Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Monday, April 5th - Beijing to Xian

Our morning was spent visiting the Temple of Heaven. The Temple of Heaven was where the emperor came every winter solstice to worship Heaven and to solemnly pray for a good harvest. It is located in a beautiful, sprawling park where we found many families and large groups of people practicing tai chi and other forms of exercise, playing card games and dominoes, or just strolling through the grounds. We saw people dressed in western clothing, as well as, groups dressed in typical local garb. The Tibetan outfits were my personal favorite. In retrospect, I suppose that we were the ones being "watched", as we mingled among the people, as most were Chinese.

This is a sign we saw as we entered the park. Notice that there are no trumpets allowed! :) ...and being the rule-following people that the Chinese are, we found no trumpets while we were there...or litter or dogs or fires or cars or bikes or rifles! I love this place! :)

Many groups were playing a game using a piece of equipment similar to a badminton shuttle but adorned with colorful feathers. The point seemed to be to keep the shuttle in the air passing it from player to player without using your hands, using moves you would see in a soccer game. People of all ages were playing this game and some of us gave it a try, as well. As one might expect, the legendary I. E. were ever-present offering us a wide variety of "must haves" as we made our way through the park. And again, the blonde hair was an attraction with lots of requests for photos. The happy faces of the Chinese were always a welcome sight as they approached us for photos or granted our requests for the same. These daily interactions were an integral part of our Chinese experience and I, for one, found the Chinese people most endearing. Thus far, we have found them to be very friendly and open, quick to smile and welcome.

As we have found since we arrived, there were large crowds here but not like at the Great Wall, but they became more significant as we walked through the park and came upon the area where groups were playing games. There were also small sound systems set up where people were singing to the crowd and a few stands selling mostly what we've seen since we've arrived. This park was really a peek into the lifestyle of the Chinese. The age range and number of people participating in exercise and games was confirmation that general respect for health and wellness was a natural and expected way of life. It would have been wonderful to have been able to spend more time here but we had a flight to catch!

Our flight to Xian was an uneventful two hours. Upon landing, we drove @ 45 minutes into Xian to the Shaanxi Provincial Historical Museum where, after being given a general tour, we were treated to a calligraphy lesson. The lesson itself was very informative and interesting and filled with the history and significance of calligraphy in the life of the Chinese. We all tried our hand at it and came away with our personal examples of the attempt! The lesson was quite good and enjoyable but the noise level in the room was difficult to deal with after such a long day. Many of us purchased some local art work and, as we left, we came upon a little poodle-like dog in - on all 4 feet - photos to prove it!

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda was next on our stops for the day. It is one of the best known Buddhist pagodas in China. This is a holy place for Buddhists and is beautiful and serene complete with gardens, rock sculptures, and ornately decorated buildings. It was built in 652 during the Tang dynasty. @ 30 monks live here today and they could be seen throughout the grounds, performing the traditional ceremony honoring the dead, studying or strolling, all dressed in a wide array of clothing. One of the buddha statues here is a huge, golden figure sitting in yet another opulent and elaborately decorated temple with lots of gold and red being used in the coloration of its designs. On the chest of this largest buddha was a bent cross, a figure we would know as a swastika. This symbol is also known as a rotating or spinning cross. This symbol is found in China, Tibet, Japan (where the symbol is known as Manji), ancient Persia, Pakistan, and in India, where both Jains and Buddhists still use it as a religious symbol. The Mexicans, Aztecs and Indian tribes of Central and South America have used it (for example the Kuna; the indigenous people of Panama and Colombia), as have the Navajo and the Hopi tribes of the North. So, it's history is really more benign that its most recent use during WWII would suggest. While I understand that this is an ancient symbol for peace, prosperity, and harmony, it was still a bit disturbing to see it displayed in such a holy place. Again, respect for the culture and religion leads to a greater understanding of this history and its people but it still lead to serious pause and reflection on my part. This is another reason for us to all keep an open mind and to value the customs and beliefs of others. We lit incense and said a prayer in front of the pagoda honoring deceased loved ones and watched as three monks burned ersatz money invoking protection and good fortune to those who have passed. We saw this ritual taking place throughout the weekend - even in the streets! - in keeping with the tradition of the holiday.

Surrounding the pagoda was a park filled with I.E., of course! At this point, I think we'd be lonely without them! :) Some were flying kites of all sorts - dragons, ladybugs, butterflies, dragonflies, some traditional Chinese designs, and even Sponge Bob! These kites flew remarkabaly high, much higher than the tallest buildings in the area or the construction cranes that surrounded them. We've gotten very good at ignoring the I.E. when it suits us and when we have nothing to buy. As usual, these street tycoons are relentless and assertive but I still had to respect them for their commitment to the job that was supporting them and their families.

We checked into our hotel, the Jin Yuan Fu Run Hotel, Shaanxi, a beautifully appointed, traditional Chinese hotel. Our rooms were very clean and were decorated in the Chinese style. The marble bathrooms and simply beautiful bed treatments completed the picture. The downside: the beds were also traditional - very hard and unforgiving, but since we were so exhausted by the end of the day, we could have slept anywhere, it didn't really matter!

Tomorrow, it's off to see the terra cotta warriors!

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