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china Travel

THE IMPERIAL TOMBS

I woke up around 7:00 in the morning. I took a bus to the train station to join the tour. The traffic in the vicinity of the station is always very complicated.

On the highway there was traffic jam and everything was stopped. The cars started to go back in the other lane. My bus where there were only Chinese did the same, returned to the toll site to be able to take the highway on the other side by the opposite hand. I was a little apprehensive, because the cars and trucks came from the front giving high headlight.

Due to the delay, we didn’t go to one of the museums, maybe I hadn’t missed anything at all. The sights I went to were:

•            Maoling Museum, a well-kept place with carved animal-shaped rocks belonging to the Han dynasty (206a. C to 24d. C.), its construction began in 139a.C. It was 40km from Xian.

•            Qianling Museum, was a kind of history museum with wax statues, mockups, reconstruction of ancient scenery, nothing impressive.

•            Qianling Mausoleum, it was interesting, there was an outdoor corridor with some statues on both sides and a hill to climb. Belonging to the Tang dynasty (618D.C. to 907d. C.), had several tombs around him. It was 50 miles from Xian.

•            Tomb of Princess Yong Tai of the Tang Dynasty. At the site there was a tunnel, and at the end of the tunnel was the large black stone sarcophagus of the young and beautiful princess who was sentenced to death at seventeen by her tyrant grandmother in 701.

•            Faman Temple, last place visited and the furthest 120km from Xian, beautiful place with monks, was a Buddhist temple, but after so many temples, it looked all the same to me. There was a thirteen-story pagoda. Outside I ate the “Chinese Shwarma”, the bread was baked on the plate and the meat was precooked before it was grilled.

Surprisingly no one smoked on the bus!

The workers work till late, day and night they are opening or closing holes in the street or sidewalk. Men and women, often ladies, in normal attire often without the use of company uniform. In another city, I saw people paving the road without the machines we know, all manually, for example, without the use of the truck with steamroller. To open a hole, they didn’t use a jackhammer, they hammered with their hands anyway. Of course not every place was like this, in some places should use modern machines.

Chinese workers

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THE MILLENARY CHINESE CUISINE

Today it was a sunny day and a good weather. I looked at the map of the city and took a bus to the monument that marks the beginning of the Silk Road, it started in Xian and ended in Baghdad.

While exchanging a few dollars in the bank, I began to smell an unpleasant smell, I looked at the sole of my shoes, but there was no indication of having stepped on something unwanted, I noticed then that the smell came from the street, the so-called “stinky tofu”, the fermented soy cheese, a Chinese delicacy that usually emits an unpleasant odor.

From the monument I went to the center (“Bell Tower”), it was very crowded, some foreigners and especially many, many Chinese! The whole week would be like this, due to the holiday week. I finally found the Grand Mosque, which had a half-hidden entrance, but I decided to visit it in another day. Then I stopped by the “electronic mall” to buy a microphone for my computer.

I took a Cantonese class with Steven and last night I had dinner at a Cantonese restaurant, my favorite. I used to go there about five times a week. And always asked for something different in the menu of the day. To order the food, I had to look at someone’s dish at the table near by and point out that I wanted it, or I could read the ideogram of beef to make any request that had that ingredient. The restaurant was small and very dirty, the price was at the average local price, ranged from USD 0.50 to 1.20. And I had to share the table with any local, even if the table was already occupied, like it was in a college canteen, it used to fill up with students. It was in front of the XISU, where the “English Corner” took place, just across the avenue.

The next day once again made a good time. I tried to visit some temples in the south of the city, according to the guide, just take bus 215 until the end, and from there take a “rickyshaw”, the motorcycle cab with cabin, in South Africa it was called “rick”, but no one knew how to inform me anything. Frustrated, I went to the train station at the north gate of the wall, checked the tour package for tomorrow, for the Circuit of the Imperial Tombs, the western circuit. And not to lose the habit, I ended up strolling in the center.

I found a Taiwanese restaurant in the center, near the south gate, where I finally found the “zhong zhu” or “ba zhan” in Taiwanese, in Brazil they call it Chinese “pamonha”, but there is no similarity, the only similarity is the fact that both are wrapped in leaf of some plant. The “zhong zhu” was made of a kind of sticky rice. I thought it would be easy to find this food here in this country.

A funny thing is that sometimes on the city map it had a historical point, a tomb, but it couldn’t be found at all, as if it had been removed.

With so many daily walks, I’ve lost about 3kg in these two and a half months. Excellent, I was getting in shape!

The variety of ingredients and ways of preparing the dishes make Chinese cuisine one of the richest in the world. There are more than ten thousand dishes and about twenty different regional cuisines. In an immense country, with great climatic and landscape differences, there is a wide variety of dishes, dependent on an infinite range of products. Chinese cuisine has strongly influenced Japanese cuisine and many Southeast Asian countries, in addition to Central Asia, not to mention its influence on the world cuisine, after all noodles are a Chinese invention taken to Italy.

The hunger, poverty and wars that marked the country’s history caused the Chinese to set aside food taboos and take literally advantage of anything that could be taken to the mouth. Alongside rice, soy, pork, fish and vegetables, exotic delicacies often appear to the Western palate, such as shark fin, tiger penis, dog and cat meat, bat, snake, scorpion or locust.

In ancient times, the guests used the chopsticks and the spoons. There were no knives on the table because all the food was cut into small pieces so they could be caught with chopsticks. It was inconceivable to cut the food on the table while eating, it was considered something rude.

When preparing a typical Chinese meal, the cook is usually guided by various principles. The main one is the Taoist of Yin and Yang, the two complementary opposites. In the usual round table, where everything is arranged at once, soup, rice, pasta or bread, vegetables, meats, poultry or fish cooked in different techniques usually appear. One dish should be sweet (Yin) and the other salty (Yang); one cold (Yin) and the other hot (Yang); one soft (Yin) and the other crispy (Yang). The final picture is a feast that stirs all the senses. A good Chinese dish obeys four commandments: it has color, aroma, taste and presentation.

The Chinese believe that the meal should be a joint experience and this translate the cooperation that exists between family and friends. People serve each other in small portions.

Although they have a common base, it is possible to separate Chinese cuisine into four major regions:

•            from the North (Beijing), which was for years the capital of the Empire;

•            from the Central Maritime Region (Shanghai), where the handling of fish reaches its greatest refinement;

•            from Sichuan inland, sweet and very characteristic;

•            from Guangzhou (Guangdong), which mixes the elements of all.

The gastronomy of Guangzhou is the best known, due to its richness and diversity to a historical fact, the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644 when emigration to the south was general. The venerable Beijing cooks and their kitchen equipment from the imperial palace made a long march. On their way they collected the great dishes from the kitchens of the mandarins of the provinces, which were thus incorporated into the Cantonese cuisine. In Guangzhou, breeding animals such as dog, cat, snake and monkey go to the plate. Even in China, this cuisine is considered very cruel. What the Chinese talk about this cuisine is that: “you eat everything that has four legs but the table, everything that flies except the plane, everything that swim but the boat”. There are always people who try to organize movements against this cuisine; but on the other hand, there are a lot of curious people.

Rice is the main item of an Asian cuisine. It is so essential that it incorporated the way of expressing itself, when a Chinese receives a visit at home, he always asks “have you eaten rice?” instead of simply asking “have you eaten” or “have you had lunch?”.

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NATIONAL DAY AND THE SECRET CHURCH

Today was the national holiday of October 1st. The Chinese have been celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1949. The holiday lasts a week because it ends up joining with the Mid-Autumn Festival. It’s one of the most important holidays here in China. There are parades and shows all over the country, but I didn’t watch anything.

The sun came up a little bit and the weather was nice, but with a slight mist. On the Sunday morning I went to visit a clandestine evangelical Christian church along with a Chinese graduate in English – I had a Xianese lunch there. I was anxious because I always heard about these “secret” and “illegal” churches. In fact, as there is a certain restriction on freedom of religion, the faithful end up gathering secretly in their homes. A Korean pastor was expelled from Xian due to his pastoral activities. There is still persecution of Christians and members of other religions and sects, people are arrested, tortured, sent to labor camps and some are “missing”. Every Christian church must join the Movement of The Three Autonomies (MTA), being the Patriotic Church, the puppet of the Chinese Communist Party (PCC), otherwise it is considered illegal, clandestine and in some cases criminal. The policy of freedom of belief is a big lie, it is easy to search on the internet news of persecution against Catholics, Protestants and members of Falun Gong, Buddhists and Muslins in China.

In the second half of 1950, the camouflaged religious oppression began, under the pretext of political reform, called the “Movement of the Three Autonomies”. By virtue of this movement, the Church in China should completely get rid of foreign influence.

The three autonomies are:

•            Autonomy of government, that is, the guarantee of church leadership to the Chinese, without any kind of external interference;

•            Propaganda autonomy, that is, faith should be propagated only by the Chinese;

•            Economic autonomy, churches should be maintained only with Chinese and never foreign funds.

Official statistics say that in China there are 10 million Protestants, all from the Patriotic Association, born of the MTA. The “stowaways” are estimated at 50 million. In 2005 alone, the Chinese government arrested 1958 people among pastors and faithful.

Christianity was introduced by the Nestorians in China in the 7th century (after Christ, of course), as it was the Islam. Buddhism was introduced in the 1st century BC, Taoism arose in the 6th century BC, and Confucianism emerged in the 4th century BC.

In the afternoon, Steven and I went out to walk a little aimlessly and ended up going for a walk in the Botanical Gardens. Bland and ill-taken care of by the way. I was much more in the mood to see the National Day celebrations. In the evening I went to see the fountain show at the Great Pagoda with Kang. There were groups of foreigners excursions, in addition to many Chinese, it’s too many people in this country.

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THE CHINESE BUFFET

I stayed at home all day long and I had for lunch the Flávio’s English breakfast and in the afternoon I took Cantonese class with Teresa.

I only went out to have dinner with Flávio and Daniela at a Chinese buffet in downtown, near where there was a huge poster of the soccer Ronaldinho, I registered a photo. I was a little disappointed, I was with too many expectations, there was a variety of dishes, almost everything, but there were no dishes of “chao mein” (the fried noodles, known by the Japanese name as “yakissoba” in Brazil) and no meat with broccoli, among others. There was “hwo gwo” or hot pot (known as “sukiyaki” in Brazil), some seafood, “tepan” (fried foods on the plate), dessert and also live small fishes to put into the hotpot. I paid for everything almost RMB 40 or USD 5.

But by 9:30, they had already collected everything, I couldn’t even get dessert! The restaurant looked like a smokehouse. Have I mentioned that 99% of the men smoke and very few women smoke in this country? They make a mess on the table and on the floor, like in any restaurant here, no matter the level.

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THE MOON CAKE

The one-week holiday that would begin on October 1st this year. The Chinese celebrate what they call Mid-Autumn Festival with “Yue Bing”, or “Moon Cake”, a Chinese twist representing the moon with varied flavors, the most common being the sweet bean filling. As usual, on an extended holiday the whole China move, students go to their hometowns and others would travel for fun. Train tickets were hard to find and the lines at the ticket counters get kilometric.

We were waiting for a friend from Brazil to arrive in Xian. Denise was studying in Tianjin, an hour from Beijing, and she was of Taiwanese descent. I haven’t visit the famous Terracotta Warriors yet, I was waiting for her to arrive, so I wouldn’t have to go twice.

It rained less today and it was not so cold. In the afternoon I went to buy a speaker and webcam for my PC, I bought a local brand, at least I knew they were not pirates.

There were few people in the English Corner, due to the bad weather and the proximity of the holiday, maybe a lot of people went to travel. I had dinner with Steven and his friend Roy, another Cantonese guy, short and shy.

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SPAGHETTI BOLOGNESE, BANANA AND RAINS

Today the weather was rainy, as it would be during the next five days. And the heater got too hot!

The lunch was spaghetti bolognese in the apartment of Regiane, it was a long time since I had last seen this dish! Afterward, I took a class with Kang.

Eating in China is very cheap, especially in small towns. I’ve paid up to RMB 2 in small meals, which is about R $ 0.58 (less than USD 0.50). But this is an extreme, on average spent from RMB 8 to RMB 12 per meal, which is between R$ 2 to R$ 3 (between USD 1 and USD 2). Things in Xian were a little more expensive than in Kashgar, but still much cheaper compared to Beijing or Hong Kong.

I caught a cold. I had lunch at a Uighur restaurant and in the afternoon I had Cantonese class with Steven, then we talked about random subjects to spend time since it was drizzling. He was a Christian, rare to find in this country.

Some Chinese locals compared me to a banana, that is, yellow on the outside and white on the inside, because I have the physiognomy of an Asian and inside I think like a Westerner.

I slept about 12 hours in a row, because of the cold I was very tired. I took a Cantonese class with Teresa and went out to have a dinner with Flavio, Regiane, Aaron and Steven. I almost didn’t study today.

In this country I’ve seen funny things, such as:

•            Seeing Chinese going out simply in their pajamas. The women in colorful pajamas, vermilion or pink, I came to see a man in ceroula! In Brazil I also go out in pajamas, since I sleep in sweatshirt or shorts and T-shirt, but I think it’s different, isn’t it?

•            Watching restaurant staff dancing and do stretching exercises in the morning in front of the restaurants, as if it were a military order, they probably thought it was weird for me to photograph them.

•            Dance in the parks in large groups, mostly women, especially ladies. Someone took the speakers and the crowd dance synchronized to the rhythm of the music, in the late afternoon and evening. On other occasions I have observed social dance for couples.

•            People bought takeout food and took their food in plastic bags, rather than styrofoam or aluminum packaging or lunch boxes.

•            They also bought juices, soft drinks, teas and ice coffees in plastic bags and drank with straw while they walked. Later I would realize that it was something common in Southeast Asia.

….

Today was the fourth day of unrelenting rain and cold, unlike other days when there was no cold. Today I got all wet, just walked with the raincoat, did not like to wear umbrellas, from the thigh down I was soaked. All I had left was a long pair of pants and a pair of dry boots, these pants I used to sleep too!

The Mandarin class with Kang was at her college where she was doing grad school. I went on foot and came back by bus.

I did a little cleaning at home. Then I had dinner with Flavio, Seal, a Chinese and a beautiful and friendly Korean in a Cantonese restaurant, whose food is typical of the South.

I had to buy an umbrella for RMB 10 (USD 1.30), you could find for this price in Japan too, the only thing in Japan that is cheaper than in Brazil.

….

On the fifth day of rain the cold was more intense! According to the weather channel forecast there would be ten more days of rain ahead, after that there was no forecast, but it should be rain. Today the rain was a little weaker.

Here in China one should be very careful with the goods, after all I was in the “Land of Pirates” and I had bought a fake iPod, flash drive and backpack in Beijing, only the backpack was still functioning. Here things are made not to last, all of the lowest quality, it is included in this list even home plumbing, Flavio says so. It is very rare to find original DVD, in relation to the quality of pirated DVDs, they are very good being difficult to visibly differentiate between copies and originals, sometimes the recording was in the cinema theater with subtitles of any another movie. The government has stepped up actions against DVD piracy only. Here you can also have a sandwich at KFC or KLC, and have coffee at Starbuck’s or Starduck’s. Even cars and airplanes are cloned.

I took a class with Teresa. Cantonese is funny and I’m finding it a bit difficult, but not as much as Japanese, since it bears some resemblance to Mandarin and Taiwanese, due to phonemes, whose languages I already have familiarity, but it is totally incomprehensible among people who speak only one of these three languages.

At lunch I ordered a dish of noodle with meat, the woman got it wrong and brought me rice with meat.

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THE MILITARY COUP

The military coup d’état in Thailand made me worried, because Thailand would be my next destination. The coup took place three days ago, on September 19, 2006, the reason was against the corruption of the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister.

Yesterday I was on MSN with French woman Laetitia, she was now in Lao, and told me that Thailand’s borders with Lao and Myanmar were closed. I talked to some people from Thailand by Skype, they told me that everything was normal in their country.

Today I had my first Cantonese class with Teresa. Knowing Mandarin, especially reading, would help me a lot. Anyway, she ended up helping me in both languages.

I had arranged with Henry to have lunch at an Uighur restaurant, but due to his religious commitment we arranged to have dinner, I think because of the Ramadan. As he was Muslim, in the afternoon had to go to the mosque to pray, after all it was Friday. Then we stopped by the student quarters, it was obviously a mess, besides dirty.

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THE HARSH REALITY

I used to study on my own using the sequence of Flavio’s books, there were two books per semester, I was finishing the third book.

The Chinese take English language very seriously, they know the importance and strive to learn it; well, at least the young college students. Today in the “English Corner” I met Henry (or Adiekber his name in Uighur), he was Uighur and was working on summer holidays as a guide at the tour agency in Kashgar, he was tall and looked like mixed-race like most of the Uighurs. Henry was studying English at Xian.  We meet by chance 3500km away from Kashgar, China is really small!

All the colleges in China were paid, there is nothing free in this communist country. So, life for many Chinese were not easy at all, many have to work to get to pay for their college around USD 800 per year plus dormitory accommodation, almost USD 2000 per year, few for some and a fortune for others. The young people take their studies in this country very seriously.

Many parents kill themselves working to put their children in a college, peasants want to see their children in better condition in the future, and guarantee their livelihood when they are elderly. Putting a child in college represents for some a lifetime of work, savings and sacrifice. And the labor market is extremely crowded, China has an excess of labor, which throws wages down. The pressure on the individual ends up being very strong, it is very stressful for the young student, some can not stand the pressure and end up committing suicide. The government doesn’t bring it up.

College students must live in college dormitory, even if they have a place next to the college they have to pay for the accommodation, even if they go to sleep at home every day!

Being a foreigner here in China was an attraction, even though I looked like an Han Chinese, although everyone found me looking Japanese or Korean, when they knew I was from outside, they soon wanted to talk to me. In fact, I seemed like a foreigner by the way I walk, dress, appearance and behavior, and when I opened my mouth then, I left no doubt, my accent and poor vocabulary denounced me.

The flustered Chinese asked everything, like: what was my age, if I had a girlfriend, what I was doing here, how long it would stay, how was Brazil, what I thought of China, what I studied, if I was a Christian, if I played football, etc. For the foreigner that was in the center of the circle, always answering the same questions it became very tiring, besides having to talk non-stop for hours.

Many were curious about Christianity, after all it is a novelty, it was the “religion of the West”, even being Atheists, Materialists or Buddhists, for some of them their philosophies and religion did not fill the emptiness of their souls.

As life is not easy here, many want to leave China and envy the American standard of living seen in the movies. The Chinese are super patriotic, even with all the defects and corruptions of the party and government, they were taught to watch over the homeland.

Xian is also known not only for the historical side, for having been the capital of several dynasties in the past, but also for having dozens of colleges here, more than forty. So there were many young people in the city, many were from other provinces.

Today a guy knocked on my door, it was the collector of the water bill. It was not like in Brazil, everything electronic/automatic. The collector came with a “paper” notebook containing the history of payments and consumption, he read the “clock” (hydrometer) and already made the charge. It was supposed to pass every three months, but it took six months since the last time to show up and charge, according to what Flavio told me, he seemed honest, without charging any extra, made the receipt in the exact amount to be paid and handed me.

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DONKEY DAY

Today I met Teresa, she was short and studied English at uni, she would give me Cantonese classes during my afternoons. Teresa helped me buy a study book with Cantonese phonemes that comes with a CD. She wasn’t pretty, but she was a sweet person, extremely sweet. I tried earlier to buy the book same book at Xian’s Uni bookstore, but the bookstore lady told me it didn’t exist. I almost believed her!

Lesson: never believe anything a stranger in China tells you!

At night, Kang took me to a dinner to have dog meat, I was eager to try this delicacy, much consumed in Asia at the time, but there was not in the restaurants yet. As it was not cold enough yet, this meat did not arrive for consumption. Dog meat is consumed on cold days, I can not explain exactly why, but it has to do with the flow of internal energy from the body, called “Chi” (pronounced “tchi”). And such meat, it is said to heat up. We ended up eating donkey meat, I didn’t find anything extraordinary, it looked like beef.

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VOLUNTEER WORK

Day of mild fog, weak sun and pleasant temperature. I had lunch with several foreigners (Australian, American, French, Colombian and Brazilian). I don’t know why foreigners had a habit of ordering a plate of corn only! They were all Chinese students and knew how to order various Chinese dishes, which I didn’t know, but they never dispised a dish of corn.

There are foreigners and backpackers who do voluntary social work outside their country of origin, regardless of the creed or religion they follow or practice. There are those who live in the country doing permanent work, and there are also those who do temporary work (in the case of backpackers).

Lok (already mentioned in Kashgar) was going to do a work in Africa. Laetitia, quoted in Xining, was in Vientiane (Lao’s capital) for work. Oriane was in Cambodia. And here in China I met some foreigners doing social work.

Today I accompanied a group (English and Chinese) to distribute soup and bread to beggars on the street, it is a rewarding job in personal terms. Helping others, poor and needy people, unfortunately is something that a few do, even less practiced by the Chinese, after all most have no religion and many only think of themselves. For security reasons, I didn’t take any picture. We went “hunting” the beggars in the city center of Xian to offer food, a few refused but others accepted with a smile on their faces. Those in need lay on the ground, both in public streets and in dark alleys. With the cold coming we took a couple of socks too, it was not uncommon for some beggars to die of cold during the harsh winter. As we distributed, some Chinese simply watched and surprised the rare scene of helping others, even more performed by foreigners. Some said: “They are Christians!”. The foreigners had made friends with some of the poor in the region, who were always happy to see them.

Here in China you don’t see street children, because they’re either kidnapped to be sold or enslaved, or they stay in orphanages that are far from the center, strategically away from the eyes of tourists. And the orphanages here are sad!

Right after the food distribution, I stopped by the English Corner to see my friends.

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