Johanne Brookes

Occasional traveller: cities, history, culture, food. So many places so little time
Living in: Birmingham, United Kingdom
  • Day9

    Random China bits

    November 12, 2017 in China ⋅ ⛅ 73 °F

    Bits that I forgot or are cause for reflection.

    I discovered that it is possible to make potatoes into an unpleasant food... One of the street food options was spicy potatoes but they managed to make them gelatinous urrrgghh.

    Air quality is awful. When it is really bad you can taste it. Most power stations are coal and it has huge reserves so they are burning it with little or no clean air tech as far as I can see. However electric cars, bikes and scooters are very much in evidence so change is probably coming.

    Very security conscious our rucksacks have been scanned at least once at every place we have visited.

    The parks were beautifully maintained. There were armies of people tweaking flowers moving them in and out, creating displays etc. Litter pickers and street sweepers with huge straw brooms were much in evidence.

    Seeing the general attitude and massive capital investments I am not at all surprised that China is wanting to make its presence felt in the global political arena. If it marshals its resources I would think they are unstoppable. Larger than the US by far and more outward looking it will be interesting to see what the next 10 years brings.
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  • Day9

    In Flight Entertainment

    November 12, 2017 in China ⋅ 🌙 79 °F

    Eastern Airlines economy in flight entertainment is a really random selection. It is on drop down screens every 4-5 rows... So far I have watched how to clean taps with potato peel, how to clean coffee cups and how to wash my dusters. In addition we have had magic tricks and their explanations, movie trailers and health tips from an actor (with subtitles) and a recipe for "prawns with wine flavour".

    Contrary to our expectations we got an in-flight meal (auto correct offered inflicted... But it wasn't quite that bad). Chicken and rice or beef noodles (looked like dodgy spag bol to me). Salad of unknown meat and probably mushrooms. Frequent drinks service too. The flying time is about 2:40 so I am hoping to spend some time with the Mandibles (Lionel Shriver). I packed lots of books and have read virtually nothing so far...
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  • Day9

    Waiting to fly to Hong Kong

    November 12, 2017 in China ⋅ ☀️ 45 °F

    So up at 6:30 this morning as Lily and Mr Li were collecting us at 7:30. A hasty breakfast and some fluffing about and we were ready to go. The roads were quiet and so we got to the airport in about 30 mins. It's a big new toll motorway out to the airport, yet more evidence of China's massive infrastructure investment.
    On the drive back Lily gave us some more details on Jingdi's mausoleum, 28 years to make the figurines and other artifacts for his tomb. They have only scratched the surface yet they think there are some 160 burial pits. They reckon it took 720,000 crafts people to build the tombs and all the artifacts.
    I think it should be as well known as the warriors but it isn't and it is a much less commercial enterprise... No random "experiences" and a raft of food stalls run from the backs of people's vans..... If we had has longer...!

    Lily brought us right through the airport and checked us in. There was security screening before we could even enter the airport. Then check - in which did not open until 1.5 hrs before departure! So we had to wait, which was on this occasion good because we had more time to chat with Lily. She, in common with lots of people here, commented on how young Dad looks...sadly no one says that to me.... They often assume that I am his wife!! We also compared notes on holiday allowances, the cost of things. Lily wanted to understand the difference between clothes and dress. Which is quite a subtle distinction when you try to explain it... Soon we were checked in and we said goodbye to Lily, she said we were polite and friendly and she would like to be our guide again if we return to Xi'an (I bet she says that to all the tourists! 😉). But we did have fun and we made her laugh.

    After checking in we went to immigration departure: passport, departure card (at least this time we were told) and visa / passport check. Then security... Very thorough... All the usuals on the scaning machine and through the gate to a good intimate pat down by security, then we had to remove our footwear which was sent through the machine whilst our feet were investigated, then I got called back for my kindle to be rechecked... And taken out of its case... And switched on... Then another trip round for my powerbank ... And repeated questions about batteries... And eventually we were released to the gate / departure area...a short wait there and they started boarding us. We were loaded and ready to go about 15 mins before departure time but we used all that and more taxiing to the runway... I was beginning to think that we were driving to HK.
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  • Day8

    Free Range in Shaanxi

    November 11, 2017 in China ⋅ 🌙 45 °F

    So on an impulse and after reading the Lonely Planet Guide we decided to trek out to the Tomb of Jingdi. Lonely Planet's 2nd must see after the warriors. Buses were hourly from the Xian public library so we had to go and find the metro to get there and then find the No.4 bus. The metro was perfectly straight forward and cost 3RMB each (about 30p) for a 10 minute journey. We followed the LP information and found the bus stop quite easily. For the sum of 2 RMB each we rode out towards the airport for about 3/4hr. Fortunately Jingdi's tomb was the last stop so we were ok. As ever just traveling about was fun and an opportunity to observe life. Traffic was as expected and the bus driver drove like Mr Li, The rate of development is furious - Lily had told us about the power station built far outside the town that was now in the suburbs but the bus took us past enormous tower block construction sites - 5 - 10 at a time with all the roads and drainage etc going in. There is no shortage of capital investment here.

    Jingdi is the opposite of the Terracotta warrior King Quin Shi Huang, he believed in non -interference. His tomb id filled with small figurines (about 50,000!) that depict everyday life in the 2nd c BCE- there are pigs, people etc etc. It is an active dig and so you have to put shoe covers on and it is all dim and climate controlled. The pits are impressive and best of all in some areas you can walk directly over them on a glass floor so you can see the contents in detail. These are thousands of small statuettes of workers animals officials - everyone the Emperor would need. The statuettes originally had jointed wooden arms and silk outfits.

    After the dig we walked to the south gate past children having pony rides on the grass outside it. The south gate is a modern construction to cover the tombs of the emperor and his wife. We had a wander, admired some photographs, exchanged greetings in English with a family who obviously wanted to get a bit of practice in and decided to call it quits. We could have spent longer there but we wanted to be sure to squeeze in a bike ride so we headed back for the bus. There were a few people waiting but not a bus full so we didn't worry too much - but the buses only ran every 50 mins or so. Eventually the bus turned up and the very grumpy driver would not come into the bay until everyone was behind the tape that denoted the waiting there was some shoving whilst everyone re-positioned themselves. he then brought the bus forward at which point it turned into a complete scrum, Dad and I were virtuously behind the tape and so handicapped when attempting to get to the door area. I have never been in such a crush and the driver was shouting and the people were shouting and gesticulating whilst pressing en-mass towards the steps...but mostly few people were moving - there was obviously a tunnel somewhere that loaded people on the bus because the bus filled without the crowd subsiding. And then he announced he was full and threw some people off his bus! We hadn't moved but we'd been intimately introduced to all the other passengers... So the bus disappeared off down the road leaving us and a reduced crowd at the bus stop. Two blokes then came along obviously running some sort of car scam to take people back to Xi'an, we couldnt understand what was happenning so we just stayed put but after nuch discussion two people wandered off with them looking very dubious...much arm waving and discusson...we settled in for a long wait - obviously we didn't dare leave our spot or we'd have no chance again next time. And lo less than 5 minutes later another bus turned up ..and we all boarded in an orderly fashion and trundled back to Xian. Where we spent a happy 30 mins in the queue for the metro ticket office because we didn't have the right change for the automatic machines and we were through security before we discovered this. Eventually we got tickets and made it back to the stop by the Bell Tower, as we headed to the Muslim quarter for lunch we got stopped by another bunch of surveying students....Questions this time included did you have culture shock on arriving in Xi'An? They were much less fluent than their Pingyao counterparts but charmingly pleased to find us- we were photographed as proof of existence...

    Anyway after that we hit Muslim Street (that's what it is called) and (for balance we passed one on the way to the warriors called Christianity...but nobody else gets a look in). I was rather hoping dad might fancy battered squid on a stick - they looked almost sculptural but he wussed and opted for deep fried banana and freshly pulped pomegranate juice. I had spiced meat of unknown origin (but I think mutton) on a stick of unknown origin (it still had its bark on but my tree knowledge is limited). I hope the stick was fresh but we did see people gathering them up out of the bins.... We then hoofed back to the hotel to drop our coats and rucksacks before making our way to the South Gate of the city walls - it was the bit we'd been to with Lily but it was close to our hotel and the light levels were dropping, it stays open till 8 but given minimal street lighting I didn't think a ride round a 12m high dimly lit wall would be smart.

    It took about 10 mins to walk to South gate and then climb the steps up - yet more steps, it does rather feel by now as if we have been on a week's step aerobics holiday. at the top Dad and I argued about wearing a cycle helmet. I was in favour - Dad refused. I had to remind him repeatedly about the insurance consequences if he had an accident and hadn't worn the helmet. He still didn't care...but eventually I wore him down...Helmet was worn; I am sure they were decorative rather than functional but the principle was important...otherwise I'll never be able to take him abseiling.

    The ride was fun, we didnt go very far - about 75 mins riding, stopping at various points. The bikes were single speed mountain bike style but they don't bother to adjust the seat height and it wasn't a quick release - so I rode with my knees almost coming under my chin. Easy riding though - very flat if a little uneven in places, we probably did about a third of a circuit - about 5km.

    Back to the hotel for a little recuperation before a little shopping and dinner. I bought a tiny warrior for the princely sum of 50p and a couple of other bits. It is mayhem down in the alleys of the Muslim quarter - I think it will make Temple St night market in HK look like an oasis of calm. Dad hasn't been wild about the food here so we went back to the only restaurant that we had found that served shrimps. Dad had shrimp dumplings I had Muslim meat pie. Which was minced mutton and onion spiced and served between two crisp pancakes.
    A last walk through the alleys and back to the hotel to pack, we leave at 7:30 tomorrow morning for our flight to Hong Kong.
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  • Day8

    Slow start in Xi'An

    November 11, 2017 in China ⋅ ☁️ 43 °F

    No guide today so no driving urgency to the start of the day. I am having a cup of tea - our little studio apartment is nicely set up. dad is debating his sartorial choices. Sam & he went shopping before we came away and he is still finding clothes he hasn't worn - He has deep bag so it takes a while for them to surface. I am smugly organised with all my clothes in packing cubes - deeply irritating I am sure.

    Breakfast awaits - fried chicken and rice I expect though Dad is sure he spotted an omelette station yesterday. Either way we will be well fuelled for the day ahead. It is going to be quite chilly here today max about 12 degrees - which is about the lowest peak temperature we have had. Which will make 25 degree HK a real shock tomorrow! But as I have a snuffly nose - which might be pollution driven but could be the start of a cold I will be happy with 25 degrees.
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  • Day7

    Dumpling Banquet

    November 10, 2017 in China ⋅ 🌙 46 °F

    Stuffed, completely stuffed. Lily gave us a map of Xi'An and armed with that we set off to find one of the recommended places to eat - De Fa Chang - navigation is interesting because unsurprisingly they dont put names in the European we followed the instructions, got to the right area but seemed to be at a sort of dumpling MacDonald - bright pictures over cash we wandered out to the next restaurant similar but not dumplings, we must have looked like dumplings because a helpful person pointed us back to the one we had just left...we went back and stared at that one through the windows and then noticed people were coming down from upstairs - so we went for a look. An enormous dumpling restaurant!

    We had a choice of 2 menus - so we picked the cheapest! Pomegranate juice was recommended by our server as a drink - nice but very sweet! and we waited. First out was a selection of largely unidentifiable vegetables and some weird chewy meat with gelatine... a slightly unnerving start but we are brave we waited.
    Round one one was a fried meat dumpling each and a sweet fried persimmon dumpling each. Next we had a "cereal" dumpling (rice in a black, licorice flavoured dough) and two other sorts from there they cam thick and fast including a plate of plain meat dumplings - about 8 each. The rest were in ones and two..but there were 6 courses. And at that point we were stuffed and we could see the watermelon for desert waiting for us. But no, out came a brass pot on a burner - there was yet another course. This final one was a lucky dip soup cooked at the table...we had to wait for it to cook and our server added small raw dumplings. Once cooked she explained that the number of dumplings you got in your bowl told your fortune 1- for happiness, 2 for double happiness, 3 for wealth, 4-6 I got promotion, dad got double happiness. Utterly stuffed.. we wobbled home via the 24hr shop (for beer - Dad didn't want 2 dry nights). I might have been tempted by wine but it was £8-23 a bottle! Four beers and a tube of pringle like snacks was £2.40!
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  • Day7

    Pagoda, Warriors and more

    November 10, 2017 in China ⋅ ☀️ 86 °F

    Another fabulous day Lily & Mr Li picked us up at 8:30 and our first destination was the Big Goose Pagoda. Xi'An traffic seems to require nerves of steel - I can't suss much in the way of road rules and Mr Li in common with all our other drivers is happy to sneak in front of buses and create an extra lane if it would be faster. Lots of the cars are local Chinese brands but because they make all the bits for European manufacturers all the buttons are labeled in English. The Pagoda was not far away just far enough to fit in a conversation about the Pope. How do you answer the question "what is the use of the Pope?" I went for a response about people believing he was God's representative on earth. Which then led to "how do they know? "does he have marks /signs...?" Fortunately we arrived at the pagoda so I was saved from further theology..for a bit...

    The pagoda was first built 1300 years ago but rebuilt in 1987 - I like this practical approach to monuments - it doesn't matter at all that it has been reconstructed. It still has 1300 years of history. It was founded by the Buddha who brought Buddhism to China - he spent 17 years in India and came home with 640 books of Buddhist teachings - and then set about translating - sadly he only got 30 or so done before he died. I felt some sympathy for him my "to read" pile always exceeds my abilities to keep up. There were also halls for other Buddhas including the one who looks after people - lots of arms each ending in a hand with an eye on it so they can hold everyone and see everyone. After she had told us all about it Lily then knelt and spent a few minutes making her reverences to the Buddha - which I found just a little disconcerting. It seemed like an oddly private moment for her in the middle of our visit. We wandered around various other halls and we heard how after he died his remains were shared around various temples in China - they have his finger bones here, although Lily pointed out that as Buddhists cremate their remains it was a little hard to be sure...

    Back to the car where we discussed which pope was which, what church was in England, and sundry other religious details I was a little hazy on. Much discussion about the pope with a beard who came to Xi'An....on reflection that might have been Rowan Williams I think...but I really didn't want to get into the Church of England, the Reformation and its relationship to popes.. Lily has read a lot of Buddhist texts but now she isnt convinced and she wants to read more about other belief systems. The drive up to the Terracotta warriors took about an hour but we didn't run out of conversation!

    The Warriors are out in the foothills of the Chingli mountains - the range that divides northern China from Southern China. This area apparently has hot springs and it is the pomegranate centre of the universe - every 10 yards or so there were stalls selling just pomegranates. Arriving at the warriors it was like arriving at a theme park, a huge parking lot an enormous ticket hall and then a vast 20 lane security gate system. As it is relatively quiet now we really didn't queue at all but I can imagine what it must be like when it is busy, apparently on the 1st October - Chinese national day there were 70,000 visitors - completely horrible apparently - Lily was there guiding!

    The warriors in their pits are astonishing - three pits of which pit 1 is the most impressive 6,000 warriors and they haven't finished excavating it yet! I knew they were all individual but I didn't realise they were crafted by convicts - very talented convicts - as Lily pointed out they hadn't spent 4 years getting fine art degrees like today's sculptors. also they have taken the decision not to restore any of the warriors - if they cant find the head/hand etc they leave it off. Some are too damaged to be restored - you can see these in the pits. Only one warrior has been found intact - a kneeling archer, all the rest have had to be put back together.

    The mass of people and the jostling to get to the edge of the pit was quite something, so how it must be in the busy season doesn't bear thinking about. After the seeing the army we went for lunch in a large quite fancy restaurant on-site, nice food, a buffet, 2 kind of noodles and about 5 other dishes. We skipped on the noodles otherwise we'd have been waddling. I had tea which pleased Dad - he could have two cups of beer because tea is free. The tea was subtly different here - slightly minty maybe the Arabic / Muslim influence?

    After lunch we went to look at some chariots they had excavated - Lily tried to sneak us in via a back door ..we descended into the pitch black on slippy marble steps....and then found the way was closed for renovations so we had to take the usual route after all. These chariots were small - about 1/4 to 1/2 size but beautifully detailed - dragons painted on the outside. When they were found they were each broken into over 1000 pieces and it took years to rebuild them.

    After the chariots we headed for the exits - past lots of souvenir shops and an orgy of hawkers - selling warriors and persimmons - apparently that's what the farm that the warriors were found on grew! Once past the first ring of sales people there are large plazas with fast food shops, some local, some western and also a range of weirdly unrelated exhibits - "Rock and Snow World" amongst others.

    Back to the car and back to the city. The drives have been interesting in themselves apart from discussions with our guides they always provide the opportunity to glimpse everyday life. Not so much here but in Beijing and Pingyao, street washing to keep the dust down was a regular feature. The car was very hot and it was an effort to stay awake - dad did better than I expected!. My wakefulness was rewarded by noticing a delightfully named hotel - "The Golden Showers Hotel"

    Soon we were back at the city walls - they are huge 12m high and 14m wide at the top and they still encircle central Xian. We had a bit of a walk along them and you can hire bikes and ride the 14km circuit -they have tandems - we might do that tomorrow... Whilst walking we talked more with lily - she has two cats 1 dog which strictly belongs to her boyfriend but she is the one who spends time with it and feeds it and we bonded over a shared fondness for books and reading.

    Our last stop was the Grand Mosque in the Muslim Quarter - 60,000 Muslims live in the quarter and there are 9 mosques of which the Grand mosque is the largest. The Muslim quarter is a warren of narrow streets and alleys and felt quite souk like - tons of people selling stuff - you cant go more than 10 steps without someone trying to sell you a warrior, a t-shirt or a knock-off bag. The mosque itself was very Chinese - it could have been another temple - a succession of courtyards gardens, gates and pagodas. Only when you get to the main hall do you see a traditional carpeted hall. It was very busy - Friday prayers were due soon and they were playing some recorded calls. Lily must be here regularly, she excused herself briefly because she had been asked to get some medicine for one of the people based at the mosque and she went off to deliver it. The recipient came over and exchanged a brief greeting with us whilst profusely thanking Lily. I wanted to ask so many questions about why she was getting the medicine and how the health system worked but I didn't want to be too intrusive. And that was that - we emerged on the street behind the drum tower, Lily made sure we knew where our hotel was (about 50 yards away), gave us a map and said she would see us early on Sunday for our flight to Hong Kong.
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  • Day7

    Waking up in Xi'an

    November 10, 2017 in China ⋅ ⛅ 52 °F

    Another "firm" Chinese bed- it was like sleeping on a dining table. But it was cooler - we actually have an opening window. And I could listen to the sounds of Xi'An This morning we've had a brief look at the roof garden . It gives great views over the city; last nights rain has washed out the pollution. That was before investigating breakfast: Fried chicken with black pepper and vegetable rice nice if not very breakfast'yRead more

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