Friday, November 26, 2010

We Gather Together

 Ahhhh, Turkey.  a list of side dishes that rivals a restaurant.  Pies made from home grown pumpkin.  And good friends joining us for the meal.  Could it get better?

We had Thanksgiving proper here at the house and had a couple of friends come over to help us eat all of the food! 

I was in charge of the bird, the sweet potatoes, the pies, the gravy and just for fun, I added a plate of deviled eggs.  After our shopping prep, we had no room for more eggs, so the leftovers got boiled, deviled and consumed not too long after our guests arrived!  the turkey came out golden and juicy.

In the morning when I awoke, I got busy butchering pumpkins for the pies.  I had lots of pumpkin and doubled the batch, giving us these two pies...
And a couple of 9x9 pans with crust less pumpkin pie.

We were all concerned about the timing a little, with so many things to cook and only the one stove.  But everything was done precisely on time!  A Thanksgiving miracle!

Soon after dinner, I fell into a pleasant turkey coma while the kiddos watched How to Tame Your Dragon.

Now we get to have one more at the Hotel with my folks!
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

More Later

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Day 7 - Three Gorges and Sampan Rides

After the sauna that was the day before, it was nice to wake up to moderate temperatures and relatively clear skies.  Of course, the haze set in after breakfast, making everything look mystical and magical to those of an optimistic nature, and smoggy and polluted to those who were not quite so.  The boat made a brief stop at Baidicheng before entering the Qutang Gorge, the first of the Three Gorges.  Our cruise director said that the Baidicheng stop was mostly for Chinese tourists, and since it cost extra we decided not to go ashore.  I later regretted this, as Baidicheng would have been interesting to see!

Instead we stayed on the ship and took pictures of the entrance of the gorge.


The sheer cliffs and size of the gorge was amazing to be sure.  What fascinated me was the gale force wind that hit us as we entered the gorge!  It was so strong that it made my eyes dry out instantly, and water copiously for the duration of the gorge!

As we sat there enjoying the view and the air, we remembered that we had hung clothes out to dry on the little patio just off the rooms!  I had a pair of shorts, some socks, and a few pair of underwear draped about on the chairs and such.  Remarkably none of us lost an article of clothing!  We brought our clothes in for the next two gorges!
Since we were heading downstream, it seemed right to have me in my red shirt on the left, and Jason in his green shirt on the right!
Along the gorge, there were smaller streams joining up with the river, making little gorges of their own.

We left the first gorge and went up to lunch.  During this we made our next port of call.  From here we took smaller boats...
Festively decorated to look like huge dragon boat/tow boat hybrids.   
Along the way we saw fields of sesame, complete with bundles being dried prior to harvesting the seeds we love so much on our hamburger buns.

We also got to see one of the famous 'Hanging coffins' of the gorge.
See it?

For a long time, the Chinese suffered from a serious lack of curiosity about the coffins.  They knew they were old, but nobody really knew how old or why they were there.  Within the last twenty years or so, someone decided to check one out and see how old they were.  They were expecting to find something a few hundred years old.  But when they opened the coffin, they discovered that the person had been buried with artifacts dating back two thousand years!

We took the dragon boats up a smaller tributary to get on sampans and tour the Lesser Three Gorges. 

This was a series of high cliffs and hills rising up from the narrow tributary we travelled, giving amazing views and scenery.  I'll let the pictures speak for our experience...

The sampan driver showed us what used to be traditional garb for them. 
Fashionable rain cape and hat woven from Yak hair.  Traditionally, they only wore a loincloth otherwise, and the boats were powered by long bamboo poles.  Now they had the blue pajamas and outboard motors.  Our driver was also quite the singer, and regaled us with a song about working hard and missing his love.  Jason tried on the rain gear too, but didn't sing a song for us.
 All along the way, the hills got steeper and steeper, prettier and prettier, and... well...

You get the picture.

This guy was playing a horn of some sort.

Which the guide said he did all day every day, playing for tips. Of course, nobody ever did tell us how he gets the tips!

Then it was back on the dragon boats...

and back to the ship.

Rather dramatically, I might add!
Back on the ship, we headed into the second gorge, The Wu Gorge.  At 45 KM, it is the second longest.  There were amazing views.

And of course - the wind!

We passed by Goddess Peak, where if you look closely, you can see what looks like a figure standing on the mountain.  This is the River Goddess who brings luck to all who pass here.

See her yet?

Here you go!

We saw a great variety of boats, including the very rocket ship like hydrofoils that cruised up and down past us.
There were many caves.

Enough for any spelunker to stay busy for years. 
There were also on board classes and shopping and such, but we mostly just stayed on the top deck and watched the scenery roll by!

As the sun set, we passed the city of Badong.  The whole city was relocated (along with a great many others) to high ground after the Three Gorges Dam was finished and the water level rose 176 meters. (About 577 feet, or a bit less than two football fields.)

The crew did a show again that night, sort of a talent show.  It was fun.  One of the highlights was a Szechuan Mask dance that one of the guys did.  I didn't take my camera, but I think Dad got it on video, so I'll re post this if I can get it.  The mask dance is a part of Szechuan Opera, and I would have loved to see that!  I also didn't get pictures of the food on the ship.  By this point in the tour, it was obvious that the food we got would be pretty safe, western style Chinese food.  Although the food on board was some of the best we had on the trip!
Tomorrow we would see the dam in all its glory, and we would also get off the boat and head for Shanghai. 

More Later

Monday, November 22, 2010

Day 6 - Slow Boat Through China

We woke up to a day shining with sun!  It seemed rather novel after so many days of foggy, rainy, grayness.  Here is a picture of our ship, the Victoria Jenna.
Up at the top, at the stern (that's the back, landlubbers) is where the 'special' dining room is that our group ate in.  It had phenomenal views.  As we dined on a fusion breakfast of American (bacon, eggs, french toast) and Chinese (steamed dumplings, rice porridge and sweetened soya milk), we were treated to the ever changing panoramas of the Yangtze River.  Today we would be sailing from East of Chongqing (we set sail in the middle of the night) to the 'Ghost City of Fengdu'  
Getting on and off the boat was an adventure in itself.  In Fengdu we were the only boat there, but once we had to snake our way through another boat or two to get to the dock!  But I digress.  The approach to the chairlift that would take us up the the famous ghost city was lined by shops.  This in itself was no shock, since for the past five days we had been bombarded with shops and vendors and people of all sorts selling all sorts of things.  But we did pass the temple gate of the city...
 Which was very ornate and cool looking.  Now, I should mention that this day in Fengdu the temperature was about 35 degrees Celsius.  That translates into about 95 degrees back in the Fahrenheit friendly United States.  The humidity was up in the high 80%'s too, making it a challenge to even stand still without breaking a sweat!  So don't be offended by the lack of Shaffer men in the photos, as even my normally sweat free brother was dripping by the end of the day. 
 Many people brought the umbrellas off of the ship (seen here in the lower left corner) for shade.  Dad, Jason and I wore our cargo shorts and packed extra water.  The safety sign above has many curious mistranslations in it.  They are mildly humorous until I consider that I can't read more than a couple of words in Mandarin - and neither of those words were on this sign!  Pretty soon though we were being happily lifted to the top of Ming Mountain, where the city of ghosts lived.
 One of the first, and most unfortunate, things that struck me was the lack of detail in the paintings.  Compare the flower around this light, and the rest of the decor, to the shot of Jason and the ceiling in a building at the Temple of Heaven and you can see what I mean.

 The city itself has a strange and confusing history.  Parts were built back in the Ming Dynasty, and parts were built in the 1980's.  Some of it was submerged when the Three Rivers Gorges Dam was built and the subsequent lake rose and put it underwater.  According to our guide, there are three tests that the recently departed have to complete before they get to heaven.  There's a bridge to cross, called the 'Nothing to be Done' bridge.  There is a gate to pass through...
 That if you cross the threshold with your left foot first, you'll come back as a man, right foot a woman, and both feet leads to coming back all mix and matched.  The third test was to stand on one foot on a rock and stare at the Buddha beyond the gate.  Not only are these tests required for the deceased, but tourists can try them out as well, a 'practice for the test kind. of place.  Part of China's new 'No Ghost Left Behind' policy.  Here we find Zen Jason completing the third task with ease.

I also had a visit from my Green Tiger Dragonfly friends.  Those of you familiar with the Great Mississippi River expedition of 2002 will know what I'm talking about.  Short version, I had a nearly mystical bonding time with these guys after I saved the life of one on the river.  They were remarkably friendly and helpful after that day -but those are stories for another day.  This one landed on my chest.  Then I was able to hold him in my hand for a minute.  He flew over the the wall while I was trying to finagle my camera into a decent shooting position.  Just a little reminder of home, and to enjoy the journey.
 This happened right outside of the main hall, which was protected by the fearsome Arhats.  These are protector deities, and look scary and ferocious to scare away evil spirits.  I'm not sure how JoJo the Dancing Donkey on the end got in there, but perhaps to an evil spirit, dancing donkeys are terrifying.
 In one of the halls, there was a visual display of the hell that awaits bad people.  It is here that the monks let their artistic talents and twisted sides create some quite disturbing images.  From right to left - A woman being turned into a snake for being deceitful in life.  A guy being gutted by demons for also presumably failing one of the three tests of goodness, and a guy being eternally hit in the junk by a demon with a club for having "too many mistresses".  Too many? I asked our guide.  How many is too many?  It depended on the status of the man in ancient China I was told.  The number was up to the gods.  Of course, in American society the answer is - ONE!
 Next up came our look at the "Last View Pagoda"  So named because it was built for the ghosts to take a last look at their family before heading off to heaven or hell. 
 I was rather surprised, upon further inspection, that the construction of this pagoda was unlike anything I had seen up to that point.
 Concrete... yep.  This was not a Ming Dynasty structure.  It was built in 1985!  Lots of stuff in the Ghost city was built in the 80's with the tourist boom.  Of course, to me this sort of corrupted the whole idea of an historic Ghost City from the Ming Dynasty.  This seemed a little more like a Disnification of it.  But it was fun and scenic - if a tad too warm for an Iowa boy transplanted into Minnesota!

After the ride back down the mountain, we once again had to stroll through the myriad shops lining the street.
 "Hello! Hello!" they would yell out at us.  "What you need?  Where you from?"  For the whole tour, the vendors were quite aggressive.  Of course, once we learned to bargain with them an occasional shopping showdown was fun.  Especially when we decided what we wanted.  We had noticed that aboard ship there was a nice breeze, especially way up on the open top deck.  Wouldn't it be fun, we thought, to get a couple of kites and fly them off the boat while we cruised?  Kites originated in China, and were as much a part of their culture as fast food is ours.  We had seen people flying kites off of skyscrapers, and in every park and historic place we visited where we could see the sky. 

I saw some really cool looking hawk kites and decided that those would be perfect to fly.  Entering the shop, I motioned to the guy working there that I wanted one. 

"How many?" He asked.  I looked at Jason who shrugged.
"Two, I guess." 
He pulled a couple out of a storage area under the table.
"How much?" I asked.
"380 Yuan." He said, handing me the birds.  Well, we had been in country long enough to learn to do some quick conversion between Yuan and Dollars.  380 Yuan was about $60!  I literally laughed out loud when he said it.  I mean, they were neat kites.  But they were bamboo covered with a thin nylon.  "No, no, no, no, no." I said.  
"How much you pay?" He asked. 
Since he had gone ridiculously high with his first offer, I went ridiculously low with mine.
"I'll give you 10 Yuan for both."
"No, no, no." He said, waving his hand dismissively.  Jason headed out to the next shop.
"300 for both." He said.
"Way too high."  I said.  "How 'bout 20 for both."
"No, no, no." Again with the dismissive wave.  Suddenly I heard my brother.
"Hey John, this guy over here has them!"
"OK!" I said brightly, and started heading down the road.
"OK, OK, OK, OK!" The guy said grabbing my arm. "20, 20!"
"For both?" I asked.
"Ehhh." He said, handing me the kites.  I assumed this meant yes and handed him two ten Yuan notes.  I was pleased, the guy who sold them acted put out, but seemed pleased, but the guy down the road standing next to my brother looked hurt, angry and offended all at once.

So we had our kites to fly!  Behold - the Hawk!

The other one is the same, only all black.  This picture was taken in my family room tonight by the way.  I didn't get any pictures of it in China!  When we got it back to the ship, we discovered that we had no string!  The crew was very helpful in trying to find some, but to no avail.  Besides, they told us we could only fly them when the ship was docked.  We vowed to try to find string at our next port of call.

When I was a boy I read some Pearl Buck adventures.  I'm not sure anymore which book it was in, but she described fishermen on the Yangtze using diving cormorants with banded necks to fish.  Since then, I've always thought it would be fun to swim in the Yangtze.  Seeing it in real life was a bit of a dream buster, as it was really quite grimy.  There were rafts of flotsam of all manner, and a remarkable array of shoes of all things.  It seemed like anytime one glanced into the river, one could see a veritable Famous Footwear shops worth of shoes.  Well, I was torn between The Dream, and the reality of needing some serious medical intervention upon my return to the States.  I opted for a dip of the foot instead. 
 Though for a as warm and sweaty as I was, I could have used a quick dip!  We sailed on down the river, and it seemed that everywhere we looked there was a view.
 Pagodas on hilltops.  Lots and lots of terraced farms along the hills.  It was breathtaking.  As the sun set, the three of us sat up on the open air top deck enjoying the scenery. 
 We were looking forward to dinner, as lunch had been very tasty.  And there was to be a show put on for us by the crew!  They gave quite a performance, too!  From a skit about the Emperor choosing a new concubine...
 To a classic tale about a man wooing a woman through a matchmaker...
 This was our waitress, Theresa, and her real life fiance!  They were awesome! 

There was a segment of some of the guys showing traditional dress from the various ethnicities in China.
 On the far right, in the brown is Ben, and way in the back is Peter.  I had all of their Chinese names written down in my little book of China Knowledge, in which I was studiously recording as much as I could.  Including lots of Mandarin that these three were teaching me at meal times!  But we'll get to the book in a future post.

The Show ended with the cast dressed in ethnic garb posing for photos.  They were quite good, and were obviously having a lot of fun!
After the show, some of the tour groupers stayed to have an impromptu dance.  The three of us headed back up to the top deck to check out the stars.  Of course it was overcast and foggy, so we couldn't do much except enjoy the China night air and talk about how much fun we were having.  Tomorrow we would see the Three Gorges.  Yet another thing I had been looking forward to for years!

More Later