Archive | October, 2013

XI’AN; one of China’s four great ancient Capitals

22 Oct

XI’AN; one of China’s four great ancient Capitals

From Beijing, we moved by overnight train to Xi’an, the capital of the Shaanxi province located in the middle of China and one of country’s oldest cities (Xi’an is one of China’s four Great Ancient Capitals).

The kids were quite excited to go per sleeper train (about 12 hours) – although the arrangements were rather small (2 tiny bunk beds) and a little cramped for my long Dutch legs – it was a great first, overnight train experience (the train is really a great way to see the beautiful and interesting countryside!).

Anthony was invited to speak at the EuroAsia Economic Forum in Xi’an where he was presenting on Innovolve’s exciting low carbon housing work in Latin America.

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Anthony presenting at the EuroAsia Forum in Xi’an, China

As part of the conference we were staying at the luxurious 5-star Hilton Xi’an (http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/china/hilton-xian-XIYHIHI/index.html).  To have super comfortable beds (with 5 choices of pillows), fluffy bathrobes, a bath to soak in and a beautiful swimming pool and hot tub, were real treats after several nights in hard bunk beds.

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Lobby of the Hilton Xi’an Hotel

Our first day, we were offered a complimentary conference tour of the Terra Cotta Warriors Factory. We misunderstood, as we thought we were going to the coveted museum & site– and we probably would have skipped this tourist trap – but in the end is was quite interesting to visit the place where they make the beautiful replicas of these world famous warriors (the ladies who make the replicas go through years of ceramic studies!). Apparently, the replica statues are made from the same clay as the real warriors in the ground and full life-size ones can take up to a year to make (and yes….we were weak, couldn’t resist– a nice, small copy of a Warrior General is being shipped to Canada  – we hope this souvenir will arrive in one piece!).

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Filou with life-size replicas of the Terra Cotta Warriors, at the factory where they are made

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The real Terra Cotta Warriors site is of course the main reason why many visit Xi’an and we were also quite excited to explore this phenomenon.

In 1974, farmer Yang Zhifa found a piece of old terracotta as he was digging a well.  What he dug up was the first warrior of the now world-famous Chinese Terracotta Army (a selection of 2000 year-old Qin warriors, chariots and horses depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China).  It was absolutely incredible to visit this impressive, large historical site that has now turned into a must-see museum.

When you enter the complex, you walk into a large Pit (they have about 3 pits in total). Pit 1 is the largest excavation pit of the Army and the most impressive one – it is also the easiest one to see as it is the only one in bright light (some of the warriors were found with colours on them – red, blue, black & yellow tints – that disappeared when dug up and exposed to light.  Therefore, Pits 2 & 3 can now only be seen in darkness).

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At Pit 1 of the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum

In the Pits, we saw the warriors still in the clay and surrounded by the walls they were found in – several of them in full condition – while others are mere fragments of horses, warriors and wheels of chariots.  The figures vary in height and dress according to their roles (the largest and most impressive being the general). It was truly mind-blowing!

Our guide told us one funny story about the farmer who found this historic treasure. When Bill Clinton came to visit Xi’an and wanted to meet the farmer who dug up the national treasure, the Chinese government prepped him to say a few word in English.  “How are you”? “Thank you” and “Me too”.  When the farmer met the former US President, he was so nervous that he said; WHO are you, instead of HOW are you. So Bill said: “I am Bill Clinton, President of the United States”.  The farmer was confused as he expected “I am fine” in answer to HOW are you – so he asked again: “WHO are you”?, so Bill said: ”I am Bill, husband of Hillary Clinton”.  So the farmer answered: ME TOO!

Everyone had a good laugh and the Chinese still to this day, very much like Bill Clinton who was quite amused by the whole thing!

The children were also quite amused when I rented some bikes with them (Filou and I on a tandem) and we rode 1.4 km on the ancient city wall of Xi’an.  This beautiful, ancient wall that surrounds the core of Xi’an is the most complete city wall that has survived in China. It was quite special to ride on top of this beautiful piece of architecture – but it has to be said that the ride was quite a bit more challenging and longer then we expected (it was also incredibly hot).  But we are troopers and the views both inside and outside the city wall were worth it.  The bikes were not like good solid Dutch bikes though and we had some nice red behinds and hands to show for our adventure!

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Cycling the Xi’an historic city wall

On our way back from our bike tour, we walked passed several locals selling various pieces of jade, local rocks and coins. Filou was absolutely thrilled to find a small piece of Jade and Emile was super happy to add an old Chinese coin to his collection.  We found a very sweet Chinese lady who made the beautiful pieces into a necklace that the boys don’t seem to want to take off (Filou has learned that Jade is as valuable in China as diamonds are in Canada so he feels that he is walking around with a diamond around his neck – so precious!).   So with “diamonds” around our neck we left Xi’an and headed for the airport to make our flight down south to the mountain retreat of Yangshuo.

 

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CHINA-1, Beijing; a city of many surprises

21 Oct

CHINA, BEIJING – a city of many surprises

China – Beijing, a city that houses 22 million people and one of the 7 wonders of the world that many dream of visiting (us four included)! We have come to know Beijing as a city that has a new surprise in store for you each day, so let me tell you a bit about them.

The first surprise we encountered was our hotel called Hutong Ren, This little place of rest boasts only 8 rooms and is located on a side street of the very crowded and lively Dongcheng area. The staff gets it perfectly – after a day of intense sightseeing (where the masses of people, smells and sounds overwhelm you, and take you by surprise each time) – you need a place to kick back & get back to balance. So at Hutong Ren, we relished the wonderfully calm background music, the delightful assortment of teas, the laughter of the sweet & helpful girls that work there and the enthusiastic welcome of Blackie, each time we entered back “home” (Emile & Filou particularly liked this super sweet dog, who would crawl on their laps for cuddles or run and play with them).

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Staff of Hutongren Hotel with “Blackie”

The Dongcheng area is one of the city’s interesting districts where you can get a great, first glimpse into Chinese culture. It is a maze of charming, small streets  & alleys (hutongs), which boast an interesting mix of buildings, food establishments and stores. Side by side you will find designer stores (where you can buy the most beautiful silk scarves, bags and clothing) and little food and nick-nack establishments (some completely falling apart, others doing their best to cater to the tourists). And the city seems to have enough of those – apparently about 2 million foreign visitors and 60 million domestic travellers visit Beijing each year). So, you can probably imagine how busy those streets were!

The Dongcheng Hutong area particularly comes to life at night as it is then when many street sellers crowd the hutongs and you can buy anything from silly toys (and the Chinese do LOVE their toys – teenagers walking around with wooden noise makers that we would consider buying for toddlers or putting silly, fuzzy animal ears on their heads as a headband), to meat or crickets on a stick!  Each night we went out, we saw something different and it was always a great adventure to decide what to eat, what to do to cope with the masses and not get run over by one of the many honking motorcycles, food carts or bike taxis, or how to overcome the incredible smell that is apparent is some of the streets (the exploration was so worth it as it was super fun, but the smell is one that I still find hard to forget)!

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Dongcheng District; the cultural and commercial centre of Beijing 

Our first night, we enjoyed a nice hot-pot – boiling pot of water in which you cook your own vegetables and meat (a good first choice!). Very close to the restaurant, we saw a barbershop with a young, funky hairdresser who seemed to know what he was doing.  Emile & Filou had talked for a while about getting their hair cut off (practical look for on the road that would require little maintenance and a crazy experiment that isn’t as easily tried at home).  However, we were surprised that Filou was dead-set on getting his buzz cut that first night!  But, we happily obliged his enthusiasm and entered the shop.

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Emile with the hot pot

During the whole haircutting process, Filou laughed hysterically! And once his new look was completed, he showed similarities to a little monk – but he was happy as pie (and still is).  Emile (a bit jetlagged) was not quite ready for this adventure and got a regular haircut. Although two days later (after some encouragement from his little bro – who wanted to become the bald brothers) he went back and did the same.  The boys’ new look (which is a bit more in line with Chinese kids), has proven to be somewhat of a defense mechanism as on many occasions, the kids are being stopped, stared at or taken a photograph of (some Chinese have just never seen Caucasians before). It should be said, that the attention does make them feel like little rock stars!

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The Bald Brothers with their funky hairdresser in Beijing

Of course Beijing’s incredible history is mind-blowing and we joined the masses in visiting some of the city’s top attractions. The changing of the guards & flag lowering ceremony at Tiananmen Square was interesting in that we thought there to be a major festival due to the thousands of people – however we later were surprised to learn that it was just a regular day!  The Forbidden City (the Imperial Palace and home of the emperors for over 500 years – from the Ming to the end of the Qing Dynasty) was incredibly impressive in size and history, and the Summer Palace (the largest and best preserved imperial garden in China) was a beautiful, serene place, that the boys most enjoyed.

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At Being’s Forbidden City

At the Summer Palace, Filou focused in on a local artist who was making grasshoppers out of bamboo leaves. He was charming the man with his attention and after sitting with him for a while, a nice Chinese couple appeared and kindly offered him one of these crafts (they were just so taken by his enthusiasm).  Emile, too was lucky to get one – and he happily gave his away to one of the super-cute little Chinese girls he met in the park later that day.

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Summer Palace

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Filou with his grasshopper made out of bamboo leaves

798 Art Zone is Beijing’s leading concentration of contemporary art galleries and shops (and many wonderful little cafes). This thriving artistic community, located in the Chaoyang District is housed in various 50-year old decommissioned military factory buildings of unique architectural style. It was a place on Anthony’s hit list!

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So we spent a lovely afternoon browsing through many interesting galleries and funky shops. We even came across an outdoor rock concert (with a terrible sounding band!) – but in a cool courtyard with fantastic vibe.

We left the arts vibe and enjoyed our best and cheapest meal in Beijing when we found some 5-6 food carts lined up outside on the street (the four of us feasted for about $5).  When waiting for our last portion of delicious grilled vegetables, tofu and meat – Emile almost got run over by the food cart when it suddenly packed up, rushing away in great hurry when the police arrived.  Quite the nightly adventure that the boys still talk about – illegal street food was definitely a new experience for them!

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The guy that made our delicious “Illegal” street food

But the highlight of our stay in Beijing was undoubtedly our walk on the magnificent Great Wall of China.  We picked a perfect day for our adventure as it was slightly cloudy and therefore not too hot for our big walk.  We chose to go to the “Wild Wall” (the portion of the wall between Jinshanling and Simatai). This portion is still in its original state (has not been rebuilt or renovated like some other portions) and is a lot less touristy due to its more distant location from the city (about 2.5 hours outside of Beijing – instead of Badaling which is only 1 hour away).

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Little guy on the Great big Wall

We usually like to do things on our own, but we chose to go with an organized tour for this one (as we didn’t want dishonest cab drivers to ruin our day). We learned that the Great Wall is in fact a discontinuous network of wall segments (and not continuous as many think) built by various dynasties to protect China’s northern border. This UNESCO World Heritage site is over 20,000km long, and took millions of people (soldiers, common people & criminals) over 2000 years to build.  It is the longest man-made structure in the world, and seeing all those big rocks, it must have been a tremendous job to create this masterpiece (without any tools but bare hands)!

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Once arrived, we chose to take a cable-ride up to the #10 Tower on the Great Wall – from there, we would make the trek to tower #20. Frankly, I was ignorant in thinking that the Great Wall of China was an ancient structure that once arrived at, could pretty easily be walked upon. O, was I wrong – it is 4 days later now and my calves are still in serious pain – best stair-master ever!  There were several portions of the Great Wall that we could only climb, using both hands and feet –as double strength was needed to pull ourselves up on the incredibly steep staircases (nothing for you mom!).  But it was little pain for the privilege to be walking on this most incredible, historic structure.  Gazing out, there was stunning nature all around us – looking left were the mountains of China while paying attention on our right, and we were looking at the gorgeous scenery of Mongolia.

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It is without saying that the Great Wall of China needs to be preserved at all cost and no littering of any kind is allowed (including the human bathroom kind).  If you have to do your business (with no facilities anywhere in sight) you need to climb down from the Great Wall to find yourself a secluded spot. And of course, our little boys with small bladders had to (they thought that this unfortunate incident made for a cool story though, as now they can say they did “pipi” in Mongolia!).

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We met several sweet locals on the Great Wall – encouraging us to keep going and trying to sell us some souvenirs. But we were happy, taking our memories and our many “snaps” with us from this most wonderful day.

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So the surprises of Beijing were many;

– The serenity of our hotel amidst chaos

–  The incredible masses of people everywhere & the traffic that knows absolutely no rules (motorcycles zoom all around you when you cross the lights on a green – even cars don’t respect the signs and go when they feel like, even go against traffic all the time!)

–  The many different smells & sounds (loud and not always pleasant)

–  The mix of designer shops & little merchants everywhere

–  The childlike interests of the Chinese and their love for toys & mega drinks

–  The variety and multitude of food (some extremely spicy!) – we even discovered some fabulous Japanese restaurants in Beijing when looking for a change of cuisine

–  The unexpected safe feeling, moving around the city

–  The incredible history of each Beijing attraction

–  The differences in restaurant service (waiters will stand by your table immediately and wait till you have made your selection without giving you a few minutes to ponder the menu and/or dishes come out when ready – and never at the same time for four people dining together!)

–  The deliciousness of Beijing’s illegal street food

–  The incredible beauty and steepness of the Great Wall of China!

–  The behavior of the Chinese, which we at once consider to be rude (spitting, making loud noises during meals, pushing – an 80 year old Chinese woman gave me a mean push when she felt I was taking too long trying on a scarf in front of a mirror) and very kind (laughing and staring at us, being thankful for the opportunity to take pictures of us, giving us gifts, assisting us in showing how a meal is properly eaten or giving us directions, helping us make the best of our stay in their fascinating city)!

La belle ville de Paris, a little boy’s wish come true

19 Oct

LA BELLE VILLE DE PARIS, A LITTLE BOY’S WISH COME TRUE

Emile and Filou go to a nice French school in Toronto (George Etienne Cartier – http://gec.csdccs.edu.on.ca); a deliberate choice on our part to raise bilingual kids and open their minds to a different culture and way of education.  Over the years, they have learned a lot about “La Francophonie” and French culture in Canada and other parts of the world.   It is for that reason that Emile requested we go to Paris, as it was his dream to see the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa.  So great… and why not?  We changed our plans to fly from Holland to China, and took the Eurostar Train to Paris (a smooth 2.5 hour ride from Rotterdam, although I do not suggest paying extra for Wifi on board as it didn’t work).

France is also Anthony’s second home (due to his years of French literary studies) – he a real Francophile and adores Paris, a city he once lived in! Therefore, he was eager to share his love for this exciting city with the boys.

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Anthony enjoying the French book stalls in Paris – one of his favorite activities

Our Paris apartment was located in the 13th arrondissement – Place d’Italie – a perfect little place we found on AirBnB (https://www.airbnb.ca/rooms/413487) – it was close to the METRO, and located in a non-touristy area with lots of amazing bakeries, outdoor markets and local shops. This area gave Emile the opportunity to feel independent, as each morning he loved walking by himself to the local bakery to get us a delicious, fresh baguette and some croissants.

On one of our firsts walks through the picturesque streets of Paris, we ended up at Le Jardin de Luxembourg – one of the city’s beautiful gardens, a spot that quickly became Filou’s favorite (mainly, because there was a fun play park within, where he and Emile had a blast with a large group of Parisian boys their age).  It surprised me that we had to pay 2.50 euros per child to enter this play park – given that in Canada we are blessed with so many free play structures & parks everywhere.  However, on the flip side, the museums we visited were always free for the children.  I guess it is clear where the French put their emphasis (and probably their tax dollars!).

The cultural institutions that received our attention this week, were Le Centre Pompidou and Le Louvre. We spent a sunny afternoon at Beaubourg – the wonderful artsy district surrounding Pompidou – where many fun and talented street artists kept the kids’ attention. (and even engaged them in helping with their act).  Filou was also drawn to the various sellers of jewelry and knick knacks and spent half an hour negotiating with them to sell him something for the 1 Euro he had in his pocket. Although 5 euros was the minimum price for the smallest piece, he did walk away with a bracelet and a sense of negotiating satisfaction. It must have been his smile or cool look that day!

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Filou in Beaubourg, negotiating with his 1 Euro

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Emile at the cool floating structures at Pompidou

At Le Centre Pompidou, we visited an exhibition of the American pop culture artist Lichtenstein and visited a fun’s children’s exhibit (where the kids made cool structures out of clay). At Le Louvre – the main objective was to see the Mona Lisa, the world famous painting that was on Emile’s wish list.

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Anthony at one of Lichtenstein’s famous paintings

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Emile with the airplane he made at Le Centre Pompidou

But the highlight of our week and the reason why we went to Paris was of course our visit to the Eiffel Tower.  The structure quickly impressed the boys, who decided they wanted to climb up. So we bought the tickets and started the 600 steps upwards.  I quickly realized that I am afraid of heights (especially open stair cases) and after about 200 steps or so, I chickened out and returned back down.  But the boys were happy to take in the Parisian view from the first level of this magnificent structure (not afraid one bit, even though it was Friday the 13th!).

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One happy boy, seeing his dream structure, La Tour Eiffel

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And his brother was pretty excited too!

While they were up on the first level, I sneakily joined an English tour group and learned a few interesting facts about the Eiffel Tower such as:

  1. That it was built for a world fair (and that the other ideas floating around for a Paris structure were a large Guillotine (a device designed for carrying out executions by decapitation) – perhaps not so welcoming! – and a large fountain).
  2. That it took about 2 years to build and that even though there was no protective gear for the workers, no one died (except for one Italian worker who sat down on the first level while taking in the sunset – he however, loved his glass of wine a little too much and fell down)!
  3. That it cost about 30 million Euros (in today’s money) to build the tower- and that it took Mr. Eiffel and his investors only 3 months (of charging fees) to recover their investment.
  4. That it actually wasn’t Mr. Eiffel who drew the tower but two of his engineer students
  5. And that it is still one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world today!

From the Eiffel Tower, we walked through the adjacent park to take some memorable pictures – when we heard drums. We followed the sound and ended up at a Japanese cultural Festival – where they were promoting Japanese culture, design and food  – with a focus on healthy living.  The boys were excited to sign up for a small Japanese cooking class – which was both informative and fun. A delightful and knowledgeable French nutritionist guided the boys and 5 other Parisian women how to make onigiri (rice balls – but French style with blueberries in them!), miso soup (but a much darker then the kind we eat at home), and stir-fry vegetables.  With their Japanese heritage, the boys knew the dishes already (and had eaten them!) but it was still a fun experience.

 

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Emile, Filou & I taking a Japanese cooking class

Then on a very large, outdoor stage next to the cooking demonstration, appeared 5 youngsters leading a fun (and fast) exercise class – to the beat of some loud, funky music.  As I hadn’t exercised in ages and was eager to move, I joined the 30 or so Parisian women in this class. It was thrilling… as dancing in front of the Eiffel Tower is not something you do every day! Emile quickly realized too – it was pretty special, so he joined in and was left with a very unique Eiffel Tower experience!

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Emile & I dancing on a stage near the Eiffel Tower

And dancing was necessary after all the amazing food we consumed in Paris – we devoured all our favorites; the Pommes Noisettes (potato balls that Anthony and I were crazy about when living in France), the Epinards a la crème fraiche (creamed spinach) and of course the many baguettes and croissants with that butter that melts in your mouth!  And of course, not to forget the many delicious cheeses and desserts.

So we happily said good-bye to La Belle Ville de Paris – a city that gave us the “dreams-come-true” for our big boy and tied pants for us all!