saw examples of how the soldiers were discovered, shattered and scattered- a helmet here, a horse’s ear there. In Pit 2, which is larger, you begin to appreciate the scale of this memorial. And then it hits you: the massive Pit 1, with thousands of reconstructed figures back in formation, after all these years.

I don’t mean to suggest that the Chinese government is untrustworthy, but we did (semi)jokingly wonder if this is all a hoax, and there’s a factory in Shenzhen churning out Terracotta Warriors as fast as it can.  As far as I can tell, they’re the real thing, and they’re incredible.

Armies of tourists descend upon the Terracotta Army every day. Far fewer bother ol’ Emperor Jingdi, further outside of Xi’an. Our hostel arranged for a private driver to take a group of us to the Han Yang Ling Museum. Emperor Jingdi and his father Wendi are remembered for ushering a harmonious era of cooperation with the nearby communities. As at the Terracotta Army site, numerous carved figures were assembled to accompany the Emperor into the afterlife.

Unlike at the Terracotta Army site, you can get close to these figures and even walk over some of the actual dig sites, with a glass floor allowing you to view the discoveries below in situ. Booties are provided.

[youtube_sc url=””]

Outside, you can view an outdoor excavation in progress.

Watch where you step around Xi’an. You never know what- or who- might be down there.


Escape to Qibao

“When you tire of Shànghǎi’s incessant quest for modernity, this tiny town is only a hop, skip and metro ride away.” Lonely Planet’s write-up on Qibao had me mildly interested. Then they mentioned the daily shadow puppet shows, and I was in.

Puppetry has a long history in China, dating back thousands of years. Unlike the shadow puppets we saw in Cambodia, the figures here are made from translucent pieces of dried animal hide, allowing painted colors to show through the screen.

At the Shadow Puppet Museum, we crammed into a small room with some Chinese schoolkids and witnessed enactments of Chinese legends featuring magical princesses, men turning into skeletons, talking pigs, and um, all right, I’ll admit it: I mostly didn’t know what was going on. I do know there was some “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” style fighting.

[youtube_sc url=””]

The plot thickens, as the skeleton guy transforms into the helmet guy
I think they killed the bad guy
And rode home

The puppeteers were just as cramped as we were, jammed into a small room with the musicians.

[youtube_sc url=””]

Ken the puppet

Qibao follows a model we’ve encounter several times in China: a small town with a high concentration of specialized museums.

You can either buy one ticket for entry into all of them or buy individual tickets (the best choice if you quickly tire of museums).

Chris studies miniature furniture
I'm still not sure what exactly we saw in the Cricket Thatched Abode
Who's up for dead birds on a stick?

We sampled a few museums, took in the historic architecture, munched on some street food, and generally enjoyed our incessant quest for… a relaxing day. With puppets.

Qibao tourists