Last Days

Our final two days in China have been wonderful.  Yesterday, we drove to Zhujiajiao, a water village near Shanghai with almost two thousand years of history.  This small town was built along canals and gives an ancient feeling not found in Shanghai. We walked along the canals and toured old homes built in the courtyard style.

We also visited a Buddhist temple and a Taoist temple.  This trip has greatly changed my understanding of Taoism.  I’ve always considered it more of a philosophy than a religion with a strong focus on nature.  However, this is not this case in China.  It is very much a religion, filled with hundreds of gods and the threat of a terrible afterlife. What is most interesting is how Taoism and Buddhism often share gods at their temples.  Buddhist gods are often revered at Taoist temples and vice versa.

Last night we enjoyed a fabulous Shanghainese dinner. We ate at Meilongzhen, one of the most famous restaurants in Shanghai, housed in a building that was once home to the Communist Party.  Seafood is the specialty and the highlight our meal was the Mandarin Fish.  It was a whole fish served over noodles with a sauce that was sweet and spicy.  We picked it clean with our chop sticks.

It has been extremely hot in Shanghai, so we’ve tried to stay out of the sun.  Today we spent the day shopping around markets and stores.  Haggling is truly an art form here, yet it’s exhausting!

Early tomorrow morning we head home.  These two weeks have gone by quickly, and we’re very sad to leave Shanghai.  The food here has been great, yet we do look forward to New York City pizza.  Plus, a new niece has been born at home.  We’re very eager to meet Jule Meghan Hirdt.  What a great name!  ‘

Thank you to everyone who has followed this blog.  Your comments gave us a wonderful connection to home in such a foreign place.




Shanghai is AMAZING!  I’ve never experienced such a sprawling city.  We went to the restaurant at the top of our hotel to get a view of the city, and it extends as far as the eye can see. It is a fascinating mix of old and new, West and East.

We arrived yesterday, taking the Maglev train from the airport to the city.  It was one fast ride!  The train goes so fast, that it only accelerates and then decelerates to get to the city.  It got up to 431 kilometer/hour!

Our guide, David, helped us see all the major sights today.  As we drove through the city past old sections, David was often quick to say that this area won’t be here soon.  Almost everything large and new that he pointed out, mostly shopping centers, were built within the past three years.

We saw the Pudong, the business capital of the city.  It is across the Huangpu River from the original part of Shanghai. The surrounding architecture of extremely tall skyscrapers (home to the 2nd tallest building in the world) makes it feel like you’ve stepped into the future. Just like the rest of the city, this section is sprawling, and yet, none of it was here twenty years ago!

Other stops on our tour included the beautiful Yu Gardens, the British and French Concessions, and a walk along The Bund so we could see the colonial architecture.  We went into the house where the Chinese Communist Party was first established -90 years ago this week.  We also saw the Jade Buddha Temple and the Confucius Temple and School where a student showed us around the grounds. The area is now surrounded by chic boutiques and shopping malls.  I think Mao would be disappointed.

We also walked through two Chinese markets.  The first was a traditional food market of which are becoming few and far between, as the younger generation prefers supermarkets.  Every type of food is found here.  Vegetables and fruit abound, but the more interesting sights were the live, fresh food.  Fish and crab, and other shellfish were everywhere.  As were caged chickens, pigeons, ducks, frogs, and turtles.

The Cricket Market was even more exotic.  Here is where people come to purchase –you guessed it- crickets!  They have teeny, tiny crickets that you keep in small boxes and place under your pillow so that even while in a metropolis like Shanghai, you can sleep with the sound of nature.  Singing crickets were extremely large and found in bamboo baskets or ornate cages.  As the name suggests, they make a lot of noise!  Perhaps the biggest attraction at this market was the fighting crickets.  Before purchasing these crickets, you nudge a stick around in their small box cages to see how aggressive they are.  Large gambling tournaments exist all over (albeit underground) where these crickets fight to the death. DVDs of great fighters are even available!  Other items for sale at the market were birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and many types of turtles and frogs.  An extensive collection of food and cages for all these creatures are also available.

For lunch we finally tasted xiao long bao, or “soup dumplings!”  This was the single food item I have most looked forward to on this trip.  In fact, for months I have waited to taste this Shanghai specialty.  They are steamed dumplings that are filled with juicy meat.  As you carefully bite into them, you suck the “soup” out before devouring the dumpling.  Yum!  This will also be dinner tonight…


We’ve spent over two days in Xi’an, or Chang’an, as it used to be known, which was home to many ancient emperors.   On our first morning here we traveled about an hour out of the city to see the Terracotta Warriors. As we approached the site of the warriors we could see the nearby the mound covering the burial chamber of Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty. The three pits holding the Terracotta Army were unbelievable. Shi Huangdi had these statues of warriors built all through his reign to protect his soul during the afterlife.

The warrior museum is set into three pits.  The first pit we entered has been half-excavated.  The life-sized soldiers stand in neat rows to greet you as you enter the football-field sized interior.  What is most remarkable is that every soldier – all 6000 of them- has different faces.  As you stroll along the walkway, trying to get a peek of the soldiers at every angle, you near the sections of the pit that are still being excavated, as well as soldiers and horses that are being put together by archaeologists.

Pit three holds the higher ranking terracotta soldiers as well as more horses.  There are over 70 warrior statues in this pit.  Pit two is believed to have about 1300 soldiers, yet few of them have been unearthed. Instead, archeologists are all still waiting for technology to advance in order for them to uncover the warriors without risk of losing the paint on the terracotta, a problem which plagues the statues that have already been excavated.  Right now, all the terracotta warriors that have been uncovered are the either black or reddish-brown in color.  When the statues were made, they were richly decorated with paint.  This has been seen as statues have been excavated; yet the air causes the ancient paint to immediately vanish.

Up at eye level around pit three are glass-enclosed warriors that you can see up close.  Here you can see how expertly crafted the warriors really are. You can even see the individual strands of hair which were carved into their heads.  Jeff, our guide, explained to us how to tell the different ranks of these soldiers.  Besides their shoes, dress, and hats that change with each rank, Jeff pointed out that they also get fatter. Therefore, the bigger the belly, the higher the rank!

Finally, we walked through the museum section of the site.  It was packed with people and very loud.  Here we were able to see much of the bronze work that was found during the excavations.

We then had lunch at a restaurant near the Terracotta Museum.  Here we sampled the signature dish of in Xi’an.  This is a bowl of extremely long, broad noodles only lightly dressed with oil and scallions.  It was one of my favorite dishes of the trip!

The next stop on our tour of Xi’an was the Wild Goose Pagoda.  This Pagoda is the symbol of Xi’an and was founded by Xuan Zang, a Buddhist monk during seventh century AD to house important texts that he translated with his students.  The Pagoda and its grounds were beautiful.  There are intricate carvings here that depict of the life of Xuan Zang depicting his travels to India where he improved his knowledge of Buddhism.  Then, he was able to return to China, build the Pagoda, and spend the rest of his life translating texts.  Much of the texts he translated are still very important to Chinese Buddhists today.

We then traveled to the Shaanxi History Museum.  This museum chronicles the history of this area of China from prehistoric times through the dynastic periods and the Silk Road.  Unfortunately, we’ve noticed that many of the pieces in museums here are reproductions.  Despite that, the museum had some interesting artifacts that were familiar to us, including Liu Bang’s small-scale terracotta army.

The next morning was a hot one in Xi’an.  The temperature was 38 Celsius, so not too different from the weather New Yorkers had been experiencing.  We started our day at the city wall.  Xi’an is one of the few remaining cities in China that still has an intact city wall.  Other large cities around China had them in ancient times but have since been demolished.  The wall was originally built during the Tang Dynasty but had been destroyed.  The current structure was built during the Ming Dynasty over 600 years ago. The wall is impressively large.  It completely surrounds the old section of the city with gates at the north, south, east, and west ends.  We went to one of the guardhouses at the south section of the wall and climbed to the top and look around.  Standing on the wall gave us great views of the city and the moat surrounding the wall.  The wall makes it very difficult to figure out where you are in the city.  As we drive around, it all looks very similar because the wall looks the same from every direction.

After visiting the wall we went to the Bell and Drum towers that used to act as town clocks.  The drum would be struck in the morning and the bell would ring in the evening. We then strolled through the Muslim section seeing the food, spices, fruits, and souvenirs for sale.  Eventually we ended up at the Great Mosque of Xi’an.  Supposedly, this is the only mosque in the world that was built in the Chinese style.  Because of the success of the Silk Road that was due in large parts to the Muslims living in Xi’an, the mosque was built as a thank you gift from one of the emperors.  It is still in use today although only on Fridays.

Finally, we ended our tour of Xi’an with a hot pot lunch –one of our favorites.  We frequently eat Japanese Shabu Shabu in New York, so this was like a taste of home!  Tomorrow we head to Shanghai.

The Wall

As the t-shirts all around Beijing say, “I climbed the Great Wall of China.” This two-day hike was the activity I most looked forward to on this trip, and it completely lived up to my expectations.  I heard constantly how crowded the Great Wall was. We must have done this right.  On our first day, we only saw one other person in the entire four-hour hike.

Our hike began in Gubeikou, a tiny farming village.  This place is clearly off the beaten path as there were barely any signs that this was a starting location for the Wall.  The views from here were stunning.  This section is unrestored and in many places falling apart due to years of disrepair and locals taking the bricks for their homes.

We hiked for about an hour and half before we stopped for lunch.  Bill, our guide, had mentioned several times during the morning that he brought hamburgers for us. Because it is in my nature to be fixated on where I’ll be getting my next meal, I spent much of the hike wondering about the hamburgers.  Where did he get them?  Are they just sitting in Bill’s backpack? Or worse- does he have ground beef in his bag with a plan for a Wall cookout?  Finally as we climbed a steep staircase to a watchtower, Bill announced we’d be stopping for lunch.  A local woman was in the watchtower selling souvenirs and drinks.  Could she be the one making us hamburgers?  As we crouched down on support beams, Bill produced a brown McDonald’s bag from his pack.  I have never been so happy to see those Golden Arches!  Hamburgers, they were not. Instead, Bill pulled out a hash brown, a Filet-O-Fish and a McChicken.  Chris took the Chicken, I took the fish.  It was delicious.

As we descended from that tower, Bill pointed to a military base along the Wall.  Because of the base’s location, we were not allowed to walk along that section.  Bill explained we’d walk down a valley along a path and then back up to the Wall.  Easy enough, I figured.  We quickly descended into thick forests, broken only by cornfields cleared into the valley floors.  While there was a “path”, the vegetation was so thick I could barely see below my waist.  At some point Chris announced, “The Wall really seems to be doing its job.  The Chinese army is one side and us foreigners are the other.”

Finally, we were back up along the wall.  The sun was high and we were hot! Cool breezes through the windows of the guard towers were often our only respite from the heat.  Through the entire hike, Bill shared fascinating history tidbits about the Wall.  Most interesting was to see how the wall continued to change throughout the journey from brick types to even mud at certain points.

After about 3 hours, I looked down at my feet only to notice that my trusty hiking boots looked a little funny.  Upon closer inspection, I noticed the bottoms of both boots were coming off.  We continued anyway, eventually coming to Jinshanling where we would be resting, eating, and sleeping.

We descended to a tiny outpost along the base of the Wall.  Here we spent the night playing an extremely confusing Chinese card game, eating a delicious meal prepared by a local family, and relaxing.  After nightfall, a van took the three of us – Bill, Chris, and I – up to the Wall with camping equipment.  Up high in a watchtower we set up two tents and got ready for bed.  For months, the prospect of sleeping on the Great Wall sounded thrilling.  Now reality set in, and it was actually somewhat scary.  We were at the highest point on top of a mountain in the summer where thunderstorms were frequent.  To make matters worse, a very large metal table with several metal chairs sat only feet away from our tent. Throughout the night we could hear thunder and see lightning in the distance, but fortunately it never came our way.  Chris kept saying that he heard critters scurrying around the outside of our tent, but I’d like to say that was just the wind.  I must say I was relieved at daybreak.

We went back to the outpost in the morning where the same family served us a giant breakfast of congee, noodles, fried bread, stir-fried eggs, spicy tofu, and pickled vegetables.  It was delicious!

Because of my broken boots, we changed our planned route.  We were supposed to drive two hours to then do a four-hour hike.  Because my boots were in such bad shape, our guide suggested we just hike from Jinshanling to Simatai.  This would only be a two-hour hike.  The nice man who owned the outpost near the wall provided rope and our driver, Mr. Zhi, helped tie my boots to their soles.  Despite a noble effort, this only lasts about fifteen minutes.  I ended up just pulling the soles off the boots completely.  They became more like hiking slippers, but they did the job.

This two-hour hike was tough!  The previous day was grueling, but this was far more difficult.  Looking at photos of the Chinese countryside that is home to the Great Wall, you can see the undulating mountains.  We walked up and down these mountains for two hours with small breaks here and there.  Our photos do not properly capture the difficulty of this trek as were were either out of breath or on a steep section. Some parts of the Wall had stairs; other parts were more like rubble.  We kept counting the guard towers, as we knew which one was our destination.  How amazing it was to finally reach the end!  Celebratory pictures were taken and my legs felt like jelly.

While my tale sounds dramatic, this experience was unforgettable and worth every moment.








Day Three

Today we finally reached the outskirts of the city where we visited the Summer Palace. Each new Imperial palace we have visited quickly becomes my favorite, but now I will have a tough time topping this.  With the dramatic lake setting and abundance of Lotus flowers filled with rainwater, it was stunning. For the first time since we’ve arrived in China, we could see for miles.  We got a peek at the distant mountains where tomorrow we will hike the Great Wall!   One of our favorite parts of the Summer Palace was the three-tiered Opera house.  In its day, the empress watched Opera performances every single day!

                Images from the Summer Palace:

The Capital Museum was next on the agenda.  What a beautiful building this is! Here we toured exhibits on the history of Beijing and folk customs.  The ancient exhibits were my favorite. Here we saw ancient bronze work, calligraphy, and Buddhist art. I took lots of pictures for activities in history class that should be appealing to any new fourth graders.

We relaxed at a traditional teahouse where we sampled different types of tea and heard about their medicinal values. We’ve noticed that everywhere we go that people drink tea in thermoses and plastic bottles. We now we have an appreciation for why.

Our day ended with dinner at Guo Yao Xiao Ju, a tiny restaurant in a Hutong.  This restaurant serves dishes in the tradition of the Tan Family Cuisine.  Because this type of cuisine was unheard of to us, we were eager to try it.  The setting and the food were equally foreign and well worth trip.  The setting was so rustic, in fact, the only bathroom was a public one down the alleyway.

Tomorrow we leave for the Great Wall where we will spend the night far away from the city. Look for our next post soon; we can’t wait to see the countryside!

Day Two

We started our day at the Temple of Heaven, an enormous Taoist temple complex.  It is like a Chinese Stonehenge, for it is factored around the solstice.  The main structure is not only beautiful, but also extremely impressive due to the fact that it is all joined wood –not one nail was used in its construction!  In addition to touring the many sections of the complex, we enjoyed watching parents match-make for their children and the elderly do dance exercises in the park.

Then we traveled to the Pearl Market. It is similar to New York’s Canal Street, yet in a large multistory building. Our haggling skills were in full swing here as we made friends and family happy by purchasing the pearls we promised them.

Olympic Stadium was next!  We traveled north towards what was farmland a few years ago, now home to towering apartment buildings, wide streets and the Olympic Complex (much in contrast to the hutongs of central Beijing where we spent the past two days). The Olympic park is open to the public, and is a source of pride for the Chinese people.  Chris fulfilled a lifelong dream of riding a Segwey along an Olympic track.

Next we went to a nearby silk museum where we learned about the history of silk production as well as the processes for which it’s made.  This was fascinating to see first hand. I held a silkworm cocoons while pulling out the one continuous stand of silk. We certainly have a new appreciation for the strength of this fabric.

During the evening, we walked to the Forbidden City, which was even more dramatic when fully lit. We decided to take the subway back to our hotel. The subway system, which was extremely modern, was not for the feint of heart, as it is extremely crowded even late at night. While I am used to taking a crowded L train to work this was a new level of sardine-like feeling. Subway etiquette, as New Yorkers know it, is thrown out the window!

A busy first day!

Our morning began at the Forbidden City. Even after much reading about the Forbidden City, I was not prepared for how large it is. Legend has it that there are 9999.5 rooms. Because it is believed heaven has 10,000 rooms, the Forbidden City has ½ less, making it a heaven on earth. Each courtyard and building is like a series of Russian dolls nested inside each other. The buildings are well preserved and vibrant in color. What was most remarkable was the planning that went into every detail. Like Confucius’s stress for order, order is everything in the Forbidden City. All gates have 5 entrances: one for the emperor, two for the highest officials, and two for the lower ranking officials. Once through the entrance tunnels, there are even lines set into the ground with white paving stones to tell the officials were they were allowed to stand. Every detail is done with perfect symmetry, and the most important buildings are set on a north-south axis, while the lesser structures are set to the west and east. It took several hours to make our way from the entrance at Tiananmen Square to the exit at Jingshan Park.

From there we went to the Back Lake district where we toured the historic hutongs (ancient alleyways). Here we got a taste residential life in old Beijing. Traveling through here on a motorized rickshaw allowed us a leisurely view of the mix between beautifully restored courtyard homes and more rustic shelters.

We ended our day at the Lama Temple. It was originally a palace and therefore resembles the architecture of the Forbidden City. We traveled from hall to hall observing the large number of people worshipping the different Buddhas housed in each structure. Under each large Buddha were offerings made by visitors such as incense, peaches, and flowers.

On a side note:
Chris and I are being photographed non-stop! Everywhere we go, people (mostly children) ask if they can have their pictures taken with us. Once one person works up the courage to ask, we end up standing there for rounds and rounds of pictures. Perhaps it’s my reddish hair and freckles, Chris’s beard, or our stunning good looks?